In conjunction with their latest attempt to overproduce and ultimately destroy an iconic character (which is what Hollywood does best), Netflix picked up the award-winning classic “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” It had been a while since I’d seen it, so I indulged. Spoilers ahead.
The story follows rebellious ne’er-do-well Randall McMurphy who fakes insanity so he can serve a prison sentence in a cushy state mental hospital. Like his older cinematic brother, Cool Hand Luke, the other residents of the institution take a liking to McMurphy immediately—especially “Chief” Bromden, the gigantic Native American who fakes being deaf and dumb because of his extraordinary insecurities and total lack of self-confidence.
McMurphy is crass, sarcastic, and reckless. His exuberant individuality clashes not only with the bleached white sterility of the ward, but with Nurse Ratched—a stoic, conniving, power-hungry Über-Karen. She and McMurphy go toe-to-toe the entire story, with McMurphy always looking like a petulant child and Ratched passive-aggressively manipulating the patients into docility. Mother knows best, so shut up and take your medicine.
A pivotal scene is when the patients are in group therapy and McMurphy suddenly realizes that not everyone is an involuntary patient. In fact, most of the group is there willingly, too afraid to step out into the world and take control of their own lives. They prefer the routine of the mental ward, and the loving embrace of Ratched’s cold, calculating eyes. McMurphy is stunned, since he cannot leave. This leads to a climactic, last-ditch effort by McMurphy to breath some individuality into the lives of his inmates:
In the middle of the night, he bribes the night watchmen and invites two loose women into the ward for a Christmas party. All night long they party, dance, and get black-out drunk. Just before he is about to leave for good, McMurphy pushes the stuttering young Billy into a private room with one of the girls to seal the deal on his burgeoning manhood. Then, instead of leaving, he sits down next to the open window and falls asleep.
In the morning, Ratched finds the place trashed and immediately goes to work restoring order and doling out buckets of shame. Enough scorn and ignominy is heaped upon Billy for his lascivious behavior that he slits his own throat. At this, McMurphy snaps and strangles Ratched, nearly killing her. Naturally, they carry him off to be punished.
The denouement is one of the most classic scenes in cinematic history: the ward is back to normal, Ratched is back in charge (but wearing a neck brace), and the unassertive Chief now has confidence “as big as a mountain” and waits restlessly for McMurphy to return from his punishment so they can escape together. But when the latter is brought in, Chief finds the lobotomy scars on McMurphy’s forehead—the institution has utterly destroyed his individuality in the name of compliance. Not wishing to leave his hero like this, Chief suffocates him with a pillow, rips a sink out of the floor, smashes it through the window, and runs off into the dimly lit mountains. He is finally free! Thanks to McMurphy, he came to know himself in a way that Ratched and the institution only dreamed of.
Now for my jagged modern application:
I live in Michigan. The only thing my Governor is missing is the nurse’s hat. Be quiet, take your medicine, do not question my authority, this is for your own good. Look into my cold, lifeless eyes and see your future.
We are all mental patients. Some are reckless, some are insecure, some are pretending to be deaf and mute, some are legitimately crazy. But some have actually volunteered to remain obsequious, even cancelling church services because they believe (and this is the craziest part) that it is somehow for their own good. They can’t imagine making a decision for themselves, so they trust the stoney gaze of Miss Ratched.
I am committed. I am not here voluntarily. I cannot leave my post, though the window be wide open. I cannot leave my fellow patients in the hands of brainwashed despair. So I have added church services this month. I’m using the government’s own regulations as a sign of petulant insubordination, exploiting their limitations in order to do the opposite of what they really want me to do, which is shut up and stay home.
The Christmas party is not just going forward, it is getting louder. More services means more opportunities for the gospel. More singing. More celebrating. More preaching. More gospel. More Jesus. More Christmas!
The analogy ends here. Obviously I do not condone violence of any kind, and sedition is a direct violation of the 4th Commandment. We also have “safety” policies that comfort the more skittish of our members, which is one of the reasons we added more services. And while I understand that not every pastor is as reckless and outspoken as I am, and that ministerial prudence is not black and white. We all need to look around our bleached and sterilized walls and ask ourselves what kind of lives we wish to have, and what kind of leaders we wish to be. More importantly, we need to recognize that the call to preach the gospel can never be hindered by the Barad-dûrian gaze of the civil authorities. This is not a Romans 13 situation; these are Acts 4 days.
I would rather be electroshocked, lobotomized, or suffocated by my own pillow than stop what I’m doing. Will you join me in worshipping the newborn King this year, or will you pretend to be deaf and dumb?