Pale Rider and Retributive Justice

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.

6 thoughts on “Pale Rider and Retributive Justice”

  1. Good post.First, the tree is known by it\’s fruit. What does this tell us about the American version of Christianity?The temptation of Jesus was the temptation of power. What does this tell us about what has become of the place of churches in our political system, economic system etc. and in film. And the demand of christians for special recognition.Sadly, It has been my experience that in the modern pulpit, Justice has become the focal point of christianity. It is very difficult to argue that this is a bad thing, but for many / most, justice is equated with a tit for tat sort of life or, actions based on what is \”right\” \”fair\”. Justice gives the pulpit a place to speak from righteous anger, and to express \”prophetic vision\”, very popular pew fillers and news catchers. Very few modern pulpits speak of the transition from Justice to LOVE that Jesus ushered in, taught, revealed. Just as the fear in the entertainment media is that \”no one would pay to see a film where the town\’s folk work subversively over time, transforming evil by living a life of selfless loving and communal caring\” so the fear is in many a rector\’s office.I think that if your idea were to take form (and I think it is an excellent idea) there would be some who would have scales fall from their eyes, but the majority of responses would be that the writers of these reviews were \”unchristian\” or \”do not know their scripture\”

  2. For another take on this topic, see The Outlaw Josey Wales, another Clint Eastwood western flick.He\’s a former Confederate soldier trying to make a life after the war when some Union soldiers, bent on obtaining \”justice\” from the South kill off his family. At which point he returns the favor, killing all those who participated in his family\’s murder as a form of \”retributive retributive justice\” (if that makes sense). The film is essentially a battle of two men between Josey and Fletcher (the Union leader).In the end, Josey is cornered by Fletcher, but the townsfolk protect him with a different name.\”I guess we all died a little in that damn war.\”The outcome of retributive justice is death; the outcome of forgiveness is something else.

  3. Recently, I have been engaged in two separate conversations regarding incarceration and the death penalty for criminals. I come down on the side of not administering the death penalty. I\’ve used examples of murderers Timothy McVey (Oklahoma City bomber) and Sadaam Hussein (dictator of Iraq) – \”we\” chased them down and found them and then we gave them what \”they deserved\” or what they had given to others – death. And how are we now? Any better off, any safer, any more comfortable in the fact that we are now murderers ourselves? I think that retribution brings little peace to those of us who condone it or to those of us who participate in it – in whatever that participation is. Bruno\’s point about non-participants in viewing a film about town folk transforming evil by living lives of selfless loving and communcal caring might not be a big hit…..but wow, would it change the world if it could be canned and sold!

  4. Well, one of the problems with doing something good for its own sake, is its necessary anonymity. If you want to be patted on the back for that small but telling act of kindness, was it really meant for your sake? Did you want to be seen being kind? Did you want to be known as \”kind\”?The paradox of Jesus\’ media-worthy miracles is that they\’re too noisy. The way they get attention distracts from merely everyday acts of love. Commonplace anonymous kindness: how quiet. Yet isn\’t God supposed to speak in a still small voice? How would that sound on film?

  5. Regarding every day acts of kindness that Tom mentions – \”do we want to be patted on the back for that small but telling act of kindness, was it really meant for your sake? Did you want to be seen as kind, known as kind? And media-worthy miracles being too noisy and distracting from everyday kindness? STill small voices on kindness? I think I\’m careening off of retribution, but here goes…..If indeed we do an act of kindness w or w/o regard for publicity – it\’s still an act of kindness. I wouldn\’t mind being known as a person of kindness although that would not be my goal when I absent mindedly or with forethought \”inflict\” my kindness on another. I like to think that the absent-mindedness of a kindness is more a sign of one\’s inner commitment to Jesus\’ kind of kindness rather than some great production of kindness with my name written in lights and all over the act for publicity and congratulatory rewards. Would acts of kindness play well on the screen well \”Pay it Forward\” played well;even though it seemed predictible and full of sentimentality in the story line, it still played well to me – quite a bit better than \”the outlaw Josie wales\” and \”Pale Rider\” did.Jesus news-worthy miracles? Oh my should someone write up the fiction version of all those unknown kindnesses that he distributed – I think the woman adulterer\’s story was not overtly published in the local news…..after all Jesus forgave her.

  6. To put the original point on anonymity another way, let me invite in Wordsworth from the second stanza of Tintern Abbey:These beauteous forms [childhood memories reinvoked by way of returning as an adult to the Wye river valley],Through a long absence, have not been to meAs is a landscape to a blind man\’s eye:But oft, in lonely rooms, and \’mid the dinOf towns and cities, I have owed to themFelt in the blood, and felt along the heart;And passing even into my purer mind,With tranquil restoration:–feelings tooOf unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,As have no slight or trivial influenceOn that best portion of a good man\’s life,His little, nameless, unremembered, actsOf kindness and love.

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