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Fictional Forgiveness: Making Sense of Sympathetic Villains and Cancel Culture

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by Aaron Earls

He murdered several people, including someone on live television, but maybe childhood trauma and losing his job during a recession are the true culprits. She is trying to steal pet dogs to make a fur coat, but have you considered that she’s a misguided, underappreciated fashion genius?

In a world where people can have their lives ruined after saying the wrong thing in a heated moment that goes viral, how can a mass murderer and dog killer easily access understanding and grace? Because they’re fictional.

Sympathetic Villains and ‘Milkshake Ducks’

Villains are having their moment in entertainment. The rise of the antihero in the 1990s has culminated in re-examining the potential victimhood of the villains. Think about the most heinous antagonist from your favorite childhood movie or comic book and chances are they are or will soon be the protagonist of their own story. Joker, Maleficent, Harley Quinn, Cruella—bad guys are the new good guys.

Catholic film critic Steven Greydanus said the current trend of villain protagonists started with the novel and eventual hit Broadway musical Wicked, while the “misunderstood monster” goes back much further to creatures like Godzilla and Frankenstein. These stories can cause us to examine our perspective and challenge preconceived ideas about the “other.” In this way, fiction allows us to see with different eyes and recognize blind spots we may have.

Yet there seems to be an inverse relationship between modern society’s embrace of villains in movies and television shows with our ability to extend grace and forgiveness to real life people who make mistakes—genuine mistakes, not systematic abuses or revelations that expose deeper issues. We have no time to show grace to a repentant person who made a mess of their words in a tweet, but we will watch a redemptive story of someone who literally wants to kill puppies for personal fashion.

An average person who accidentally says the wrong thing online or shows up in a viral video at their worst moment is offered no understanding, but we want to understand the psyche of a fictional serial killer?

Beyond that, many will dig through online archives of individuals who achieve even a moment of fame to find something, anything that could be offensive. This has become so common, there’s even a term for it. In 2016, Ben Ward tweeted, “The whole internet loves Milkshake Duck, a lovely duck that drinks milkshakes! *5 seconds later* We regret to inform you the duck is racist.” Now, “milkshake duck” refers to the inevitable uncovering of a newly famous person’s “troubling past.”

Lest we Christians think we are somehow better than the world in this regard, consider how we regard biblical saints versus how we treat the saints in our pews and on our social media feeds.

David, “a man after God’s own heart,” committed unspeakable acts, including orchestrating the death of a man in a vain attempt to cover up other sins. We still point to him as someone who followed God and will rightly learn from his Spirit-inspired writings. But if the person beside us at church voted differently than us, we have no grace to extend. If a person we’ve never met says something we disagree with on Twitter, we feel entitled to judge and dismiss them.

In the original 101 Dalmatians film, Roger, the owner of the dogs, sings of Cruella: “If she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will.” Today, we are no longer scared of Cruella, but neither are we scared of our own sinful heart and lack of forgiveness.

There seems to be an inverse relationship between modern society’s embrace of villains in movies and television shows with our ability to extend grace and forgiveness to real life.

Real Forgiveness Is Costly

I don’t know if there is a correlation (much less a causation) between our appreciating nuance for cinematic villains and our lack of grace for real people, but I find it odd that as a society we pat ourselves on the back for the entertainment we consume while not actually seeking to demonstrate those qualities with actual people. It’s all performative. Our offers of forgiveness are as fictional as the recipients.

This may reveal the real core issue involved. Fictional forgiveness doesn’t cost us anything but offers us the reward of the sanctimonious. We feel better about ourselves and capacity to demonstrate grace, all while never actually having to forgive a real person with real sins.

In Matthew 18, after Jesus spoke about restoring a brother who has sinned against you, Peter asks Jesus, “Lord how many times must I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? As many as seven times?” Jesus responded by multiplying Peter’s estimate—seventy times seven. With our attempts at understanding cinematic villains, we seem to be making our own bargain with Jesus. “OK, so if I have to reach 490 times, what if I use some of those to forgive the Joker and Cruella? Does that mean I can skip forgiving my annoying neighbor?”

If we want to move our forgiveness from performative to personal, we actually have to display it when it hurts or when it undermines our unquenching desire to be “right.” As Christians, we should always be ready to offer forgiveness because of what we have been forgiven.

Continuing his response to Peter, Jesus gave a parable about a king forgiving a servant’s debt, which was an absurd amount of money, potentially trillions of dollars in today’s terms. Having received this forgiveness, the servant turns around and refuses to offer forgiveness to his fellow servant who owed him a comparatively miniscule amount. The king hears this and throws the first servant in jail. He failed to connect what was given to what is expected of him.

How much worse is it for us when we recognize the need for grace and forgiveness for fictional characters, but fail to apply those lessons to the real people in our lives or social media feeds? As servants of our gracious King, we who have been forgiven an unpayable debt must be the first to offer forgiveness to others.

Fictional forgiveness doesn’t cost us anything but offers us the reward of the sanctimonious.

Proclaiming Actual Hope

As evidenced by the cultural reexamination of villains, society is intrigued by forgiveness. Unwarranted grace is compelling even to the most hardened hearts—maybe especially to the most hardened hearts. In such a moment, what a story we Christians have to tell and what a grace we have been called and empowered through the Holy Spirit to embody. In a world drawn to fictional hope for the Joker and Cruella, we get to proclaim there is actual hope for even the worst of sinners.

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Aaron Earls

Aaron Earls is senior writer/editor of LifewayResearch.com and a freelance writer living outside Nashville, Tennessee with his wife and four kids. He earned his M.Div. in Apologetics from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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