Acton Commentary

The ‘Cowboy Compassion’ of the Cartwrights

True Christian charity means getting into the trenches with others, getting down and dirty with them if need be. But what might that look like?

Like many Americans, I appreciate a good Western. One of my favorite shows is Have Gun-Will Travel. The lead character, Paladin, is like a one-man A-Team. He’s smarter, stronger, and quicker on the draw than any bad guys. Another of my favorites is Bonanza. Ben Cartwright and his three sons admirably carve out a life of meaning and integrity on their Nevada ranch, the Ponderosa.

In "Springtime," Adam (Pernell Roberts, left) talks to Jedediah Milbank (John Carradine, center), surrounded by Hoss (Dan Blocker), Little Joe (Michael Landon), and Ben (Lorne Greene).

In "Springtime," Adam (Pernell Roberts, left)
talks to Jedediah Milbank (John Carradine, center),
surrounded by Hoss (Dan Blocker),
Little Joe (Michael Landon),
and Ben (Lorne Greene).

In a particularly memorable episode, one of Ben Cartwright’s friends, Jedediah Milbank, is injured during a rough housing mud-wrestling match between Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe, Ben’s sons. As reparation, Ben volunteers the three boys to take care of Milbank’s business for him. It just so happens that there are three tasks, so each of the boys gets one. Adam Cartwright gets the final task and it is to evict a family from a ranch for non-payment. It seems that Milbank had set up an arrangement for the family to pay for half of the ranch up front, and the rest in monthly installments. The family is a number of months behind, and Milbank is eager to foreclose.

The eldest Cartwright brother dutifully rides off to the ranch, and happens upon a pleasant but beleaguered clan. It seems that the family had tied up most of their capital in a prize bull that had been mauled by a bear before it could sire more than a few calves. All but a handful of those calves were then drowned in spring floods. When the water pump broke so they could no longer irrigate their crops, the family was left without any source of revenue.

That’s the situation when Adam arrives. The pieces of the pump need to be repaired, but one necessary part must be purchased new and costs $200, a huge sum of money. The family just doesn’t have it. Instead of foreclosing on the home, Adam, who shares his father’s strong moral code, decides to help out the down-and-out family. They aren’t poor because of the lack of effort or work, but simply because of circumstances and poor decisions, such as tying up capital in the risky move to buy the stud bull.

So what does Adam do? He helps the father fix the pieces of the well that can be repaired and comes up with a plan to use the pump to double the land that can be irrigated. This will potentially double the family’s crop, helping them to get their heads above water again. The family will need to sell the few remaining calves from the stud stock to pay for the expensive replacement part for the water pump. In the meantime, Adam loans the family the money to get current on their debt to Milbank, averting the disaster of eviction.

This is a great example of how compassion can work within the market system. Certainly Milbank fills the role of the archetypal greedy capitalist, but the Cartwrights themselves own a 1,000 acre ranch and are incredibly wealthy by the standards of the day. The difference between Milbank and the Cartwrights is in how they used their wealth and power.

By the letter of the law and justice, Milbank had a right to foreclose. By contrast, it was compassion that motivated Adam. The Heidelberg Catechism, a confessional symbol of Reformed Christianity, notes that one of the reasons we work is so that we can be good stewards of our wealth. The Catechism tells us that we are to “work faithfully” so that we “may share with those in need.” That’s exactly what Adam Cartwright was doing with his wealth. And he does it in such a way that it was oriented toward the family regaining their own financial independence. He loaned them part of the money, as a sort of nineteenth-century version of a micro-capital investment, but also made sure they had to invest what they had in their own future by selling the remaining calves.

There’s an important lesson to be learned in all this. Wealthy Christians in the United States are in an analogous situation with respect to the poor (in both the developed and the developing world) as the Ponderosa and the Cartwrights were to that struggling family. We can choose to embody the “cowboy compassion” of the Cartwrights or the craven greed of Jedediah Milbank. We can get our hands dirty by grubbing for money, or we can get them dirty by helping fix a broken well.

This commentary is drawn from Jordan Ballor’s new book Get Your Hands Dirty (Wipf & Stock, 2013).