Billy Bob Thornton won an Academy Award this year for writing the screen adaptation of Sling Blade, a movie he directed and in which he played the leading role. Sling Blade provides an opportunity to identify what one scholar calls "redemptive violence," which is portrayed in much Hollywood fare and is a worldview deeply ingrained in our common life.
Set in a small town in Arkansas, Sling Blade invites us into the inner lives of people who are gentle and loving, with one notable exception. This would appear to be that "warm-hearted" movie many of us long for, but in fact its warm-heartedness masks a serious and troubling defect.
Karl Childers, the central character, is a slightly retarded man who has been living in a mental institution for the past 25 years after murdering, at age 12, his mother and her lover with a scythe, called here a sling blade. The story begins with his release and re-entry into the life of his former home town.
Karl becomes friends with a boy, Frank, who soon persuades his mother, Linda, to give the stranger a place to live in the family garage. The director of the mental institution finds a job for Karl repairing lawnmowers. Linda is a clerk in a local grocery store where she has a close friendship with the manager, Vaughn, a gay man welcomed at Linda's house as part of the family.
This little town seems almost idyllic. Frank, Linda, and Vaughn, the institution director, and Karl's boss are caring people who are kind to Karl. Not all retarded people or former prisoners are as readily received into a new community.
However, there is a dark side to this story. Linda's boyfriend, Doyle, drinks heavily and is abusive to both Linda and Frank. Nothing about Doyle appeals to viewers' sympathies. The more deeply we move into the drama, the more obnoxious and sadistic he becomes. Karl witnesses several instances of Doyle's destructive behavior but, until the end, intervenes only once, defending Frank from Doyle's nasty threats.
As the story progresses, Doyle's menacing behavior increases the tension so that concerned friends fear for the safety of Linda and Frank. Karl, developing a strategy that seems beyond the capability of one with his limitations, arranges to be alone in Linda's home with Doyle, whom he kills with two whacks of a freshly sharpened lawnmower blade. The audience is spared the sight of a gory scene, an omission which doubtless made the murder more tolerable to the audience.
Karl reports the murder to local authorities, then calmly sits down alone at the family table and eats while he awaits their arrival. In the final scene, Karl is back in the institution. Justice, although messy, seems to have prevailed. The movie ends.
Devices of Storytelling
Sling Blade is a seductive movie. It presents a seemingly insoluble problem-namely, Doyle's incorrigible nature-and then sets us up to regard a heinous murder as an acceptable solution. There is nothing new in such a setup, however. Hollywood has been feeding us such stories for decades. Yet it is worth examining just how this motion picture succeeds in sending an audience home feeling good about a homicide.
The movie uses several stock-in-trade tools to accomplish this end. First, the story is crafted to avoid ambiguity by creating a good guy-bad guy scenario: nice, decent home-town folks vs. an irredeemable, sadistic character named Doyle. The dice are further loaded (against Doyle) by presenting Linda and her son as such loving and lovable people who are particularly vulnerable to this evil man. Thus we identify with the "good" people in the story and disown the "bad" guy. The movie does not accord Doyle the dignity of being human. We are given no insight as to why he behaves so despicably, and we are never invited to empathize with him or to see him in ourselves. In the end Doyle becomes the sacrificial lamb whose much-deserved death makes the community-and the audience-feel clean again.
A second device the movie uses to gain the audience's acceptance of murder is having a retarded man do the dirty deed. We know early on that Karl has killed two people, but we are unwilling to hold him accountable because of his mental condition and because this was an impulsive act done by an abused youth. This knowledge is a seed planted early in the audience's mind to help prepare us to accept another
murder by Karl two hours later. More important, the story turns on Karl's being an innocent who is sent as an avenging angel to rescue a loving family from grave danger. His seeming purity of motive seduces the viewer into looking upon the murder as an acceptable intervention for righting a terrible wrong.
A third device used to lure the audience into accepting the unacceptable is the omission of the consequences of murder. Hollywood consistently skirts that issue because it would mess up the requisite happy ending. But take time now to consider what it was like for mother and son to return home to find the police and rescue workers and hordes of curious neighbors, and to be told of Doyle's murder and the horror of it. Imagine trying to live in that house after such a slaughter. How did Linda cope after the loss of a man who, despite his massive defects, had been her lover? How will she ever come to terms with all the unfinished business between them? What impact did this have on the boy, Frank? Will he have nightmares? Will he be afraid to sleep in his own house? What will Frank learn from this about how a community deals with abusive people?
What of the community? Will they now pick up and go on their merry way just as we viewers did when the movie was over? Does Doyle's murder make them feel more secure? Do they have regrets for not having intervened before this tragedy took place? What happens to Karl? Does he have enough awareness to realize the dimensions of his crime? Is this just one more notch on his sling blade, or does he experience some agony over this act? How do we know Karl won't strike again?
The easiest one to forget in this line of questioning is Doyle. Mean as he was, did he really deserve this fate? Are we to take comfort in the false belief that such people never, ever change? These and many other questions are comfortably overlooked for the sake of bringing an easy solution to a very serious problem.
Karl's murder of Doyle is an example of what New Testament scholar Walter Wink calls "redemptive violence" (see Wink's Engaging the Powers). Redemptive violence posits that some violence is good or at least necessary in order to correct or eliminate evil. Wink traces this belief to an ancient Babylonian creation myth in which divine creation was a violent act, namely the murder of the god Tiamat. In this view, evil precedes creation, evil is a primordial fact, evil is prior to good, and God is by nature violent.
In the biblical story of creation, however, God is good and the creation is good. Goodness comes first, and evil enters the world through the disobedience of Adam and Eve and the conniving of the serpent.
"The implications [of the Babylonian myth] are clear," writes Wink. "Humanity is created from the blood of a murdered god. Our very origin is violence. Killing is in our blood....Human beings are thus naturally incapable of peaceful coexistence."
We have been fed a lifetime diet of redemptive violence beginning in childhood with such cartoon characters as Popeye, Superman, and Batman, Wink points out. These stories present characters who are so evil that the heroes have no choice but to resort to violence in order to defeat them or to rid the world of them altogether. There is no attempt to understand or initiate change in these bad characters. Of course, the good guys always win-which validates violence as the proper antidote to evil behavior. The violence of the "good" characters is never portrayed as bad because redemptive violence is the only realistic solution to the problem of evil.
Not only is the myth of redemptive violence reinforced by means of movies, television, literature, news stories, and government policies, it is also taught us through history. This myth encompasses our relationships at every level, justifying violence, whether as beating disobedient children or bombing Hiroshima. Redemptive violence is the foundation stone of American civil religion. As Wink says, "Violence is the ethos of our times. It is the spirituality of the modern world."
The reason movie goers accept the conclusion of Sling Blade mindlessly is that we have been conditioned to that kind of spirituality. Our souls have been nurtured in the civil religion of redemptive violence.
The Way of the Cross
Redemptive violence is the by-product of the belief in domination. Domination is the theme of the daily world in which we live. The longing for control, ascendancy, being Number One, more and more power, greater and greater wealth-all these are expressions of the lust for domination. Our sense of self-worth-whether as individuals or as nations-is determined by where we rank in the pecking order of power. When Jesus said, "The last shall be first and the first shall be last," he was addressing the domination mentality. As an alternative to domination, he offered servanthood.
The religion of domination, therefore, inevitably leads to violence because of the tension created by the competition for power and status. In fact, domination is a form of violence. In a domination-oriented world, violence against my enemy would seem to be the rational response when that enemy threatens my existence. This perspective is perfectly reflected in the movie Patton, in which Gen. George Patton is heard to say to his troops words to this effect: "We are not sending you over there to die for your country. We are sending you over there to make some other poor s.o.b. die for his country."
Jesus challenges this point of view by turning redemptive violence on its head: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:43-44). This teaching is seated in Jesus' utter confidence that whatever happens to us, we remain securely in God's hands. Paul says it well: "If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So whether we live or die, we are the Lord's" (Romans 14:8).
This faith is the only escape from the tyranny of the domination mentality and its idolatry of death. We experience this liberation in the radical, countercultural act of loving our enemy. But such love is not the sentimental tolerance of evil. To take Doyle's case as an example, faith requires the tough love of nonviolent corrective action.
Behind the paradoxical perspective implied here-namely, that we will experience authentic life only as we risk our lives in the act of loving-lies Jesus' total commitment to the unity of all creation. Inescapably, we are all a part of one another and of all that is. We cannot do violence to any part of creation without doing violence to ourselves, and by the same token, we can truly love ourselves only by loving the whole of creation. Loving the alien, the outcast, the enemy is an unavoidable-and the most necessary-dimension of loving oneself.
In Sling Blade we are lured into the belief that Karl can function as a "savior" by eliminating Doyle, thus getting everyone else in the story off the hook. The fallacy here lies in the denial that Doyle is a part of us (and we a part of him), and that his execution is a violation of ourselves. Furthermore, our approval of his murder contradicts our stated abhorrence of his behavior. To tell a story which encourages the notion that the way of destruction is the way to life is to foster a demonic illusion.
Sadly overlooked in this movie is the community's responsibility toward Linda, Frank, and Doyle. Adult onlookers sit around helplessly rather than taking action, thus encouraging a retarded man with a murder record to commit another terrible crime. Logical steps in a caring response to an abuser would include assuring safety and providing counseling for Linda and Frank, seeing that Doyle is arrested and prosecuted, and then committing him to rehabilitation programs for both alcoholism and abuse.
Sling Blade indulges in cheap grace: A solution to the problem is seemingly effected at the expense of only one character, Doyle, who thus becomes the scapegoat. In the Jesus-story, however, that is turned around: Jesus, the one who least deserves it, chooses to risk his own life rather than someone else's. In doing so, he exposes the impotence and false presumptions of redemptive violence. Paradoxically, then, the victim becomes the victor. To risk oneself by intervening on behalf of another is an act of love and it is, as we Christians say, the way of the cross. Karl took that kind of risk, but it involved violence. The tragedy of Sling Blade is that a nonviolent intervention was clearly an option but was not taken.
Since Linda did not opt to protect herself and Frank from Doyle, her friends could have done so by intervening on her behalf and arranging for Doyle's incarceration and rehabilitation. This caring act would have protected Linda and Frank, and it would have spared Doyle's life while offering all involved the possibility of living in a new way. Thus, by that one act, they would have loved their neighbors (Linda and Frank) and loved their enemy (Doyle), and assumed responsibility for acting in faith, without waiting for a false savior (Karl) or a scapegoat (Doyle).
Ending the movie that way probably would not make for the spectacle of a violence-oriented conclusion, but it would have refuted the false promises of redemptive violence and affirmed the redemptive truth of the way of the cross.
HARRY C. KIELY is a free-lance writer, social justice activist, and retired United Methodist pastor living in Silver Spring, Maryland.