Spotlight and Communal Sin

The only Best Picture Academy Award nominee I had seen prior to Sunday was Mad Max: Fury Road (which was incredible and feminist and I loved it). So Monday night, I watched Spotlight, which was the ultimate Best Picture winner. Let me tell you, I was so engrossed in the story that I forgot I was sitting on an uncomfortable stool in my kitchen for about an hour of the movie, before I realized I could move two feet and sit on the more comfortable couch. The story of the team of reporters who uncovered the massive cover-up of abuse of children by priests in the Boston area engrossed me.


I also started reading a book called Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith recently, which outlines the participation (or blind-eye-turning) of American Christians to atrocities in the form our treatment of the environment, Native Americans, slaves, immigrants, and other minority groups. The authors of this book acknowledge that while they were not necessarily present or complicit in these atrocities, as American Christians themselves, they bear the responsibility for this communal sin. In order to begin to heal, we don’t need to resurrect slave owners and make them pay back wages, but we need to acknowledge that this is our history, apologize, and begin to mend our own relationships.

This is how it happens, isn’t it? A guy leans on a guy and suddenly the whole town looks the other way.
— Spotlight

So when I watched Spotlight, I was struck again by this idea of communal sin. Towards the end of the movie, the leader of the group of reporters, Robby (Michael Keaton), is approached by someone nebulously connected to the cardinal and asked to keep quiet. He says, “This is how it happens, isn’t it?” This is how cover-ups are orchestrated: one man comes to another and asks him to not make public what he knows, for the good of the city and the people who rely on the Catholic Church. Later, when Robby asks a source to verify the number of priests implicated, he asks how the source could have let this happen. The source demands, “Where were you?” Robby begins to feel guilty because he was in Boston, he attended high school with some of the victims while they were being abused, and later, he did have the platform of the press. He takes on the weight of this communal sin, even though he refused to be complicit in it.

Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.
— John 8:7

In John 8, we find Jesus teaching in the temple. The Pharisees (always trying to trap him into alienating his followers or disobeying the law) bring him a woman caught in adultery. They remind Jesus that the law says she must be stoned - then they ask him what they should do. Jesus responds with “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” When they heard this, they slowly began to disperse. While we often explain the Pharisees leaving with the fact that they did some good, hard self-examination and found that they were not blameless (“I told a lie yesterday, I am not without sin, I cannot stone this woman.”), but what if Jesus meant without sin in the committing of this adultery? Jesus wasn’t accusing all of these men of sleeping with this woman, but what if he was accusing them of complicity? For this woman to be committing adultery in this time, someone in the community must have found out about it, and set up a sting. You don’t stumble into a woman’s bedroom and find her in the act of adultery by accident. You have foreknowledge of the relationship. So the community knew of the relationship: maybe someone saw them flirting at the well. And they did nothing. Like the people in Boston who knew, like the Christians who knew Native Americans were being cheated, like everyone who sees wrong and does nothing or covers it up. They were complicit, and the sin became communal. Jesus was saying that they were all guilty of the sin they were accusing one woman of.


Let me talk about sin for a minute. Theologian Paul Tillich says “sin is separation.” Separation from good, from the divine, from the connectedness God desires between himself and humans. Seeing sin as separation then gives us a clearer picture of how the actions of one person can become communal. By blocking out or denying knowledge of an act, or actively hiding it, we have to hide from ourselves and from God. We can’t be open and honest with ourselves, with others, with God, when we have something we are keeping in a box in a corner and hoping no one notices. Even if we did not make the box, we still have it. We need not participate in an act to be affected by it: to be separated and need to hide.

We all participate in communal sin. Sometimes it is easy to know you are complicit in something: people like those portrayed in Spotlight who covered up for priests knew they were complicit in something that was not right. Sometimes, it is not so easy to know. If you do not know your history, argue the writers of Forgive Us, then how can you mend relationships? How can you close the separation if you do not know there is one? So they wrote Forgive Us with histories of American Christians in relation to the environment, Native Americans, Africans, immigrants, slaves, women, other minorities, to tell Christians their history. Telling this history takes us one step closer to mending, because we finally see how we were part of the breaking. Don’t shy away because something is difficult, and let me tell you, Spotlight was difficult. Hearing the stories of the victims of abuse told was hard. But by not shying away from what is hard, by not burying our heads in the sand, we can move away from our communal sins and separation, from one another and from God, towards reconciliation.