I love Clint Eastwood’s movies. Especially the westerns. The image of the unstoppable lone gunman fighting for justice – even vengeance – is ingrained in my memory as a young man.
Eastwood’s heroes, or more correctly protagonists, are tough men. They are resourceful and ingenious in their dealings. I admire that.
One protagonist in particular sticks with me. It’s the character of William Munney, the central character in the movie “Unforgiven”. He’s left the world of gunfighting behind, raising pigs with his children since his wife died, and all the time carrying the weight of his former life. He comes face to face with it when a youngster comes to ask for his help as a hired gun to exact vengeance – paid, naturally – for an attack on a town prostitute.
He brings his old partner along, but his heart is obviously heavy. They ride to the town, and before they can carry out the shooting the youngster riles him and his old partner is killed – his body put on display.
In typical Eastwood fashion, he exacts revenge for the killing, violently and swiftly, killing the corrupt town sheriff and what seems to be all the available deputies. He growls at the town to give his friend a decent burial and leaves breathing fury and cursing them, goes back to his children and as the film ends we see the caption saying his late wife’s mother came to find her, but found only her grave, the family have gone.
The gunman is shown as innately human. He is haunted by his past, and although his wife forgave it and loved him for who he could be, he clearly never forgave himself. He never truly found peace, and never escaped the guilt he carried.
I find of all the heroes, anti-heroes and protagonists in the movies I’ve seen in my 40 years, I identify with this character most. I want to be Gibson’s William Wallace from “Braveheart”, or Aragorn from Lord of the Rings, or Maximus in “Gladiator”, but I struggle. My past weighs on me like a millstone I carry.
Jesus said something of this. He invited us to share His yoke instead of our own. To place our burdens, our past, on His shoulders. We were never designed to carry these burdens.
He offers forgiveness to us. Freely. All we need do is accept His sacrifice. But then I look at the way He teaches the disciples to pray. That famous “Lord’s Prayer”. He tells us to ask God to forgive us as we forgive others. Seems innocuous, but think about it for a moment. As we forgive those who sin against us. That means forgive me the way I forgive them. Use my measure of forgiveness back at me.
I still have anger towards some people from my youth who bullied me. I wrestle every day with some of it. Have I forgiven them? Frankly, no! Some of those wounds went so deep I have spent 20 years avoiding school reunions so I don’t run into them. I moved away from my home town to avoid them, and while moving to a different country wasn’t to get away from them, the knowledge it was so unlikely I’d bump into them at the local store on holiday was a happy thought.
I have friends whose marriages have been damaged by affairs. Some forgave, saw there was fault on both sides and moved on together. Those marriages survived and have thrived since, both partners forgiving and loving one another, putting it behind them and moving on together.
Some have had one partner who refused to forgive the “cheating” partner. They throw away the marriage through unforgiveness and out of spite. Often, these unforgiving partners spend years angry and resentful, holding on to unforgiveness of the other party. The person they won’t forgive usually moves on and finds happiness again, and the unforgiven has peace, whilst the unforgiving is twisted by what went before.
Repentance and acceptance of God’s forgiveness of us is the key. Eastwood’s gunman never embraces it. How many of us walk through life the same way, burdened with guilt or anger over the past, refusing either to forgive or accept forgiveness?
It’s a hard way to live. I know this, yet I struggle daily with it. I want to know the freedom of Christ’s yoke. I need to know it. But my “old man”, as Paul puts it, wants them to suffer.
In the end, the only person unforgiveness hurts is the person who won’t forgive.
We should remember that.