Philip Seymour Hoffman means a great deal to me.
As an actor, he was one of the finest of his generation, and set a new bar for the acting profession. He worked with some of the greatest directors the industry has ever produced (including many of my personal favorites). And yet, he was a troubled person. There were demons. His life was not complete.
Finding him deceased in his New York apartment, the police discovered large quantities of heroin. This is obviously not a good thing, and helps us maybe understand a little bit about what troubled him—or maybe even what granted authenticity to the troubled characters he depicted on screen. But beyond this surface information, we may never know what was going on beneath. And sometimes that’s okay; it isn’t necessary that we know, in order to properly grieve. It really isn’t.
Sometimes, when people hear about such tragedies, they immediately turn to both anger and disgust. They are angry that the world has been deprived of such a talent, but they are also disgusted that someone could succumb to such temptations. Many will say that “if I were him, I would never let things get out of hand,” or “how can someone be so stupid?”
These are the same words of Pharisees who tell Jesus:
If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets. —Matt. 23:30
But the truth is, we can never know what we “would have done” in any given situation. The same heartless claims are made about everything from the Nazi occupation to the rise of communism in Soviet Russia. People bicker back and forth about what others “should have done.” This is evil, and only serves to denigrate the memory of those granted a different lot than your own. The fact is, we never know what we are capable of doing until we are placed in a given situation. Some of us will fare better than others; some of us would be lying dead on a cold, bathroom floor.
This does not excuse, of course, the reality (or corruption) of sin. But simply because someone has done evil, that does not mean we are to immediately write them off or cast stones.
I’m reminded of the story of Judas Maccabeus, following a great battle. They go back to gather the bodies of their fallen Jewish brethren, and what do they find?:
But on every one of the dead, they found, under the tunic, amulets sacred to the idols of Jamnia, objects which the law forbids to Jews. It was evident to all that here was the reason why these men had fallen.
—2 Macc. 12:40
And what does Judas do in response? Does he say “they deserved to die, God damn them?” Does he say “they got what they deserved?” Does he say “good riddance to foolish men?”
Instead of lashing out in both anger and disgust, Judas turns first to the Lord in praise, acknowledging that God alone can reveal what is hidden—whether this refers to physical things or that which is hidden in our hearts, it’s all the same. He then asks the Lord to forgive their sins, and that their wrongdoing might be “blotted out.” Even though the fallen had committed an obvious sin—a sin which led to their own death—he asks the Lord to forgive them completely for this admittedly stupid and sinful mistake. Rather than turning a cold heart and consigning his fellow soldiers to the flames, Judas begs the Lord for their forgiveness.
But he doesn’t stop there.
He uses this tragedy as an opportunity to remind his fellow soldiers to “keep themselves free from sin,” (v. 42) knowing now the consequence of such actions. They make prayers and offerings for their repose, looking not only to the forgiveness of sins but also to their bodily resurrection (2 Macc. 12:44-45).
The tragic death of Philip Seymour Hoffman (and everything similar) should not be seen as an opportunity to cast stones or say we would’ve done different—like the Pharisees. Rather, it is an opportunity for us to offer up a fallen image of God in prayer, to ask for his forgiveness, to pray that the Lord would be merciful—in spite of the sin—and to remind ourselves that we too can fall.
No one is perfect, and we are all susceptible to great error and sin, whether hidden or in plain sight. Hoffman’s just happened to be exposed for all to see after his death, but how many of us will die with sins far worse, and altogether hidden?
I will miss Philip Seymour Hoffman. I’m scandalized by not only his death, but the manner in which he died; in my opinion, he deserved better. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to treat his death as an opportunity to make a Pharisee out of myself, pretending that I am free from all sin and error. Instead, I will do my best to pray for not only his forgiveness, but also my own.
Being a Christian is the business of being against death. We hate it; I hate it. It grieves us and shocks us and makes us examine everything around us in a different light, even if only for a short while.
When faced with death, even in a tragedy such as this, our only message, hope, and attitude should be for the proclamation of life. Life out of death; life from corruption; light out of darkness—this is the heart of the Gospel. Rather than compounding death by death—for hatred is death—let us look towards life. Let us ask for forgiveness and mercy, healing and transformation.
May the Lord have mercy on all of us.