Amidst Its Harshness, ‘Hostiles’ Sounds A Challenging Note Of Hopefulness

Written by Steve Pauwels on February 10, 2018

At the coffee shop the other day, I sauntered into a conversation about the children of a mixed-race couple. A fellow customer was marveling over the phenomenon of one offspring born black, one white; each reflecting, respectively, either mom or dad’s heritage. I chimed in about two teens who’d formerly worked at the very establishment we were patronizing: issuing from a black (Caribbean) mom and Caucasian dad, one young man had a decided African-American appearance. The other? He could be Sven fresh off the boat from Sweden. Rather remarkable: biological siblings, same parentage, polar opposites physiognomically. Both nice fellas, by the way.

I finally wrapped up our chat by leaning toward one of the participants, remarking: “Just goes to show you how dumb racism is.”

If two children of radically different physical — racial — appearance can emerge from the same couple, I suppose that confirms it’s thumpingly knuckleheaded making skin color or ethnicity the overriding variable when evaluating any person’s worth or character. What? Is the lighter-hued of the mixed-race kids automatically presumed more valuable? Or the one with markedly more “negroid” features to be reflexively preferred? Even though their biological lineage is precisely identical?

Like I said: really dumb.

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Coincidentally, very shortly after that encounter I sat through the newly released film Hostiles — which left me with broadly the same impression.

The movie tells the story of an early-1890s, cross-country trek involving an Indian-despising cavalry officer and his squad of soldiers, a dispossessed family of Cheyenne Native Americans and a traumatized widow, recently bereaved of her husband and three children by a band of sadistic, horse-thieving Comanche. Hostiles is a bleak and immersive Western: strikingly filmed and acted (Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike); unsparing in its brutality, without being gratuitous; deeply affecting.

“You can tell a movie’s been really good,” my wife reflected after we saw it, “when you keep thinking about it the next day.”

As she did; and I did; turning over and probing its themes and implications well into that “next day”.

Dealing unblenchingly with the “race issue”, Hostiles models, in its grim, sometimes explosive, way, how profoundly feckless it is to enshrine ethnic origins the pre-eminent, immovable factor in assessing human beings, good or bad.

There are “bad guys” — really, really bad guys — aplenty in Hostiles; hailing from among every racial group. Conversely showcased is nobility in Whites, Native Americans, Blacks, men, women. Memorable acts of tenderness and kindness are on display – occasionally in those who, in other aspects, are loathsome. And, at moments, players who’d be categorized as basically “decent” types, nonetheless engage in behavior far less admirable.

Flawed individuals emerge, in other words, from across humanity’s spectrum; imperfect, confused at times, complicated.

Sounds a lot like real life, doesn’t it?

Too, people change in Hostiles. One female character, who volunteers a simple, desperate — and, I would contend, potent — argument for the importance of her Christian faith, chooses to forgive. Another, against her fears, reaches out with a gesture of uncommon compassion toward one of those making her afraid. The erstwhile cruel and stone-hearted become broken with grief and regret. Former deep-boned adversaries develop a respect, even a sense of mutual obligation, toward each other.

Then, there are those who defy contrition and pay a sanguinary price for it.

Again, that’s all on display in the non-cinematic world; throughout history; all around; among every stripe of man or woman, whatever their accent, ancestry, coloration.

The biblical analysis concurs: every human being is created in God’s image; thus, valuable in His sight (Genesis 1:26; James 3:9). More of a downer? These observations: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).

The Jewish/Christian canon — need it be said? – additionally pops with figures who function pivotally in God’s unfolding plan, yet, in one incongruous and audacious way or another, screw up in the process. Consider Abraham, Moses, several of Israel’s most notable kings — David, Solomon, Asa, Hezekiah – the apostles Thomas, Peter; et. al.

No, that’s not to suggest humankind’s God-resisting shortcomings are “okay”. The “we’re-all-sinners” mantra has suddenly become many a conservative’s rationalization for ignoring not a few of our elected officials’ ratty behaviors. True, man’s fallen nature is anthropological/theological reality, important to acknowledge — but it’s quickly turning into a tiresome platitude, hinting that a person’s decision to do life his way instead of the Creator’s is ultimately acceptable.

Well, I’ll be the party-pooper at the antinomian hootenanny: it ain’t.

People’s sin-dilemma is never an acceptable excuse for same. That said, it does serve as an explanation to keep those concerned about righteousness from losing their minds; or their hope.

Speaking of hope – minor spoiler alert — after an undeniably horrific penultimate scene, Hostiles closes with a restrained and, what was for me, unexpectedly heartsome note.

As the afore-referenced Book correspondingly emphasizes: people, indeed, imbibe their share of atrocity and guilt; still, in God there endures stubborn potential for forgiveness, transformation, new beginnings — “hostiles”, that is, rehabilitated into hopefuls, “out of every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation” (Revelation 5:9).

Hostiles is rated “R” for blunt violence, some profanity and mature themes.

Image: Screen Shot/movie trailer:

Steve Pauwels is pastor of Church of the King, Londonderry, NH and host of Striker Radio with Steve Pauwels on the Red State Talk Radio Network. He's also husband to the lovely Maureen and proud father of three fine sons: Mike, Sam and Jake.