catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 19 :: 2005.10.21 — 2005.11.03


Redefining grace

After college I worked for two years to save money for seminary. Due to previous experience I had working with youth in the church I was encouraged to apply to a social agency that ran group homes for adolescents. I had no idea what I was in for.

I submitted an application and was given an interview in a home specializing in the treatment of juvenile sex offenders. I remember driving to the interview intending not to take a position if it were offered. I could not see myself working with that type of kid. During the interview I was asked all the typical questions. Things were going smoothly until near the end, I was asked, ?So, how do you feel about working with sex offenders??

This was my chance to back down. I just needed to explain that I simply wasn?t cut out for such work and then thank them for their time. But I didn?t. Somewhere in the seconds between the question and my answer, I had a moment of clarity. How could I refuse to work with these kids? I realized in that moment that I had subconsciously been acting as if this home were full of people that were not worth my time, not worth my love. I was making a subtle declaration that they were beyond redemption. I wasn?t really living the theology I said I believed. I don?t remember exactly how I answered the question but it must have been satisfactory because a few days later I was offered the job. Soon I was at work nurturing, serving, and in many ways, giving my life to adolescent sex offenders.

In The Woodsman Kevin Bacon plays Walter, a convicted sex offender out on parole after twelve years in prison. Once out he can only find one person who will rent an apartment to him. Unfortunately, the apartment is directly across the street from a grade school. He is trying to make the best of this situation and of this second chance. Walter asks his therapist how long it will take before he is normal.

Walter is tormented by inner demons, has virtually no support from a family that has abandoned him, is haunted by the possibility of his co-workers discovering his dark secret, and is constantly antagonized by a police detective eager to see him back behind bars. The only light in Walter?s life is Vicki. Played by Kyra Sedgwick, Vicki is the one person willing to get close to Walter.

The Woodsman is a difficult film to watch; many people should not see it. Not only does it grapple with a topic that most of society would rather ignore, it does so by telling the story through the eyes of a protagonist who is a predator. The film makes no excuses for child molestation, but neither does it allow us to make excuses for not seeing Walter as a human being. One feels sorrow for Walter and his brokenness while simultaneously being utterly repulsed by him. This raises a good question for Christians, namely, where do people like Walter fit in the church?

There was a young man in the home where I worked whose family disowned him. During his stay they didn?t visit or even call him. Whenever he tried phoning them they either wouldn?t answer or made sure the conversation lasted no more than a few minutes. I had several occasions where I needed to speak with the family to discuss the treatment their son was receiving. I discovered they were Christians and the father was a pastor. I can?t imagine the pain this family went through and I don?t pretend to be able to put myself in their shoes. Still, the way they treated their son makes me ask whether they truly understood the love of Christ.

As Christians we claim to believe that Jesus died for the vilest offender. We make pleas for everyone to come to Christ. And yet, we somehow manage to withhold grace from those we deem to be unworthy or too dangerous to love. Are we willing to listen to Paul?s instruction not to regard anyone from a worldly point of view? Are we able to love the unlovable? Do we really believe in grace?

Even after Vicki discovers the truth of Walter?s past she chooses to not to walk away. When he asks her why, she tells him, ?I see something in you, something good. You don?t see it yet, but I do.? Vicki?s love and acceptance enables Walter to view himself as more than a sex offender.

My two years at the group home redefined grace for me. Up until then the grace I believed in was truncated and anemic, unable to love past the harsh ways the fall plays out in the lives of those around us. I was the Pharisee thanking God that I wasn?t the Tax Collector. The grace I believed in was not a reflection of what the Bible describes as God?s grace. As Christians we are called to forsake self-designed and self-serving grace. We are called to be conduits of God?s grace.

I am not suggesting that we become reckless or naive. Nor am I suggesting a simplistic, one-size-fits-all approach. There is much discussion to be had over how to love our neighbor when that neighbor happens to be a sex offender. However, maybe the first discussion that must take place is why their sin scares and disgusts us so much more than our own.

This review was originally published by Ransom Fellowship. You can view the original review along with a discussion guide at Ransom?s web site.

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