Wineskins Archive

January 22, 2014

Unforgiven, Unforgiving (Jul – Aug 1993)

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by Bill Love
July – August, 1993

After this year’s Academy Awards Clint Eastwood revealed his purpose in making the movie, Unforgiven. “I wanted to de-glamorize guns and killing,” said the veteran Hollywood gunslinger. He did more than that; his film also broke the mold for movies in this familiar, old genre.

The formula western has the good guys in the white hats come to town, wipe out the bad guys wearing the black hats, and then ride away into the sunset as heroes. But in Unforgiven there are no white and black hats, only gray ones. Every person has mixed motives and a dark side. The story begins with a shocking injustice crying out to be set right. A cowboy draws his knife and permanently disfigures a prostitute for making fun of him. Her offense was punished a thousand times over. From that moment on a white-hot rage for revenge burns in the hearts of the other prostitutes. The offender would never, could never be forgiven. In their minds they are calling for nothing more than simple justice. But in the end something other than justice is served and there are no heroes. Gene Hackman, who played the brutal sheriff, commented that the story is surely more authentic and true to the old west as it really was than the stereotypical western.

It seems significant that the movie has been so popular. Reasons must include the strong story line and superb acting. But there may be something more to the public’s approval and film’s success on Awards’ night. Could it be that it spoke powerfully to some deep need within the American soul? Eastwood commented that he had held the script since the mid-seventies and was fortunate that the timing of its release was just perfect in 1992. Perhaps the violence in the movie feels good to something deep inside us.

We Americans are an angry people, getting more angry all the time. Through no fault of our own, some of us have lost our jobs and others know that our jobs are on the line. Dangerous criminals are set free in early release programs. We are losing the war on drugs and violent war on our streets. Often we feel powerless to change the situation. We are caught off guard by the rage we feel when someone cuts us off in traffic, when our opinions are ignored, or when a competitor wins by ignoring the rules. Maybe the movie violence in Unforgiven feels good for those reasons. Many Americans may secretly enjoy the ending when William Money has the compromised sheriff down, takes a moment to decide whether to kill him, and then pulls the trigger. The point is not that we have been turned into brutal killers, we’ve just had enough. A vicarious release for our rage in a darkened theater is safer than many alternatives.

The movie also demonstrates a profound truth about human nature. It shows in a vivid way our incapacity, by our own power, simply to receive forgiveness and act out of that grace in forgiving others. The gunslinger and outlaw William Money was saved from his evil ways by the woman who would become his wife. “She saved me from my drinkin’ and wickedness,” he says of his dearly departed. He and his old crony speak of the days when they robbed and killed with abandon. Money says it again and again on the trail to Big Whiskey, “I ain’t that way no more.” It is obviously true. Her love and his grateful resolve had made him a different man. Love and love alone has such power to change people.

Nevertheless, the “old man,” to use the apostle Paul’s phrase, finally returns to overwhelm Money. At the end of the story he goes far beyond serving justice, turning back to the mad-dog behavior of former years. Even the powerful memory of his wife’s love and his own will in response to her love does not restrain his dark side from revenge.

The bad news of the gospel is that people can’t transform themselves. Our popular self-help methods and slogans prove no match for the demons that live in the cellars of our souls. Most of the time, when the dungeon doors are shut and securely padlocked, we act rather civilized. But when some betrayal shatters the lock those demons can come forth in alarming brutality.

Nowhere is this truth seen more clearly than in our struggle to forgive. The Frisians were one of the ancient Teutonic tribes of Holland. They had a quaint custom of keeping a corpse around the house until the death of their loved one was revenged. We are more sophisticated. Have you heard someone talk about a divorce like this: “We have a civilized arrangement. We were friends before the mistaken marriage. There are no hard feelings, never have been. Now we’ve just gone back to the original friendship.” I hope I’m not within striking distance when that person finally vents the anger inside.

All of us have trouble forgiving. The best Christians struggle with the challenge. No matter how much we strive for holiness, we all have buttons which, when pushed, reveal the sinner within yet to be transformed. The love of Money’s wife was powerful, but it was not enough. As commendable as his resolve was it alone could not prevent his reversion to brutal revenge.

The good news of the gospel is that we are forgiven and granted power in Christ to learn forgiveness. Neither of these gifts comes cheap. Our forgiveness cost God his only son, cost Jesus his life. Our learning to forgive claims the surrender of our own arrogant pride. We are crucified with Christ. His crucifixion is God’s revelation of our self-centeredness. It also demonstrates God’s unspeakable love for us and gracious involvement with us. Nothing can break the stony, proud heart like an encounter with Jesus on the cross. In the deepest depth of his suffering Jesus asked the Father to honor his reason for coming: “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.”

We usually think the cure for ignorance is education. But the ignorance at the center of the human heart is morally corrupt, a willful blindness. William Money was full of denial that he was on the road back to his former self. The same kind of denial is seen in the Scribes and Pharisees, in Jesus’ own disciples, and in the general population at the cross. They would not see that their condition was so deplorable that God had to come and die a criminal’s death to redeem them. The same is true with us. The great boulder in the road between us and God is not our ignorance of religious data. Our selfish pride makes us resist repentance and forgiveness just as Peter refused to let Jesus wash his feet.

Our forgiveness of others involves a similar crucifixion of pride. Something within must be crucified. Our legitimate legal claims for justice must be laid aside, our lust for revenge must be denied, our competitive urges must be overcome. We must allow the healing oil of God’s grace to bathe and soothe our feverish souls before we can forgive others.

The cross is not all, there is also resurrection. Jesus’ open tomb shows us like nothing else God’s victory of light over darkness, of life over death, and love over hate. The promises of Jesus to live with and in us are secured. The reformation of our lives does not ultimately depend upon the love of others for us or upon our own resolve. The love of William Money’s wife was potent, but she was still dead. His own vows were genuine but not equal to the test. Christ was crucified to take our sin upon himself. He was raised to give us life, and through us, the gift of life to others who also need forgiveness.Wineskins Magazine

Bill Love

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