Black or White? The Sunset Limited

"Black" and "White"

“Two players. Two sides. One is light. One is dark.” The quote comes from Lost, but it’s a perfect epitaph for The Sunset Limited, a stage play by Cormac McCarthy, and now also an HBO film.

The Sunset Limited has only two characters, named simply “Black” and “White.” Early on it becomes apparent that Black had been on his way to work, waiting on the platform at the train station, when White had attempted to throw himself in front of the train. Black had caught him, stopped him, and brought him home to his apartment. The play itself consists of the two characters engaged in a verbal wrestling match for an intense ninety minutes.

White is a professional intellectual – Black calls him “Professor,” and he is clearly better at stringing the words together than Black, an ex-con and reformed murderer who lives in the ghetto in hopes of being a sort of Good Samaritan to the hopeless lost (he calls them “the junkies”).

The two debate the existence of God (Black believes; White doesn’t), the meaning of life (to Black, it’s about God; to White, there is no meaning to life), the reality of suffering (to Black, suffering is real, but has a purpose and an end; to White, all of life is vain suffering, a cruel joke, and death is the sickly sweet, desired end to it all).

Throughout it all, White has a dazed, haunted look about him. Whereas Black can break out into a raucous laughter at his own silly joke, White can only laugh the despondent, despairing cackle of a man who’s given up all hope of anything making sense.

Dialectically, Black is no match for White. But he possesses a simple wisdom about life that transcends all of White’s big words and long sentences. With obvious anguish, Black pleads with White to, “Stay with me a while,” “Let’s talk some more,” all the while hoping that White will open himself up to God and find the great relief and release that follows that simple act of the will. White won’t do it – whether he cannot or will not, it’s hard to say. In the end, it doesn’t matter. He doesn’t do it. All he wants to do is die and end his absurd, miserable, meaningless existence.

This week marks Passover, when Jews commemorate the Angel of Death passing over all the firstborn of the Jews in Egypt. At God’s command, every Jewish family sacrificed a lamb and placed the blood on their door frames. When the Angel of Death came through, he saw the blood and “passed over” their homes, but every Egyptian firstborn was slain. The following day, Moses led the Jews out of Egypt, in plain view of the Egyptians who were mourning their dead.

The events of the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy take place after all this happens. It basically consists of one long sermon from Moses to the people of Israel. If you were to summarize it in one sentence, it might go something like this: “Serve God and you will have life. Reject God, and death will have you.” Consider this sober prediction concerning the one who rejects God. “You will find no repose, no resting place for the sole of your foot. There the LORD will give you an anxious mind, eyes weary with longing, and a despairing heart. You will live in constant suspense, filled with dread both night and day, never sure of your life. In the morning you will say, ‘If only it were evening!’ and in the evening, ‘If only it were morning!’ – because of the terror that will fill your hearts and the sights that your eyes will see.”

An ‘anxious mind,’ ‘eyes weary with longing,’ and ‘a despairing heart filled with dread day and night.’ That is White. He’s rejected God, and death has him. All that’s left is for him to finish himself off, making the choice complete.

This week is also Easter, when Christians, to whom Jesus is the Passover lamb of sacrifice, celebrate the great feat of redemption, not from the physical bondage of slavery in Egypt, but from the bondage of sin and slavery to a meaningless existence. The wholly redeemed life is signified by the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead which took place three days after Passover when he – the Passover lamb – was sacrificed. Life, purpose, meaning … That is Black. He has simply responded to God, acknowledged God, and he has life.

Death or life. Some things really are black and white. “Two players. Two sides. One is light. One is dark.” Which one will you choose?