Entry from November 25, 2002

“I forgive anyone who did that. It doesn’t take the pain. It’s a costly forgiveness . . . it cost my wife. . .I loved her in our marriage. We had a really lovely marriage. I believe that the blood of Jesus died for us [sic], for our sins, and it was the blood of Bonnie poured over the clinic for the Palestinian women of southern Lebanon. Her brains were blown out, you know. She loved those women.”

Thus Mr Gary Witheral on the day after the murder of his 31 year-old American wife, Bonnie, by terrorists at the pre-natal clinic for Palestinian refugees in southern Lebanon where she worked. Both were evangelical Christians, and Gary is quite sure that Bonnie herself would have forgiven her murderers. “Absolutely, absolutely,” he told The Times of London. “We don’t care about the politics. We just wanted to put our arms around people and say ‘Hey, you know what? There’s hope’. The people of southern Lebanon are poor and suffering.” This may be the official position on forgiveness of the Christian Missionary Alliance, for which both the Witherals worked, but even so there was an unseemly haste, a suggestion of glibness about it. If it was “a costly forgiveness,” it sure didn’t look like it. He could hardly have taken in the full extent of his loss before he was ready with his promiscuous forgiveness for it

It is also interesting that his, and Bonnie’s, forgiveness is juxtaposed with an assurance that “We don’t care about the politics.” He is still talking about her in the present tense, so eager is he not only to forgive but also to insist that he has no political axe to grind. Could it be that he is protesting just a little too much? It was undoubtedly politics that killed poor Bonnie. She died simply because she was an American. Under the circumstances, not only to forgive but also to suggest that the politics of her death didn’t matter because “the people of southern Lebanon are poor and suffering” — isn’t that, well, just a little bit political? Would he then have been slower to forgive if they hadn’t been suffering? And, if so, doesn’t that lend a political significance to that suffering?

For even though Mr Witheral’s forgiveness was doubtless motivated by his strong Christian faith, it is hard to see that it differs very much from the sort of foreign policy liberalism that is prepared to treat Middle Eastern terrorism with a certain indulgence because of the political grievances that are supposed to motivate it. Marxists would take a much more hard-headed attitude: if the terrorism accomplished its political purpose, then it would be justified. The Palestinians haven’t got even this much justification. Since no one supposes that Israel will simply hand the country over to the Palestinians, however many of them are prepared to blow themselves up or kill innocent foreigners, their terrorism is only an impotent gesture — killing for killing’s sake. It is a matter, as they put it, of “honor” though a more modern term like “self-esteem” might better meet the case. And the Christian liberal, or the liberal Christian, is as ready with his “understanding” of their “anger” as Mr Witheral with his forgiveness for its consequences

By the way, I don’t believe that Christian forgiveness is required where there is no penitence. The example that is always cited is Christ’s forgiveness of those who had crucified him even as he was on the cross. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” That’s fine if you’re Jesus Christ and so in a position both to recognize and to pardon error irrespective of whether or not those who have made it acknowledge the fact. But for the rest of us, it seems to me, forgiving an error that is unacknowledged and unrepented of by him that made it is morally arrogant and presumptuous. Damn your forgiveness, sir! I have done nothing for which I require to be forgiven.


A Thanksgiving list of the greatest food movies.

At the top of any such list must be Gabriel Axel’s Babette’s Feast (1987), based on the novel by Isak Dinesen. The glorious, unforgettable Stéphane Audran appears as a French political refugee among the simple folk of a Danish village whose austere brand of religion matches their diet — which seems to consist mainly of salted fish. Though a Roman Catholic and a world-renowned chef at the Café des Anglais in Paris, Miss Audran’s character lives simply among the villagers for years as a servant until one day she comes into some money and decides to spend it all on giving the villagers a proper meal as a thank-you for taking her in. Never has the cinematic potential of food been more gloriously realized than it is on the faces of these humble and pious fisher-folk who taste haute cuisine — and perhaps a whole world of the senses as lived in metropolitan centers of which they have had no idea — for the first time.

The Scandinavians are perhaps both geographically and temperamentally well-suited to an appreciation of the contrast between outward bleakness and barrenness and the rich life of the senses. No one does this better than Ingmar Bergman in what seems to me his greatest film, Fanny and Alexander (1982). Like the later Babette’s Feast, it associates dour Protestant Christianity with sensory as well a spiritual deprivation, but unlike so many other Bergman films it also has a warm, welcoming side, and its association of food with family seems particularly appropriate for the Thanksgiving season, though its own occasion is a Christmas feast.

Food and family are also the theme of Thomas Vinterberg’s Celebration (1998), which takes as its setting the 60th birthday dinner of a Danish paterfamilias which is disrupted by one of the old boy’s grown sons’ who, on rising to give the toast, accuses him of child-molestation, both of himself and of a sister who has recently committed suicide. You might expect this kind of thing to be both ideological — it’s that dratted patriarchy again, ma! — and bad for the appetite, but in fact it is neither. Vinterberg’s light touch with this very black comedy somehow manages to keep the promise of the dinner and its delights alive until the end, as well as to suggest that families are more resilient than we might think.

Food and family are also linked in Campbell Scott’s and Stanley Tucci’s Big Night (1996), which takes a depressingly pessimistic view of the relations between the sexes but does at least allow for genuine love and affection between two Italian brothers and restaurateurs living in New Jersey in the 1950s. Mr Tucci as the worldly brother, Secundo, and Tony Shalhoub as Primo, the genius of the kitchen who is unwilling to compromise with the disgusting tastes of the 1950s in order to make their little restaurant a going concern are both terrific, as is the fantastic meal Primo prepares when they think Louis Prima is coming to dine there. Once again, food is made to stand for the pleasures of home and family, and the more so that these seem far away.

The family headed by paterfamilias and master chef Mr Chu (Sihung Lung) in Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) is also routinely “dysfunctional” as they gather for what one of them calls the “Sunday dinner torture ritual.” But it is a family that, however unsatisfactory it may seem in other ways, is said to “communicate by eating.” At first it seems that communication has broken down, and it is perhaps not coincidental that Mr Chu says he can no longer taste anything. He is compared to Beethoven, who created magnificent music while deaf. Unlike that of Beethoven, however, the incapacity of Mr Chu, being mainly symbolic, is ameliorated as his estranged children begin to be, to one degree or another, reconciled to him. Needless to say, the family that supplies the savor of life is the organic kind, not the processed and synthetic variety currently being recommended to us by Al and Tipper Gore.

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