I love the novel, “No Country for Old Men” by Cormac McCarthy. Also an excellent movie. The story is about a simple man, a welder, named Llewelyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin in the movie), in West Texas, who is out hunting in the desert one day when he stumbles upon a drug deal gone bad near the Mexican border. He decides to investigate. He discovers several dead bodies, a LOT of heroine, and 2.4 million dollars. He takes the money.
What Moss doesn’t know is that there is a very bad man after that money – a mercenary, or ex-mercenary, a hired killer who is very methodical and good at his job. He is described by McCarthy as “a prophet of destruction.” The character is portrayed by Javier Bardem in the movie. He is a large man. Solitary. Quiet. We know almost nothing about him – his story, his background. We assume that story, that background, involves training in killing.
You can imagine what ensues. The book is pretty much a pulp-novel. It is bloody and sensational. It is a chase.
But, for me, this is not what is captivating about the movie. For me, its the Sheriff of the town where the drug deal went wrong. Ed Tom Bell. Played by Tommy Lee Jones in the film, Ed Tom is an aging law enforcement officer who is struggling with what appears to be the world falling apart around him.
He cannot imagine that what he is witnessing is real. After the ordeal with Moss is finished, Ed Tom visits a relative and tells him he is retiring. He says “I feel over-matched.” Sheriff Bell’s internal struggle with “what the world is coming to…” is what drives the movie. For me, that is what the movie is about. Are things getting worse, or have they always been this way? Is evil winning?
In the novel, each section begins with an inner-monologue of Ed Tom’s reflections on the way things are, the way things used to be… and evil.
“I never had to kill nobody and I am very glad of that fact. Some of the old time sheriffs wouldn’t even carry a firearm. A lot of folks find that hard to believe but it’s a fact. Jim Scarborough never carried one. That’s the younger Jim. Gaston Boykins wouldn’t wear one. Up in Comanche County. I always liked to hear about the old timers. Never missed a chance to do so. The old time concern that the sheriffs had for their people is been watered down some. You cant help but feel it. [Sheriff] Hoskins over in Bastrop County knowed everbody’s phone number in the county by heart. It’s a odd thing when you think about it. The opportunities for abuse are just about everywhere. There’s no requirements in the Texas State Constitution for bein a sheriff. Not a one. There is no such thing as a county law. You think about a job where you have pretty much the same authority as God and there is no requirements put upon you and you are charged with preservin nonexistent laws and you tell me if that’s peculiar or not. Because I say that it is. Does it work? Yes. Ninety percent of the time. It takes very little to govern good people. Very little. And bad people can’t be governed at all. Or if they could I never heard of it.”
So, let us entertain Sheriff Bell’s concern. Are things getting worse? Or have they always been this way? Or is it something else?
I want to give three responses and let you decide.
The first response is “Yes. Things are getting worse.” This is typically the conservative response. The idea is to give precedence to the evils growing around us and appeal to the moral conscience of people to return to the “old times.” Such conservatives do not believe (perhaps very wisely) in the idea of moral progress. To the contrary, they believe the moral shape the world ought to take is behind us. We were there. 50 or 100 years ago we had it. We lost it. There is a great scene in No Country for Old Men, toward the end, when Sheriff Bell is having coffee with a sheriff from another county. They are both amazed at the moral decline of their small Texas communities. The one sheriff bemoans that Texas children are walking around with “green hair and bones in their noses.” Sheriff Bell replies, “I think as soon as you stop hearin ma’am and sir the rest is soon to follow.” Then they collectively agree… “It’s the tide… it’s the dismall tide… It is not the one thing.” They share a sense of moral decline. Things are getting worse.
Richard John Neuhaus is a fabulous conservative theologian. In my opinion… among the best. He has a great book called “American Babylon” where he dismantles the myth of moral progress. Listen to this compelling argument:
“Moral progress, however, is far from being self evident. We have already noted the events of this century past that have so brutally battered the idea of moral progress. We should at least be open to the possibility that today we are witnessing not moral progress but a dramatic moral regression.”
Things are worse, according to Neuhaus. For us to refuse to entertain the possibility of moral decline is to turn a blind eye to the brutal atrocities all around us. So what is the problem with Neuhaus’ response? Perhaps nothing. I agree with a lot of what he says. But here is a question. Are things getting worse, or is it simply that the veneer of the righteousness of society 50 years ago is being stripped away? There is a huge difference.
If I can stomach it, allow me to give the liberal argument. “No. Things are not getting worse. They are getting better.”
Lets turn to liberal ethicist Peter Singer of Princeton University. In his book “Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of our Traditional Ethics” he leaves no doubt that he is not sad at the collapse of traditional ethics as he says, “The culmination of such advances in human reproduction will be the mastery of genetic engineering…” There are two conclusions he draws from this. First, we have progressed to the point that choices are futile. An age is coming where we can control human desires, wills, with the perfection of genetic engineering. Second, we have reached the end of knowledge. The old-school (traditional) ethicist can know nothing new. So his/her virtues and values are deemed inept. Singer celebrates this “progress” as the liberation of from the particular authoritative references that have shaped our traditions and moral life.
The problem with liberal ethics? Try nuclear weaponry and video-game warfare tactics.
Last, is an ethicist with no home. Stanley Hauerwas.
Dr. Hauerwas, of Duke Divinity, offers us a particular perspective that is shaped by the story of the cross. It neither neglects our current capacity for evil, nor longs for the status quo of 50 years ago. His perspective is always critical of any narrative that claims to be the direction of humanity that is not the kingdom of God. He stands with the conservative in his/her critique of the idea of liberal and moral progress. The liberal ethical value can be summed up as “pro-choice.” (And I am not referring to abortion – though that is included). Dr. Hauerwas critiques individual choice precisely because it is baseless and has no roots. What you end up with is relativism. The fruits of it are ugly.
But Dr. Hauerwas also is critical (harshly so) of the conservative push for a return to the status quo. He rightly roots this in history. History is moving somewhere. If our ethics are shaped by our narrative offered us in scripture, then that movement is toward New Creation. We cannot afford to return to any glory days. So, Dr. Hauerwas has made a living of systematically confronting the status quo of American society, using language as a tool to strip the veneer from traditional life and show that underneath still remained the brokenness that is common to us all. The primary indicator for Dr. Hauerwas that the status quo was/is not God’s will is the presence of war. If you have violence, then the kingdom of God has not come in all its fullness. Often times Americans dream about the golden days of American conservative values. Hauerwas would ask… “what golden days? slavery? war? segregation? to where shall we return?”
This is not to say he in any way affirms the idea of moral progress. Rather, he affirms the virtues of the community shaped by the Gospel narrative.
“In our attempt to control our society Christians in America have too readily accepted liberalism as a social strategy appropriate to the Christian story. Liberalism, it its many forms and versions, presupposes that a society can be organized without any narrative that is commonly held to be true.”
Dr. Hauerwas, therefore, has little interest in either moving humanity forward based on an ethic free from any narrative (let alone the gospel narrative), or in returning to the veneer of glory days. Rather, he is interested in the formation of a community based on the virtues found in the narrative that such a community derives its meaning from.
And here lies the real danger for Sheriff Bell. Moaning about the moral decline around him, he becomes isolated from it. He quits. He drops out. Now what? He is not culpable? At one point in the novel he says, “I always thought when I got older that God would just sort of come into my life… he didn’t.” The problem is he is not searching for the God of scripture. He is searching for the god of the glory days. That god is gone. He was exposed as a false prophet – an idol. He saved no one and he isn’t going to save Sheriff Bell. Yet he avoided a another serious danger.
“Somewhere out there is a true and living prophet of destruction and I dont want to confront him. I know he’s real. I have seen his work. I walked in front of those eyes once. I won’t do it again. I won’t push my chips forward and stand up and go out and meet him. I aint just bein older. I wish that it was. I cant say that it’s even what you are willin to do. Because I always knew that you had to be willin to die to even do this job. That was always true. Not to sound glorious about it or nothin but you do. If you aint they’ll know it. They’ll see it in a heartbeat. I think it is more like what you are willin to become. And I think a man would have to put his soul at hazard. And I wont do that. I think now that I maybe never would.”
One thing Sheriff bell can be commended for is refusing to tie himself with evil to overcome evil. His assessment is right. But what Dr. Hauerwas is so good at, is looking for another way. Is there a way to confront evil, even oppose it, and not become evil yourself?
Or… is this truly, “No Country for Old Men?”