Everything is personal. Someone tell Michael Corleone.
In The Godfather II, we have an opportunity to compare Michael with Vito, his father, at the same stages of life. We watch as Michael wends his way to dismal failure by his father’s standards. And it all has to do with human relationship. In Godfather I, we see where Michael departs from his father’s path, and it’s right from the start. Remember that famous line?
“It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.”
Everybody but Michael knows that’s a lie, and that it’s totally personal. His father had been gunned down, he knew by whom, and he intended to inflict payback and then some. It was what brought him into the “family.”
But to Godfather Don Vito Corleone, there was business, and there was personal. I do not think his conceptions of business and family were conflated, even though to us, they seem hopelessly mashed up and arbitrarily differentiated. His family relationships were warm and real. The business was called a “family.” It made sense to him, and to those in his world.
Even his illegal business dealings were conducted on the basis of an objective code and the justice he meted out had objective rules which adhered to his subculture’s community standards, brutal but measured in accordance with the offense. Because of this code he could put aside the personal offense of the attempted murder of himself and the murder of Sonny in order to maintain the balance of power and peace with his competitor “families.” Don Vito honored his code even when it hurt very much to do it. The code was surprisingly nuanced in its complexity, but everyone in the subculture knew the score.
You almost feel sorry for hapless Solozzo, the foreign upstart, trying to wield Old-World vendetta thuggery against this professional class of organized crime, and for thinking that his clueless police bodyguard, truly a stranger in a strange land, would be of any help. They did not understand who, and what, they were messing with.
Doors shut out Michael’s wife, Kay, more than once. Also an outsider, she could never really enter their world.
Michael brought in a newer New World. Did Michael blend the Old World (remember his Sicilian bride) with the New, and invent a third? Or was this just America? Let’s just try to stay on a track.
His sense of justice, and his code, were based on his subjective preferences and definitely more relative.
He blurred the distinctions between the business and the personal. Superficially they were strictly divided. That is seen in his fierce insistence that his wife should never ask about his business (even when business included the murder of their brother-in-law); but in practice, personal/business distinctions were self-serving. If someone offended Michael’s sense of family pride…offended him personally…it became a “strictly business” item to be punished without mercy. That nearly none of his victims suspected what was coming tells us that he was operating according to his own codebook.
Michael called all things business matters, but all offenses were personal and the only penalty was death without mercy. Personal and business were one but he rationalized acting on personal feelings by calling them business matters. Personal was business, business was personal.
By creating this professional class of criminals, Francis Ford Coppola was trying to communicate that the Mob is an illustration of American business: hypocritical, dishonest, greedy, power-hungry, murderous. Many mob characters from the older generation draw the same false dividing line, and excuse terrible personal betrayals on the basis of “strictly business.”
Tessio: “Tell Mike it was only business. I always liked him.”
But Michael had moved away from a family context toward a business model. He had always deceived himself with the belief that business is not personal.
The most fascinating layer of meaning to me in The Godfather films is cosmological. In this universe, Don Vito is God the Father, Sonny is Christ the Son, Tom Hagen is the Holy Ghost. Each one functions rather consistently as a corrupt version of his symbol. So who is Michael? I leave that to you, but here are some items of evidence: he lies; he twists the meaning of his father’s words in order to satisfy his own desires; he is all about personal power and revenge. He winds up alone and bitter, ruler over an empire of fear. All personal relationships are cold, estranged or literally extinguished. He murders his own brother Fredo when he is no longer a threat. It simply must be done in order to satisfy his own feelings of justice.
The jewel of his father’s life, his family, is utterly destroyed. Kill, steal, destroy. And it was so easily done for Michael the Berserker.
All this to illustrate something I’ve learned from the Bible? The cosmology of The Godfather strikes me as remarkably consistent and valid. Don Vito, Michael, Sonny and Tom Hagen, as well as Clemenza, Tessio, and Kay, sometimes in spite of themselves, act out some of the deepest and most significant principles that I find in God’s Word.
If I look at the Word through the lens of relationship, as surely God wants us to, I can distill three messages.
Everything is personal. Life is all about relationship. The God of the Bible is a personal being. He has personality and mind; He is not an impersonal force or a principle. He defines himself as love, and expresses Himself in loving His human creations.
In the Upper Room, Jesus celebrated his relationships with the men who had followed him:
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.
If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.
My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.
This is my command: Love each other. John 15: 9-17
Relationship means identification. In the Gospels, the purest and most ideal relationships shown to us are those of connection so close that the participants lose distinctions and become intertwined. The marriage relationship, in which two become “one flesh,” is the perfect symbolic illustration for the truest intimate relationship: God’s love for each of us.
My beloved is mine, and I am his. Song of Solomon 2: 16
How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me… John 14: 9-11
On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. John 14: 20
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:5
Even within our closest relationships, there are limits to intimacy. We are imprisoned in our bodies and in our own minds. We can empathize but we cannot literally feel any feelings but our own. We can’t enter the thoughts, the emotions, the soul of another human being. At times we feel this desperate isolation even in a crowd of family.
But with God, there is no limit to intimacy. He is a Spirit who communes with our spirits. There are no barriers on God’s side. If I find brick walls or blank ceilings when I try to communicate with God, I am the builder.
“I am in you and you are in me, and I am in the Father.” “I and the Father are one.” When Jesus has stood in your place in your greatest need, God does not distinguish between you and His Son. And that is the third theme that I see shining through the pages.
My life for yours.
This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. John 15: 12,13
Jesus Christ, True God of True God, chose to suffer lonely torture and horrible execution in our place. His life for mine, his life for yours.
And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world. By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. John 1:1-2
This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. I John 4:10
Sadly, there is no Savior in the cosmology of The Godfather. If Sonny is the Savior figure, he fails famously. Without a savior, a redeemer, a reconciler, there is no hope. There is no foundation or reason for maintaining a code.
In conducting his family and his business as he did, Godfather Vito Corleone had a distinct goal: “Senator Corleone, Governor Corleone…” The Godfather’s goal was that his dearest son Michael would one day be on the throne, a legitimately powerful man.
But Vito also said ,”A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.” Michael’s reach for power blends those two worlds and he is surprised at the inevitable price to his family.
In the end, we see that Michael Corleone has tragically missed the value of the things his father lived for, and thrown away that which was his father’s dearest goal to give him. He has substituted power, control and retribution for familial love. He has cynically destroyed the future his father built for him.
As do we if we miss our Father’s message of personal relationship, identification, and selfless love.