04 June 2016

A Thought Inspired by FX's The Americans

Last weekend I watched two seasons of The Americans.  It's not an edifying show, but at least (thanks to the power of streaming video) I could skip past the especially unedifying bits (stuffing corpses in suitcases, various sexual escapades, etc.) and stick to the drama.  It's a captivating drama, somehow. (Thus the two seasons in one long weekend).  I don't intend to review the show at this point, though, so I'd better get to the point before I end up writing a review unintentionally.

The Americans is about a pair of Soviet spies living as married travel agents in the DC area in the early 1980s.  They have two kids, a teenager and a pre-teen, and maintain a facade of normality while bugging government agencies, sabotaging US diplomacy, and killing whoever gets in their way by night.  (In a seemingly unending array of disguises.)  Much of the two seasons I watched deals with the moral and psychological strain of living a life of boundless duplicity and murder.

In one recent episode of the show, the wife, having recently perpetrated some family-destroying nastiness against someone she had developed an authentic friendship with, is distraught.  She has no one to turn to—the topic is worn out with her husband, her Soviet handler doesn't care, and no one else really knows her.  So she turns to the super-progressive minister whose Church her daughter attends, and attempts (very indirectly) to open up to him.

Elizabeth:  Pastor Tim.  Um.  [sigh]  If you have something on your mind... and... you know... you can't stop thinking about it... You want to, but you can't... 
Pastor Tim:  I pray.  For guidance. 
Elizabeth:  What if you— What if you don't believe in God, or religion, or prayer? 
Pastor Tim:  [Pause.] None of those things matter.
Elizabeth:  It doesn't matter? 
Pastor Tim:  All that matters is how we treat each other.

Pastor Tim embodies progressive Christianity.  For him, Christ was a social revolutionary who came to preach love and acceptance, and to disturb the unjust power structures in society. (And that's all.)  At one point, Pastor Tim explains his church by saying "We preach social justice, with a dash of Jesus thrown in."

Anyone who's spent any amount of time around progressive Protestants, or their Catholic counterparts, knows his schtick.  But what comes across most intensely in this scene is the utter despair that follows from the message: there is no absolution, no spiritual cleansing—there is only what you have done to other people.  You can almost see the weight of her sins fall on Elizabeth's shoulders when he says that.  It reminded me of Christ's rebuke to the Pharisees: “Woe to you as well, experts in the law! You weigh men down with heavy burdens, but you yourselves will not lift a finger to lighten their load.”