Pale Rider (1985) was on again the other night. You remember, the Clint Eastwood movie with Clint as something like an avenging angel in a plot not unlike Shane but with more violence. It has a strong religious tone, obviously taking it’s title and it’s inspiration from The Revelation to John but with a strong dose of Samson. Eastwood’s character is even a preacher of sorts, as well as a being returned from the dead to set things right. And in the end, order, justice, peace and social equilibrium are restored to the good people by the total, and bloody, elimination of all the bad people. Throw in the obvious connection to portions of the Hebrew Scriptures calling for the genocide of the Canaanites, or David’s life-long commitment to revenging himself against foe and friend alike, and you’ve got a pretty solid theological argument going for you.
There are other, more violent, bloodier movies that follow that same theme, but this one is an original. It has depth to it, character development, and addresses issues of justice from a very religious point of view. In particular, it is an exploration of retributive justice that deliberately celebrates revenge as a good way to achieve justice, bring a satisfying closure in the lives of the victims and establish the conditions for a good and peaceful life to begin anew. Many scholars assert that retribution and revenge never bring any of those things, but it’s a hard sell.
We’ve always had cowboy movies that followed that script in a less violent way, but they often seemed to be more concerned with restorative justice than revenge. What I wonder is this; was Pale Rider the start of America’s love affair with revenge as a way to achieve justice and bring closure in the personal lives of victims? Name me a single so-called action movie in the theater or made for television that does not celebrate it. Has the popular idea of justice become nothing more than retribution? Is that why we lead all nations in imprisonments, and come close to doing the same in death penalties?
There are a lot of pious editorials about the need for schools of peace, and an awful lot of talk about restorative justice. Workshops led by Mennonites and Quakers abound. Articles by the dozens flood the pages of The Christian Century. So What! The movies and television teach another form of justice, and they have the attention of a huge, gullible audience. What do you suppose would happen if the popular media began to be flooded, not with scholarly articles, but with critical reviews of each and every vengeance celebrating movie shown in theaters or on television? They wouldn’t have to be Christian, or even religious. They would simply need to take “deadly” aim at the falsehood of the idea that revenge as good and that good things come from it. It’s just a thought.