Friday, November 4, 2016

World War I Movie Churches -- Sergeant York

Sergeant York (1941)
When I was in elementary school during the Vietnam War, I wrote a letter to President Nixon, telling him that the war was wrong because the Bible said, "Thou shalt not kill.” I received a ten page policy statement as a response, something I don't believe I ever read.

Last year I watched three films in the same week that raised the argument that becoming a soldier was wrong because the Bible says, "Thou shalt not kill." In the 2014 drama, Calvary, a young man goes to a priest with the intention of signing up for the army. The priest says that whoever signs up for the army in peacetime is a psychopath because "'Thou shalt not kill' does not come with an asterisk." But then he readily admits that self-defense is a "sticky" issue.

If the priest thinks there is no asterisk to "Thou shalt not kill," does that mean there is no distinction between swatting a fly and euthanasia and shooting a guard while committing a bank robbery and shooting a terrorist about to kill a child? That's clearly absurd.

In Friendly Persuasion (1956, starring Gary Cooper), a Quaker meeting is interrupted by a Union army major who challenges the congregation to fight in the war for their rights. He is confronted by the Biblical admonition, "Thou shalt not kill.”

And in Sergeant York, when Alvin York receives his draft notice, he says he won't go because the Good Book says, "Thou shalt not kill."

For a couple of thousand years now there have been great theological debates with sophisticated arguments for and against pacifism, and the just war theory, and passive resistance -- but in these films they never get far beyond the level of theology I had obtained as a child.

Moses received from God the command not to kill. He proclaimed it to the Israelites and eventually the world. Moses was a man who committed murder and suffered for that sin. He also received commands from God to take is people to war, which makes me think his ideas about killing and war had a bit more nuance that is presented in these films.

But I guess I've gotten a little off topic from looking at the church in the movie Sergeant York.

This story of the great World War I hero opens with the ringing of church bells. The congregation in the back woods of Tennessee is singing a cappella, "When the Roll is Called Up Yonder." The preacher (Pastor Rosier Pile, played by Walter Brennan) is telling the story of the lost sheep, illustrating the story by telling about a local farmer who lost his sow.

The service is interrupted by drunk men on horseback shooting off guns outside the church. One of those men is Alvin York (Gary Cooper in an Oscar winning role.)

The pastor of the church also is the local shop keeper. At the store, Alvin's mother allows that Alvin could "use some religion." Pastor Pile says that "a little religion wouldn't do him no harm."

The pastor meets Alvin, who is plowing a field. The pastor points out that when one plows around a rock, making a straight path becomes difficult. He encourages Alvin to make a straight path in life and warns that "Satan's got you by the shirttail, and you need to wrestle him off." York argues he can't do it, but the pastor that the Lord can do it with him.

Alvin says he isn't ready for religion, but the pastor says "religion will come when you ain't expecting it."

When York is cheated out of good farm land, he mounts his mule and heads to get his revenge. He’s struck by lightning, and he makes his way to the nearby church. He kneels in front of the church, and the congregation breaks into “Give Me That Old Time Religion.” York accepts that old time religion.

York becomes a Sunday School teacher and tell his students that the Bible is God's book, and "there ain't nothing in it that ain't true."

But then York is drafted to fight in the First World War. He says he won't go because "the Book's agin killing, so killing's agin the Book." Pastor Pile comes to York's aid and helps him file as a conscientious objector, but the draft board doesn't respect Pile's small independent church as part of a legitimate denomination. York's exemption is rejected.

As York goes off to the Army, Pastor Pile encourages him to "Put your trust in the Lord, and He'll look out for you." York proves to be a hardworking, ideal soldier, but he still says he will not kill. His officers say they respect his integrity, but encourage him to study U.S. history. He gets a leave. During that time, he reads the founding fathers and comes to believe it is okay to fight for freedom.

In all of this, Pastor Pile is quite supportive. Most of the rest of the film shows York's exploits as a soldier, winning every military honor in the Western World.

Pastor Pile may not be the deepest thinker, but he finds ways to use illustrations from nature and farming to relate to his people. He's concerned about his people, and his congregation seems to worship with joy. The pastor and church make help make York be the great hero he becomes. I'd give the church in Sergeant York three steeples.

No comments:

Post a Comment