In 2003, the Coen brothers released their romantic comedy Intolerable Cruelty. The movie wasn’t great. In fact, it’s entirely forgettable, which is why I was surprised I remembered it at all. After reading the news lately, though, I’m now convinced it’s an apt metaphor for our times. My only hope is that we can learn the same lesson the main characters do before it’s too late.
For those who don’t remember the movie or wisely skipped it, Intolerable Cruelty tells a convoluted tale about a top divorce attorney, played by George Clooney, and a marriage-for-money predator, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones. After standing on opposing sides in a courtroom battle, the two end up getting married.
And it’s after they get married that the hijinks ensue. Zeta-Jones’ character seeks to divorce the divorce attorney and take all his money. Soon, the characters are engaged in escalatory acts and intolerably cruel behavior toward one another. Their battle for money and power becomes so intense that one eventually hires a hitman to have the other murdered.
If a couple seeking a divorce and engaging in escalatory, intolerably cruel acts toward the other isn’t a perfect metaphor for a divided America right now, I’m not sure what is.
Just look at what’s happening all across the country and see the division its engendering. Much has been made of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s leaked draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade. In fact, several states already have lined up laws to go into effect provided Roe is overturned.
Look at Texas. The Lone Star State’s new abortion law bans the only two drugs recommended for treating patients who’ve had miscarriages because those drugs also can be used to induce abortions. The United States already has the highest maternal mortality rate in the industrialized world. Additionally, maternal mortality disproportionately affects women of color. Black women are currently three times as likely to die of pregnancy-related causes than white women. Banning the only two drugs recommended to treat women who’ve had a miscarriage increases the likelihood that those women will die.
“Banning the only two drugs recommended to treat women who’ve had a miscarriage increases the likelihood that those women will die.”
Texas isn’t alone, however. Republican gubernatorial candidates in Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have teamed up with anti-abortion groups to push bans that would not even allow the procedure if the mother’s health were endangered. If you’re opposed to abortion for moral reasons because of what it does to the unborn, how is it moral to enact or advocate for policies that threaten the lives of women? If you’re pro-life, how are you consistent if you don’t also care for the life of the mother?
In addition to its abortion law, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has equated providing gender-affirming care for transgender youth to child abuse. In fact, the state child welfare agency now may investigate parents and doctors who provide such care. Transgender teens already are at a higher risk for suicide, and now they’re living in fear of being taken from their homes. Consequently, many families with transgender youth are leaving the state altogether.
Of course, we can’t forget the large number of states that have introduced and, in some cases, already enacted laws restricting voting rights. These laws were introduced and enacted because of the lie that the 2020 election was rigged, even though there is no evidence to back such a claim. Predictably, the people most affected by these laws are people of color.
And last, but certainly not least, we’re seeing a rise in the number of mass shootings and hate crimes across the country. Yet there is still no action on common-sense gun reform. Most recently, 10 people in Buffalo, N.Y., were killed in a grocery store because they committed the cardinal sin of shopping while Black.
“10 people in Buffalo, N.Y., were killed in a grocery store because they committed the cardinal sin of shopping while Black.”
Either through shoddily written legislation or intentional legislative inaction, women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community are being targeted. Their lives are at risk. And we see people fighting with one another rather than trying to help those most at risk in our communities.
I want to be clear here. Reasonable people can and do have political and moral disagreements about these issues because things are complicated and nuanced. I’m not trying to get you to change your personal opinion on any of the issues listed above. All require sympathy, sensitivity and nuance.
Rather, it’s past time for us to acknowledge what’s actually happening, and that is, much of what currently passes for dialogue and legislation is nothing more than intolerable cruelty. You can be pro-life without supporting extreme legislation that endangers the lives of women. You can have strongly held beliefs about gender identity without supporting politicians who terrorize a group of teenagers who already are at higher risk for suicide. You can support reforming voting rights without making it harder for people of color to vote. You can even oppose reforms to current gun laws without remaining silent in the face of hateful conspiracy theories that lead to violence.
But when you support politicians who seek to harm, silence or minimize other people, you are supporting acts of intolerable cruelty. And using your faith as a cover doesn’t change that fact.
People can and should have deeply held convictions, but when they’re so deeply held that you look the other way at mean-spiritedness and cruelty, or even worse, when you actively promote such behavior, you’ve gone too far. There is no value a Christian can hold so tightly that it allows for him or her to be unloving toward his or her neighbor, which brings me back to Intolerable Cruelty.
“There is no value a Christian can hold so tightly that it allows for him or her to be unloving toward his or her neighbor.”
The movie ends with the two characters realizing they love one another and seeking to avoid disaster. And because it’s a movie in search of a happy ending, disaster is avoided. Through a darkly comedic accident, the hitman ends up shooting himself. The two characters admit their feelings for one another, and they both voluntarily lay down their weapons. They quit doing intolerably cruel things to one another because they love one another and because they realize it’s past time that they show it.
It’s my hope and prayer that we can learn the same lesson as these two characters from this bad romantic comedy. Because if we don’t put down our weapons and stop our intolerably cruel acts toward those with whom we disagree, if we don’t remember we’re called to love one another and start acting like it, people are going to die. Tragically, many already have. And if we don’t learn our lesson quickly, even more people will needlessly suffer that same fate.
Kris Aaron serves as senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Bristol, Va. He holds the doctor of ministry degree from McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University, the master of divinity degree from Mercer and a master of theology degree from Brite Divinity School at TCU. He is married to Clary Gardner Aaron, and they are the parents of two young children.
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