In my previous post, Archetypical Heroes, I discussed seeing Batman Begins last night with my wife. As a result, my dreams were rich with Batman imagery and upon reflection I thought of a few additional things to say.
There is no mention of God or Jesus in the film (not surprising) and thankfully there are no caricatures of Christians as ineffectual do-gooders or bigoted extremists. Most Christians will see the lack of any spirituality and Bruce Wayne’s positive view of basic humanity as a negative, but I am neutral about that. Instead the movie centers on the two human approaches to evil. Despite that premise, as I noted in my last post, Bruce Wayne acts in a very biblical manner, especially for someone working outside the law. The difference between Batman and other vigilante-style characters, such as his antagonist in the movie, is that he does not take the lives of those who are evil on purpose, nor does he execute judgment. Instead, the caped crusader (interesting choice of words) confronts evil by binding the strong man (Matthew 12:29) and turning him over to authority.
There is a rich streak of vigilantism in our cultural history in which executioners of evil predominate, like Charles Bronson’s character in the Death Wish series of movies. But I think that the most powerful images from that vein are those who do not execute the bad guys, but instead either capture them red-handed, or set up scenarios where they get their just deserts. A good example of this was seen in the long-running television series The Pretender (I am not talking about its lurching demise but its early success). In that series, Jarod, the gifted pretender who escaped from a top secret black ops operation spends his freedom bringing evil-doers to justice. He traps them in their own schemes, leaving them trussed up and overflowing with convicting evidence. There is a great line from one of the early shows where a woman in a hospital bed asks him, Are you my doctor? Jarod replies, I am today. Jarod became whatever was necessary (he successfully pretended) to capture the bad guys.
Batman and The Pretender are two examples of what biblical extra-governmental vigilantes might ideally be like. Sometimes private citizens are the only resource to bring evil to justice. But only God or his agents, such as legitimate government (Romans 13:3-5), have the right to execute judgment and to wield the sword of retribution.
With that in mind, one very troubling but very interesting movie that tried to join the vigilante/agent of God premise was Frailty. In that movie Bill Paxton plays a father who gets visions from God (later followed by his sons) in which he is instructed to do away with specific people, demons he calls them (mostly serial killers, serial rapists, and pedophiles), who regular justice cannot seem to identify and deal with. His chosen method is an axe. Though through the whole movie you are led to doubt the legitimacy of his claim of Gods calling, at the end, during their closing execution, they walk through an entire FBI office filled with surveillance cameras. When later reviewed, the playback only shows static where the brothers should be, implying supernatural intervention and God’s protection on their mission. All the people they have killed do turn out to be vile predators. The protagonists are led to these people without any external evidence, relying instead on God’s guidance. Yet the movie was strangely believable. It made you wonder if God was really doing something like that to deal with severe and hidden evil.
When looking at the Old Testament, this sort of mission might be conceivable. However, it would be highly unlikely in the Church age. Making it even more unlikely is the fact that Satan has already co-opted this scenario for himself. His protagonists, who usually kill only regular sinners or even relative innocents, loudly blame God for their actions, declaring He commanded them to do it.
So, why do we have these types of characters and cultural heroes? I believe they speak to a deep need we all possess for justice, for setting things right. Christians know that we all carry within us the image of God, an image that reflects, among other things, Gods demand for judgment and justice, as well as his compassion for the victims. But like Bruce Wayne’s example, it is important to resist the temptation to personally execute judgment. Yes, as individuals we are called to resist evil, but never to presume upon Gods retrobutive turf. We all need to remember that the next time we want to set something right. There is a proper biblical way to do it, and also a wrong way, a way that usurps what is not ours, something we have to avoid at all costs.
May God bless your day and if you go to Batman Begins, do relax and enjoy the show.
Update: I have developed other thoughts relating to themes explored in this movie in my posting Defined By What We Do. You are invited to explore that insight also.