Monday, March 13, 2006

'Capote'-- In Cold Blood

This movie is not for sissies. It is a powerful and gripping drama telling the tale of Truman Capote's relationship with a murderer on death row in Levenworth Kansas, a story which became enshrined in the prize winner novelesque work of non-fiction entitled 'In Cold Blood'. The movie deals with the brutal murder of a family in a tiny community of Holcomb Kansas in November 1959. Those expecting to see a thriller will be disappointed, as this is a character portrayal of two figures-- one of the murders Perry Smith and Capote himself. As it turns out, these two figures have more in common than one might expect. The story has no real suspense in regard to the fate of the killers. the suspense comes in telling the story of the relationship of these two men as it developed between 1960-65.

As I said, these two men had some similarities of background and nature. For one thing both of these men were abandoned by their parents early in life. Capote was eventually raised by aunts, while Smith finally ended up with his sister in an orphanage. Both of them also had a deep desire to be famous and appreciated. One of the more telling moments in the movie is when Capote reads from Smith's diary an imaginary acceptance speech where he tells the imaginary audience how grateful he was for their adulation. Of course Capote lived out this scenario in real life. Smith and Capote are both verbally gifted, artistic, extremely sensitive and shy, and both have a cold blooded side. Smith is a cold blooded killer, while Capote is a cold blooded glory hound and writer, prepared to lie at length to get what he wants out of Smith. On the one hand, Capote is prepared to say he feels like he grew up in the same house with Perry with the latter going out the back door and the former going out the front door. On the other hand, Capote is certainly using Smith to provide the fodder so he can write his magnum opus--- a historical novel which reads more like fiction, but is in fact a narrative of real events.

Capote was part of the N.Y.literary scene in the late 50s and early 60s. He hung out with a variety of persons including figures like Tennessee Williams and the authoress of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee. And yet Capote had a curiosity, call it morbid or not, to get close to a killer and write his story, while pretending to befriend him. A funny thing happens along the way-- Perry Smith does become someone Capote does, and yet does not, care about. He can't make up his mind. And when he sees the hanging of Perry, it changes him irrevocably. Capote was never able to write another significant work after 'In Cold Blood' came out. He developed writer's block thereafter, and there is a sort of strange justice in this, since he was trying to build his own fame on the basis of a gruesome crime and the sensationalizing of it in a novel, while longing for the executions to hurry up and happen so he could finish his novel and get the whole experience over with.

Philip Seymour's portrayal of Capote is masterful and accurate from my memory of the man and what he was like. It is not a surprise that he won the Oscar for best actor for this performance. He even sounds like Capote and has his mannerisms down cold. This is truly an example of a performance 'in character'. But the movie also raises afresh the debate about capital punishment. If one was ever going to make a case for capital punishment this sort of hideous crime which the killers admitted to, provides a rationale for it.

But there are reasons for pause. In the first place a good case can be made that many innocent persons have been put on death row and executed. Can the executing of even one genuine killer justify the repeated taking of innocent life (since we are no all-knowing and make mistakes in our judgments of others)? I don't think so.

Secondly, I have as much problem with capital punishment as I do with abortion. In both cases we may well be talking about taking away a human life before they have had opportunity to be in right relationship with God. I especially stress this in regard to the living who are on death row. Who knows if they might not repent, even if they have done a crime, and receive Christ a week after there scheduled execution? Can we really say that executing an unsaved person is not sending them straight to hell? I for one would not want that on my conscience. So I would say that there is at least as good a case that can be made from a Christian point of view that opposes as that which endorses capital punishment.

Then there is one more thing. I think as Christians we are called to be totally pro-life, not just pro-life when it comes to the unborn. Did Jesus not say that he came that we might have life and have in abundantly? Does John 3.16-17 not say that it is not God's desire that any should perish but all should have everlasting life? What are the logical consequences of these theological ideas?

I cannot speak for others, but for me it means we should be totally pro-life-- opposing war, capital punishment, and abortion. I realize these three issues are not identical and one can make a reasonable case for supporting one sort of ban on taking life, while not objecting to others. I simply find this an inconsistent point of view. Are the unborn of more sacred worth than the born? I don't think so.
Is an innocent man wrongly convicted on death row somehow of less sacred worth than the innocent life in the womb? I don't think so. I would encourage those who are debating this to watch a movie like 'Dead Man Walking' or 'the Green Mile' and think about these things.

I am not interesting in arguing about rationales for capital punishment provided from OT covenants, since Christians are not under or obligated to those covenants. I believe we must stick to what the NT suggests about such things, and if we live by the Sermon on the Mount and the ethic of forgiveness and suffering violence rather than perpetrating it, then there are consequences to embracing such an ethic.

In the end, I would say go and see the movie 'Capote' if you are a mature Christian person. And ask yourself the question-- what thoughts does it prompt when you think about life and death issues?

22 comments:

ben said...

I agree about capital punishment. Without going into the nitty gritty of my thoughts, let me just say that I have come to believe it doesn't jive with being a Jesus follower. I don't think Jesus supports it.

davebeals said...

Life sentences Yes...Capital punishment...No

Mike said...

In your thoughts about what exactly pro-life is, you said you weren't interested in discussions about OT law because those covenants are not applicable to NT era believers (a paraphrase). However, I would ask, what exactly are we, being Christians, exempt from?? I mean, obviously you're not going to argue that ALL of the OT laws and concepts are moot. I agree that it seems that we see more mercy in God's dealings in the NT. However, does that mean that He has changed in his being? In other words, is the God at Mt. Sinai, pleading with Moses to keep the people away so that they will not be incinerated, the same God that exists today? Or was He less merciful in the OT? Do we not see God himself, or His agents (i.e. the Chaldeans, etc.) removing people from life "before they have the chance to repent?" Sometimes we do and sometimes we see things like the story in Jonah, where He gives more time. Just some thoughts. Perhaps it's more like a stream-of-semiconciousness than an actual argument, but it would be interesting to hear your take.

Denny Burk said...

Week before last, my uncle was telling me a story of when he actually saw Capote at Mardi Gras in New Orleans years ago.

Capote was standing on a balcony wearing a long white fur coat, and he had his hands in a white fur muffler. He would wave at the people below and call out to them in his inimitable Capote voice.

My uncle is a card-carrying NRA cowboy who lives in south Louisiana. He was not very impressed with Capote. Not very surprising, huh?

Cris Jubb said...

I fully agree with what you are saying about prolife Ben and it does raise some interesting points for discussion for example if we are to be consistant in our opposition to the death penalty it means that we should oppose it, I believe, no matter who is facing execution be it Saddam, Osama, or as is the case in singapore recently a young aussie bloke who was caught smuggling drugs and who was executed. It was his first & last criminal offence.

Ben Witherington said...

Mike:
You raise excellent questions, and the answers are complex: 1) any of the OT commandments which are reaffirmed by Jesus or other NT persons are reaffirmed, and we are still required to keep them, not because they were in the old covenants, but because they are now part of the new covenant. Of course this leaves out huge amounts of the commands of the OT; 2) you need to have a sense of progressive revelation. Of course it is true that the God of the OT is the same as the God of the NT, but the nature of God is not fully revealed in the OT, while it is fully revealed in Christ. If you want to know the nature of God, God's character, look at Jesus. It is your best chance of understanding God. As the author of Hebrews 1.1 says up until Jesus, revelation was partial and piecemeal. 3) remember how Jesus reminded us when he spoke on divorce (Mt. 19) that Moses gave various permissions for divorce "due to the hardness of your hearts". In other words, many of the rules in the OT take into account the audience's lack of having the Holy Spirit. I would say this applies to what is said about a variety of things; 4) but even so the ten commandments are perfectly clear about no premeditated murder, which capital punishment is, in a judicial form and notice that in Mosaic Law there is no atonement for pre-meditated sin, the so-called sins with a high hand (see Acts 13.38-39). There is thus plenty of reason to think that we have a clearer view of God's perfect character and will in Jesus and in the NT.

Blessings,

Ben

P.S. Denny, thanks for the story about Capote. You might want to read his interesting Christmas story someday, which was made into a TV short film years ago.


P.S. Judicial systems certainly change over time. The Romans thought execution was more merciful than life in prison, and so they did not use imprisonment as a normal punishment.

Dickie Mint said...

Hi Ben,

Interesting post - thanks for raising the issues. I'd like to ask three questions and then make one comment? The questions: How would you deal with the covenant with Noah and its explicit sanctioning of capital punishment? What does it mean in the NT for the state to bear the sword, sanctioned by God? How can the Sermon on the Mount be said to have application to the state? The comment: your point about depriving someone of the opportunity to be in right relationship with God is only relevent if it can be shown that the Lord does not sanction cp; it cannot be used as a point to determine whether the Lord does or does not sanction cp.

Thanks again.

Dick.

yuckabuck said...

The problem I have been struggling with is how should a Christian be involved in politics? For instance, a Christian may believe that a person should be kept alive so that he or she may one day accept Christ, but what if this same Christian is the governor of a state, who the people expect to carry out swift justice in the case of someone who has been proven beyond a doubt to be a nurderer?

I have written some reflections on Dr Witheringtons' post on my site that tries to go over some of the arguments for/against, here: (http://yuckabuck.blogspot.com/2006/03/capital-punishment-from-perspective-of_14.html). I purposefully avoided the Romans 13 passage, as I did not have Dr. Witherington's commentary in fromt of me.

I also wrote about the same sex marriage issue from a Christian perspective seen through the sermon on the mount, and was promptly branded liberal by friends, even though I am politically conservative (the article is also posted on my blogger site). While I'm not ready to follow Dr. Witherington's politics, as expressed here at times, I have come to really question much of what Christians do politically these days. As I said before, I think many Christians have forgotten about the Kingdom of God, and have placed their hope in politics.

yuckabuck said...

Now that I have skimmed the section on Romans 13 in Dr. Witherington's commentary (from Amazon), I would say that the passage really says nothing much to the question of capital punishment, except that any Christian involved in government should be sure that he or she does not stand in the way of God using the state as God's "servant for good."
(Though this begs the question, "What if God is using a country, say the U.S., to carry out his sovereign purpose in bringing judgement on another nation, say, the regime of Saddam Hussein?" This is the trouble that Romans 13 brings on.

Ben Witherington said...

Dear Dickie: You raise several useful points. In regard to Rom. 13 it is irrelevant to the question of judicial capital punishment since Paul is talking about the use of a weapon, in this case by a tax police person, to protect themselves while enforcing the law. The weapon in question is the defensive one-- the small dagger, not the larger Roman sword. Secondly, in regard to the covenant of Noah, it is really irrelevant as well. We are not under that covenant now, we are under the new covenant. The issue is whether capital punishment is endorsed under the new covenant and the answer is no. Your point about the applicability of the Sermon on the Mount to the state is a more difficult one. I do not think it applies to the State, I think it applies directly to Christians. I believe Christian's obligations to keep the new covenant override any obligations to the state, especially those which contradict the specific ethical teachings of Jesus, Paul etc. This means of course that I as a Christian could not do ever so many things that the secular state can do, nor do I have an obligation to support such things if I think they contradict the new covenant or the NT. Here I think Yukabuck is quite right that we have to wrestle with the question--- to what degree and in what sphere could I hold a public office if there is a conflict of conscience? It is a difficult question, especially for those who do not wish to resolve it in the Amish way, by total withdrawal from the political process. In my view we have an obligation to play the role of the loyal opposition, which is a minority position at this point.

Blessings,

Ben W.

Brian said...

I suppose my position is a bit odd.

First off, I have never really taken a firm position on the death penalty. However, I think I am at the point where I would have to say that I am against it.

One thing I have always wondered about is why people assume that God is somehow "different" because we are under a new covenant. So many times I hear the legalist bring up the fact that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Just because God operates differently today than he did in the OT does not mean that his character has changed. It does mean that he deals with us differently. Christianity is centered around Christ and what he did...and the fact of the matter is...everything is different because of his sacrifice.

I am of the position that we are not "bound" by any OT law. There is only one true freedom and that is in Christ. The freedom I am talking about is much greater than a scaled down semi-free view of the word. All things are lawful for me, of course, not all things are helpful.

AMDG

Mike said...

Mr. Witherington,
I agree with your point on progressive revelation regarding laws and practices. I, myself, believe that some of, if not a lot of, the OT precepts have been "overturned", for lack of a better term. I was simply asking questions because I do go back and forth in my thinking on the issues raised in your original post regarding war and punishment.

I would say that we should do all we can to avoid war. I do think, however, that nothing in the NT would give a State the right to sit back and let evil people be evil to no end (i.e. Saddam, Hitler, Stalin, insert despot of choice...). Just as police officers enforce the law (sometimes needing a weapon to do so), I would say that the States of the world have the responsibility to see to it that this terrestrial ball doesn't become lawless (and sometimes a weapon is needed to protect others).

In the case of CP, I still don't know that there's ever a hard-and-fast re-cant in the NT. I know that Jesus makes it clear that when and if punishment is handed down, it is to be done with humility. Perhaps there is something there that I'm not seeing right now. I suppose it could be presupposition getting in the way.

One last thing that perhaps you could extrapolate on. I was wondering why you used this phrase in your response, as I see it being a touch self-defeating.
<4) but even so the ten commandments are perfectly clear about no premeditated murder, which capital punishment is, in a judicial form and notice that in Mosaic Law there is no atonement for pre-meditated sin...> I agree that the commandment there is against pre-meditated murder. But are you sure that this includes CP? I ask because I believe that the Levitical laws, under the Mosaic covenant, carried death penalties. Unless this is the type of thing you're referring to in your example with Jesus speaking on the subject of divorce. In which case, perhaps I've already answered my own question on that.

Wayne Bowerman said...

Dr. Witherington,

I have been wanting to see this movie very bad – and now even more so. Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of my favorite actors of all time.

I think I agree with everything you are saying. There seems to be an apparent contradiction in behavior of many who call themselves pro-life yet they support the death- penalty. I want to be totally pro life: “opposing war, capital punishment, and abortion.” In fact I often think I can see myself one day ending up a complete pacifist, going “the Amish way.”

Like I say I think I agree with all you are suggesting plus some. But please allow me to play devil’s advocate for a second with a few major questions/doubts I have about a completely nonviolent approach. Maybe you can help me put some of these questions to rest in my mind:

First you bring up a couple of other movies a) Dead Man Walking (one of my favorites). It can be argued (and I have often heard it argued out here in Reformedville USA) that this movie fails as an anti death-penalty movie, at least from a Christian perspective. This is argued on the grounds that the movie’s main character, Matthew Poncelet, only opens up to confession and true repentance when faced with punishment by death. I know you mention a prolonged life may allow for repentance and salvation; but do you think this example could instead be a valid argument in support of the death penalty? b) The Green mile - yes it portrays an unfortunate death of an innocent man. But this is not just any innocent man, it seems it is a Christ figure of sorts (John Coffey – “JC” heals the sick and dies for another’s sins). So if Christians are to oppose capital punishment (regardless of weather in loyal opposition or total withdrawal from the political process) then what do we do with the fact that our salvation was made possible by the capital punishment of an innocent man – God’s own son? Or with the fact that this was only efficient because the system of blood for sin was instituted by God?

This leads me to my last question. You have emphasized a distinction between the old covenant and the new. Again I appreciate this distinction and it does help. However, how do we know where to draw the sharp distinctions? For instance many evangelical ministers today encourage a tithe must be ten percent but I do not see that reiterated in the New Testament. And when drawing the distinctions between old and new covenant how do we keep from making the mistake of dispensationalist? I’m not even talking about the crazy rapture stuff but just about seeing God as very different (too different) in the OT as compared to the NT and losing the sense of continuity that is there. In either case isn’t it the faith of the believer(s) that is credited to them as righteousness by a gracious God?

Wow, sorry for rambling on so long. I really do struggle with these issues.
Shalom,
Wayne

Dickie Mint said...

Hi Ben,

Thanks for your helpful response - can I for now take up the issue of Romans 13?

The issue of taxes doesn't arise in the text until after Paul has made his general point about the state using the sword (even a small one) to exact retribution and to execute judgement. It certainly doesn't read as though the one bearing the dagger was only using it in self-defence when attacked ny non-paying citizens.

In what way would the state judge and punish someone with a small sword? By wounding or by killing? (The weapon may have been smaller but surely equally capable of taking life.)

Thanks again.

Dick.

Ben Witherington said...

This is a useful discussion.

To Dickie I would ask, please simply see my discussion in my Romans commentary on Romans 13, and see what you think. I certainly do not think that I have the right to dictate national policy when a majority of persons are not Christians in this country, and do not much agree with Christian ethics.

The ethic of Jesus and other NT figures is not an ethic they sought to impose on Roman government, it was an ethic of their own community. They believed in making a prophetic witness to the world, changing it one person at a time, and maintaining their own ethic within their own community. This is what I am suggesting.

So, if you are asking me, do I think it is reasonable (not Biblical necessarily, but reasonable) for a government to oppose someone like Hitler and react violently to what he is doing as a lesser of several evils, I certainly understand such a reaction. I would urge you however to read what Dietrich Bonhoeffer says on this matter (see his Letters and Papers from Prison). He participated in the plot to blow up Hitler, which failed. He was jailed and executed. He came to the conclusion that he should not have tried to take the law into his own hands as a Christian.

Asking the hermeneutical question about how much of the OT is still valid is a good question. You are right that many after confused about this. They don't really understand how covenants work. Basically when a new covenant is inaugurated previous ones are obsolete. This is precisely what Paul says about the Mosaic Covenant in Galatians--- see especially Gal. 4-5.

Therefore, only those stipulations which are reaffirmed from previous covenants are still binding on believers. Take the example of the tithe. Christians are not required to tithe. They are called to sacrificial giving, which may well amount to more than a tithe. See the teaching of Jesus about the widow with her two coins, who is set up as an example for disciples to follow. Note as well that what Jesus says about tithing herbs, he says to Jewish officials, not to his own disciples! He is talking to those who are still under the Mosaic covenant. Notice as well that the one commandment of the ten big ones not reaffirmed in the NT is the sabbath commandment. The Lord's Day is not the sabbath.

Blessings,

Ben W.

Ben Witherington said...

This is a useful discussion.

To Dickie I would ask, please simply see my discussion in my Romans commentary on Romans 13, and see what you think. I certainly do not think that I have the right to dictate national policy when a majority of persons are not Christians in this country, and do not much agree with Christian ethics.

The ethic of Jesus and other NT figures is not an ethic they sought to impose on Roman government, it was an ethic of their own community. They believed in making a prophetic witness to the world, changing it one person at a time, and maintaining their own ethic within their own community. This is what I am suggesting.

So, if you are asking me, do I think it is reasonable (not Biblical necessarily, but reasonable) for a government to oppose someone like Hitler and react violently to what he is doing as a lesser of several evils, I certainly understand such a reaction. I would urge you however to read what Dietrich Bonhoeffer says on this matter (see his Letters and Papers from Prison). He participated in the plot to blow up Hitler, which failed. He was jailed and executed. He came to the conclusion that he should not have tried to take the law into his own hands as a Christian.

Asking the hermeneutical question about how much of the OT is still valid is a good question. You are right that many after confused about this. They don't really understand how covenants work. Basically when a new covenant is inaugurated previous ones are obsolete. This is precisely what Paul says about the Mosaic Covenant in Galatians--- see especially Gal. 4-5.

Therefore, only those stipulations which are reaffirmed from previous covenants are still binding on believers. Take the example of the tithe. Christians are not required to tithe. They are called to sacrificial giving, which may well amount to more than a tithe. See the teaching of Jesus about the widow with her two coins, who is set up as an example for disciples to follow. Note as well that what Jesus says about tithing herbs, he says to Jewish officials, not to his own disciples! He is talking to those who are still under the Mosaic covenant. Notice as well that the one commandment of the ten big ones not reaffirmed in the NT is the sabbath commandment. The Lord's Day is not the sabbath.

Blessings,

Ben W.

jack said...

Dr. Witherington,

I suppose a discussion of capital punishment has its merits, but let us discuss something REALLY important, shall we?

How do you think the Heels are going to do in the tournament? :)

I think the committee showed us no favors sending us to Dayton instead of Greensboro and the impending 2nd round matchup with Michigan St scares me plenty, but there's something about this team that has me thinking we just may make it back to the final four. I love how this team plays with so much heart.

Go Heels!

jc

Ben Witherington said...

Hi jack:

I am just hoping the Heels don't suffer execution in the first weekend, but I like this team a lot as well--- a lot of spunk.
And Tyler from Poplar Bluff, well he's a force of nature.

Ben

Alison said...

I grew up in Kansas and remember when "In Cold Blood" the story (not the book) took place. We were riveted with fear, especially us children. It was a relief knowing these two men could not hide under our beds and get to us. I don't know how many times during the night I would get up and check to see if Dad had locked the door. And now, I know I'm off the subject, but I have two comments: (1) I don't believe anyone is completely against capital punishment -- when I've discussed with people, they always say something like, "I'm totally against capital punishment, except for ....", so I always say, "I'm against capital punishment in theory." (2) If we're truly pro-life as we claim, it's not just about abortion, or about capital punishment, but it is also about health insurance and war. Just my thoughts.

Jim said...

I just saw the movie Capote in Germany. All the Germans were sad at the end. But I smiled and said "so it had a happy end anyway." They looked confused until I reminded them about the Clutter Family and how justice was done.

Mort said...

As a member of the "Judeo" branch of the "Judeo/Christian" tradition, and as a criminal attorney who has defended in death penalty trials and appeals, I have a peculiar perspective on your take on "In Cold Blood" and the emotions around it. 1-Even those who believe in the abstract that there are evil people who "deserve" to die should still be against the process of capital punishment in practice. 2-In 35 years I have studied every aspect of the system and can honestly say that it does not work. It is arbitrary, capricious, fails to distinguish those who deserve to die from those who don't, is wasteful of emotional and ethical resources, and corrupts everyone who has to grapple with its enforcement and its consequences. 3-It doesn't do what most intend it to do: provide closure, deter crime, or instill respect for law. It does the opposite. 4-People of real faith (rather than lip service) believe in the sanctity of life (on either end).

toto said...

while searching for something totally unrelated to this, I found -- this. cp - i'm against it - hickock and smith? Well, let's just say at the time of their execution, I was in a cell at KSP in Lansing, Kansas (yes, Dr. Ben, Leavenworth, Kansas, is where the Federal Penitentiary sits - I don't think the feds ever execute people for murder) Was there ever a more deserving couple than those two idiots? I only wish they would have hung the dude who passed on the juicy tidbits about the money hid in the house! Capote -- I guess I don't have much respect for him, either. I guess profiting on the misery and glorification of two sociopaths is okay for you - me, I see the Clutter family and wonder how many psuedo-hickocks and psuedo-smiths have arisen because of this. Me, what do I know - I was only doing 110 years in Lansing (not Leavenworth!) for jailbreak, et al..