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Trinity 5 year A, 2005

"Million Dollar Baby - The Impossible Dilemma

- when all available options involve committing sin"

back to sermons year A

It’s been a while since I last told you about the latest film we’ve watched – so I thought I’d better make amends.


Have any of you seen "Million Dollar Baby"?   This is the story of a young woman – Maggie – who is determined to be a boxer.   She joins a boxing club and is not going to be content until the chief coach – (Frankie, played by Clint Eastwood) – takes her on.   He finally gives in and becomes her trainer.   Boxing becomes Maggie’s whole life.   She has had a terrible upbringing – her father is no longer around, her mother lives in a caravan and relies on social security, and has no intention of doing anything else.   Nobody is interested in her and a series of dead-end jobs have just about given her enough money to live on, although she would sometimes resort to eating the scraps from the café where she worked.


But in spite of all this – maybe because of it – Maggie becomes a brilliant boxer.   She develops a reputation for knocking out her opponents in the first round, so much so that her coach tells her to let them last longer so that she can get more practice in fighting.   Nothing seems to stand in her way.   She tours Europe, and the crowds give her the nickname “Macushla”, because she wears a green gown with an Irish emblem on it.  


Maggie only began boxing when she was thirty-one, much later than most if not all of her opponents.   So she is well into her mid-thirties when she reaches the climax of her boxing career – a fight against a world champion female boxer, from Germany.   This boxer has a reputation for fighting dirty.   After several highly questionable punches, she delivers Maggie a fearsome blow when she is not ready to fight.   Maggie flies across the canvas and crashes into a stool which is still in the corner of the ring.   In slow motion we see the wood of the stool take the full force of Maggie’s head and neck as they are driven into it.   The fight is over, and so is Maggie’s boxing career.


Just as the succession of Maggie’s victories had started to become all too predictable, the film takes a wholly new turn.   This is no longer a film about a feisty woman making her way in a man’s world.    It is now about the pain of one for whom everything she lived for has suddenly been taken away.   We see her confined to a hospital bed, with a broken neck and a tube supplying oxygen directly to her throat.   She can’t breathe unaided, and can move no part of her body apart from her head.   Frankie is distraught.   He blames himself for allowing her to train with him, against his initial judgement.   He spends hours, weeks, months in hospital with her.   But she doesn’t respond to treatment.   In fact she develops sores, because she can’t move her body, and eventually has to have a leg amputated.  


There finally comes a time when Maggie says she just can’t carry on any more.   She hints to Frankie that she needs his help with ending her life.   Everything that she had has been taken away – her family has virtually disowned her, and indeed has tried to get her to sign away the money she has earned.   She will never be able to walk again, let alone box again.   Frankie is appalled at her suggestion – but she tries to kill herself by biting her tongue so severely that she might bleed to death.   This doesn’t work.   We then see Frankie having to make an impossible decision.   Should he allow her to continue as she is, confined to her bed, still breathing only by means of artificial assistance, and likely to suffer a slow and painful decline until her body finally gives out? Or should he do what she has asked him to do, and bring it all to an end?  


What would you have done?   I’ve no idea what I would have done.   Perhaps driven in part at least by his feelings of guilt for having brought her to this point, Frankie does decide to help her to die.   We see him entering the hospital late one night, and pulling out her tube, before giving her a powerful injection of adrenalin.   You can’t help wondering whether this might be the moment for the surprise recovery – will Maggie suddenly discover that she can breathe unaided?   But no.   She dies.   Frankie is never seen again, and the film ends with a colleague of his, who has been the narrator for the film, writing to Frankie’s estranged daughter to tell her that he is presumed dead and that his body has not been found.


Clint Eastwood, who directed the film as well as starring in it, thus managed to present one of the most difficult moral issues that can be imagined.   It is an extreme form of the kind of situation where every possible course of action involves – in Christian terms – committing sin.   To ignore Maggie’s desire to die would seem to be lacking in compassion; but to assist her death would go against the Christian belief that life is always sacred.   (Incidentally, it is made clear in the film that Frankie does have religious faith – he is a Catholic who goes regularly to mass and is seen several times in heated discussion with his parish priest).    When Frankie decided that he had to go along with Maggie’s wishes, he clearly felt that he could not live with the consequences, and (so it would appear) killed himself too – which is also, in Christian terms, a sin.  


Quite often in the Bible good and evil are presented as opposites between which we have to make a clear choice.   The same clear distinction is also often made between sin and righteousness – we simply have to decide between one or the other. This is the assumption in the reading from Romans which we heard just now.    I’m sure most of us have experienced times, however, when we know that things aren’t quite so simple.   I hope that none of you have been forced to make as difficult a decision as that faced by Frankie.   But we are doubtless familiar with the dilemma of knowing that whatever we do, in a particular situation, will involve hurting someone.   Or when it seems most kind to someone to tell a lie; or when what we do to benefit one person will harm the interests of another.  


What is the answer?   What does our faith tell us we should do in such situations?    I suggest three principles, which may be of help:


- first, to pray for God’s guidance.   That guidance may not always be very clear – it’s not like reading a horoscope.   But there are times when we get flashes of insight, new perspectives, unexpected angles on a problem through trying to listen to what God may be telling us.


- second, to take responsibility for making a decision, and for seeing it through.   The decision may not be the right one – but nothing is gained by blaming someone else for this.   We need to do what, in all conscience, seems to be the best option.   It is then up to us to bear the consequences of that action, and not try to escape these.


- third, to ask God for forgiveness.   Having to make a decision when all the possibilities seem to be wrong reminds us that we live in a world where sin is sometimes unavoidable.   We are trapped in situations where every way out seems to break God’s laws.   Again, having done the best we can, we sometimes simply have to come humbly before God and ask his forgiveness.


I’m not sure what these three principles would have meant for Frankie.   Did he and Maggie give up hope too early?   Could anything have been gained by Maggie staying alive longer – maybe reconciliation with her family?   We can never tell.   But the best we can do, when we are in situations where there is no right answer, is to pray, to take responsibility, and ask God humbly for forgiveness – and then to trust that somehow his purpose will prevail.   For, there are times when, as we read in the prophet Isaiah, ‘My ways are not thy ways, saith the Lord”.


Christopher Harrison

Rural Dean, Ashbourne