“I’ve always been lucky when it comes to killing folks.” William Munny’s resolve breaks at the end of Unforgiven as he goes on a brutal killing spree. The myth of redemptive violence lives on in the greatest of Anti-Westerns (making it, perhaps, the first Anti-Anti-Western).
On Sunday my family and I (and my sister’s family) joined Decatur First Baptist Church. It was a great morning, and I’m happy to finally be part of a functional church. One of the things that made the morning wonderful is that Julie Pennington-Russell, our pastor, preached a great sermon on spiritual surrender. She drew a very witty picture of what many imagine surrender to be like: A Western-style shootout between God and the soul. The shootout escalates until the poor soul, wounded but not killed, runs out of ammunition and waves a white flag from behind a barrel. At this point Jesus looks over to the Spirit and says, “Book ‘im.” Yet in reality God carries no weapons, but the soul does. Jesus and the Spirit don’t toss the soul into hell, but the soul does. And the soul keeps itself there. But most people think of surrender to God in the Old-West kind of way: The cosmic sheriff, God, wounds you, corners you, kicks your sorry ass up and down the street, and finally tosses you out of the county and into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
This is the kind of thinking that arises so long as one thinks of morality as a checklist. Or God as a cosmic law enforcer. That’s because so long as we think of things this way, our goodness is up to us. Therefore it’s our fault when don’t measure up to our ideals (which are “good,” right?). Therefore we deserve what we get. Do these things. And for the love of God, don’t do those things. Fail to check all the boxes and *poof* you’re riding the Hell Train. Checklist living can cause all kinds of trouble for people. While we’re on the topic of the West, let’s take the example of William Munny, Clint Eastwood’s anti-hero character in Unforgiven, my favorite movie and the winner of the 1992 Academy Award for Best Picture.
Munny is a walking time bomb, held together by his checklist.
We learn early in the film that Munny’s former life had been violent. He lived in a drunken stupor. He killed women and children without hesitation and murdered countless men for no reason. Even most of the outlaws he ran with were afraid of him and hated him. His name was infamous, associated with theft and savagery throughout the West. Yet when we finally see Munny, three years after his beloved wife Claudia’s death, he is separating sick hogs in a pigsty on his desolate Kansas farm, wallowing in filth, the very image of lowliness. Claudia’s grave stands nearby; it is out of reverence for her and the memory of her love that he has reached such a place. In an effort to make an honest living for himself and his two young children he has resisted all alcohol and violence for better than ten years. It is clear where the love of a good woman has taken him: He is a nobody, living nowhere. He seems of one mind, sincere.
But he is not. When he gets an invitation to go on a killing, he agrees, telling himself it’s good money and his kids need a future. It is at this point that Munny begins his descent from a world of love in which he is free to be nothing into a world without love in which he is damned to make himself into something. In checklist morality, that’s how it works; it’s up to you to make yourself worthy of love. So, traveling under a pseudonym, expecting punishment at every turn of the road, he draws closer to the moment when he kills again. As he does he repeats to himself and his partners a list of things he no longer does: he no longer drinks, visits prostitutes, fights. As the love that once covered his crimes fades, Munny replaces it with an ineffectual set of rules and statements about himself, making himself good by constructing props — I don’t do this, I don’t do that — against the malice and anger that lie within him. His list is checked. But by his actions he betrays his fear that Claudia’s love was a mistake, and it is easy to smile at his strained good-boy insistences that “I’ve been cured of drinking and wickedness. My wife, she cured me of that. I ain’t like that anymore,” because we know that he is exactly like that.
At the end his fragile checklist morality fails spectacularly. After one partner drops out of the killing and the other — his only real friend — is brutally murdered, Munny finds himself fully alone with his true name revealed to a loveless world. It is at this point that he reaches for the final fig leaf — rage — to cover the weakness and fear he cannot bear alone, and becomes the one thing he knows how to be: a killer. As Munny murders six men in a fit of furious vengeance, he is more real than ever; one of the great ironies of the film is that by the end Munny, driven mad by his own fear, seems most himself. “I’ve always been lucky when it comes to killing folks,” he explains to a stunned bystander after his rampage.
One man, before Munny kills him at point blank range, pleads, “I don’t deserve this.” Munny responds through clenched teeth, in true Eastwood style, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” He did not intend it to be so, but in the words of a vicious killer we find grace distilled. Does God love us regardless of our insistence on controlling our lives with checklists and rules? Can you surrender your “morality”? Can you believe that the love of God covers you? Do you dare to live like deserve’s got nothing to do with it? I mean, seriously?
I spend 99.9% of my life shooting bullets at God, shouting out no to these questions, living (and dying) by the list. That’s a lot of wasted time and energy. But I tell you, that other 0.1% is something else again.