Last month while I was on spring break, I had the opportunity to watch a few movies for the first time. Most of them were recent, but a couple of them were older movies that I enjoyed very much. One of them was “Sergeant York”, a World War One biopic from 1941 starring Gary Cooper, which is the earliest Hollywood film I’ve ever heard of that had explicit Christian themes (excluding a lot of silent Biblical epic films). Co-written by screenwriters Howard Koch (“Casablanca”) and John Huston (“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”) and directed by Howard Hawks (“Rio Bravo”) is one of the many “Christian films” made by non-Christian filmmakers, but the themes still ring true.
Cooper plays the title character, Alvin C. York, who starts out the film as a rebellious young man living in a small town in Tennessee, where Daniel Boone is said to have killed a bear and where a small Christian church has to compete for visitors with those in the neighborhood going hunting. One of those men is York, who gets into bar fights and comes home late for supper. (And if you’ve seen Gary Cooper in any other movies, it might take you a while to adjust to his good-guy persona playing a rebel at first in this movie.) As York continues to skip church, the local pastor, Rosier Pile (Walter Brennan), tries to convince him to give his life to Jesus, but York keeps putting religion off.
But one day, in order to win the heart of the lovely Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie), he starts working extra hard in different jobs around the town to raise money for a piece of land he’s looking to buy. And he needs to buy it before another man does, so he works long days for several months while his mother prays for him. And one day, York signs up for a turkey shoot in the town. And you guessed it: shoot a turkey from far away, and you win money. And York, who happens to be a very good shot, wins by a hair. And he is about to go buy the piece of land with his reward when he runs into the landowner: the property has already been sold to someone else.
York is furious after he’s put all that work into buying land that he can’t have. And that night, he goes with a gun to seek revenge on the new landowners. But that night, it starts raining—and soon, it gets worse. And all of a sudden, lightning strikes York and knocks him off his horse. But they are both fine. And York realizes that maybe Pastor Pile was right—God probably isn’t something that he should just shrug off. And that night, at a revival service at the church, York approaches the altar and accepts Jesus.
So York starts to make some life changes. He asks forgiveness for his anger toward the landowners and even offers to work the land for them. He starts reading the Bible more and more, going off by himself to study it outdoors. And he and Gracie start to come to the place where they feel they want to get married. But one day, someone brings a newspaper into the local general store and shares the news: war has been declared against Germany, and men are beginning to be drafted. York, now believing that he shouldn’t go to war because the Bible says that killing is wrong, applies as a conscientious objector, but he is still drafted into the service. And soon, he leaves for boot camp, hoping to return home soon.
At boot camp, York proves again to be a very good shoot and overall a good soldier. But one day, the camp commander, Major Buxton (Stanley Ridges) calls York into his office to promote him to the rank of corporal. But York tells him that he can’t do it, and he tells him about his religious beliefs and how the Bible says that killing is wrong. But Buxton starts challenging York, respecting those religious beliefs:
BUXTON: You’re a religious man, York. You want to worship God in your own way. You’re a farmer. …You want to plow your fields as you see fit and raise your family according to your own likes. And that’s your heritage, and mine, and every American’s. But the cost of that heritage is high. Sometimes it takes all we have to preserve it: even our lives. How are you going to answer that, York?
And he lets York go on furlough to think about making a decision. And on a hilltop back home, York sits and reads the Bible, trying to hear an answer from God. And eventually, in a scene that parallels one in “3 Godfathers”, a semi-religious movie to be released years later, wind blows the Bible open to a story in the Gospels, where Jesus tells the Pharisees: “Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Moved by this, York goes back to the Army to stay in the war.
Today, I want to take time to focus on these verses. This verse can be found in Matthew 22:21, Mark 12:17, and Luke 20:25. The Pharisees, trying to catch Jesus in his words, ask him whether or not it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. Jesus tells them: look on your coins. Whose inscription is there? They answer that it is Caesar’s, and Jesus tells them: “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Basically, he is telling them that as long as they are in a position to serve, they should serve, both their earthly rulers and their Heavenly Father.
My interpretation of this verse in this situation is this: York is conflicted about whom to obey: should he serve God or serve his country? To him, there doesn’t seem to be any way to do both. But he reads this verse, and he is reminded of the place he has been put in, and no matter whose authority he is under, he should be an example of Christ by serving both God and his country. And later, when he leads an attack on the Germans, he does end up killing some enemy soldiers who are using machine guns, but he later says: “I figured them guns was killin' hundreds, maybe thousands, and there weren't nothin' anybody could do, but to stop them guns. And that's what I done.”
I bet that all of us have been in those kinds of situations, haven’t we? We’ve been caught in the middle of serving the needs of someone and serving God. But I think that if we strive to serve God in how we serve others, that’s truly being the example that Jesus wants us to be. And my prayer for you this week is that when you find yourself in a position to serve, you would be willing to do it to serve the Lord as well as the people around you.