Parable of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell

Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 7.04.53 PMBy Joe James

My first post in this series was aimed at exposing an unnecessary divide in Christianity. I believe that the church cannot afford to adopt either a conservative or a progressive worldview. At the end of this series, I will propose a third way – the Table. But for now, let us examine the conservative paradigm.

One of my favorite novels (and films) is Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men.” The book is pulp novel, blood and sensational. It is about a simple country boy named Llewelyn who discovers $2.4 million in the West Texas desert while hunting. What Llewelyn doesn’t know is that a truly terrifying trained killer named Chigur is after the money and is now hunting him. But the main character of the book is the small town Sheriff, Ed Tom Bell.

Each chapter in the book opens with these inner monologues from Sheriff Bell reminiscing of life in Texas a few generations ago and complaining the growing tides of evil swelling around him today.

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 can’t help but feel it. Sheriff Hoskins over in Bastrop County knowed everybody’s phone number in the county by heart. It’s an 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 pretty much have the same authority as God and there is no requirements put upon you and you are charged with preserving 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. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that things are getting worse. The world is in a moral spiral from which, it appears, it will not recover. This is typical of the conservative worldview. The idea is to give precedence to the evils growing all around us and appeal to the moral conscience of people to return to the “old times.” Such conservatives do not believe (perhaps 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 the film adaptation of “No Country for Old Men,” toward the end, when Sheriff Bell is having coffee with a sheriff from another county. They are both dazzled by 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 dismal tide. It is not the one thing.” They share a sense of moral decline. Things are indeed getting worse.

Maybe?

Maybe things are getting worse. One of the best “conservative” theologians is Richard John Neuhaus. He has a great book called “American Babylon” where he attempts to dismantle the myth of moral progress.

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 the possibility that today we are witnessing not moral progress but a dramatic moral regression.

Maybe Neuhaus is right. Think about what we call progress. Nuclear energy? Hiroshima and Nagasaki? A refusal to even speak about the consequences of sexual degradation in the name of an ethic called “privacy?” Are pandemics private? Has not the age of “precision warfare” proven to be the bloodiest in human history? Have we eliminated slavery, or just traded slave labor for sex slavery? Are things not getting worse?

Maybe. But here is a question. Are things actually getting worse, or is it simply that the veneer of the righteousness that covers American social life has been stripped away? There is a huge difference.

Sheriff Bell and a Crooked God

I have a shepherd at my church that is fond of quoting Ecclesiastes to people who moan about days gone by. Ecclesiastes 7:10 says, “Do not say to yourself, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask such things.” My good shepherd friend understands that sitting in the ashes of glory days is not from wisdom. You can either whine or work toward something better. But he also understands that the world is not quite as straight as we once thought it was. From what great moral mountaintop have we fallen? Genocide? Slavery? Segregation? Perhaps things yesterday are better in our memories than in reality.

This little proof-text comes from a collection of wisdom sayings from Ecclesiastes 7:1-13. The last piece of wisdom from the collection says this, “Consider the work of God; who can make straight what he has made crooked?”

Life is complicated. The world is messed up.   We live on top of unmendable cracks. Living wisely as citizens of the kingdom of God will surely involve recognizing that the history we live on top of, the story we inherit, the “sins of the father” are something we will never escape. We can’t go backward in time. Yesterday was just as broken as tomorrow.

In one of the closing scenes to “No Country for Old Men,” Sheriff Bell visits his wife’s Uncle Ellis. Ellis is a wheel-chair bound, filthy, uneducated man with a seemingly meaningless life in a rotting house in the middle of the desert. Ed Tom tells Ellis he is retiring. “I feel overmatched.” Uncle Ellis listens to his lament.

“I always thought when I got older that God would sort of come into my life in some way. He didn’t. I don’t blame him. If I was him I’d have the same opinion about me that he does.”

Ellis replies with the wisdom of a Hebrew prophet. “You don’t know what God thinks.” Ellis shifts back in his chair and sips his coffee. “Your daddy ever tell you how your Uncle Mac come to his reward? Gunned down on his own porch over in Hudspeth County. Seven or eight of ‘em come up there. Wantin this wantin that. Uncle Mac went back in the house to get the shotgun. They was ahead of him. Shot him in his doorway. They just sat there on their horses watchin him die. After a while one of em said something in Indian and they turned and left out. Uncle Mac knew the score even if Aunt Ella didn’t. Shot through the lung. And that was that, as they say. He died that night. She buried him out back in that hard old caliche.” Ellis takes a deep breath and gathers himself back into the room with Ed Tom. “What you got ain’t nothing new. This country’s hard on people. You can’t stop what’s coming. And it ain’t all waitin on you. That’s vanity.”

Uncle Ellis is the lone prophetic voice in Cormac McCarthy’s novel. Thinking our age is the age when everything falls apart, longing for the golden age of decades gone by… that’s vanity.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.