Thursday, April 18, 2013

Erasing Hate

Last night, I watched a really fascinating documentary on Netflix called Erasing Hate. The film is about Bryon Widner, a man who spent sixteen years living as a neo-nazi. During those years of hate, violence, and substance abuse, Widner literally wore his heart (or lack thereof) on his sleeve. He covered his face and body in "white power" tattoos, including swastikas, an SS symbol, and a bloody switchblade. In his early teens, he had H-A-T-E inked across his knuckles. He knew his tattoos would prevent him from ever integrating into mainstream society, but that didn't matter to him because he had no intention of doing so. As a neo-nazi, he planned on either dying young or dying in prison.

In the documentary, Bryon recounts some of the horrible things he's done: baseball bat beatdowns, switchblade slicings, and slamming a Mexican janitor's head repeatedly into a toilet bowl. Sometimes, he says, "I lie awake all f****** night thinking about what I've done." Because Bryon was drunk so much of the time, he's not even sure how much violence he's inflicted.

And yet, somehow, Bryon - a man who now admits he once had no regard for human life - changed his mind. He met a woman named Julie at a white power rally and they fell in love. Simultaneously, both began to have doubts about the world they were in. Eventually they married and Bryon became a father to Julie's children. For a time they remained in the white power associations because they didn't know how to function outside of them, but eventually they decided they had to break free. As they cut ties with their community, their former "friends" began to threaten their lives, forcing Bryon and his family to flee the state.

Since then, Bryon and Julie have tried to build a life for themselves. Erasing Hate focuses on a critical step in the process: removing Bryon's facial tattoos - an excruciatingly painful process that took a year and a half and over 20 procedures.

I don't want to give everything about the film away because I really think it's worth watching, but I will say I was deeply moved. Searching the comments on Netflix, I noticed that many gave the film a low rating because they didn't think Bryon deserved to have his life redeemed. Many also doubted that his change of heart was sincere.

Whether or not Bryon's life deserves to be redeemed isn't up for debate: it doesn't. I suspect that if I were to witness half the things Bryon did I would be physically ill. However, I believe that grace - the willingness to grant others blessing they do not deserve - is a good, beautiful, and transforming thing. It reflects the very nature of God. Bryon doesn't deserve redemption, but nothing that is redeemed deserves redemption. Redemption is what happens when that which deserves to be tossed in the garbage is miraculously salvaged. This is Bryon's story, and from the Christian perspective it is even more than that: it is the story of the entire Creation.

As to whether or not Bryon's change of heart is sincere, I see no reason to doubt. He has chosen to leave a sub-culture that kills its apostates and has renounced his former associations in a very public way, despite the risks involved. He has suffered the agony of tattoo removal (which, if you watch the documentary, you will see is no small thing), and he has gained the trust and friendship of those he once regarded as his enemies.

I can understand, though, why people doubt. Repentance - that is, the changing of one's mind - is perhaps the most miraculous event of all, and we in the West are particularly suspicious of miracles. People like Bryon, though, are proof that they can happen.

Watching Bryon suffer through the numerous tattoo procedures struck me as reflective of the Christian journey of sanctification. We all have the scars of sin on our lives, and many of those scars run very deep. We begin the process of repairing those scars by experiencing repentance - a remarkable change of mind - but the process of reparation is often a long and difficult road. In fact, it is a lifelong process, and it includes seasons of pain. God takes the laser beam of the Holy Spirit to the scars sin has inked on our hearts and blasts them away, and there are times when the process is so painful we want to throw in the towel. But perseverance yields profound reward, and one day we will be presented as pure and blameless before the God who loves us enough not to leave us covered in hate and evil.

I wish I could talk to Bryon. I would tell him that I've prayed for him - that I know how hard it is to stay on the narrow path when there are so many off-ramps on to the the broad highway of destruction. I would tell him I believe God has been doing a great work in Him, and that He'll be faithful to carry it to completion. I would tell him that most of the New Testament was written by a guy who was killing Christians before he was converting them, and to take comfort in that. I would tell him to take one day at a time, to love his wife and kids, and to not let those who disbelieve his repentance define him. May God continue to raise him from the dead.