Friday, September 7, 2012

Wisdom from the Wild West

Jimmy Stewart made 'em. Henry Fonda made several of 'em. Clint Eastwood built a reputation on 'em. John Wayne made more of 'em than you can probably name. Roy Rogers... The Lone Ranger...

Westerns - the stuff of legend!

Over the years, tales of the Old West have captured the imaginations of people young and old around the world. Often, these are stories about courage and survival. They're stories about struggling to provide for a family. Sometimes they teach us about race relations or the dignity of the poor. They teach us about things like responsibility, duty, respect, and honor. They teach us about right and wrong. And sometimes they remind us that the lines between good and evil are not always as black and white as we'd like them to be.

In 1957, Glenn Ford and Van Heflin starred in 3:10 to Yuma, the story of a struggling rancher determined to put the outlaw Ben Wade on the train to Yuma Prison. Fifty years later, Russell Crowe and Christian Bale played outlaw Ben Wade and rancher Dan Evans (respectively) in what I consider to be an excellent remake. It's rare for me to prefer a remake over an original, but in this case, I do. But whether you prefer the original or the updated version, 3:10 to Yuma is an interesting commentary on the roads we choose and the rough terrain and slippery slopes they can lead down.

As a villain, Ben Wade is the worst kind because he's not your typical cut-and-dry bad guy. He's a ruthless killer, for sure, and if you don't keep your eye on him, there's no telling what horrible thing he'll do next. But in a way, he reminds me of a spider, weaving a nearly invisible web of pleasantries and lies in just the right places in order to lure his victims into his trap. He pays compliments, and he asks questions as if he truly wants to be friends with everyone. The 2007 version even has him quoting Scripture at times. But when anyone lets their guard down, he strikes, and he strikes hard.

Wade reminds me somewhat of "Gentleman" Dan Caldwell, a baddie in a first season episode of The Andy Griffith Show. He seemed to be everyone's friend, using manners and compliments to win people's trust. He enchanted some with his wild stories. But when Barney let his guard down, Mr. Caldwell was quick to grab his gun, and he showed his true heartlessness when he even attempted to shoot Andy right in front of young Opie.

Ben Wade also reminds me of Jesus' description of the devil in John 8:44.

"He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, 
because there is no truth in him. 
When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, 
for he is a liar and the father of lies."

Like Satan, Wade seeks to steal and kill and destroy (John 10:10). He is an opportunist who will do whatever is necessary to have his way. Like Satan, too, he is good at perceiving and exploiting people's weaknesses, and he takes joy in corrupting those around him. Wade is constantly provoking Dan by talking to/about his wife and kids, and when Dan tries to fight back with physical force in the '07 film, Wade laughs, "I like this side of you, Dan!"

Dan Evans leads Ben Wade to justice © 2007 Yuma, Inc.
Dan Evans leads Ben Wade to justice
Wade's attempts to get to Dan remind me of Jesus in the desert. Satan tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread, and Wade tempted Dan by reminding him of his family's struggles. Satan offered Jesus wealth in exchange for worship, and Wade offered Dan $1,000 to let him go. The devil and Ben Wade both twisted Scriptures to suit their purposes. Jesus battled Satan alone, and Dan - like Gary Cooper's character in High Noon - must stay the course even when everyone else abandons him.

We have to make up our minds if following God is really worth it or not, because choosing to do the right thing is rarely the same as choosing to do the easy thing. Following Jesus means carrying a cross, and that means suffering and dying to self (Matthew 16:24-26). Weaker men will take the money and run. Weaker men will turn back when they see their friends attacked and killed. Weaker men will loose the cuffs and let the villain have his way rather than fight the forces of evil.

In the end, the '57 film and the '07 incarnation disagree about whether Dan Evans lives or dies, but in both instances, he delivers his man to the train. We must have the courage to fight the good fight to the end, whether that means we live a long life or fall as martyrs. But whether we fall or not, we fight evil to the end because - like Dan - we want the best for our families. We stand up boldly because we are never truly on our own: God is with us (Deuteronomy 31:6). And we press on because we have the promise of eternal life with God's reward if we endure (James 1:12).

"Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. 
Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 
and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.'"
- John 11:25-26a

One last point both films make, though - and I'm glad they make it - is that Ben Wade is human. Even though he says in the '07 version that he believes he is completely evil, in both renditions we still see a glimmer of hope for Ben Wade. We see that there is still some compassion left inside him, even if it is buried deep behind some awful things. Maybe there's even a part of him that feels bad about the path he has chosen and wants to make a change.

Whether he will ever truly change or not is left up for speculation, but I'm glad they show this human side of Wade's character. It reminds us that while we must be devoted to standing against evil and injustice, the person who commits the evil thing is not our true foe (Ephesians 6:12). In fact, while we hate the evil, Jesus yet calls us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). While justice must be served in the case of Ben Wade and others who commit heinous crimes, we must never forget that they are human, that God still loves them, and he calls us to love as well.

Loving enemies is not the easy path, and sometimes it's hard to know how to even love some people. But maybe loving someone means being kind instead of seeking revenge. Maybe it means learning to forgive. Maybe sometimes it means sharing the Lord with them. Maybe it does mean bringing them to justice so they will be unable to do the destructive thing they've been doing. Maybe sometimes, the only loving thing you can do for somebody is pray for them.

Before I ride off into the sunset, I'd love to hear your thoughts:
What is a practical way to love your enemies? Or how have you struggled with this?

What temptations are the hardest to fight?

What helps you to stand strong against temptations / evil / injustice?

Or what other lessons have you learned from your favorite westerns?

1 comment :

  1. I always loved Westerns-the good v. evil, the internal struggle within the characters. Thanks for the encouragement to stay strong even the tough times become tougher.


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