One of the cinema’s most powerful scenes occurs in a film many might disregard due to its genre. In “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” a man trying to rebuild his war-shattered life, rides out to face a Comanche chieftain.
Josey: You be Ten Bears?
Ten Bears: I am Ten Bears.
Josey: I’m Josey Wales.
Ten Bears: I have heard. You’re the Gray Rider. You would not make peace with the Blue Coats. You may go in peace.
Josey: I reckon not. Got nowhere to go.
Ten Bears: Then you will die.
Josey: I came here to die with you. Or, live with you. Dying ain’t so hard for men like you and me, it’s living that’s hard; when all you ever cared about has been butchered or raped. Governments don’t live together, people live together. With governments you don’t always get a fair word or a fair fight. Well I’ve come here to give you either one, or get either one from you. I came here like this so you’ll know my word of death is true. And that my word of life is then true. The bear lives here, the wolf, the antelope, the Comanche. And so will we. Now, we’ll only hunt what we need to live on, same as the Comanche does. And every spring when the grass turns green and the Comanche moves north, he can rest here in peace, butcher some of our cattle and jerk beef for the journey. The sign of the Comanche, that will be on our lodge. That’s my word of life.
Ten Bears: And your word of death?
Josey: It’s here in my pistols, there in your rifles . . . I’m here for either one.
Ten Bears: These things you say we will have, we already have.
Josey: That’s true. I ain’t promising you nothing extra. I’m just giving you life and you’re giving me life. And I’m saying that men can live together without butchering one another.
Ten Bears: It’s sad that governments are chiefed by the double-tongues. There is iron in your word of death for all Comanche to see. And so there is iron in your word of life. No signed paper can hold the iron, it must come from men. The word of Ten Bears carries the same iron of life and death. It is good that warriors such as we meet in the struggle of life . . . or death. It shall be life.
This conversation has always caused me to stop and think—even as I typed it out now. It contains many profound thoughts about honesty, commitment, respect and even peace. Most captivating to my thoughts, though, is the contrast between words of death and words of life.
“There is iron in your word of death . . . And so, there is iron in your word of life.”
People say all sorts of things, often without much regard as to whether or not they are true. They often speak without thinking about the words before they leave their lips. Most daily conversation is superficial, and immediately forgotten.
That changes, when we speak of death. Sure, comedians joke about it, but when people discuss actual death—often in the wake of someone’s passing—our words become more measured, our tempo slows, and we more consciously ponder what we are saying.
I recall a conversation with a fellow chaplain who described his father’s dying. He contracted a terminal disease, which would take some time to extinguish his life, and he told his children: “As you have grown up, I’ve done my best to teach you how to live. Now I will do my best to teach you how to die.”
It doesn’t require faith in God to die with dignity, but those of us who know the resurrected Jesus, face death with a confidence that death does not have the final word.
The truly wise live all of their days in the knowledge that we all will someday (barring the parousia) experience physical death. In light of that, our words should not be careless, or even frivolous. That’s true for our life words, as well as our death words.
By this I do not mean that we should not play with language or engage in humor. After all, humor is inarguably one of God’s most precious gifts to us. Nor should we allow the cloud of death that hangs over all mortal flesh rob us of the many joys life brings.
C.S. Lewis would have understood the essence of the conversation quoted above. (The movie was made thirteen years after his own death.) When grieving the death of his wife, Lewis wrote:
You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it? . . . Only a real risk tests the reality of a belief. (A Grief Observed).
What I am trying to capture is more than simply the notion that our words of life, our day to day conversations, should be just as sincere and thoughtful as our words of death. It’s more in line with what Lewis was referring to. That our words, thoughts, and hopes have been tested and proven true . . . because they are based not on the fancy of the moment, but on the final, concluding whole of the testimony of our lives.
In other words, it is precisely because one’s word of death (ultimate, naked honesty) is true, that you can trust their word of life.
That’s a message that echoes both the sound of a hammer driving nails on a Judean hill, and a heavy stone rolling away from the entrance to a sealed tomb, two days later.