The Green Mile: insights about a tormented executioner

After watching The Green Mile again recently, I realized that Stephen King had achieved a great feat. He added a modern time tragedy to the collection of Greek Tragedies: a drama of an executioner who had to kill an angel.

The movie is about a guard called Paul on a death row cell block who gets a giant inmate called John Coffey. As time goes by Paul learns that John is kind of heart and able to perform smaller and bigger healings. Being a Christian he realizes that John is some kind of miracle of God and he starts doubting if he truly is the brutal murderer of two little children. Failing to get to the bottom of this crime, he is forced to execute this innocent angel like man, because of his duty. And although John himself is grateful to finally be able to die (he doesn’t like the cruelty in this world) and he forgives Paul (tell God that it was a great kindness that you have done), Paul still feels that he committed a sin. When John shared a vision with Paul how the girls really were killed, Paul received something special from John: Paul would live for many long years.

This tragedy is a modern adaption of the legend of St. Christopher. St. Christopher was a man who was helping people from one side to the other side of a mighty river by carrying them on his back. At one time St. Christopher had to carry across a baby (baby = innocence). During the travel across the water (like when walking the Green Mile), the baby got heavier and heavier. Finally, but completely worn out, he was able to put the baby to the other side of the river. Then the baby revealed himself to be Jesus.

Basically, Paul Edgecomb and John Coffey are opposites: Paul helps people who do not deserve to live to die, and John helps people who do not deserve to die to live. But in a way both of them are St. Christopher: helping people from one side to the other side of the road.

Although St Christopher is a good archetype for this film, it does not seem to explain the tragedy of the executioner. Or does it? At the Green Mile both Christophers’ meet and Paul needs to bring John back to the other world. After the vision sharing, Paul would live for many years. But this blessing would turn into a curse. The former executioner on death row was now forced to watch all his loved ones die of old age. He feels cursed because he consciously participated in killing one of God’s angels. He is haunted by the idea that he did not do everything to prevent it (he could have gone to the parents and ask if Wild Bill had worked there).

Watching the movie I was wondering what it would be like if a similar story would have happened at Jesus’ crucifixion. What if one of the Romans had recognized Jesus and that he was aware that Jesus was the Son of God?  Maybe because this Roman had been healed by Jesus in an earlier untold stage? But he had to crucify Jesus nonetheless, because it was his duty? Or what about the Gospel of Judas where it is advocated that Jesus asked Judas to betray him in order to be able to complete the great work. In this scenario Judas no longer is the greatest traitor but Jesus’ greatest confident.

The movie sheds an interesting light on the morality of life and death. Our Western society is built on rules and regulations which govern and protect life. Taking lives is in many countries no longer customary, although we still lock up people for life. We no longer seem to be executioners. The hunting days are gone and wars seem to be very far away from us. But we still kill. Either by eating meat or simply by being cruel to one another [he killed them with their love, Boss]. The truth is: life and death are essential parts of Life. One cannot exist without the other. Our society finds this difficult to accept. But this movie shows that our Christian belief system of sin and guilt does not help as well. Even though John explicitly forgives Paul, he still feels torn and hurt inside.

My guess it that the day that when Paul sees that he did not commit a sin, but that he helped an angel find his way home to the other side of the stream, he can close his eyes and rest in peace.

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