“A Time To
A Theological Analysis by MiKyong Park & Jun Kim
TT810 Theology, November 14, 2001, Prof. Wesley Wildman
This analysis is based on the film ‘A Time to Kill’, written by John Grisham and directed by Joel Schumacher. This film shows serious problems among peoples who were created according to the image of God. Above all, the problem of racism plays a catalytic role. This film reminds us of the insoluble puzzle of the human society. It also reveals the limits of humanity and the contradictions of human thoughts and society. The evil in the society was represented in the whole flow of the film. It brings to mind important aspects of the human situation. Through this film we want to study some theological themes and get an insight about them through some theologians’ perspectives. First, we provide a synopsis of the film and examine some theological themes, which arises from our viewing. Then, we try to do a conversation between the film and Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki’s perspective.
In a small southern town in Mississippi in the 1960s, Tonya, a 10-year-old black girl, was raped by two white rednecks on sunny day. They assaulted the young weak girl viciously. A weak black girl was raped just because she was black. For white men, a black girl is not a person but only a material object like a toy. They had no guilt about their brutality.
Tonya had barely lived from assault and was moved to her home. Her family and the neighbors were surprised at the attack and they became anger. Her father, Carl Lee Hailey decided to kill the white racists and did so. Tonya’s family has suffered from their daughter’s assault and Carl Lee Haley’s murder of the criminals. Carl’s murder means another burden to his family. His family suffered from emotional, physical and economic stress. However, they seemed to recognize his murder as the duty of the father of an assaulted daughter.
Carl Lee Hailey, a Mississippi factory worker, entrusted his defense to Jake Brigance, an eager young white lawyer. At first, Jake hesitated to defend Carl Lee. The failure of the trial would be so natural to those who live in Mississippi that a young ambitious lawyer would not want to undertake such a trial. Jake decided to help Carl when he saw his daughter. He decided to confront the evil of the society. Jake’s family suffered because of his defense for Carl. His own life and the safety of his family and colleagues became increasingly jeopardized. Racists attacked his family and house and his close associates. During the trial, another conflict emerged. This conflict happened between whites that are privileged such as District Attorney Rufus Buckley, and challenger, Jake Brigance, in the society.
Jake finally overcame these difficulties and suffering. He brought justice to an unjust society. He played the important role throughout the film, like a prophet or Jesus who challenged the existing society. His summation moved the jury and freed Carl Lee Hailey. Carl Lee was saved and redeemed from his sin and the social injustice. It was a time to kill all kinds of prejudices, biased thoughts, and injustice.
Next, we will explore the theological themes according to some theologians’ perspectives.
Through the film, we have met many theological questions. Why was the black girl raped without special reason? How do such events happen if God exists in the world? Why is there injustice on earth? Should Carl Lee have killed the rednecks? What is justice? How can the Kingdom of God, which means the society of justice, be established on the earth? How can the evil social structural or sin be abolished?
To mention sin, at first glance, is to examine the human nature that precedes it. According to the Christian tradition, humanity is the height of God’s creation. The theological justification of this is dependent upon the doctrine of creation in the image of God.
During the early patristic period (McGrath, 423-424), a distinction was drawn between the two phrases: the image of God and the likeness of God. For Tertullian, humanity kept the image of God after sinning. It could only be restored to the likeness of God through the renewing activity of the Holy Spirit. According to Origen, the term image of God referred to humanity after the fall, whereas the term likeness of God referred to human nature after its perfection at the final consummation.
During the patristic period the image of God was interpreted in terms of human reason. The image of God was understood to be the human rational faculty. Augustine argued that the central distinctive element of human nature is its God-given ability to relate to God (McGrath, 423-425). “For Augustine, humanity is universally affected by sin as a consequence of the fall. The human mind has become darkened and weakened by sin. Sin makes it impossible for the sinner to think clearly, and especially to understand higher spiritual truths and ideas”(McGrath, 428). Following Augustine, we humanity are born with a sinful disposition as part of human nature. Although human reason has been corrupted by the Fall, it may be renewed by grace.
Sin in the film was presented in various ways. People in the film remind us of sinful humanity. The two white men’s racism is rooted in sin and evil. Two white racists have wrong thoughts about human dignity. Racists also have a misunderstanding about the human community. They have no guilt about their behavior. They reflect Paul Tillich’s concept of sin of. According to Tillich, sin is an estrangement ruled by structures of evil which bring about the predicament of finitude, suffering, and guilt (VolⅡ, 27). Even though they belong to the same community under God, they don’t realize it. Needless to say, the two white men’s rape is an obvious sin. Following Rahner, this means an offense against God. It means a violation of the holy will of God creator and Lord of the world. Even though all people are created in the image of God, they ignored human dignity. They couldn’t realize their duties about others and their own dignity.
Also social discrimination was represented pervasively in the whole context. The whites accepted their privileges as usual. Blacks also considered their inequality as usual. Rahner argued that human existence was always necessarily being with others, community (Rahner, 121). Community was founded upon a kind of mutual sharing of one’s personal being, which was carried by love over into the other and intermingles with his. In the movie, white racists such as the KKK had no idea of sharing and love for others.
Carl Lee flared up when he saw his daughter’s miserable state. He regretted not being with his daughter during her suffering. He decided to murder two men and planned to kill them. At the trial sight, he shot two rednecks. All saw the spectacle and were surprised. When the sheriff came to arrest Carl, Carl and his wife and his children were calm. Carl Lee’s murder was also a crime and sin legally and morally. In the Bible, revenge belongs not to humans but to God. Carl Lee represented to their parents about his murder, but he didn’t feel guilty about his crime.
Why was Tonya assaulted by the white rednecks? Why did the innocent die unexpectedly? What was evil and what was its origin? “A major problem which concerns the doctrine of God centers on the existence of evil in the world. How can the presence of evil or suffering be reconciled with the Christian affirmation of the goodness of the God who created the world?” (McGrath, 263). We explore some of the options available within the Christian tradition.
Irenaeus and John Hick considered evil as a necessary prerequisite for spiritual growth and development. According to Irenaeus, “humans are created with certain capacities for growth toward maturity. That capacity for Godward growth requires contact with and experience of good and evil, if truly informed decisions are to be made” (McGrath, 263).
For Augustine, “creation and redemption were the work of one and the same God. God created the world good, meaning that it was free from the contamination of evil. He regarded evil as a direct consequence of the misuse of human freedom. God created humanity with the freedom to choose good or evil.” (McGrath, 265) Augustine thought of evil as the privation of good.
Karl Barth had “a confidence in the ultimate triumph of the grace of God enables believers to maintain their morale and hope in the face of a world, which is seemingly dominated by evil. He believed in the triumph of God’s grace over unbelief, evil, and suffering.” (McGrath, 266)
For liberation theology (see McGrath, 266-267), suffering is defined through its emphasis upon the poor and the oppressed. The suffering of the poor is not viewed as passive acquiescence in suffering but as participation in the struggle of God against suffering in the world - a struggle which involves direct confrontation with suffering itself. For example, James Cone thinks that the sequence of the cross and resurrection is interpreted in terms of a present struggle against evil, conducted in the knowledge of God’s final victory over all suffering and that which causes it.
Process theology locates the origins of suffering and evil within the world in a radical limitation upon the power of God. God is obliged to persuade every aspect of the process to act in the best possible manner.
Under this understanding, the structural evil of society appears throughout history. The injustice and racism in society originated from the past. Imagine the social atmosphere in Mississippi in the 1960s! Racism is thought to be normal and pervasive in Mississippi at that time. Privilege is given to whites. There is an extreme conflict between whites and blacks. It means that injustice is cumulative. The present situation was the tip of the iceberg. Conformation to the wrong system is also evil. It made a deep-seated evil. It was an obvious evil. Carl Lee had a role of resistance against the oppressive system, and Jake also participated in resistance. Following Irenaeus, Jake made the jury open to the capacities for growth toward maturity. Like Moltmann, it was important to keep and seek truth and justice under the society which was dominated by evil.
It also appeared through the opposition to District Attorney Rufus Buckley, who represented the privileged in the society, and defense lawyer Jake Brigance, who challenged the existing society. Rufus Buckley didn’t have any interest in humanity. He was ambitious only for his fame. He violated God’s will which embraced others and loved all people. One the hand, he had a sinful nature, on the other hand Rufus Buckley was the lamb sheep of the societal evil or sin considering Suchocki’s concept of sin.
According to Suchocki, “Christian faith proclaims that we have a double destiny: to live deeply and richly in this life through personal and social structures of love, and to participate everlastingly in the life of God. Both destinies are social in nature: to live in love is to live a societal existence, mindful of the needs of all, creating communities of justice” (183).
For Luther, the question of salvation came to be connected with the issue of how guilt-ridden humans could ever possess righteousness. It would enable them to stand in God’s presence. The gospel offered a justifying righteousness to believers - a righteousness which would shield them from condemnation, and permit them to enter into the presence of God (McGrath, 414).
God’s justice means full love for all peoples regardless of their conditions. Justice is care for people’s well-being. Justice will be accomplished when people live according to God’s law. In the cries against racism, there is a similarity to Jesus’ refusal to accept the racial barriers dividing Jews from Samaritans. It was a kind of movement against the marginalizations of people whether because of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or physical condition (Suchocki, 192). Suchocki argued that justice is a vision of deep inclusiveness, of openness to diverse peoples.
Ecclesiastes 3: 16 says, “Moreover I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there as well.” Jake said to us, “We are equal in the eyes of the law. That’s not the truth. Because the eyes of the law are human eyes.” The law is human law. It is human justice. A judgment according to the law means, “All depends on the jury.” Carl Lee said, “My life is in white men’s hands.” Before the final trial, Jake’s teacher, Lucien Wilbanks, said to him, “You can win this case, and justice will prevail. But lose, and justice will also prevail - now that’s a strange case! ”, “You can save the world one case at a time.” All those who were at the court knew the limit of the human law. However, Jake took advantage of the limit of the law and human thought. Jake appealed to the jury’s heart, not the law. He appealed to the conscience. Jake said to the jury, “Imagine she’s white.” When we considered others as myself, we finally could see others clearly and right. The way we see each other is different from the way God sees us. We are equal before God, who made us all according to his image. Therefore we should reflect that image through words and deeds. Carl Lee Hailey and Jake Brigance struggled with injustice in society. They were different from each other in skin color, class, and social status. Both transcended their fundamental differences and worked together for the same cause. They cooperated for the same goal, equal justice. All are equal before God. All are created by the image of God. We should restore our original features.
Can God be said to suffer? If God can be said to suffer, a point of contact is immediately established between God and the pain of the human world.
According to Plato, “to be perfect is to be unchanging and self-sufficient. It is therefore impossible for such a perfect being to be affected or changed by anything outside itself. Furthermore, perfection was understood in very static terms. If God is perfect, change in any direction is an impossibility. If God changes, it is either a move away from perfection, or toward perfection. Aristotle also excluded his divine being from change and suffering” (McGrath, 249).
Spinoza insisted on the impassibility of God. He reasoned that any passion on the part of God involves a change in his being. That would make him less than perfect. God cannot suffer, nor can he love in any way we would think of love (Reader, 115). If God is so, how can God save us from suffering?
However, Origen thought God was understood to experience suffering, on account of his incarnation. “Christ suffered only in his human nature, leaving his divinity immune from such suffering. If he had not suffered, he would not have come to share in human life. What is this suffering which he suffered for us beforehand? It is the suffering of love” (Theology Reader, 96-97). Moltmann also insisted on the suffering of love in his major work, The Crucified God, “which sets out an understanding of the doctrine of God which takes the cross of Christ as foundational to an authentically Christian understanding of God.” (Theology Reader, 117) Moltmann rejected passive suffering, which is an essential inability to suffer, recognized in the early church. Moltmann emphasized the third form of suffering, that is, whoever is capable of love is capable of suffering, because he is open to the suffering that love brings with it, although he is always able to surmount that suffering because of love (Reader, 118).
According to Suchocki, the concept of suffering is caused by relational structure of injustice. Suffering is a result of “cumulative acts of human beings as the source of the demonic” (15). Suffering is a distortion of relationship.
Tonya experienced a tremendous amount of suffering from two white racists. She was innocent but she was black. She was born black according to God’s image. However, she was not alone when she was assaulted. God was with her and embraced her because God loved her. God experienced suffering with her.
Carl Haley agonized due to his assaulted daughter. Carl Lee’s family suffered from his daughter’s assault. He had guilt about the fact that he couldn’t be with her during her suffering. According to Rahner, we suffer not only from lacking contentment and security, not only from sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, but above all - dare we be bold to say how it really is? - We suffer because God seems to be far from us.
For Augustine, “the simple fact that we are sinners means that we are in the position of being seriously ill, and unable to diagnose our own illness adequately, let alone cure it. It is through the grace of God alone that our illness is diagnosed (sin), and a cure made available (grace)” (McGrath, 429). To heal our sin will be accomplished when the grace of God lures us.
The relationship of this family was in a crisis because of his daughter’s suffering. The father was in prison. The rest were suffering from a wounded daughter, father’s imprisonment, and economic difficulty. When Tonya’s family went to church, they were anxious. They wanted to know what others were thinking about them. The pastor welcomed them and embraced them. Their faces changed from rigid into a smile. It is a symbol of God’s care. That the pastor welcomed them made the others embrace Tonya’s family. God cares for us whether we are in comfort or not. All kinds of suffering will be cured by love and grace. Also the victory of the trial made Tonya and her family free from all kinds of torture.
Next, we examine the theological themes regarding Suchocki’s perspective.
According to Suchocki, justice is the full love that should be realized in a social stage as well as in personal relationship. God’s justice is an expression of love that includes all human beings’ well-being. We are all dependent on one another to have well-being.
Suchocki’s concept of justice walks with the Bible’s concept of justice: “justice in the Hebrew scriptures is seen in the concrete caring of the people for each other within society in well-ordered relationships. (p.88)” God’s will revealed through the covenant which is renewed in every generation. The covenant revealed “God’s will toward justice in relationships” (p.88). When people live based on the covenant, justice in relationships is established in society. Hebrew scripture describes justice as the helping of people reciprocally for the well-being of all people. This social well-being is measured by the well-being of the marginalized, such as widows, orphans, homeless, etc. Therefore no one left without help in the society of justice. When people live against justice, they violate the marginalized, themselves, as well as God. God acts against the unjust men out of love for the well being of the marginalized. In addition, through God’s wrath toward injustice, unjust people can be aware of God‘s presence and may have opportunity of salvation.
Jesus Christ continues the justice of God. Throughout whole Gospels, Jesus teaches, heals, and serves others out of love. The justice of Jesus is manifest through love toward others. Jesus tries to break down all privileged partitions that were against all people’s well-being within societies.
One may say that the main theme of this film is the quest of the true justice. In this film, the law is a broken symbol of justice. The law is supposed to uphold justice and equality. However, the law could not provide justice every single case. Each character in this film knew the limit of the law. Carl Lee Hailey expected that the law could not punish the two white rednecks’ sin. District Attorney Rufus Buckley thought that the trial was a good chance for fame, regardless of justice. Former attorney Lucien Wilbanks directly said, “all depends on the Jury.” If Jake picks the right jury, he might win. If Jake picks all white jury, he will lose. It seemed relevant to everyone in the film. The result of the trial depended on race and color, rather than the law and jury’s conscience. In this evil societal structure, there are some different perspectives for justice.
In the film, there are two groups that represent each race’s well-being. The first group is the KKK. KKK members thought themselves as “Good God fearing” people. They regarded Carl Henry’s trial as a good opportunity to deliver God’s justice. To prevail God’s justice, KKK members took actions. What they did for God’s justice were incendiaries, abductions, assaults and assassination. They wanted to preserve whites’ privilege by excluding blacks. According to Suchocki’s concept of God’s justice, the KKK misunderstood God’s justice. God’s justice is realized in all relationships and works for the well-being of all humans. God’s justice is not confined in a certain race, class, and gender. Yet the KKK distorted the relationship and did not allow blacks to have relationships with whites. They imprisoned themselves by excluding blacks for whites’ well-being.
The other group is the NAACP. NAACP members want to elevate this trial as the trigger of future black rights. They try to protect black’s rights and try to establish their rights by their own hands. In the eyes of blacks, the NAACP can be a messenger who delivers God’s justice to marginalized blacks. Yet they remain in a partial group in the perspective of Process theology. They seem to regard themselves as the oppressed race. When they deal with Carl Lee’s trial, for instance, they show their partial opinion. A leader of the NAACP said that, “Carl Lee is on trail because he is black, no other reason.” Carl Lee killed two human beings no matter how evil they were. Carl Lee shot two human beings before many people in the courthouse. God’s justice does not come from the interest of a certain party even if the party is marginalized. God’s justice is aimed toward the well-being of all humans.
The young lawyer Jake Brigance acted like a model figure who sought justice in societal evil. He realized the limit of the law. Although the law is justice, people who use the law may be unjust. Therefore he tried to find another way that could establish justice. Jake reversed the values of the social law. He appealed to the law of jury’s conscience instead of the written law. He did not deny the social law, but he overcame the limit of the law by appealing to jury’s heart. The spirit of the law, which once obscured, was revealed. Jake revealed the spirit of law, justice, love, and equality. He proclaimed the law according to God’s justice for all human’s well-being.
In the process model, Sin is a violation of relationships with the self, with one another, and with God. Sin is a distortion of all human being’s well-being. Sin occurs through two kinds of mediums: one is relationship and the other is time. First, sin occurs through the relationship. Human existence is based on mutual relationship for all people’s well-being. The distortion of human existence becomes sin. For instance, Egotism is sin. Egotism insists that the self is the only subject and regards others as objects for one’s well-being.
Second, sin also occurs through time. Through time, good and bad are accumulated in society and make a social structure. The past may become a source of human well-being, on the one hand, and may become a source of sin, on the other. Therefore the past can be a messenger of demonic power for future human existence. However, the negative effect of the past is not the individual human’s sin itself. It becomes sin when the “objective reality” of societal demonic power becomes the “subjective reality” of sin. The cause of sin, such as societal demonic power, becomes one’s sin when humans are passive in avoiding the presence of demonic power, when we assent to a sinful environment and conform ourselves with structural evil, and when we take compulsive ways of coping. According to Suchocki, a human who is in a sinful state denies the many influences of the past and imprisons him/herelf in a particular form of the negative past.
Process theology recognizes that societal evil is more powerful than individual evil. Yet, in process theology, the individual has a responsibility for his sin because societal evil cannot consume all human freedom. There is always room for novelty that provides humans with “free-choice.”
1. Societal sin (structural problem)
In the movie’s opening, two white men drive their car crazily in the midst of black people’s town. They drink beer and fling those cans toward blacks. They spit at, revile, and make fun of black people in a loud voice. Yet nobody protests against the two white men. They did not look at the two white men’s faces in spite of their violence and ignorance. There is only passivity, conformity. The first scene of the film describes the racism of a 1960s’ Southern town. According to Suchocki, this first scene reveals dual forms of sin in the social structure.
The first form of sin is white racial dominance. As the dominant power group, the white race oppresses marginalized black people. They build a wall around white society, excluding black people. Some of them exclude African Americans by showing indifference to the blacks’ situation. They neglect the possibilities that can change another’s situation from misery to well-being. They conform to their broken relationships with black people. It becomes sin. Some sin in violence and in extreme hate. An extreme example in this film is KKK. In their entrance ceremony, a leader of KKK said, “the Klan is waiting for the opportunity to deliver God’s justice.” One volunteer responded by saying, “I want to help. I want to kill Niggers.” The Klan was satisfied with his response. They denied African Americans as an image of God. By and large, the white dominant race has a power that could change oppressed African American’s situation. Yet they did not care about black people’s well-being, choosing to remain in a situation of social evil.
Second, there is also the sin of the black non-dominant race. Black people are born into a societal evil that prevents their opportunity for well-being. They know their oppressed history as non-dominant group and their present situation. Some protested, but failed with miserable results. Therefore they choose passivity to avoid increased terror. They then internalize their conformity as the appropriate attitude. For instance, when Carl Lee Hailey carried Tonya to an ambulance after she was assaulted, the black neighborhood did not show their anger. They were sorrowful, afraid, and pained. Yet no one said anything or got angry. They remained silent. They took compulsive ways of coping with their miserable lives. When they were born in societal evil, they were not sinful. Yet it became their sin when they conformed in ways of coping and when they gave up their potentiality to change their future situation.
2. The Sin of Two White men who assaulted Tonya
One sunny afternoon, two white men saw a little black girl carrying her groceries. They flung a full beer can at her and drove off in their car. Then they grabbed her and went to a nearby field. There the two men hit her, spit on her and raped her. They cut her womb out and hung her neck on a branch. Yet the branch was so weak that it broke, and her life was saved. The two men picked her up again and went to a bridge. Then they dropped her toward the bottom.
In the course of their assault on Tonya, they enjoyed themselves with ignorance of another human being. Their sin came from their egotism. Their subjectivities became the criterion of determination of others. In the film, they did not see African Americans as human beings who had the image of God. From their subjectivities, they regarded African Americans as useless objects. According to Suchocki, ”we are in a universe of ‘centerless centering’. Every actuality is a receiver and a giver. (25)” They completely ignored the relationship of “mutual subjectivity”.
Their ignorance of African Americans was repeated through their lives. At last, their indifference became habit. The broken relationship with others became a part of their lives. Therefore, they did not feel guilty when they assaulted Tonya, nor in the aftermath of that event. After their brutal behavior, two white rednecks went to a pub and drank. They did not repent their savage behavior even when they were in jail.
3. The Sin of Carl Lee Hailey
In the last part of the film, the judge declares Carl Lee Hailey “not a guilty”. Carl Lee shot two white “rednecks” in passionate retribution for his daughter. Did he really have no sin? Let us examine his act of murder based on Suchocki’s concept of sin. Carl Lee realized the structural evil of his society. In Jake’s office, Karl Lee mentioned the Delta incident in which four white boys raped a little black girl. Karl Lee knew the result: the boys got off in the trial. As the father of an assaulted daughter, Carl Lee could not endure the same result. Therefore Karl Lee planned retribution for his child and stayed in the courthouse with a gun at night. He had purpose and intention. He killed two people intentionally. At first stage, Karl Lee seemed to overcome structural evil. Although he knew the powerlessness of his situation, Karl Lee did not conform himself with the structural evil. He did not choose passivity in front of the great wall of racism. Karl Lee tried to overcome societal evil according to his free choice.
However, he also broke his relationship with others by killing two people. In the course of dialogue with Jake, Carl Lee excused his murder by saying, “Well I aint had nothin’ against them boys until they messed with my baby. I feel sorry for their mommy and daddy. But I aint sorry for what I did.” He did not regret of his murder. He did not care for two white rednecks’ lives. Before the trial, a judge announced that Carl Lee was accused of murdering two human beings. He had killed two “human beings”. The two racist thugs lost their opportunity for reconciling their broken relationship with blacks. Carl Lee completely consumed their chance to repent. He disconnected all their relationships. He should have found another option.
Through this analysis we sought an insight into theological themes. We tried to explore what is real justice and what did some theologians think about it. It was a long journey and exciting work for us. The title of the film was meaningful and worked as a symbol which meant a time to kill all kinds of prejudice, evil, and injustice. It also was a time for us to set up our thoughts about them. Now, we conclude this journey with the Bible.
In Ecclesiastes 3:1-8,