Saved from the Dog
The Power of the Dog revolves around four main characters: Phil, a sinister, aggressive, hyper-masculine rancher; his brother, soft-spoken George; Rose, the unhappy widow who marries George and moves to the ranch with her new husband and his brother; and Peter, Rose’s effeminate teenage son who moves to the ranch with his mother. When George marries Rose and brings her and her son to live on the ranch, Phil is quietly incensed. He is angered at the presence of the strangers and at the growing distance between himself and his brother, his life-long companion. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that Phil is furtively doing everything in his power to psychologically terrorize and manipulate Rose and Peter. Rose, unable to handle Phil’s unrelenting hostility, becomes addicted to alcohol. Peter takes a different course, resorting to manipulation, trickery, and sabotage to battle against Phil’s cruelty.
Throughout most of the film, Peter’s motivations and aims are unclear. At first, Peter and Phil’s relationship is hostile, but as things progress they seem to become close, Phil taking Peter under his wing. Foreshadowed in the film is Peter’s motivation to protect his mother. Early on, before the audience is aware of the way Phil will treat Rose, we hear Peter say, “What kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?” As the story nears its conclusion, the audience realizes that all along Peter has been following a deeply disguised plan to remove Phil from their lives. It becomes evident that Peter has taken matters into his own hands, making a plan to save his darling from the power of the dog. The darling is Rose, while the “dog” is Phil. Confronted with evil, Peter uses what strength he can find in trickery to fight the injustice he sees taking place against his mother, ultimately murdering Phil.
The final scene of The Power of the Dog shows Peter reading Psalm 22:20 as George and Rose return from Phil’s funeral. The ending reveals that Peter takes the psalm almost asan injunction directed towards him: he must save his darling from the power of the dog. Because of his lack of strength to fight evil in any other way, he resorts to eradicating one evil (the abuses of Phil) by enacting another evil (murdering Phil). Peter seems to have justified his actions with Psalm 22, but this does not mean his actions are justified by Scripture. The Power of the Dog exhibits Peter’s answer to the question: what do we do when evil surrounds those we love? But what is a Christian answer to that question?
Jesus and Justice
Justice is a central concern of Christianity. The Old Testament holds admonitions to do justice (Micah 6:8) and to fight injustice (Job 11:14, ESV). These verses exist in tension with Jesus’s command to be ready to suffer injustice (Matthew 5:38-40). Jesus’s command in Matthew, “do not resist the evil person,” seems to be incongruent with the Old Testament command to fight injustice. By the direction in Job to “let not injustice live in your tent,” Peter’s actions in The Power of the Dog could ostensibly be justified; but by Jesus’s command to “not resist the evil person,” Peter’s actions to protect his mother are not ultimately justified by the edicts of the Bible. For many, it is easier to believe that we should accept suffering ourselves than it is to believe that we should accept it when those we love suffer. Does Jesus’s command to “turn the other cheek” apply if the one being slapped is someone we love rather than ourselves?
Church history is rife with disagreement upon whether Christians should fight against or suffer injustice. If vengeance belongs to the Lord (Romans 12:9), is there any time for Christians to stand up against evil? The Bible states that it is God, not we, who should repay evildoers (Miach 2:1-3, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-7, Psalm 94:1-4). Even the direction in Job to not allow injustice to live in your tent comes from the mouth of Job’s friend, not from God. We are commanded to not commit injustice, rather than to actively work against the injustice done by others (Deuteronomy 16:19, Proverbs 12:22, Leviticus 19:15). But should we take this to mean that we should never actively work against injustice?
Such verses could lead to the understanding that the biblical view of justice is that we should always strive to live with a high personal standard, but we should not go out of our way to stop injustice being done by others or to others. But this is not God’s heart when it comes to justice. To avoid such a misunderstanding, we must recognize one key point: to do justice as we are called to in Micah 6:8 in part means that we must work against injustice. If we allow injustice against those around us to go unchallenged, we run the risk of “justifying the wicked,” which God hates (Proverbs 17:5). Therefore, although it is God who visits vengeance upon the unjust and God who will eventually eradicate all injustice, in the call to “do justice” we may be used by God in his stand against injustice.
However, if we are to fight against evil, we must do so without doing evil ourselves. Rather, we are called to “fight evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Peter’s solution to injustice in The Power of the Dog cannot be condoned by Christians because his solution to injustice was to fight evil with evil. It is not wrong to suffer evil, but it is always wrong to do evil. In the Christian life, there are times to fight evil and times to suffer evil. Jesus turned over the tables of the moneychangers in response to their unjust actions in the temple (Mark 11:15-17), but he willingly suffered the greatest injustice on the cross. Through this act, Jesus demonstrated how he triumphed over evil through sacrificial love―a way of life we are called to imitate. Whether we (or those we love) are suffering injustice or we are being used by God to fight against injustice, we may rest in the fact that God is the one who ultimately repays injustice and will someday end it for good.
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