Pulp Fiction and Non-Violent Justice

Of all Quentin Tarantino’s movies, Pulp Fiction is without doubt the best one. It is packed with memorable characters and quotable lines, but Jules Winnfield (played by Samuel L. Jackson) with his “citation” of Ezekiel 25:17 is many people’s favourite. As a hitman for drug lord Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), Winnfield likes to send his victims to the next world accompanied by the words:

The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.

In this altered version of the Ezekiel verse, Winnfield justifies his killing, even though he does not give it much thought at first. In the final dialogue of the movie, Winnfield admits about the quote:

I been saying that s*** for years. And if you heard it, that meant your ass. I never gave much thought to what it meant. I just thought it was some cold-blooded s*** to say to a motherf***er before I popped a cap in his ass. But I saw some s*** this morning made me think twice. See, now I’m thinking, maybe it means you’re the evil man, and I’m the righteous man, and Mr. 9 millimeter here, he’s the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness.

It is clear that this initial interpretation is what Winnfield believed his violent killings meant: he was some sort of righteous man, and those he killed were the wicked. By using his gun, he was protecting the good in this world from the evil and laying vengeance upon the dark side.

Just(ified) Action

This moral argument is exactly the sort of justice justification we find in tons of action flicks: the hero is using violence as a means of shepherding. The action hero is “his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children.” It is a theme pervasive in many action movies wherein violence is justified “in the name of charity and good will.” Whether it is Die Hard‘s John McClane trying to save his wife, John Rambo rescuing his boss in Rambo III, or William Wallace avenging his wife’s death in Braveheart; their actions are justified by the fact that they are meant to establish justice.

Action movies, and the fact that so many viewers can enjoy the bad guy dying, show us that most human beings have a deep craving for justice. Seeing the villain die results in a strong catharsis; a process of releasing an overwhelming feeling. I would argue that with action movies this feeling is the desire for justice. Most if not every human being has this desire that good would prevail. It is probably the main reason that violence in movies is often not seen as such a great threat in Christian circles; as long as justice is served. For instance, Braveheart‘s Wallace is used as an example of good masculinity in John Eldredge’s book Wild at Heart (I however don’t think he should be used in this way, see here for reasons I agree with).

Winnfield’s Revelation

Deep down, Winnfield also has this desire for justice, the prevailing of good, as is shown by his initial justification of his actions. But having had an epiphany – a supernatural revelation – the hitman’s moral arguments are falling apart. “I’d like that,” he says about his former interpretation wherein he is the good guy, “But that s*** ain’t the truth. The truth is, you’re the weak, and I am the tyranny of evil men. But I’m trying, Ringo. I’m trying real hard to be the shepherd.”

The result of his epiphany is that Winnfield does not resort to violence. He lets robbers Pumpkin and Honey Bunny off the hook, though in his original reasoning they would have deserved pain and death without any doubt or hesitation. Winnfield comes out of the movie as the morally stronger person in comparison to his colleague Vincent Vega (John Travolta), who does not like Winnfield’s change in character.

Justice as Peaceful Process

Granted, as a hitman Winnfield is in a different spot than cop McClane, soldier Rambo and revolutionary Wallace. The latter three are not involved with immoral activities like dealing drugs or killing for money. However, their acts of violence are based on a similar reasoning: a strive for making wrong things right and protecting the weak.

Even though we experience a catharsis when seeing a good (or crap) action movie, we need Winnfield’s epiphany. We need to realise that exercising power and seeking vengeance is not justice. Justice is not just about the product of a good, clean and peaceful society. It is also about the process of getting there. Violence simply is not the way to get to justice, definitely not if exercised by humanity. The whole body of Jesus’ teaching shows a deep desire for justice through non-violence, hence the call to his followers to be gentle and peaceful in the same breath as thirsting for justice/righteousness (Mat 5:3-12). His justice comes as a lamb slain by and for those who are evil.*

Winnfield realises that his reasoning is wrong and starts walking a different path. Ironically, in Pulp Fiction director Tarantino uses violence as a method to get rid of the still bad Vega while letting the now good Winnfield live.

By the way, 20 years after the release of Pulp Fiction, Samuel L. Jackson is still able to recite the passage entirely. It still sounds awesome.

* Greg Boyd posted a few very strong arguments for non-violence in response to Mark Driscoll’s violent Jesus. They can be read here in Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.