Hollywood is not known as a culture of grace. Dog eat dog is more like it. People love you one day and hate you the next. Personal value is very much attached to box office revenues and the unpredictable and often cruel winds of fashion. It was doubly shocking, therefore, when one way love—and its fruit—made such a powerful appearance on the big stage in 2011. The occasion for it was Robert Downey Jr receiving the American Cinematheque Award, a prize given to “an extraordinary artist in the entertainment industry who is fully engaged in his or her work and is committed to making a significant contribution to the art of the motion pictures.” A big deal, in other words. Downey Jr. was allowed to choose who would present him with the award, and he made a bold decision. He selected his one-time co-star Mel Gibson to do the honors.
To say that Mel’s reputation had taken a serious nosedive in recent years would be a severe understatement. An arrest for drunk driving in 2006 in which the actor-director spewed racist and anti-Semitic epithets was followed by public infidelity and a high profile divorce in 2009 and then culminated in 2010 when tapes of a drunken Gibson berating his then-girlfriend in the most foul manner imaginable were released online. Reprehensible does not even begin to describe it. Downey Jr’s ceremony took place a little more than a year after that final incident, the one that rightly cemented Gibson’s place as pariah numero uno in Tinseltown.
Of course, Downey Jr was no stranger to ostracization. In the 1990s, he became something of punchline himself as someone notoriously unable to kick a violent addiction to drugs and alcohol. Arrest after arrest, relapse after relapse, people both in Hollywood and elsewhere began to think of him less as an actor and more as a junkie. Professionally he became a liability—even those who wanted to work with him couldn’t because insurance companies wouldn’t underwrite a film if he was part of the cast. Bit by bit, and with the notable help of some good friends, Downey Jr eventually got sober and his career slowly got back on track. In 2008 he was cast as Iron Man and the rest, as they say, is history. Today he is one of the most beloved and highest grossing actors in the business. So the award coincided with the very height of his popularity and the nadir of Gibson’s. This was his moment of glory.
Instead of using his acceptance speech to give an “aw shucks” to the crowd of adoring colleagues, and doff his hat to his agent and family, Downey Jr did something unprecedented. We’ll let him speak for himself:
I asked Mel to present this award to me for a reason. Because when I couldn’t get sober, he told me not to give up hope, and he urged me to find my faith—didn’t have to be his or someone else’s—as long as it was rooted in forgiveness. And I couldn’t get hired so he cast me in the lead in a movie that was actually developed for him. He kept a roof over my head, and he kept food on the table. And most importantly, he said that if I accepted responsibility for my wrongdoings and embraced that part of my soul that was ugly—”hugging the cactus” he calls it—he said that if I “hugged the cactus” long enough, I would become a man of some humility and my life would take on new meaning. And I did and it worked. All he asked in return was that some day I help the next guy in some small way. It’s reasonable to assume that at the time he didn’t imagine the next guy would be him. Or that some day was tonight.
Anyway, on this special occasion… I humbly ask that you join me—unless you are completely without sin (in which you picked the wrong… industry)—in forgiving my friend his trespasses, offering him the same clean slate you have me, and allowing him to continue his great and ongoing contribution to our collective art without shame. He’s hugged the cactus long enough. [And then they hug].
The short speech not only testifies to the amazing power of one-way love, it is itself a beautiful example of the ‘fruit” of one-way love. At his lowest point, Downey Jr. was shown mercy by Mel Gibson. He didn’t deserve it, his track record was abysmal, but Mel, for whatever reason, took a risk—at great cost to himself. He personally paid down the massive insurance premium for Downey Jr. on 2003′s The Singing Detective so that his friend could get back on his feet. You don’t forget something like that.
Downey Jr’s response was one of gratitude and generosity. His speech may have phrased things in terms of repayment, but Mel’s injunction was obviously an after-the-fact suggestion rather than a condition. Downey Jr’s gesture goes so far beyond any sense of “owing”, especially considering the choice of moment and venue. To associate with Mel in such a public manner, indeed to advocate for him, meant putting Downey Jr’s own reputation on the line. It was a self-sacrificial and even reckless move. There was no possible gain for Downey Jr.; such was the antipathy that Mel inspired. No, his defense of the indefensible was the uncoerced act of a heart that’s been touched by one-way love. There is a direct line from the love Downey Jr was shown to the love he then shows. His supreme generosity is the fruit of grace.
Mel clearly had no idea about what Downey Jr. was planning to do. And Downey Jr’s tone and demeanor make it very clear that he was not putting himself out there under duress—he did it because he wanted to. His ability and desire to show mercy seems almost directly proportional to his personal experience of it, his firsthand knowledge that he is just as much in need of mercy as “the chief of sinners”. His plea, in other words, was rooted in humility about his own sin and gratitude for the love he has been shown, which asserts itself in kind. Belovedness births love. Grace accomplished what no amount of court-ordered, legal remedies ever could: it created a heart that desires to show mercy to the “least of these.”
Of course, as powerful of a story as it is, the episode is not a one-to-one analogy for the Gospel—no story could be. As impressive as Iron Man is, he is not God. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t close. Thankfully, when it comes to God’s grace, there is not even a hint of exchange. No suggestion of payback, or pay it forward. There are no strings attached. Only grace can change a heart and produce law-fulfilling works of mercy, but grace is not dependent on a changed heart or law-fulfilling works of mercy. Grace alone produces the conditions that induce change, but grace is not conditional on change. It is pure gift. Our greatest hope. Our only comfort. Our deepest relief.
It is one way love.
(Excerpted from my forthcoming book One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World)
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