This movie is meant to be a tale of the stark reality of the haves and the have-nots. However, I found it to be a fantastic parable for law and grace. There are going to be some spoilers here, but the movie has been out a while and you should have had some opportunity to go see it.
Life really is this legalistic. You earn your right to exist, to live a few more days, by having money. Your work buys you time and goods, this really is very true. When the government did its bailouts in 2008, let’s suppose that instead of bailing out the banks, they gave every citizen one million dollars. What would happen? Here is the fear, possibly rightly: everyone would stop working, and the nation would come to a complete halt. Then the price of a loaf of bread would skyrocket to thousands of dollars and soon everyone would be right back where they were before.
There is a homeless shelter in town, and occasionally I have the privilege of visiting it. How long would it be for you before you would end up there if you and yours stopped working and bringing in money? Most of the people there aren’t all that crazy. Many of them have hit hard times and for one reason or another can’t find work, and I know I could be in that position very easily.
What if you became really sick? I know from my work that there are large rooms full of people deciding whether you are worthy to receive expensive medical care. They first do “eligibility” checks – is your insurance current? If not, do you really think they are willing to foot the bill for your medical procedure? If you cannot arrange to be eligible under medicare or medicaid, you are cooked; they deny treatment every day. If you have eligibility (a chilling term actually), the battle begins. Even if you have stellar top-of-the-heap insurance, the insurance company’s first response is to deny payment. The medical provider’s room full of people have to haggle with the insurance company’s room full of people to meet their shifting demands that this diagnosis code has to meet that treatment code and this match is something they have currently decided they are obligated to pay for. The rooms full of people deny payment many times every day. There is often a tangible sense of triumph on the medical provider side when payment really can be arranged.
So, it is somewhat masked, but we live in a brutally legalistic society, not far removed at all from this movie. But this is not my main point. My main point is this: the reason the “haves” in the movie keep time scarce for everyone else is that they believe that if they did not hold the fear of running out of time over their heads, they would lose the incentive to work. This is actually one of the core ideas behind capitalism – financial incentives drive people. As Adam Smith, patron saint of capitalism, has said:
Public services are never better performed than when their reward comes in consequence of their being performed, and is proportioned to the diligence employed in performing them.
The Wealth Of Nations, Book V, Chapter 1, Part II, p. 719, para. b20.
…and perverse incentives
It is the interest of every man to live as much at his ease as he can; and if his emoluments are to be precisely the same, whether he does, or does not perform some very laborious duty, it is certainly his interest…either to neglect it altogether, or…to perform it in [a] careless and slovenly a manner…
The Wealth Of Nations, Book V, Chapter I, Part III, Article II, p. 760, para. f7.
To be clear, this is not a rant against capitalism nor is it a ringing endorsement of socialism. What I’m saying, and what this movie very cleverly makes abundantly clear, is that at the deep root of modern society, we believe that the engine of virtue is the threat of punishment. We believe that without the fear of impoverishment, people will do nothing, and what they do they will do poorly and half-heartedly. Eternal life is a severe threat to productive society.
This is Paul’s question in Romans 6, the question of virtue under grace. If God declares carte blanche favor, eternal life all up front in exchange for simple belief, where is our incentive to do well? It is brilliant to think that time could be currency. It’s true really. I can do the work myself if I have the time, or pay someone to do it while I do something else. Our limited time is the thing that lends urgency to our affairs. We have to sieze the day because there are only so many days to enjoy. As Solomon said, childhood and the prime of life are fleeting. How would we live if we knew that in the real world, no matter what happened, we would live forever? How much fear would that remove from us? How would we then live? How would we be motivated to be virtuous and to be productive? Isn’t it amazing that the singular promise of the gospel isn’t wealth or fame or intelligence or even happiness, it is eternal life?
This is Paul’s question, and the question of the legalist who accuses the radical grace camp. If there is no threat of punishment, how can you coerce people to do things? Without coercion, everything and everyone will go to hell. I think the problem with socialism is that it seeks the form of a grace-based society without first establishing a society full of people who are centered in a grace-based spirituality.
The answer of course is that in Christ we are new creatures. The old has passed away. We have a new seat of identity which loves what is right, whose (super)natural bent aligns with virtue. Instead of just not killing people (the law), the new self fulfills the law by seeking to love and bless people beyond what they deserve. It doesn’t do things because it is coerced, it does things because of love, because of desire.