A Love that Kills

A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity.  (Proverbs 17:17)

As seen in Killers of the Flower Moon, the Osage people needed such friends in the late 1800s. After being forcibly removed from their native land by the United States government, the Osage were assigned new territories in northern Oklahoma. In a strange twist of fate, they discovered these lands were rich with oil and quickly became some of the wealthiest people in the world at that time. Suddenly, they had many friends, chief among them William “King” Hale. These outsiders offered products, services, and guarantees to the native peoples, while setting up whole communities in the shadow of their great wealth.

Then, in the early 1900s, the deaths began: accidents, sicknesses, even blatant murders. The Osage were once again afflicted, but this time by a hidden enemy. One particular Native American, Mollie Burkhart, was determined to find out what was happening to her people. Married to King’s nephew Ernest, she hoped that together they could put a stop to this senseless bloodshed and separate friend from foe. For his part, Ernest counted himself a friend to the Osage people and so did his uncle. It just turned out that they defined “friendship” in a way that diverged from Scripture.


Green-Eyed Envy

Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Timothy 6:9-10)

In many ways, this passage could serve as a fitting summary of this entire film—or at least the first half. We follow Ernest’s perspective for most of the movie, but regularly cut to those around him who are even more ruthless in their pursuit of wealth. The resulting carnage does seem to bother Ernest, especially as it affects his wife more and more. Yet as the bodies continue to stack up, he not only turns a blind eye but willingly conspires in the killings of his neighbors and in-laws. “I do love that money, sir,” we hear him tell his uncle, and it appears that this disordered love is ultimately what quenches his conscience day by day.

We watch as this love of money twists into a jealousy of the native peoples’ affluence expressed by the local white population. In their eyes, this sentiment is not covetousness but a protest to the “unfairness” of the Osage people becoming so wealthy through “a cruel turn of fate” as one man says. While most of them claim to be Christians, they never see these events as any part of the Lord’s will. King Hale even speaks of how God previously used miracles to deliver his people but “they don’t happen anymore.” Thus, these murderers describe themselves as correcting the inequities of their community, helping themselves where God cannot or will not aid them.

*Please note this movie is rated R for violence, some grisly images, and language, some of which is depicted in the trailer below.

Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing

I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them (Acts 20:29-30)

This is a warning Paul gave many church leaders in his last address to them; it is a warning from which the Osage could have benefited. Many Native people attend church alongside those who are secretly killing them, but they are unable to spot their enemy’s fangs before it’s too late. This inability to discern friend from foe may go beyond the cleverness of their killers though, as the Osage’s worldview paints a confused picture of reality. We watch as they attend church, as mentioned, but also as they revel in drinking and gambling, and as they maintain the traditional spiritual practices of their heritage. This leads to the Osage holding a worldview of composite conflicting truth claims and beliefs which further muddies their ability to see the world clearly. Certainly, this by no means justifies any of the horrific violence acted out on these people. It simply explains (at least partially) how the Natives were abused by the liars around them.

No example of this in the film is more heartbreaking than Mollie Burkhart’s trust in her husband Ernest. While she is determined to find out who is destroying her people, she never suspects that her husband or uncle could be involved at all, until she is confronted with undeniable evidence. Meanwhile, Ernest not only assists in the murders of Mollie’s kin, but takes steps to thwart her investigation, up to and including poisoning her insulin, which he administers to her on a daily basis. This level of deception is not accomplished through any cleverness on Ernest’s part, but rather through seemingly sincere gestures of love and care for his family. Again and again, the murderer professes his adoration for his wife and kids, even as he plots to harm them. Ernest appears to be convincing himself of his undying loyalty while rationalizing his actions as fighting for some kind of “greater good.” This serves as a deeply troubling reminder of the power of our hearts to deceive themselves (Jeremiah 17:9), and the harm we can bring those closest to us while still loving them sentimentally.

Final Justice

Moreover, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness. I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work. (Ecclesiastes 3:16-17, ESV)

There is an eventual, imperfect reprieve from the wickedness presented in the film. The authorities do arrest (and finally convict) most of those involved with this bloody conspiracy, but some get away scot-free, and even those incarcerated end up serving mild sentences. Tragedies like the murders shown in this film should grieve our hearts and we would do well to learn from them what we can to keep such events from repeating within our own lifetimes. A powerful lesson from this account is the destructive power of disordered love. Love is one of the most powerful emotions God has given us, and when properly directed it brings us closer to our neighbors and to our maker. This story shows us how that same emotion twists into obsession, envy, and greed when directed toward material things in a manner that leads to deception and death.

We also should not despair at the lack of earthly consequences for the villains of this story; instead, we can find hope in the fact that the Perfect Judge sees all that man does under the sun and one day, perfect justice will be meted out.

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Keegan Brittain

Keegan Brittain is a full-time employee at Summit Ministries who loves engaging in the pop culture space through the lens of apologetics. He holds a B.A. in Organizational Leadership from Northern Kentucky University & is currently working on a M.A. in Applied Apologetics with an emphasis in Cultural Engagement at Colorado Christian University. Keegan lives in Colorado Springs, CO & enjoys discussing ideas, media, & how they interact on his Twitter & Letterboxd which are both under @ks_brittain.