My wife and I wanted to watch a light film at home this past Saturday night and then go to bed early. We made the mistake of putting in the movie North Country, which came out in 2005. It was inspired by a landmark sexual harassment case that took place in a Minnesota coal mine. As I was watching the film, I was shocked by how mercilessly the protagonist Josey Aimes was treated by her co-workers, her family, and even the other women in the mine who were victims of the same sexual harassment. I said to my wife, “This seems a little bit over the top,” and she said, “Oh no, this is what women really deal with.” As I saw Josey standing up for her dignity with the whole world against her, I thought a real test of my Christian morality would be if I had the guts to stand up for her if I were working in that mine.
Since it’s an eight year old movie, I’m not going to worry about spoilers. The movie starts with Josey leaving her husband because he was abusing her. Josey has two children who were both born out of wedlock, one of whom was born when she was 16. She goes back to live with her parents in northern Minnesota. They all go together to a church event, and predictably, the church ladies are gossiping about her in the kitchen.Josey gets a job at the local mine along with several other local women. During their time there, they are harassed by the other miners sexually and otherwise. One woman gets groped early on. Josey gets cornered by a guy who tries to make out with her. There is graffiti referring to blowjobs with graphic illustrations. After Josey goes to the supervisor to complain, he not only does nothing, but in retaliation, the men trash the women’s locker room, which the other women blame on Josey. Then, the miners knock over a portapotty with a woman inside of it, covering her in nasty water. They masturbate onto a woman’s sweater in her locker. When Josey gets physically assaulted, she quits work and decides to file a lawsuit.Throughout the court proceedings, Josey is the one who is put on trial. Everyone is against her, including her family and the other women who work at the mine. The way she’s discredited is to call her a slut because of the circumstances of her son’s birth. It seems to me that this is one way that Christian morality can function, particularly with regard to sexuality. People who are sexually pure gain the right to dismiss the dignity of those who aren’t, no matter what their circumstances.It turns out that Josey’s son was born as a result of rape. I’ve often heard that people who are molested or raped often end up in a series of abusive relationships throughout their lives as a result. It made me wonder about the woman who came into Simon the Pharisee’s house in Luke 7 to wash Jesus’ feet, the woman whom Simon referred to as a sinner. What if her first time, she was raped, and this was the reason she found herself in a series of exploitative relationships that reduced her to being a “sinful woman” in the eyes of her community?Jesus takes up for the woman who washes his feet at the expense of his dinner host. He publicly humiliates Simon when Simon had done no more than frowned on the situation and thought judgmental thoughts. I wonder how many Christians working in that mine would have been content to be like Simon the Pharisee and dismiss Josey Aimes as a trouble-making slut (even if they used more polite Christian terminology). What kind of moral foundation would it take to stand with Josey against everyone else?If Christian holiness is about no more than keeping my hands clean and avoiding all the behaviors that the Bible tells me to avoid, then I would have no moral basis for sticking my neck out for someone like Josey Aimes. Under a holiness that sees “purity” as its only goal, your moral obligation to other people is simply not to harm anyone or cause a mess or a burden that other people have to deal with. Someone who raises a stink about how she’s being treated in the workplace is already condemned under that kind of morality for being an “uppity feminist” who is unwilling to “carry her cross” quietly and “stay out of trouble.”It would take a completely different moral vision to ground you with the courage to stand with Josey Aimes. It requires being given the same heart that caused the Samaritan to be “moved with compassion” when he saw the beaten man on the side of the road rather than merely seeing a potential cause of uncleanliness like the priest and the Levite (Luke 10:25-37).There is very good reason for Christians to be zealous about freeing our hearts of idols and addictions and other forms of sin. It’s so that we are completely undistracted from being God’s mercy for the people around us. If our morality makes us unsympathetic to the wounds of others and aloof to their dignity because we’ve sized them up and dismissed them on the basis of babies they’ve had out of wedlock or other “evidence” of sin in their lives, then it isn’t Christian morality. At least it doesn’t look anything like how Jesus treated other people.If we need the reassurance of hearing ourselves disapprove of others, that’s evidence of our profound immaturity in the path of sanctification. It’s when we have sins to hide that we have the need to say, “I thank you God that I’m not like other people” (Luke 18:11). People who are further along in their liberation from sin have a patient and generous spirit towards the imperfections of others as a result. At the same time, being patient and generous towards others’ imperfections does not mean to shirk standing up for the truth. It’s one thing not to let whatever rumors you’ve heard about a Josey Aimes in your world dismiss her human dignity; it’s another thing to say, “I’m not one to judge” when you’ve seen other people engaging in abusive behavior whose victims you betray by refusing to get involved.When you’re compromised by sin, it compromises your integrity as a result. When King David’s son Amnon raped his step-sister Tamar, David felt like he couldn’t say anything about it because of what he had done to Bathsheba. So again, there’s another good reason to pursue a life of holiness that is above reproach. It’s not in order to give yourself permission not to care about other people. It’s so that you’ll have the credibility with yourself and others to stand up for what’s right when nobody else will.Last year, I wrote a whole lot about the Biblical concept of the “fear of the Lord,” taking great pains to point out that it’s not about being afraid of God. To fear the Lord is to be a person of integrity, which is to say that you live as though God sees everything and will one day call each of us to account for everything we’ve done and failed to do. Many Christians misunderstand the justification Christ provides for us. It isn’t giving us permission to lack integrity because of a blanket amnesty; rather it empowers us to embrace integrity when we trust God’s mercy enough not to be imprisoned by sinful secrets.
A false Christian morality would make it easy to dismiss a woman like Josey Aimes, believe all the rumors about her immorality, and refuse to stand with her. A true Christian morality fills us with a mercy that relentlessly seeks to understand the suffering of others, and an integrity that refuses to let the truth be buried. I hope that I would stand with Josey Aimes if I were working in her mine. I still have many miles to travel in my journey towards the heart of Christ.