In 1996, Joel Schumacher took on the task of adapting the John Grisham novel “A Time to Kill” to the big screen. After lobbying for the lead role of prosecuting attorney Jake Brigance, relative unknown Mathew McConaughey won the part and it cemented him as a star on the rise. The story takes place in Canton, Mississippi sometime in the 1960’s.
While walking home from the grocery store, 10-year old black girl Tonya Hailey is kidnapped by two white men, Billy Ray Cobb and Pete Willard. The men brutally rape, beat and hang her, leaving her for dead in a creek. The girl amazingly survives, and upon finding out about the crime Tonya’s father, Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson), begins to think about these men being brought to justice. Recently in a nearby town, four white men were acquitted of raping a black girl. A sign of the times, he knew, but he couldn’t let that happen to the men who raped his daughter. He decides to take justice into his own hands, and guns the men down before they can face a single day in court.
Revenge killing is not something you typically hear approval of, but many can sympathize and even approve of what Carl Lee did in this film. It presents to the audience a moral dilemma centered around vengeance. Was Carl Lee justified in his actions, murdering the men who raped and nearly murdered his daughter? That is the focus of this moral dilemma dialogue.
This time around, we are going to examine this dilemma not necessarily from opposing sides, but from different perspectives. Gene will examine this dilemma from a Christian worldview. What does scripture have to say about vengeance? Can we draw any principles from the Bible for how a situation like this should be handled? To contrast that, Tres will be examining this dilemma from a worldly viewpoint and hit on the raw, instinctual nature of man, and whether that response is justified.
Gene – The Christian View of Vengeance
The Christian position on vengeance is quite easy to determine from scripture, but it is one of the most difficult to put into practice. One of our most basic natural instincts are that when someone hurts us, or hurts someone we love, we hurt them back. We believe that in taking our own revenge we can get even, make them feel how we felt, treat them how they treated us, etc. However, as Christians, there are multiple instincts which seem natural and right at the moment, but which our Lord has commanded we turn from and seek a higher, better way.
The Sermon on the Mount is replete with examples of just this type of command. Among them, in Matthew 5:38-42, we find Jesus teaching on the simple and natural instinct of an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. Everyone in attendance at this teaching was familiar with this phrase. Not only were they naturally inclined as human beings to seek their own revenge (eye for an eye), but it was a command in their own law (Leviticus 24:20). One thing I want to immediately point out however is that the administering of this eye for an eye punishment was in all cases to be performed by a judge/magistrate. Nowhere do we find approval of vigilante justice. Rather, the judges were to administer and regulate justice among the people.
As for the dilemma presented in A Time to Kill, there are some very important details that must be carefully considered in order to “rightly divide the Word of Truth” (2 Timothy 2:15) in this circumstance. First, seeking vengeance is entirely different from taking measures of self-defense/self-preservation on your behalf, or on the behalf of other innocents. Had Carl Lee encountered these two men in the act of raping and beating his daughter I believe he would have been well within his rights to use whatever force necessary to stop that evil. Unfortunately, that is not what happened. What Carl Lee did was not self-defense on behalf of his daughter, it was vengeance. Scripture is very clear on this issue: Paul wrote to the church in Rome, “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.” (Romans 12:17-19). At the very least then, the Christian position must be to abstain from this action themselves and disapprove of Carl Lee’s decision to seek his own revenge.
Many may agree that vengeance, in its most basic form, is wrong on the Christian view. Where the Christian may find room for agreement with Carl Lee’s actions is in his reasoning. Carl Lee believed there was no way the white men who raped his black daughter would be punished for their actions. This belief was based on the evidence of a similar crime committed in the next town and the men being let go. From that evidence we can conclude that the purpose of the governing authorities was not being fulfilled. Governing authorities are meant to be “a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.” (Romans 13:4). Now, here is the question that pertains to Carl Lee’s decision: When the governing authorities are not fulfilling their role as stated above, what is the individual’s responsibility as it pertains to administering justice? Was it incumbent upon Carl Lee to take matters into his own hands? I do not believe so. For one, it presumes an outcome which he cannot know with any certainty, ignoring important factors such as the jury selection, defending and prosecuting attorneys, political and social pressure, not to mention the overwhelming evidence in his daughters favor including a written confession from one of the men! Second, his act of revenge meant jeopardizing the future and well-being of the rest of his family, which included a wife and at least two other children. And thirdly, Carl Lee knew in his heart it was wrong to murder these men himself. Before hiding in the closet overnight, he told Brigance that he wanted to “do something”. The implication was clear, he meant to take this matter into his own hands. Why tell anyone? Why give himself an opportunity to be stopped if it’s the right thing to do? It’s because he knew in his heart it was wrong, but he couldn’t control his rage enough to stop himself.
Now, having given the scripture and reasoning opposed to seeking vengeance, let me say plainly that I have no idea whether I could restrain myself and my anger at anyone who would rape, beat and attempt to kill my daughter. Carl Lee explained when he took the stand that he was kind of “outside himself”. Although I’ve never experienced that, I can imagine exactly what he’s talking about. In that emotionally charged moment I’m not sure my reasoning and composure would win the day against the rage I would feel. That is yet another area of my life that I must pray for a renewed heart and a renewed spirit to be able to find the strength to forgive, to be at peace, and to let the ultimate judgment remain in God’s hands.
Tres – The Worldly View of Vengeance
When the two animals that did this to his little girl are arrested, Carl Lee goes to a local white lawyer, Jake Brigance, that has shown previously that he isn’t afraid to defend a black person. Remembering local history, Carl Lee inquires of Brigance about a similar case that happened in a nearby town the previous year. That case, as the one with his daughter, involved the rape of a young black girl. That one, however, involved 4 white men. Once tried in the courts, those men were acquitted of the crime.
You see the pain and agony in Carl Lee’s eyes. He knows these two monsters have to pay for what they did to his little girl. He also knows, as the time in Mississippi indicates, that justice for a black person, especially a young child, at the expense of a white man was not going to happen. His eyes tell you that he cannot stand back and entertain the idea of these men going free after what they did to his little Tonya. Carl Lee decides to take matters into his own hand. Carl sneaks into the courthouse and waits in a closet all night. Finally, when Billy and James are lead into the courthouse by Deputy Looney, he comes out shooting and doesn’t stop until they are dead: Vengeance.
Just recently (this June) in Texas a father walked in on his five-year-old daughter being molested. By instinct he began to beat the man unconscious. That man then died from his injuries. The case was treated as a homicide, but the father did not face jail time as a grand jury dismissed the case based on a state law that allows deadly force to be used to stop an aggravated sexual assault. Texas isn’t the only state with such physical force laws. 46 states have a recorded “stand your ground laws” and/or laws that allow for “physical and deadly force” in given situations. Would the Texas father had done the same thing if Texas didn’t have this law? I believe he would. Really though, when it comes down to it, what parent wouldn’t take matters into their own hands if this happened to their child? Most people aren’t violent by nature, until their loved ones are harmed. As most animals in the world, humans have the same instinct to attack those that endanger and/or harm their children.
Honestly, I would have a hard time standing in front of someone and saying that I would not do the same thing as Carl Lee did if someone did something like this to one of my four children. Am I an aggressive person? No. Do I get involved in conflicts? No. Would I fight for my children? Yes, I would. Would I cause harm? Watching the movie again last night and seeing little Tonya and what she was going through, I couldn’t help but think about my girls going through that. I would have to say with confidence that inflicting harm upon an individual that would do that to one of my children is not beyond me.
People speak against vengeance and reference different scriptures. However, I recall many instances throughout the Old Testament where vengeance is taken. People killed others in battles, in their tents while they slept, stoned them outside of the cities, and many more similar stories.
People that argue against vengeance seldom disagree with war. War, itself, is usually centered on vengeance. Our most recent war in Afghanistan and Iraq was for one reason: vengeance. Al Qaida came into our land. They attacked our people, killing thousands of them. We, in turn, attacked them and took out the leaders that coordinated these despicable attacks. An eye for an eye. You started it, so we finished it. Vengeance.
Vengeance is in war. Vengeance is in the Bible. Vengeance is in our laws.
How could anyone stand and say that Carl Lee’s actions were wrong? Those monsters were destroyed and would never hurt another child. Little Tonya would never have to worry about them going free and looking over her shoulder for the rest of her life.
A Time To Kill is a tough movie to watch at times. Not only do you have the emotionally charged issue of rape, but you’re also faced with some uncomfortable truths regarding race in our nations history. This moral dilemma dialogue is aimed at getting a discussion going on the larger issue of revenge killing, or vengeance, with the details presented in the film taken into consideration. So, we want to hear what you think. Do you find yourself siding with the Christian view, or the worldly view? Maybe you have different reasons all-together, or maybe you think one of the viewpoints here wasn’t accurately portrayed. Let us know! Please keep in mind, Tres and Gene may not necessarily hold the positions they describe here personally, but they did their best to present the different viewpoints accurately. So, let’s get a dialogue going!