Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Renouncing Revenge

Speaking of movies, which I was in my March 25 blog article, last month June and I watched “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Not just because it was one of the movies nominated for Best Picture of 2017, but because we are Missourians we had looked forward to seeing the movie soon after it came out on DVD.
Praise for “Three Billboards”
Clearly, “Three Billboards” was an excellently made movie with great acting—especially by Frances McDormand, winner of the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Mildred, the sad, angry central character.
Although the film itself did not win the Oscar, it did win Best Motion Picture at the 75th Golden Globe Awards.
Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin declared (here) that at it was the “best religious film” of 2017. He explained that it was “about sin, forgiveness, and redemption.” It seemed to me, though, that it was mostly about the former, and only a very little about the latter two—and even that depended largely on what you think Mildred and the “bad cop” did after the movie ended. 
Criticism of “Three Billboards”
My evaluation of the movie is rather negative. Of lesser importance is my criticism that it didn’t seem authentic to south Missouri—and in fact, it was filmed in North Carolina!
The central motif of there being three large billboards on a two-lane blacktop road outside a small south Missouri town is quite questionable—but not as much as to think they would rent for $5,000 a month.
(Actually, Martin McDonagh, the Irish screenplay writer, got the idea for the film years ago when he saw three billboards on a bus trip down I-10 not far from Beaumont, Texas.)
Also, while there are many foul-mouthed people in Missouri, it is a stretch to think that a small town in south Missouri would have so many--and to think that the police chief would use such foul language even when talking to his young daughters.
On a deeper level, there is the whole matter of how much “redemption” and “grace” is found in “Three Billboards.” On this matter, and with helpful references to Flannery O’Connor, consider this perceptive article in Vox.
I certainly couldn’t see much evidence of forgiveness and redemption. It was mostly about seeking revenge, couched in terms of “penal justice.”
Renouncing Revenge
Revenge is certainly a highly popular theme of movies and TV shows—doubtlessly because it is such a widespread human desire.
That was the main thing, though, I didn’t like about “Three Billboards.” Mildred’s anger was certainly understandable. But her ongoing hatred for those who abused/killed her daughter was making her life, and the lives of those around her, miserable.
Two other popular movies come to mind that, for me, were tainted by their emphasis on revenge. Recently, and for the first time, June and I also watched the classic (cult) movie “The Princess Bride.” It was delightful in many ways—but it was mainly about revenge, so I ended up not liking it.
Then a couple of years ago I went with my grandson David to see the beautifully done 2015 movie “The Revenant.” It was impressive in many ways; the scenery and the performance of the central character played by Leonardo DiCaprio were outstanding. But I ended up not liking that movie either—for the same reason: it mostly based on seeking revenge.
So I renounce revenge, for in the wise words of the noted ethicist Lewis B. Smedes: “The problem with revenge is that it never evens the score. It ties both the injured and the injurer to an escalator of pain.”


  1. This morning I was pleased to receive the following comments from local Thinking Friend Andrew Bolton:

    "Great blog showing the problems of revenge in recent movies. I like you tackling an aspect of current culture with wisdom from the Christian tradition. Powerful quote to end your blog with from Lewis B Smedes. I had not heard of him before. But then again, I read your blog to learn! I found more quotes by Smedes that are wonderful. Which of his books would you recommend on forgiveness?

    1. Thanks, Andrew, for reading and responding​ to​ this morning's new blog article.

      Smedes (1921~2002) ​was ​a professor of theology and ethics for twenty-five years at Fuller Theological Seminary. Forgiveness was a major emphasis in many of his 15 books​--and I have read only a few of them, but I guess I would recommend his first one: "Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don't Deserve" (1984).

  2. The first response received this morning was from a local Thinking Friend, who made this two-sentence comment:

    "I haven't seen the other two, but I have seen 'The Princess Bride' many times. I think the main theme of that movie is true love conquers all.'"

    And then about an hour ago, Thinking Friend Ed Chasteen wrote,

    "The only movie you mention that I've seen is Princess Bride. I liked it and don't think of it as a revenge movie but as a dark comedy."

  3. Certainly "The Princess Bride" is about "true love," and it is a "dark comedy" as well--just as "Three Billboards" and also Frances McDormand's first hit movie, "Fargo," were billed as a dark comedies.

    Still, I agree with the following comments about the book "The Princess Bride" (found on the link given at the end--and which I had not read until this morning):

    "What's a classic adventure story like 'The Princess Bride' without a great revenge plot? In this book, we need to look no further than Inigo Montoya, the swashbuckling Spaniard who has dedicated his entire life to hunting down and killing the man who murdered his father. We're given painstaking details on every last bit of Inigo's training, and constantly reminded of just how obsessed this young man is with avenging his father. It's pretty much his sole purpose in life, and because of this, we get to see just how much of a toll revenge can take on the person seeking it."


  4. Your critique of revenge in film stories evoked this thought: How resurrection identifies God with the life of Jesus: a suggestion.

    The actions, teachings, and way of living presented in the stories of Jesus point to a reconciling, right-relationship desiring God. It is Jesus’ life which creates a particular frame for making sense of his death.

    Thus, for me, the movement of Easter “theories” is from crucifixion (not simply death) as an unjust mode of death through a model response (do not avenge, forgive them) to a way of (resurrection) life (Jesus’ resist not violently) which seeks to evoke, maintain, and restore right-relationship (justice).

    Perhaps a fruit of the Easter Story is this:
    That death is overcome not by the denial of death, but through the practice and celebration of a way of life which transforms the meaning of death.
    That unjust death is not made right by a will to revenge, but by breaking the cycle of revenge and learning a will to love even the enemy.
    That Easter can mean that although Jesus was lifted up to a death which intended to bury his dream, he has been lifted up again (resurrected) to a life which dreams of God's shalom for all.

    Requiring death or violence in order to restore relationship flies in the face of the story of Jacob and Esau but smacks of Abraham attempting to sacrifice Isaac. [But let’s not forget the Abraham of “Will not the Judge of all the earth do justice?”]

    I admit to failing to live up to my own words and God’s calling in Jesus, but I am still trying. “Unless a grain fall to the earth and die . . .” “Emmaus never happened. Emmaus always happens.”

    Thanks, Leroy, for encouraging us to keep thinking!

    1. Thanks, Dick, for your splendid comments. I wish all my Thinking Friends would read and ponder on what you have written. You have interpreted the significance of Easter in an outstanding manner> I much appreciate you sharing your deep thoughts with me and the others who will read them.

  5. Thinking Friend Glen Davis in Vancouver, Canada, shares the following comments:

    "I don’t like revenge either, but 'Three Billboards' obviously accomplished what might have been one of its goals; i.e. to provoke thought and discussion about the subject. It certainly provoked your thought! However, the movie portrays what is, unfortunately, an all too common response to hurt and pain caused by others, so, in that sense it pictures a slice of reality. And it is so well done (minus the foul language) that it is entertaining.

    "I love your quote from Lewis Smedes."

    1. Thanks, Glen, for your pertinent comments. A Thinking Friend on the East Coast (of the U.S.) made a related comment: "can not a negative example make for a powerful movie? Or did you see these movies as glorifying revenge?"

      I fully agree that "Three Billboards" was a powerful movie, and that it has provoked thought and discussion about the subject--at least by some people (by me, for example). And I also agree that the movie does portray well the "all too common response to hurt and pain caused by others" and that it is, indeed, "a slice of reality."

      But I guess my problem is that I didn't see the movie doing much to deal with the problem of anger/revenge in any redeeming way. While it did not glorify revenge as such, it was presented in such a way as to be "entertaining." Everyone seems to have gotten quite a kick out of the testy Mildred, and the movie is even called a "dark comedy" by some--as if Mildren's great anger is somehow "funny."

      Just today as I was eating lunch with some friends at William Jewell College, a women my age said she thought the film ended with a message of redemption. There was the potential of that developing, but I reminded her that as I remember the end, Mildred and Dixon (the "bad cop") were in the car headed north to kill a known rapist. Perhaps the conversation was hinting that they were going to decide, perhaps, not to do that--but we don't know how it turned out. Her desire for revenge may have weakened some, but as far as we saw, it was still there at the end--and she was still a very unhappy women. At least, that is how I saw it.

  6. Local Thinking Friend David Nelson sent the following statement about anger, which is closely related to revenge--or, perhaps we could say, the basic emotion that lies under the desire for revenge:


    "Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back - in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you." -- from "Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC" by Frederick Buechner --

  7. This morning I posted on Facebook a link to this article, and Brenda Seat, my daughter-in-law, responded with the following thoughtful and thought-provoking comments.

    "I had a very different impression of the Billboards movie. It seemed to me to be very clear that the main character Francis Mcdermond was slowly evolving in her understanding about how what she really wanted was justice not revenge. The final scene in the car seemed pivotal to me. She confesses to the guy that she had been the one who had caused his burns and he forgave her. The guns were in the car, but she was clearly conflicted and leaning towards not using them.

    "Although I agree that revenge is not a good thing, I hesitate to condemn people who suffer huge losses and are left with no justice on top of that horrendous loss. I have not walked in those people’s shoes. I have no idea whether I could be grace filled enough to swallow my pain and eschew revenge. I think movies like this make us aware that justice is something that is essential to peace and instead of focusing on those who want revenge, we should be focusing on those parts of society who provide justice, police, courts, judges, and those who oversee them and making sure that they are functioning correctly, are not biased, are providing the fairness and services that they are supposed to provide.

    "In this movie it was clear that the sheriff was not doing what he needed to do to make sure his people were doing their jobs correctly and he acknowledged in his note his culpability in her pain."

    1. Brenda, once again let me say that I much appreciated you posting your thoughtful and thought-provoking comments yesterday.

      The matter of penal justice that you bring up is an important one--but it is hard for me to clearly distinguish between the two when seen from the standpoint of someone who has been injured. Many times, I'm afraid, the call for "justice" is little more than a call for revenge without the use of the latter, more negative-sounding word.

      I fully agree with your middle paragraph, and certainly no one knows how he/she would react if plunged into a situation such as Mildred was in. Certainly, what she acted out what can be seen as a legitimate expression of the pain she was suffering. But I guess what I object to is "glorifying" that type of behavior and showing it for "entertainment."

      And what you say in the last part of the middle paragraph is certainly true also, I think. A full and properly operating penal justice system is essential for a well-ordered society.

      The final scene did clearly show a new, "reconciled" relationship between Mildred and Dixon. There was, it seems, some "redemption" in their relationship. And, yes, there was some hope that they were going to change their minds. But as the movie ended they were still headed north with the intention of taking the law into their own hands and killing a rapist.