Wednesday, March 4, 2009

On Means and Ends for a Faithful Church: Bloodshed and Redemption in David Cronenberg's A History of Violence

The following is a paper I submitted for a scholarship about a year ago; I've been reflecting on it, so I thought I'd share it in this forum. I hope you enjoy it.

- - - - - - -

“Keep heading east?” Spoken by one nameless criminal to another, the story begins with this telling question. Humankind, embodied by these two violent men, is still “heading east” from Eden. The question stands as a programmatic statement that hangs over the narrative, a lens through which to interpret the events about to unfold. Two explicit questions, however, are foundational throughout: Is violence an inherent characteristic of human life? and, Is personal transformation possible?

Such questions have haunted the church for two millennia. The poles of pacifism and just war historically have bounded the Christian understanding of violence, but today, an unquestioning militant nationalism has gained broad acceptance in the American church. Perhaps a voice external to the community of faith might speak a fresh prophetic word. David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence was released in 2005 and is brilliant in myriad ways, not least in its multifaceted approach to the question of violence. To facilitate a constructive dialogue for the Christian community, the writings of John Howard Yoder[1] and Doug Giles[2] will augment the conversation on issues raised by the film.

The film centers on Tom Stall, a seemingly ordinary family man living in a small Indiana town, and the cavalcade of spiraling effects resultant from the movie’s central event. Tom works at a diner, and one night two strange men come in and threaten at gunpoint to rape a waitress. Tom reacts quickly and precisely, and kills both of them. The incident gains national attention, and soon gangsters from Philadelphia arrive in town, claiming that Tom is actually one of them – indeed, the brother of the top man – and that he has debts to pay. After vehement denials (and a bloody showdown), Tom confesses the truth of his past, forming a deep mistrust between himself and his family. Finally, he drives to see his brother. After his request for peace falls on deaf ears, he responds to assault by slaughtering everyone in the house, hoping to sever himself from his violent past once and for all. The film ends with Tom returning to his family in Indiana.

Yoder and Giles offer vastly different perspectives through which a follower of Jesus might interpret this story. Yoder’s initial caveat would be that, insofar as Christian ethics belongs to the sphere of the church, Tom Stall cannot be expected to act according to Christian standards if he does not claim Jesus as Lord.[3] Even so, Yoder would say that each time Tom acts violently, regardless of motive, he does so without Christian approval.[4] Giles, on the other hand, would claim unreservedly that Tom’s use of violence for both self-defense and protection of innocent lives is not only justifiable, but laudable.[5]

A vital theme interlocks the film’s violence: whether it be Tom, his son, gangsters, or nameless criminals­­­­ – that is, the good guys or the bad guys – every act of violence is perpetrated by males against males. Cronenberg’s depiction of the violence is not “cool,” or exciting, or awe-inspiring – it is raw, ugly, and real. Here there is no interest in the glory of violence, only its reality.

Because Giles does not believe violence itself to be the primary problem, he is less focused on critiquing violence as such, than on its righteous application. According to Giles, Jesus was not “a passive peacemaker in the face of evil”; he was “a dragon slayer” and “a warrior picking fights.”[6] As for Jesus’ call to love one’s enemies, such passages “apply to personal insults and injury,” not to life-threatening evil.[7] For example, “if Jesus were placed in a similar situation as the New Life Church security guard,[8] he would whip out his Glock and double tap the center mass of any wannabe killer” attempting to murder Christians.[9]

More in harmony with the film’s concerns,[10] Yoder could not disagree with Giles more: “…pacifism is not the prophetic vocation of a few individuals, but … every member of the body of Christ is called to absolute nonresistance in discipleship and to abandonment of … the desire to be effective immediately.”[11] Like Giles, Yoder draws his conclusions directly from the life of Jesus, yet sees in Jesus a strikingly different – but just as normative – ethic “which abandons claims to justice for oneself and for one’s own in an overriding concern for the reconciling of the adversary and the estranged.”[12]

A fascinating subplot involves the evolution of Tom’s son, Jack. Initially Jack uses cunning and wit to outdo a school bully, but after the diner incident, Jack responds to provocation with unexpected force. His change is complete when – after witnessing his father dispatch two henchmen – he saves Tom by shooting a gangster in the back. Violence, according to this integral subplot, is in the blood. It is genealogical. Not only that, it is learned: Jack cannot muster the courage to fight back until he sees the example of his father. Nature and nurture, then, are two sides of the same violent coin: it is in our very bones, and we teach it to our young.

Doug Giles finds unconvincing the notion that Christians ought not to teach moral violence. He suggests that “we flush the feckless, Lysol-disinfected, feminine hygiene Jesus … and go back to the rowdy Christ,”[13] advising pastors to “get appropriately armed to the teeth.”[14] Yoder, of course, believes that the sword is what Jesus explicitly rejected at Gethsemane:[15] “The cross is not a detour or a hurdle on the way to the kingdom … it is the kingdom come.”[16] This begs the question: If violence is in the blood and the brain, is nonviolent life possible? In other words, can Tom Stall change? In the film, Tom claims, “I took him [the old self] to the desert and I killed him,” and to his wife, “I wasn’t born again until I met you.” Apparently, the attempted conversion did not work.

However, in the end there is a vital difference. When Tom returns to his family, the truth is known, and he is penitent. At the table, one by one his family symbolically forgives him and receives him back. This final scene intimates that honesty, repentance, forgiveness, and community are all requisites for legitimate transformation to occur.

As the credits roll, however, a final question lingers. Are the means by which Tom severs himself from his old life commensurate with the new life he hopes to establish? On this point, Giles is starkly clear. If someone were to threaten him or his congregants, he would “have no problem whatsoever” killing that person on the spot.[17]

Here John Howard Yoder provides biblical and theological clarity. His comments on the “Zealot option” apply equally to the hoped-for personal “revolution” of Tom Stall: “What is wrong with the violent revolution according to Jesus is not that it changes too much but that it changes too little; the Zealot is the reflection of the tyrant whom he replaces by means of the tools of the tyrant.”[18] Thus, while community and its virtues and demands must be present for effective personal transformation, in order to truly renounce violence, much more is required. Because Tom’s means are incommensurate with his intended end, he cannot expect legitimate change.[19]

Ultimately, the story of Tom Stall does not solve the issue of violence; what it does is clarify the questions we must ask, as human beings as much as followers of Jesus. The film is simply “a” history, one of many that could be told, for all share in the wider history of fallen humanity’s violence. As powerlessness transitions from a nice theological claim to an untidy reality, the onus remains on the church to address such uncomfortable questions. A History of Violence, then, asserts the greatest and most enduring challenge to the community purporting to follow Jesus: In a world broken by – yet infatuated with – violence, will the church be the church?

[1] John Howard Yoder was a well-renowned Mennonite theologian and Christian ethicist, and undeniably Christian pacifism’s most vocal and scholarly voice in the second half of the 20th century.

[2] Doug Giles is a popular columnist, radio host, and pastor who champions conservative political policies, winning the “culture war,” defeating Islamofascism, and reinjecting masculinity into the church.

[3] John Howard Yoder, The Original Revolution (Scottdale: Herald Press, 2003), 76-84.

[4] See Yoder’s seminal work The Politics of Jesus (2d ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).

[5] See Doug Giles, “Imprecatory Prayer: The Intercessor’s Elephant Gun,” n.p. [cited 21 Jan 2008]. Online:’s _elephant_gun.

[6] Doug Giles, “Jesus, Jihadists, and a Just War,” n.p. [cited 21 Jan 2008]. Online:,_jihadists_and a_just_war.

[7] Ibid.

[8] On December 9, 2007, a gunman opened fire on exiting churchgoers at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. A security volunteer shot the man, wounding him before he took his own life.

[9] Doug Giles, “God and Glocks: Why Churches Should Not Be Gun Free Zones,” n.p. [cited 21 Jan 2008]. Online: rches_should_not_be_gun_free_zones.

[10] See Yoder, When War is Unjust (2d ed.; Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1996).

[11] Yoder, Original Revolution, 72.

[12]Ibid., 236.

[13] Doug Giles, “Christ the Contrarian,” n.p. [cited 21 Jan 2008]. Online: columnists/DougGiles/2006/12/23/christ_the_contrarian.

[14] Giles, “Glocks,” n.p.

[15] Yoder, Politics, 45-50.

[16] Ibid., 51.

[17] Giles, “Glocks,” n.p.

[18] Yoder, Original Revolution, 23.

[19] Yoder would add, of course, that Tom cannot expect realistic change – nor true, abiding peace – until he claims Jesus as Lord, ascribes to his way, trusts God for justice and vindication, receives the empowering presence of the Spirit, and enters into the alternative and formative community of the church. See Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984).

No comments:

Post a Comment