by Jim Forest
We live not by theories but by stories. For many the main story — the most compelling and influential story — is not the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but what might be called the Gospel According to John Wayne. It’s a powerful story that preaches salvation not by God’s mercy but by firepower. The basic idea in practically every western movie — plus countless non-western films that follow the same plot line — is that certain people have not just taken an evil turn in life but are evil down to the marrow of their bones — evil in their DNA. Forget about the Book of Genesis. These people are made not in the image of God but in the image of Satan.
The archetypical western is a tale about how good men with guns save the community from evil men with guns by killing them. The classic scene is the gunfight on Main Street in a newly-settled town in the lawless west. And there is that equally classic scene before the shoot-out in which we see the hero reluctantly open a drawer and grasp his revolver, a weapon we are aware he had hoped never to use again, strap it on and walk out the door knowing he may not live till sundown.
The Gospel According to John Wayne is far from an ignoble story. There is real courage in it – the readiness of an honorable man to risk his life to protect his community. To a certain extent it’s a Christian story – a modern retelling of the legend of Saint George and the dragon, except that in the actual Christian legend of George, the saint only wounds the dragon. If you read the early texts of the story — these were written in the late medieval period — you find that afterward the dragon is cared for by the very people who previously had sacrificed their children to it. The dragon symbolizes evil powers, evil people, and anything that we find terrifying. It also symbolizes our own dark side. The Saint George story is about risking one’s life to bring about conversion, conversion of self, conversion of others, conversion of enemies. It’s exactly what Christians like the actual Saint George — a man beheaded for making public his Christian faith in a time of persecution — did in bringing about conversion in the Roman world. Christianity was not spread by the sword.
The big problem with the Gospel According to John Wayne is that it hides from us the crucial fact that there is no such thing as a completely evil person — also, apart from Christ, no such thing as a completely good person. As Solzhenitsyn, survivor of Stalin’s prison camps, wrote in The Gulag Archipelago: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of hearts, there remains … an un-uprooted small corner of evil.”
The missing element in our culture’s dominant story is the mystery that dominates the Bible beginning with the Book of Genesis: we are made in the image and likeness of God. The human “we” is all of us without exception, from Saint Paul to Osama bin Laden, from Jack the Ripper to Mother Theresa. The traditional Christian teaching is that the image of God exists in each person. It’s something indestructible and always there. No matter how well hidden, no matter how damaged, the divine likeness can always be recovered through ascetic effort and God’s grace. The Christian view is that each person, as a descendent of those first parents we call Adam and Eve, bears the divine image and that no one, even the most demon-possessed person, is incapable of repentance and conversion.
I think of Saint John of Kronstadt, one of the most revered Russian saints. He was not a person who had any illusions about human beings and our capacity to commit serious sins. The main establishment in the port city of Kronstadt, not far from St. Petersburg, was a major naval base — a place of much drunkenness, prostitution and brutal behavior. The people St. John met in daily life, and whose confessions he often witnessed, were frequently men who had committed acts of deadly violence. He helped many of them change direction. This was possible only because he saw the image of God in them. “Never confuse the person, formed in the image of God,” he said, “with the evil that is in him, because evil is but a chance misfortune, illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.”
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