Lessons from "The Godfather"
While my oldest son was home from college on spring break, we spent our evenings together watching Frank Coppola’s classic screenplay The Godfather (1972), followed by The Godfather II (1974) and The Godfather III (1990). I find watching these films entertaining as well as educational. There are lessons about history (how immigration changed the landscape of large cities), culture (how values differ from one culture to another), and human nature (how people “take care” of each other). But there are also moral lessons to be learned from The Godfather. For example, sometimes “bad guys” are charming. Don’t think of ‘Evil’ as always parading around with a pitchfork! And, you can’t keep your private life ‘private’ – thinking that it will not affect your family – no matter how hard you may try. And, ruthless Machiavellian schemes may make you rich, but there is a price to pay – guilt, loss, regret, betrayal – and damnation.
One particular line from Michael Corleone in The Godfather II reminded me a great deal of how many Christians wrongly react to people who wrong them. Tom Hagen (played by Robert Duvall), who is the family consigliere (legal advisor), asks Michael why he has become so filled with hate and why he wants to kill everyone. Michael stares back at Tom, unfazed by the question and responds coolly: “I don’t want to kill everyone, Tom. Just my enemies.” In other words, “Don’t make me out to be a bad person. I don’t hate everyone. I just hate my enemies.” Of course one of the problems with this policy is that eventually the lines become blurred between ‘friends and enemies’, leaving no one around us safe.
This unfortunately has become our justification for hatred. We don’t hate everyone – we just hate the people who hate us, or annoy us, or defraud us, or wrong us, or take advantage of us. And somehow – like Michael Corleone – we find this sort of response acceptable (and so do most Americans). Soon the lines become blurred between friends and enemies, and we justify behavior we would have never condoned. What happened to the words of Jesus?
44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?
- Jesus, Matthew 5
I am not arguing that we should be naïve. Jesus certainly wasn’t – and he called us to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” I think the call of Jesus needs to be recovered in our treatment of those inside and outside of the Christian community, and that is what I talked about in last Sunday’s sermon Real Christians Love. If we would be like the Father, who is kind to the evil and the good, we must love even those who mistreat us. This does not mean we need to vacation together, or go out to eat as couples, or hang out on the back deck for drinks, or send our friends to patronize their businesses (especially if we don’t trust them). But, we can at least “greet” them, to use the words of Jesus. We can say ‘hi,’, ask how the family is doing, treat them with respect as image bearers of God, and pray for them as we go on your way. While Michael Corleone’s advice appeals to me (I’m a sinner like everyone else), I do not want my life to end like his – bitter, lonely, and with regrets that cannot be undone. “God help us to follow Christ, by loving those who despise us, and doing so wisely, while we trust you to bring justice into our lives in the right time.”