In the classic movie, Cool Hand Luke (1967), the lead character struggles in a Deep South prison chain-gang setting. Very cool towards authority, he is finally, at the Warden’s direction, beaten by the guards. There is a memorable bit of dialog:
Luke (lying in a grave he’s been forced to dig): Oh God! Oh God! I pray to God you don’t hit me anymore. I’ll do anything you say, but I can’t take anymore.
Workboss: You got your mind right, Luke?
Luke: Yeah, I got it right. Oh, I got it right, Boss.
Workboss: Suppose you was to backslide on us? Suppose you was to back-sass?
Luke is in a hostile universe whose only reason to exist is to produce docile cooperation in the cheap labor of the chain gang. Some tiny modicum of peace (though no dignity) is promised, if only you get your mind right. In the end, Luke cannot do what is asked of him.
The character is one of the classic anti-heroes, typical of its decade. After a time of seeming docility, Luke makes a break for it and even runs the dogs to death! Of course, he dies. Shot unnecessarily in order to make the warden’s point.
Luke is something of a Christ figure, a symbol of a truly free mind to those who remain imprisoned . “He was a world beater!” one of the men declares.
“Getting your mind right,” has remained a very active image for me over the years. It is the abiding threat of a world that promises rewards to those who no longer mind. “Going along with things” is bad enough. However, to “go along” because you have actually yielded your heart and your will is soul crushing. Something properly human is lost.
In a strange way, I see this at work within the ranks of many Christians. And here I do not refer to getting your mind right and agreeing with the world. Instead, I mean getting your mind right and agreeing that God and His justice is the author of our worst fears.
When God meets with Moses on the Holy Mount, the people become distracted and demand that a golden calf be created so they can worship it. God becomes angry and says to Moses:
“I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people; now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; but of you I will make a great nation.”
But Moses begged the LORD his God, and said, “O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them forth, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against your people.
Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.’”
And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people. (Exo 32:9-14)
Of course, this is a very strange passage and has perplexed generations. “The Lord repented of the evil which He thought to do…” But, rather than getting lost in idle speculation, the text points to something absolutely essential. Moses does not “get his mind right” and agree to go along with the wholesale destruction of the people of Israel. He pleads their case before God.
Moses is not alone is such actions. Abraham famously does something similar when the Lord tells him of the coming destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. But we are all too lacking in the likes of Moses and Abraham.
What I see, all too frequently, is a willingness both to argue why it is right for God to destroy His people or to eliminate whole cities from the globe. Some go so far as to assert that it is not only right but actually necessary. “God is a holy God. He cannot deny His justice,” they say.
I think I understand the nature of the argument. There is a concern that something within the Scriptures might be violated. There is a concern that gainsaying the punishments of God is just one more effort of modernity to set aside the teaching of the faith. But what is not seen, I think, is just what is happening to the heart of a Christian when he gets his mind right and makes peace with the “punishments” of God.
First, he parts ways with Moses and Abraham. It is not only Moses and Abraham who are lost, but the whole heart of the Orthodox tradition. For that heart is clearly heard in the words of Moses and Abraham. They do not argue theology with God. But neither do they stand aside and say, “My heart must be wrong.” They do not get their minds right.
I believe that God didn’t want them to get their minds right. In the merciful pleading of Abraham and the rebuke of Moses, God heard the echo of His own heart. He can say of Abraham, “This is a man after my own heart.” Moses is the “friend of God.”
When such a heart is absent, we simply become functionaries, explaining to others why things must be as they are. We become apologists for the very thing that Moses and Abraham resisted.
In modern conversations, the topic of God’s punishments seems to turn on what is necessary or right and wrong. Those are interesting questions, but they are beside the true point. The point is found in the heart of the matter. Will we plead for God’s mercy for all? Will we argue with Him and take the side of those who deserve punishment? Will we beg for another year’s mercy for the fig tree so that it may be tended and cared for yet again?
I have written before that the story of Christ’s Pascha is the central core of the Christian faith and the reality that must shape all of our understanding. The position of Moses and Abraham is paschal in nature. Moses stands over an idolatrous people, deserving of destruction and pleads for them. He is Christ-like, descending into a desert Hades to lead his people out…even if he has to rebuke God in order to do so. Abraham delays the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as he argues with God.
Christ came for the unrighteous. He seemed to go looking for harlots and tax collectors. Christ is the revelation of the heart of God. It is a heart that “broods” over Jerusalem like a mother hen gathering her chicks. He rebukes the disciples when they eagerly ask to call down fire from heaven to consume an entire village.
There are mistakes of the heart to be made in the other direction, as well. It is possible to substitute some interpretive position that all will be well, in such a way that the argument and the rebuke disappear. In this, there is no Moses, no Abraham, just the universe going about its way while we blissfully go about ours.
St. Silouan said, “My brother is my life,” and then he prayed as though he believed it. There certainly is a judgment, and there certainly is a hell. Many suffer, both just and unjust. We have not been appointed to construct a metaphysics that we find pleasing or satisfying. We must never “get our minds right.”
To use the imagery of the movie (which are highly paschal), the world and its present arrangement are a road prison. Our job is never to become apologists for the Warden and the guards. The “justice” of their world is no justice at all. We await, not a new, just Warden, but the abolition of the prison itself. We dare not justify the sufferings of this life, much less extend them into the age to come. We have been appointed to intercede for the world, to argue and to rebuke. The martyrs in heaven beneath the throne of God complain. The widow importunes the judge. The Samaritan woman begs for her son’s life like a little doggie at the master’s table. And it is there that we find our true heart and become the friends of God.