You will not survive here. You are not a wolf, and this is a land of wolves now.

This is the final line of Sicario. A breathtaking and impacting movie I watched the other night. The movie charts a couple of days in the life of a FBI agent who is recruited into a, let’s say, “government task force” to, let’s say, “combat”, the escalating drug violence in Texas and Juarez…. Let’s say that’s what happens at least, because the waters are far murkier.

It’s beautifully shot, Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin all deliver and it’s tense AF.

I want to focus on the final line, quoted above, and something it got me thinking about in the days following my viewing.

What this movie exposes (well depending on how much you pay attention to this part of our world) is a level of evil and pain that we can barely comprehend. No one is really all that good in this film, and even those who are bad are not the worst. We discover, turn after turn, a darkness we do not know – and that we couldn’t really possibly know how to deal with – no matter how much we might like to speculate from our arm chairs. A darkness that shatters not just naïve idealism, but hardened expectations – it rips narratives to pieces. People are awful and are doing incomprehensible things throughout the film, but maybe that’s the only way – it’s a land of wolves after all.  

What it led me to think about – and probably because of the wolf talk – was Jesus’ teaching, Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves (Matt 10:16).

In our work in the world we may be aware, in theory, of wolves – of those who victimise, vilify, and violate. Yet, for those of us in cheery suburbs, it is difficult to really know the way of wolves, and thus what it takes to live in their land. What does it mean to operate and resist in a land of wolves without succumbing to either their madness or irrelevance? This question is why the dialectic of dove and serpent is so important.

Jesus does not say to go out in the midst of wolves as innocent as doves alone, or as innocent as doves and as vicious as wolves. He chooses the serpent, the wisest of the creatures as a model for our action. Serpents are wise to the ways of the wolves, to the darkness of the land, and because of that serpents can be subversive in their resistance, crafty in their struggle. The shrewdness of the serpents allows us to sidestep repaying like with like, of believing that the only way to stop a wolf is to become a wolf, it allows us to remain as doves, retaining innocence and hope.

We may think, when we see or read about violence and depravity beyond our understanding, that we need wolves to combat, that somehow it is justified to adopt the dark ways – if only for the short term, just to stop the rot – but this will never work. It will just shift the superficiality of the land, offering cosmetic alterations that are more repackaging than renewal. But we are people of renewal, of new creation, ambassadors of new reconciled communities. We must be shrewd as serpents so that we can be effective now and then. Wolfs won’t bring anything new, that is the purview of the innocent, of doves. Serpents are effective, and doves, with their innocence, maintain the ability and standing to draw the land into something new, something reconciled, creative, and beautiful.