Revenge is in God’s Hands? – The Revenant
The Revenant is in my opinion and the opinions of many, this year’s best picture. Revenge, a common plotline of action movies, drives the main character. But The Revenant’s storylines and conclusion raise questions about who properly takes revenge.
The movie is based on the true struggle for survival of trapper-hunter Hugh Glass (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) in 1820’s American wilderness. A Grizzly brutally attacks Glass as he and other frontiersmen flee raiding Native Americans. Transporting a nearly dead Glass becomes too cumbersome for the fleeing party, so two from the group remain with Glass and his son. The larger party bolts for the nearest outpost.
When Glass takes too long to die, one of his volunteer caretakers, John Fitzgerald (played by Tom Hardy), kills Glass’s son and buries Glass in a freshly dug grave. But Glass crawls out of the grave (a “revenant”). He eludes the native raiders and begins an epic journey in winter conditions. Revenge motivates Glass: to kill Fitzgerald for murdering his son.
There is so much to like about The Revenant. I predict it will win multiple Academy Awards, not only best picture, but also best actor (DiCaprio), best supporting actor (Hardy), and best director (Alejandro González Iñárritu). The movie is beautifully and innovatively shot in the wilderness of Canada.
The picture’s many virtues captured my attention and imagination. But as I watched the movie, revenge grew to be the primary theme. Twinges of disappointment lurked in my mind. After all, I’m tired of watching revenge movies. They deplete my moral imagination, tempt me to justify violence, or entice me to believe injury demands retaliation.Revenge movies deplete our moral imagination and entice us to justify retaliation. Click To Tweet
Theology of The Revenant
Explicit theological issues appear through the movie. In one scene, Jim Bridger (played by Will Poulter) begins to wonder whether he and Fitzgerald should return to help Glass. Fitzgerald earlier tricked Bridger into leaving Glass, claiming Natives were nearing. But Bridger discovered the ruse, and Fitzgerald admitted to his lie.
With guilt gnawing at his conscience, Bridger says, “I cannot help but think if we…”
Fitzgerald cuts him off, “Do not!”
“It’s not our place to ask,” he continues. “The Good Lord put us in this way,” says Fitzgerald as justification for abandoning Glass, “so we have not chosen it.”
Fitzgerald tells a story about his father as further justification. When isolated and in danger, Fitzgerald’s father encountered God: a squirrel sitting in a tree. But his father shot the squirrel and ate it. With God no longer around to judge, the moral of Fitzgerald’s story seems to be that they do whatever it takes to survive.
Resurrections and beatific visions abound in The Revenant. Glass scratches out from his grave, fresh dirt rolling off is body. Later, a solitary Pawnee builds Glass a medicine shelter, from which Glass emerges, his rotting skin healed. Glass falls off a cliff to what one might think is his death. But he survives the fall, guts and crawls in his horse, and emerges later with energy to continue his trek.
Throughout, Glass often dreams of his dead son and wife. Their presence to him in visions provides solace and vitality. He is working through deep questions: how to understand God, evil, the afterlife, and the power of nature.DiCaprio's character wonders about God, evil, the afterlife, and the power of nature. Click To Tweet
A Counter-Revenge Theme
Revenge-motivated violence is perhaps the most acceptable justification for inflicting injury in contemporary society. While revenge may be temporarily sweet, it’s not ultimately satisfying.
Glass first hears a counter-revenge theme from the helpful Pawnee. “Revenge is the hands of the Creator,” says the Pawnee, after sharing with Glass the tragic end to his own family. These words plant a seed that sprouts at the movie’s conclusion.
Glass’s release of Fitzgerald in the final moments of the movie – who soon dies at the hands of Native Americans – might be interpretted as The Revenant’s critique of revenge. But it’s merely a first step.
This is not a forgiveness movie. “Revenge is in God’s hands, not mine,” says Glass. We don’t hear: “We ought to forgive, because God has forgiven us.”“Revenge is in God’s hands, not mine,” says Glass. We don’t hear: “We ought to forgive, because God has forgiven us.” Click To Tweet
I left my viewing of The Revenant exhilarated by the quality of the acting, cinematography, and production.
But I asked myself, What if God is in the forgiveness business and never in the revenge business? And what if instead of retaliating, we followed the example of God’s always forgiving and ever uncontrolling love?
As I read Scripture, the overall themes suggest that God does not take revenge. Yes, there are biblical passages that speak of God retaliating. But many more passages say God forgives instead of retaliates. The dominant witness of Scripture indicates that God forgives instead of taking revenge.
Furthermore, a central Christian conviction is that a life lived well turns the other cheek. When harmed, loving Christians do not repay evil with evil. They repay evil with good. In my view, in fact, this is the meaning of the love-form agape.
Perhaps if we begin to believe God never takes revenge because God’s nature is revenge-less love, we will be less likely to justify our taking revenge.Perhaps if we believe God never takes revenge, we will be less likely to think our revenge is justified. Click To Tweet