Roman Polanski: “there is none righteous, no, not one.”

By October 8, 2009


The facts are these: A few days back, Roman Polanski, the auteur who created Repulsion, Chinatown, and Rosemary’s Baby – some of the finest works of the sixties and seventies, the golden age of film – was detained when he arrived at the Swiss border. He had planned to attend a film festival in Zurich, where he would receive a lifetime achievement award and assorted other plaudits and means of adulation from his colleagues. Instead he may end up extradited to the sort of California jail where they put movie folk. This is because thirty-two years ago in Los Angeles Polanski drugged and raped a thirteen year old girl. He served slightly more than a month in a California state prison for psychiatric observation and agreed to a relatively lenient plea bargain, but fled the United States for his native Poland and then France when his judge, after perhaps inappropriately consulting with the prosecutors, gave indications that he might throw the bargain out.

There has been a great deal of horrified forehead slapping and moralistic beard tugging not only about Polanski and his sins, but also about the weird fact that a lot of people seem to feel not only that he should be let off the hook, but, additionally, that this position is manifestly self-evident and should seem reasonable to all human beings. The ranks here include (unfortunately for those of us who are not fans of generalizations about Hollywood), well, some of Hollywood, including not only known flakes like Woody Allen and Whoopi Goldberg, but otherwise seemingly thoughtful and interesting people like Martin Scorsese – who has fascinating things to say about the influence of Catholicism on his work – and Tilda Swinton.[1] It also includes apparently the French intelligentsia (which again does not help with the anti-broad brush campaign).

I am not here to praise the campaign to exonerate Polanski, but neither am I interested in closing ranks with the forehead slappers. Rather, I’m interested in reading this whole ugly little ball of wax not as further evidence that America/Hollywood is provincial/louche but rather as a cultural debate about evil and human nature. What is it, exactly, in the metaphysical anthropology of Debra Winger (whose charming turn in Forget Paris you may remember) that has her so formidably convinced that Polanski deserves release? [2] What is fascinating about her is not what she says; it’s what inspires her to say what she says. It’s what she believes about Roman Polanski’s soul, and why. And conversely, how is it that her desire to see Polanski freed and – pivotally – start making movies again is so utterly incomprehensible to so many of the rest of us? The fundamental point here is that people – even Roman Polanski – are complicated, so I’m not interested in dismissing great swaths of humanity as morally vagrant. Rather, I want to frame this theologically. [3]


One of the great strengths of the best traditional Christian theology is its ability to assimilate and express paradox in a meaningful way, most particularly the balance of divine and mortal in the person of Christ. The separate propositions that Christ is fully mortal and that Christ is fully divine: each communicate particular knowledge about Jesus, but the dynamic tension generated in the paradox of asserting that both are true gestures to deeper meanings about the relationship between God and humanity.

A more useful tension for the purposes of talking about Roman Polanski, however, is the one embedded in ourselves. That is, as Paul said, desparingly,

I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. (Romans 7:18-19) [4]

It’s the horrifyingly simple truth that we don’t understand ourselves. We can’t explain why we do far too much of what we actually do. We barely glimpse the far horizons of our own motivations. And the hideous paradox here is as Paul recognizes; we all perform evil deeds knowing the good, and indeed, even worse, knowing the very nature of evil and embracing it anyway, in a ghastly, grinning nihilism.

Here is Augustine, despairing to God over his theft of a pear:

Behold, now let my heart confess to thee what it was seeking there, when I was being gratuitously wanton, having no inducement to evil but the evil itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own undoing. I loved my error — not that for which I erred but the error itself. A depraved soul, falling away from security in thee to destruction in itself, seeking nothing from the shameful deed but shame itself. (Confessions, 2.4.9)

And this means, that, as Paul and Augustine and Calvin and Luther all recognized, there is something of our nature beyond our mastery, and even our knowledge. CS Lewis calls it being ‘bent;’ a weak fissure that runs through our souls, our wills, and our minds. [5] Augustine calls it concupiscence, seeing it even in the selfish grasping of a child. He also calls it original sin. Sin alienates us not only from God, not only from our fellow humans, but from ourselves; sin is that part of us that we have barely a nodding relationship with. If we controlled it – really controlled it; if law and law’s predicates were of themselves enough – we would none of us do evil. But we do, and so they’re not. And that’s also why law can never be a perfect predictor of the morality of an action. And why – apologies to Elder Oaks – law can never be a perfect metaphor for religion. (For more on that, see footnote 3.)

The paradox, though, lies in Luther’s phrase: “simul iustus, et peccator;” the believer is simultaneously justified and a sinner; simultaneously righteous before God and a fallen human. Or, as Reinhold Niebuhr slightly tweaked the notion, man is simultaneously the imago dei and the creature; simultaneously fallen, but capable of imagining transcendence, imperfect, but capable of imagining perfection. [6] Even in ourselves.


Polanski. The great fault, I would argue, in the metaphysical anthropology of Debra Winger and company is their inability to grasp this paradox. They see Polanski the artist; a master of emotional nuance, the man whose camera rested with grace and care on Faye Dunaway’s pain in Chinatown, who showed almost palpable sympathy for the families wrenched apart in the Holocaust in The Pianist. This man – the man whom Adrien Brody, upon becoming the youngest winner of the Best Actor Oscar under Polanski’s guidance, called “gifted” and time spent with him “a huge gift,” whom Sigourney Weaver called “very sweet and very strong.” This man could not be a rapist; rapists are evil, and the Polanski they know is good.

And so do we all, says Niebuhr, sin. The individual “overestimates the completeness of his knowledge and even more the self-sufficiency of his existence.” [7] We convince ourselves that life can be absolute; that rapists and other bad people are the easily identifiable Other, not those we know, and not those we love, and certainly not ourselves. And, indeed, those who conflate the magnificence of Polanski’s art with the special condition of his soul are dancing on the brink of idolatry.

But on the flip side, there’s a caution here for the rest of us as well; those of us who see in Polanski the sinner that we are not, those of us who equate religion with law and judge juridical faultlessness to be unblemished righteousness. Polanski’s demons rage inside each one of us, and to shrink so far from the stench of their breath that we can imagine they have a hold only upon him is to put ourselves in danger of dividing our own souls they way Polanski’s defenders divide his. To invoke what may seem a final paradox, the first of Luther’s 95 theses commands us: “The whole life of the believer should be repentance.” Amen.

1. Patrick Goldstein, however, helpfully points out that the real Hollywood powers – studio chiefs and producers, the Spielbergs, the James Camerons, the Grazers – are not touching this one.

2. Winger, who chaired the film festival Polanski was toodling off to in Switzerland, had this to say: “We came to honor Roman Polanski as a great artist, but under these sudden and arcane circumstances, we can only think of him today as a human being . . . we await his release, and his next masterwork.”

3. The question of whether Roman Polanski is an evil man is separate from, but related to, the issue of whether Polanski should be extradited, face a new sentencing, have an new trial, and so on. If he did not ultimately sever it, Martin Luther rendered the relationship between law and righteousness tenuous at best, maintaining that God alone ruled over the soul, and that “where temporal power presumes to prescribe laws for the soul, it encroaches upon God’s government and only misleads and destroys.” Rather, Luther proposed his doctrine of two governments: “the spiritual, by which the Holy Spirit under Christ makes Christians and pious people; and the secular, which restrains the unchristian and the wicked so that they are obliged to keep the peace outwardly.” [i] Protestantism’s pessimism about the human condition combined with its doctrines of grace has left the West with a notion of the law as utilitarian: it exists mainly to prevent us from doing destructive things to each other.[ii] It does not act as God’s policeman or seek to promote virtue; when it tries to do these things it promptly and sometimes spectacularly crashes into ditches.

This argument was sufficiently novel that Thomas Jefferson picked it up, and it’s remained fairly influential in American legal circles, so far as this humble historian of American religion can tell. Legal positivism made the distinction explicit, separating the law consciously from metaphysical claims about good and evil; legal realism, an enormously influential if diffuse and often confusing movement, maintains that the law has more to do with the practical predilections of the people involved in any given legal situation than it does with abstract theoretical or philosophical notions. Thus: what is illegal and what is theologically evil are, and should be, two different things.

i. “Secular Authority,” in John Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther, Selections (New York: Doubleday, 1961) 370.

ii. For more on this, particularly among the Calvinists, the nerds among you might enjoy John Witte’s The Reformation of Rights: law, religion and human rights in early modern Calvinism. (New York: Cambridge, 2008). Calvin basically adopted Luther’s two kingdoms model, and drew a distinction between “biblical principles” and “biblical laws.” Earthly governments should seek to emulate the first, but could not hope to enforce the second.

4. I spoke about these verses at greater length in the opening section of this post.

5. That’s in Out of the Silent Planet.

6. The Nature and Destiny of Man, 1:150-159; also 164: “Implicit in the human situation of freedom and man’s capacity to transcend himself and his world is his inability to construct a world of meaning without finding a source and key to the structure of meaning which transcends the world beyond his own capacity to transcend it.”

7. Nature and Destiny, 1:138.

Article filed under Popular Culture Reflective Posts


  1. As usual your post both informs and answers questions I have been considering lately. A wonderfully homiletic treat.

    Comment by Elizabeth — October 8, 2009 @ 10:04 pm

  2. This is great stuff, though I think you would make a crappy Wesleyan.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 8, 2009 @ 10:52 pm

  3. Thanks, folks.

    Ha. I’m a Lutheran Mormon, Stape. Me and my peep Russell Fox. And even Wesley believes in original sin. Sanctification merely either eradicates or subsumes it, depending on whether you listen to holiness folk or the Keswickers.

    Comment by matt b. — October 8, 2009 @ 11:02 pm

  4. “The facts are these..”

    Is this a tip of the cap to Pushing Daisies?

    Comment by BHodges — October 8, 2009 @ 11:03 pm

  5. Well done.

    Comment by mmiles — October 9, 2009 @ 2:37 am

  6. amen.

    Comment by Ben — October 9, 2009 @ 7:40 am

  7. I, too, enjoyed your comments. To the extent this is about people in the media or the arts, I would extend moral judgment to what they do not just with their personal lives but with their art or the platform they have in the media. For instance, I find hate speech, regardless of whence it comes, inexcusable. For the record, Polanski is a scumbag as are those who apologize for him.

    Comment by Jack — October 9, 2009 @ 7:50 am

  8. Well done, Matt. Thanks for this.

    Comment by Christopher — October 9, 2009 @ 8:32 am

  9. Also, Wesley never claimed to have every achieved the perfection he preached.

    Didn’t Nietzsche say that we shouldn’t be defined by the evil things we do since they are just small moments of our lives and not who we are. (Not that I’m a Nietzsche fan, but it’s an interesting idea).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 9, 2009 @ 10:51 am

  10. This post doesn’t attempt to exonerate Polanski, but it is a defense of sorts, which I find amazing. Sure it criticizes the Polanski defenders, but only, it seems, to set itself up as a more nuanced and thoughtful combating of the “forehead slappers.” When a person drugs and rapes a child and you write a post about how we’re all sinners with evil inside which is beyond our mastery, that is an implicit defense. The post creates a false dichotomy between those who idolize Polanski to the point that they excuse his horrific crime and the “rest of us” who see in Polanski the sinner we are not and who fail to realize the seeds of sin lie in each of us. My forehead slapping does not represent a self-deception in which I fail to see myself as a sinner. Your last line speaks of repentance, but what have we seen from Polanski that is related to repentance? Do I want him to repent? Sure. Do I accept that he can repent? Sure. I must be missing the paradox there. My condemnation of Polanski’s atrocious behavior represents a willingness to identify evil and condemn it for what it is. I really don’t see how it has anything to do with the stench of my own breath.

    Comment by Jacob J — October 9, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

  11. I agree with Jacob J., I have seen nothing of repentance from Polanski. I don’t think we as society can allow this deed to go unpunished. Besides, were he truly penitent, he would have turned himself in anyway.

    Comment by Ian Cook — October 9, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

  12. Jacob, Ian – I think you’ve both read the post for something it is not. There are plenty of posts out there – and good ones – which simply denounce Polanski’s horrible crime. This post is about his defenders. In fact, I was inspired to write it when I tried to understand how it was that otherwise intelligent people could engage in the morally troubling act of defending him.

    Indeed, Jacob, I don’t believe I gave merely cursory treatment to them; they are the ones whose moral universes is suspect; they are the ones who are a cautionary tale to the rest of us. You appear to be focusing on the final paragraph to the exclusion of the previous dozen. And indeed, neither does that final paragraph state that all those who are troubled by Polanski’s sin are conscious hypocrites. Rather, it states that Polanski and his defenders are a reminder to all of us that we are sinners as well. That’s hardly a “defense” of the man.

    So, I am not sure I understand how the post could be read in any way favorable to Polanski at the expense of everybody else. Nowhere do I say that he should not be subjected to punishment; nowhere do I attempt to excuse his behavior; neither do I, as Ian seems to imply, call for him to go unpunished. Indeed, the who thing is an 1800 word exploration of why not only his acts, but those who excuse them, are a form of evil.

    Comment by matt b. — October 9, 2009 @ 2:26 pm

  13. Sorry Matt, I didn’t mean to suggest that you said that. I was just making a blanket statement. As a matter of fact, all that stuff you said went way over my head anyway. So, probably i’m not the person to be able to correctly interpret what you said in the first place.

    Comment by Ian Cook — October 9, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

  14. Matt,

    I read the whole post and I understand your criticism of the Polanski worshipers. I don’t really have any beef with your attempts to psychoanalyze the doofus defenders of Polanski. If that were as far as the post went, I would be on board. However, there are throughout the post references to those who condemn Polanski as well. You used the pejorative “forehead slappers” right off the bat to characterize them. Thus, you have set up the post from the outset (in section I) as a post that will criticize both the defenders and detractors of Polanski. The post then makes good on the promise.

    The whole section II of your post is about how all of us have sinful natures which we do not, cannot, fully control. Polanski has a dual nature of both good and evil and so do all of the rest of us (we’re all “complicated”). While it is true that you spend two of the three paragraphs in section III analyzing the ramifications of this dual nature on the defenses of Polanski, you then spend the last analyzing the ramifications for those who condemn Polanski. Far from endorsing a condemnation of Polanski’s evil actions, you offer a warning to those who condemn Polanski:

    Polanski’s demons rage inside each one of us, and to shrink so far from the stench of their breath that we can imagine they have a hold only upon him is to put ourselves in danger of dividing our own souls they way Polanski’s defenders divide his.

    I conclude from reading the entire post (as context for the last paragraph) that you don’t approve either group (defenders or detractors). Your points in section II are applied to both groups, which means you spent (by my count) very similar numbers of you 1800 words talking about the detractors as you did the defenders. Probably a few more on the defenders, but not by an overwhelming margin.

    Hopefully this comment is cogent enough to explain why I have read your post the way I have, even if you think that I have misread you.

    Comment by Jacob J — October 9, 2009 @ 4:47 pm

  15. matt,

    It’s the horrifyingly simple truth that we don’t understand ourselves. We can’t explain why we do far too much of what we actually do. We barely glimpse the far horizons of our own motivations. And the hideous paradox here is as Paul recognizes; we all perform evil deeds knowing the good, and indeed, even worse, knowing the very nature of evil and embracing it anyway, in a ghastly, grinning nihilism.

    Brilliantly said.

    As for Polanski, not that I have paid much attention to this situation, but didn’t he work with the prosecution and the judge on a plea deal? Then when learning that the judge had improperly conversed with the prosecution, he fled? I mean, it would seem he attempted to “repent” of his sin (or at least pay for his crime within man’s laws). The real screwup was the judge, wasn’t it? Would you not flee if the judge was going to mess up the rest of your life after you agreed to a plea deal? I can’t speak for whether he “drugged and raped” the 13 year old girl because I just don’t know enough, but the girl, now much older woman, simply wants people to put this behind them. It seems to me the best course of action.

    Comment by Dan — October 12, 2009 @ 9:30 am

  16. Thanks, Jacob, first for your civil tone, particularly in response to my somewhat rushed initial reply. And let me apologize; I’ve been out of town all weekend and lacked internet access. I, alas, don’t have much more time today, but I think the crux of the matter is this – you use words like ‘criticize’ and ‘disapprove’ to characterize how I treat some of Polanski’s critics, but I’d say that slightly mischaracterizes my intention. I’m not accusing Polanski’s detractors of hypocrisy or saying they are wrong to be enraged over his actions. I understand how the post could be as an accusation, but rather, I’m making a theological point about the complicated nature of humanity. I don’t judge it ‘criticism’ to point out that all of us have a propensity to sin.

    Ian – thanks, and I apologize for misreading you.

    Dan – Polanski most certainly did commit the crime; he acknowledges it, as does she, and while there was, most likely, some degree of judge tampering, the broader point here is not about whether he deserves to be jailed or not.

    Comment by matt b — October 13, 2009 @ 9:55 am


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