While doing research for this post, I came across the unusual phrase "A lasting peace, through the judicious use of the spear." This phrase perfectly sums up the salient moral message in Solomon Kane, an independent Sword and Sorcery film about a Puritan vigilante sworn to fight evil in 16th Century England.
Far from being another film full of gratuitous violence, Solomon Kane explores a rather profound ethical question: when does adherence to nonviolence trump the moral and personal obligation to protect your life, or the lives of your family, from immanent harm?
Solomon Kane offers an unexpected axiom on the paradox of nonviolent philosophy. Pacifism is undoubtedly a philosophy arising from a selfless desire to not harm others. Pacifists view all violence as a moral failing. But paradoxically, the failure to protect others from immanent rape, murder, etc, when in a position to do so, leads to them being harmed. Under certain circumstances, nonviolence is actually a selfish philosophy, rather than a selfless philosophy.
In a world where evil people rape and murder, forceful opposition to violence is not only pragmatic, it necessary and moral. The most pragmatic and ethical position is nonaggression, rather than nonviolence.
I am the Only Devil Here
Kane starts out the movie as a disinherited nobleman turned sea captain and marauder under Francis Drake. He's a bad guy...so bad in fact, that the Devil's own emissary comes to claim his soul and whisk him away to Hell.
In the opening sequence, Kane and his men are attacked by demons while plundering a fortress in North Africa. Rather than allow a retreat, Kane shoots his own men in the back stating "I am the only devil here." As he approaches the throne room, Satan's Reaper appears to claim him for his life of murder and greed. Rather than allow his soul to be damned, Kane asks for God's protection, and escapes.
We next find Solomon Kane holed up in a monastery in England a year later. He has renounced violence and given all his wealth to the church. The abbot has been mediating on Kane's continued presence there, and feels that God's path for Solomon lies elsewhere. Solomon reluctantly leaves the sanctuary of the monastery.
The Soul of the Lord Hates...Those Who Love Violence
Puritans were not historically known for pacifism, however they were concerned with a personal and inward journey away from sin and pride and towards the will of God, which could include various Biblical prescripts. Many Scriptural passages provide a basis for renunciation of violence including:
"But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also." Matthew 5:39
"The soul of the Lord hates…those who love violence." Psalm 11:15.
From this Scriptural basis we find Kane dedicating himself to a life of peace in his search for salvation, fearing that his soul will be damned should he ever again take up the sword. He confesses that before becoming a man of God, killing was easy for him, and that he was most at home in battle.
I've renounced Violence. That's a Shame...We Haven't!
Solomon is attacked on the road by three ruffians who rob him and beat him. Refusing to fight back, he states, "I have renounced violence." "Well, that's a shame," says one of the men, "because we haven't!" This scene is potent foreshadowing for later plot points.
Solomon is found beaten and unconscious by a Puritan family who are making a pilgrimage to the New World. The family take him in since they share the same faith and are also sworn to peace. He confesses his past to the patriarch, William, when asked to join the family on their journey:
Solomon: That's a kind offer, William, very kind, thank you. I should be honest with you. You should know the kind of man you're thinking of taking in. I've done bad things, terrible things, cruel things. I am a...No, I was, was an evil, evil man.
William Crowthorn: But the Lord speaks of redemption and forgiveness.
Solomon: No, my soul is damned. Satan's creatures will take me should I stray from the path of peace.
William Crowthorn: Then do not stray, Master Kane.
Unfortunately for the Crowthorn family, they are attacked in their camp by a gang of thugs. One holds a knife to the youngest son's throat, while others restrain William and his wife and daughters. Knowing what a great fighter Solomon was, the family plead with him to do something to stop the men from harming them. Not wanting to break his vow of peace, Solomon begs the men to leave the boy alone.
The thugs mock Solomon and stab the boy and William anyway. In that instant, Solomon selflessly breaks his vow of peace in order to defend the family, while realizing that he may have just damned himself to Hell. He successfully fights off most of the men, but in the milieu, William's daughter Meredeth is kidnapped.
Rescue the Weak and the Needy
Does adherence to a pacifist ideal trump the moral and personal obligation to protect life? What happens in the moment when your life is on the line, or the lives of your family members or innocent bystanders? Can inaction, even based on principle, actually lead to the harm that pacifists are trying to prevent?
The nonviolent ideal, while based on good intentions, is elitist. If you claim to value lives of others, then why group those who initiate violence, rape and murder into the same category of moral failure as those who use physical force to protect themselves and defend innocent life from harm?
As William lays dying, he begs Solomon to find and rescue his daughter, Meredith. Solomon agrees, in keeping with Psalm 82:4: "Rescue the weak and needy; Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked."
Solomon sees that begging avowed killers and rapists not to harm innocents is futile. What is more, he was in a position to save lives, yet his inaction, in the name of God, may have actually caused the loss of innocent life. It is one thing to think that force isn't the best response in most situations; it is another to view all force as a moral failing, even in self defense or defense of the innocent.
Later while searching for Meredith, he discusses the difficultly of the Christian nonviolent position with a priest:
Priest: God protects the faithful [from violence].
Solomon: How can it be right? That this evil is left to walk the Earth, while all we have to protect ourselves is what? Simple Faith?
There Are Many Paths to Redemption, Not All of Them Peaceful
Kane's personal journey is one from violent aggressor, to penitent pacifist, to selfless hero and rescuer. Kane puts his own life on the line to help others. Solomon eventually realizes this as the correct path for him, and this is moral message the film attempts to send. As the abbot states when Solomon leaves the monastery, "There are many paths to redemption, not all of them peaceful."
The director of the movie, Michael J. Bassett admits as much in this interview:
Interviewer: It seemed to me – and I wasn’t sure if this was a comment that the film was making about the difficulties of nonviolence – but it seemed to me that the family dropped their adherence to nonviolence when it was their children’s lives on the line. The parents start crying to Kane to “do something.” They’re commissioning Kane to be violent on their behalf, it seems.
Director Michael J. Bassett: That’s absolutely a correct interpretation. You can only write from your own heart. I’ve got kids, and it’s like, “I will be as pacifist as possible until my children are threatened.” And when they are, you ask, "Well, what’s more important? Is my faith more important than my family?" And that, I think, is a really powerful moral dilemma for anybody. And on top of that, Pete Postlethwaite’s character has to turn to this man Kane and make him break his vow. They say to him, “Do something!” And he has to say, “If I do something, I’m as cursed as when I started the movie.” It’s the fundamental moral crux of the whole movie: What would you do? I want the audience to be willing him to break his vow, and at the same time, to understand what is at stake for him...But I think the death of innocents is a potent catalyst for a violent act.
Solomon Kane is ultimately about our duties to others. If you can protect and rescue the weak, is that not based on a higher moral principle than your personal desire for salvation through the renunciation of violence? When Solomon tries to rescue Meredith, he is asked:
Malachi: "Why do you care for her? You came here to save your soul."
Solomon: She IS my soul."
Redefining Violence: The Non Aggression Principle
To quote my earlier post on the non-aggression principle, I argue that most people have an overly broad definition of violence which renders physical acts of aggressiveness and self defense indistinguishable from one another. Aggressive violence is not the same thing as physical force used to defend yourself or another innocent person, against immanent harm, injury or death. Self defense should not be morally condemned in the same way that aggression should.
Non-aggression respects both the moral obligation that we have not to initiate violence against others, while simultaneously avowing the need for self defense and protection of loved ones should it arise.
So there you have it. Solomon Kane illustrates that pacifism is in fact paradoxical when violent people rape, maim and murder. While peace is ideal, we should practice a philosophy of nonaggression instead of nonviolence. We should ditch the elitist attitude towards those who fight back against violence directed at themselves or their families. Forceful resistance to violence is not only ethical; in an imperfect world, it is necessary.