There are a handful of moments in books and movies that strike my heart, mind, and sympathies unflinchingly. Generally these are moments characterized by some sort of passionate overflow of emotion or thought. One such scene happens to be in my favorite movie, The Last of the Mohicans, a story about a dying era and a dawning epoch.
The image of suffering in one particular scene always strikes me keenly and I’ve never been able to quite identify why, until recently, at least, when my dad used it in an analogy.
At this point in the story, a sacrifice must be made, a life must be given if another life is to be saved. Duncan Heyworth, a rather caustic and prideful soldier, offers his life so that the childhood sweetheart who rejected him, and the man she has come to love, might not be burned at the stake.
Cora and Hawkeye (the above mentioned) do not at first realize that a life for a life exchange has occurred. When they do Cora is quick to protest but Hawkeye pulls her away in the realization that if they do not escape now, they never will.
What strikes me so poignantly in this moment is the expression upon Duncan’s face as his body is lifted above his tormentors. To see such a sacrifice made by a man who previously cared for nothing but his own interests is, for lack of better words, deeply moving. (Somewhat reminiscent of Sydney Carton.) But it is the suffering on his face – the utter anguish and agony – that stirs pathos in me.
Hawkeye, whose emotional turmoil is evident, lifts his musket toward Duncan to relieve the enemy who gave his life for him of his misery. And Duncan, rather than succumbing to the flames dies at Hawkeye’s hand while Cora hides her face.
In an emotional sense, it’s a wrenching scene.
But when my dad used this scene to serve in a larger point about what real mercy is, I realized that the “mercy” in that moment, is not exactly mercy. This false mercy contributes to my disturbance/distress with Duncan’s death.
What my dad said was this: “To kill someone to relieve them of their pain, is not mercy if he does not know the Lord.”
A man being burned at the stake is going to far greater torment than those flames if he does not treasure Jesus in his heart. Ultimately, dying without the assurance of salvation is far, far, worse than suffering a terrible death. Even death by flames.
So this mercy Hawkeye offers, is not mercy.
Temporary relief of suffering is not grace. To unburden someone in this world, without the gospel, does nothing in an eternal sense.
The more I think on this scene, the more I am convinced that it is Duncan in this moment who is the merciful one. While Duncan is by no means a role model, or even a likable character, he is a Christ-like figure in this moment. He lays aside his own life in an unspeakably horrific death so that others might not be subjected to death or a life of slavery.
Perhaps this is a greater mercy.
Mercy is freely given and received, but it was not freely bought. A life had to be taken for life to be given.
Now, the “resurrection,” so to speak, in The Last of the Mohicans is more metaphor than literal. Cora, Hawkeye, and Chingachgook survive their dire situation due to Duncan (initially at least) and the movie ends with them staring at the old world they once knew, that is slowly but swiftly becoming new. They leave behind the lives they once held so dear for something dawning over the horizon.
Although the parallels are not completely similar, the idea that strikes me most here is this: what is the greater mercy, the greater relief? Duncan’s sacrifice or Hawkeye’s shot? Is relief without freedom on the other side truly mercy?