It wasn’t until recently that I watched the movie The Green Mile. This 1999 drama set on a Louisiana death row had long been on my list of movies I’ve wanted to see but just never had the chance. Having seen it once, I’ve now gone back and viewed it several times, captivated by the complexity of the characters of Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks) and John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan).
The movie begins as John Coffey is brought to “The Green Mile,” the nickname of death row at the Cold Mountain Penitentiary. Two things immediately stand out about Coffey: his enormous size and his passive demeanor. He is truly a gentle giant but also an enigma. How could someone so simple and peaceful have committed the crime for which he is to be executed?
As the story progresses, we discover that John possesses three amazing gifts. He is able to detect the future. He doesn’t make predictions, but he can sense the coming trouble when another prisoner is about to attack the guards and he knows of the plan to sneak him out of the prison. He also has the power to heal. First he heals Paul’s bladder infection. Next he saves the life of “Mr. Jangles,” the pet mouse of another inmate. Finally he heals the warden’s wife who is suffering with an inoperable brain tumor.
The third gift is the ability to see and transmit things from another person’s heart or mind simply by touching them. Coffey saw and was able to show Edgecomb the truth of Wild Bill’s actions; how he threatened two young sisters to stay quiet in order to save the other before he brutalized and killed them both. In seeing this, Paul confirms his belief that John was innocent.
This revelation might seem a God-send: just what John needs to save his life. Paul realizes this but is stuck because he has no proof. He knows that a “vision” would hardly stand up in a court. John had been convicted and sentenced, and like it or not Paul was to carry out that sentence.
The thought of killing an innocent man, let alone one who had been blessed with such extraordinary abilities was unbearable to Paul. So he asks Coffey what he should do, fully prepared to help him escape from prison if that was what was right. John asks him why he would consider something so foolish. Paul answers with one of the most memorable lines of the film: “On the day of my judgment, when I stand before God, and He asks me why did I kill one of his true miracles, what am I gonna say? That it was my job? It was my job?”
This question and the emotion with which it was asked provide an intriguing parallel with modern Christians and our struggles with living in the 21st century world. Paul knew John was innocent, knew that he was truly gifted, and knew that if he were free he could continue to bless others with his abilities. But in spite of all he knew, he was bound by a judge who wrote an order to end this man’s life and to eliminate from the earth a power he attributed to a blessing from God. How could he stand in defiance of God simply to satisfy the desires of the world? Today’s Christian faces this same challenge every day. We can choose to hold to the teachings of the Bible in their fullness and truth and face the consequences of a world that will not agree with it, or we can compromise our beliefs and do what the world considers popular or appropriate. Will we cave in our will we stand firm?
As for the answer to Paul’s question, Coffey stands firm in following the order of execution. He speaks of being tired of many things: most notably the ugliness of the world that he sees and hears every day. And so the day of his execution comes. Coffey is strapped into the chair and Paul, now standing before him has completed the protocols of the execution with the words, “May God have mercy on your soul.” There is only one order left to give: the command to electrocute. After a short pause, it becomes evident that Paul is not able to speak the words. A fellow guard reminds Paul that he has to give the order. Still unable to say it, Paul steps up to the chair and shakes the hand of the man he has come to respect and befriend. Coffey reassures him with words not spoken but heard by Paul as he holds on to his hand.
“He kill them wi’ their love. That’s how it is, every day, all over the world.”
These are the words John used to describe the bravery of the two little girls. Their demise was horrific, but they endured in the hope that their sacrifice would save the other whom they dearly loved. The martyrdom of John Coffey would pay the sentence and bring closure to this tragedy. But for Paul, he needed to realize that in this moment, it would be love once again that would make all things right. Paul accepts John’s explanation and with a quivering voice utters the fateful words; “Roll on two.”
It seems odd to think that love might bring about such a tragic end. But when you consider that Christ’s own death came in just such a manner so that we would all have life, it begins to make more sense. God’s motivation is clear in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should never perish but have everlasting life.”
May we find peace in the love of God, displayed through Christ that we might model it, every day, all over the world.