This August, two movies asked audiences the "what if?" question, wondering what history would have been like had certain things happened.
District 9 is the story of an alien spacecraft that stalled out over Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1990 and the strained interspecies relations that marked an alternative history over the past two decades. By this creative take on the alien movie, this film wonders if humans would actully treat extraterrestrials as poorly as they treat one another.
In a movie set in a totally different universe, Inglourious Basterds is director Quentin Tarantino's creative vision of how he would have ended Adolph Hitler's reign in World War II in the 1940s. In this revisionist history, an assassination squad of Americans and Jews (not the Allied armies marching across Europe) are the real threat to the Third Reich - a fitting take considering Hitler's horrible actions in real history.
District 9 looks at human nature and throws up its hands, resigning itself to the fact that humanity cannot change its stripes - and will always trend evil. Basterds takes another approach - answering humanity's evil with equal parts evil ("an eye for an eye"), thinking that somehow balances the scales of history.
These two parables mirror real reactions. In response to trouble or hurt, many people live with regret, wishing they could re-write history and, as Sam Beckett did in Quantum Leap, "put things right that once went wrong." In response, some think it's all fatalistic and that it doesn't really matter anyway, while other people seek vengence or violence to satistfy their anger.
The Gospel, though, says neither response leads anywhere.
When we are hurt, we are called to forgive all others ("Offer no resistance to one who is evil." Mt. 5:39a), and yes, that even includes Hitler. And fatalism, the belief that we never learn and history continues to repeat itself, allows no room for good works and God's grace.
Instead, Jesus challenged his disciples to "go forth" to "cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and drive out deams" (Mt. 10:8) With those actions, history won't be re-written, but it will be changed and affected for the better. Instead of wishing the Jews killed Hitler, the gospel charge is to affect the present world so that anti-Semetism or hatred of any kind might be eradicated. Instead of giving up on people and their prejudices, the gospel charge is to be different, serving the poor and welcoming all people in Christian love.
So instead of looking backward and re-writing history, Jesus calls on us to change history - to make our mark on the world for the sake of the Gospel. We can all look forwad to that future.
******* Postscript 9/15/09
As I continued to reflect on these films, I noticed something else that was lacking: an attitude of gratitude. When we look back on the past in regret, we aren't thankful for the gift that the event or day or experience was to us.
Approaching the past, no matter how great or how sinful or hurtful it was, with gratitude to God can lift the heavy burden of anger or frustration from our lives. I am grateful to God for the sins of the past because they teach me a better way to head into the future. I am grateful for the way history was written because the world today would not be the same without the past.
Reviewing the day, the year, and the past in thanksgiving is a good discipline to have. St. Ignatius of Loyola instructed his students to do the same in their evening prayers. Reviewing the day (or anything in the past) with regret serves little purpose. Looking at yesterday with gratitude allows us to discover the face of God moving about in the world with greater clarity.