but most viewers will eventually want to watch the film in its
entirety. Smoke Signals forces
viewers to reach deep down into their psyches to explore their
own personal experiences of forgiveness. After the last clip—which
includes the end of the movie—ask participants to be silent
for a moment. Then play the closing monologue a second time.
Its impact will be even greater, especially for those who have
had troubled relationships with their own fathers. Structure
discussion around the two aspects of forgiveness: giving and
The “Reflection” enlarges the topic of
forgiveness from the personal realm of the movie to larger political
To provide a context for the excerpts and to help participants
follow the movie line, read this background information to the
a beautiful day on the reservation this morning. It’s
a good day to be indigenous!” proclaims the announcer
on KREZ radio, “the official voice of the Coer d’Alene
on screenwriter Sherman Alexie’s book,
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, this
movie is part drama and part
comedy. It is billed
as the first feature film written, directed, produced, and acted by Native
movie begins on the Fourth of July, 1976, on the Coer d’Alene
reservation in Idaho at a party celebrating “white people’s
the evening grows late, a house fire erupts, killing two tribal members
who are the parents of an infant. Baby Thomas is saved because he is
a window (“flying,” as Thomas says later) by a big, gruff
man named Arnold Joseph, himself the father of a baby named Victor.
movie fast-forwards nearly twenty years and we meet Thomas and Victor
again as young men. Victor, tall, handsome, serious, is not completely
from the fact that his father, Arnold Joseph, deserted the family ten
years earlier. Thomas—the baby thrown to safety in the fire—is
a bespectacled, suit-wearing, dreamy boy who lives with his eccentric
grandmother and prides
himself on being a storyteller. Despite their differences, Thomas and
Victor are friends.
receives word that his father has died in Arizona and he and Thomas
make the long journey by bus and on foot
to retrieve Arnold
truck and belongings. It is during this trip that Victor learns more
about his father—not only about the demons he battled, but
also about the deep and abiding love he had for his son.
end of the movie when Thomas asks Victor, “So why did your
dad leave?” Victor, acknowledging the complexity of human
motivation, replies, “He
didn’t mean to, Thomas.” And Victor then sets about
doing what he has to do to grieve his father’s death and
face the question of forgiveness. The film addresses the important
of why we hurt the ones we love and
if we can or should be forgiven.
Signals begins with fire and flames and ends on a bridge over
Spokane Falls, the waters
below at once raging and cleansing.
adapted from a longer poem from the book Ghost Radio,
is a breathtaking and haunting riff on the complexity of forgiveness.1
Signals explores not only forgiveness between family members.
It also explores the broader cultural and historical
can a race
of native people forgive generations of oppression by the American
government? And how can young Indians forgive their parents
and grandparents, who
let it happen?
Read this selection to the group. Or, you may wish to use this
reflection as a springboard to writing a reflection of your own
with to share with the group.
For We Know Not What We Do
It’s difficult to contemplate forgiveness when you’re
paralyzed with fear.
the guarded, anxious, and fear-heightened climate in which
Americans now live, forgiveness is probably the last thing
on our minds.
11, 2001, when the sense of invulnerability Americans had lived with for
long was shattered by attacks on the Twin Towers, our sensibilities have
been seared and our sense of national safety shattered.
Each time we turn on a news
broadcast, we’re reminded again that our world, our country, and our
neighborhoods are not safe.
the scriptural mandate to forgive remains. We are exhorted
not to pass judgment on our brothers and sisters (Romans
14:5) and to “forgive our
brothers and sisters from our hearts” (Matthew 18:21). Jesus does
not define our brothers and sisters. They are simply other human beings—maybe
mistaken in their motives, negligent in their duty, or sinners in the most
reprehensible and evil sense—but still God’s children, still
accountable to God.
are we supposed to forgive terrorists? Murderers and rapists?
Forgive those who stand in line for the privilege of destroying
us and use religion
weapon to drive planes into buildings? Forgive those who prey on innocent
victims who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time?
religious terms, forgiveness is not always simple. Jesus
say that forgiveness is, to some degree, dependent on an accompanying
Similarly, The Book of Common Prayer says that “true
precede forgiveness, along with “amendment of life.”2
Forgiveness is not automatic. We don’t dispense it smiling and
unthinkingly; we don’t
chant the familiar litany: “Oh, that’s okay”—“No
problem”—“I’ll get over it.” People who
abuse and mistreat children, alcoholics who refuse to confront the
havoc their behavior
wreaks in their families, those who engage in sexual misconduct that
destroys trust and love are not helped by too-easy forgiveness with
for their actions, especially when these destructive actions are repeated
and intentional. Forgiving others is not sentimental niceness; it is
course, forgiveness is most difficult when an individual’s
actions are reprehensible by any existing moral code. How do we even
begin to think
in any clear way about people who seem beyond redemption and who
have the capacity and the will to hurt us? How do we get
by our fear and
our wounds and see the
child of God that lurks beneath?
Reverend Cecil Murray has one suggestion. He is pastor
of First African Methodist Episcopal
Church in a troubled district in downtown
With seven thousand members, it’s an active, socially conscious
parish at the heart of its neighborhood. Murray was asked how he
could deal with so
many people who have failed by society’s standards—either
through criminal activity or by failing to achieve material success.
He responded, “Because
I know why they’re not achieving. At a critical juncture
in their life, they went that way and I went another way. Now why
I go that way? Somebody
whispered something in my ear, something good, and somebody failed
to whisper in his ear or her ear something good.”3
own parents, our neighbors, even fanatical terrorists has
a story with twists and turns, lessons learned and rejected,
possessions given and taken away, dreams fulfilled and deferred.
Each of us
can recall moments
when powerful words, whispered or shouted, determined the course
of our lives.
it is not only a question of granting forgiveness, but
of seeking it as well. What do we ourselves need to ask
for—from others? From
God? In her book In Search of Belief, Joan Chittister says
that the quintessential twentieth-century sin among the developed
nations of the world is the sin of
disregard. It is not thinking about the Third World and the
who die there each day from starvation; it is feigning ignorance
of those who work
for pennies a day and support our low supermarket prices; it
is turning our back on requests for help because we have “compassion
sin of disregard is pretending not to notice the person
in the office next to us who is clearly hurting;
it is avoiding
sweatshop in Korea because we can’t do anything about
it anyway; it is refusing to recycle because it’s too
much trouble. It’s not so
much conscious, premeditated evil, Chittister says, as it
disregard for the rest of the human race, for the little
people on whose shoulders we all stand, for the evil effects
lives on the lives of others.”4
God sees the intricacies of our hearts; only God understands
why we ignore the needy;
only God knows what causes people
to blow up buildings
full of people—or
nail an innocent man to a cross. But with his last breath,
Jesus utters the mysterious words that encompass it all: “Father,
forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Film Clips to Use for a One-Hour Class
Set VCR to zero at “Miramax Films.”
1. (11 min.)
Credits. 1976: party on the reservation. Baby Thomas is saved
by Arnold Joseph. Flash forward to 1998: traffic report
for KREZ; Thomas and Victor as teenagers and flashback to them
as young boys. Arnold Joseph leaves the family; news of his death
arrives; Thomas begs to accompany Victor. End after Victor says
to Thomas: “You’re funny.”
VCR - 00:00 to 11:00m, DVD - begin at Scene 2
2. (2 min.) Flashback: to the day Arnold Joseph left. End after Victor’s
mother says, “You feel that way, too, huh?”
VCR - 32:21 to 33:20, DVD - begin at Scene 10
3. (3 min.) In Phoenix, Victor talks with his dad’s neighbor, Susie Song.
Flashback to the basketball game with the Jesuits. End after, Susie says, “He
was a magician, you know.”
VCR - 52:00 to 54:30, DVD - begin at Scene 15
4. (5 min.) Thomas and Victor return to the reservation; Victor scatters his
father’s ashes over Spokane Falls; monologue on forgiveness. Continue
to the end of the movie.
VCR - 1:16:00 to end, DVD - begin at Scene 20
Total running time: 21 minutes
Film, Faith, and Scripture
Explore with your group the connections between film, faith, and
Scripture by examining what the Bible says to us about forgiveness.
You may read the scripture passages from your book, or ask participants
to look them up in bibles that you provide and read them to the
Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:23-35)
this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished
to settle accounts with this slaves. When he began the
reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought
to him; and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold,
together with his wife and children and his possessions,
to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him,
patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And
out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him
him the debt.
that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow
slaves who owed him a hundred denarii;
him by the
throat, he said, ‘Pay
what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded
with him, ‘Have
patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then
he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt.
his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed,
and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.
Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave!
I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you
not have had mercy on your
fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord
handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.
So my heavenly
will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother
or sister from your heart.”
Jesus on the Cross (Luke 23:44)
Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not
what they are doing.”
Invite participants to take a look at what the two texts—the
film Smoke Signals and the Bible—teach us about
the ways that forgiveness is central to our faith.
The last line of the movie asks, “If we forgive our fathers,
what is left?” After we forgive someone who has hurt us
deeply and repeatedly, what is left? What does the act of forgiveness
force us to come to terms with about ourselves? How does forgiveness
cleanse and transform us? What is left after Jesus forgives his
2. From the excerpts you watched, do you think it would have
been difficult for Arnold Joseph to seek—or accept—forgiveness?
What things make it difficult for you to accept forgiveness—from
another person? From God? How does the act of accepting forgiveness
3. In the story of the unforgiving servant, why do you think the
servant who was so generously forgiven refused to forgive the person
who was indebted to him?
4. Being specific, explain how you commit “the sin of disregard.” Who
are some of the people whose sacrifices make your own lifestyle
possible? Is thanking them a realistic option? Are there any
ways in which personally or as a society we seek to make amends?
5. In our own lives or in our national life, are there times
when forgiveness of others is not an option? Consider, as you
this question, the popular mantra: “What would Jesus do?”
An excellent poem to seek out on the topic of forgiving our fathers
is “Late Poem to My Father,” by Sharon Olds, in The
Gold Cell: Poems by Sharon Olds (New York: Alfred
A. Knopf), 1982.
to the following questions individually in writing or as
part of a
small group, sharing what you wish:
1. The powerful poem that ends the film begins with the question, “How
do we forgive our fathers?” Who is someone from your own life that
you most need to forgive and have not yet forgiven? What has prevented this? What
are some things you have said or done (or thought) that need forgiveness?
Who do you need to ask forgiveness from—and why? What would you say?
Lourie, Ghost Radio (Brooklyn, N,Y.: Hanging Loose Press, 1988).
2 The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), 42.
3 Cecil Murray, interview with Hugh Hewitt, “Searching for God in America,” Community
Television of California, 1996.
4 Joan Chittister, In Search of Belief (Ligiori, MO: Ligouri/Triumph Publications,
from Finding Faith at the Movies by Barbara Mraz.
Barbara Mraz. Used with permission from Morehouse Publishing.
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