As the national conversation about race and violence and justice and personal safety has been ongoing since the verdict in the case of Trayvon Martin’s murder, I’ve appreciated many wise commentators’ explorations of meaning, especially with respect to the race realities that have appeared on the surface again (enough that those of us in the ‘white’ majority can see them). I’d refer you to Jim Wallis’s reflection or Willie Jennings’s for wise commentary on how and why this situation is hitting the race nerve in our collective consciousness.
One of the questions raised by this tragedy: how could something like this happen? What leads to a teenager who walked to the convenience store for candy getting shot in a safe neighborhood? There are lots of answers to those questions, but my preparation to preach last week led me to spend more time reflecting on what the tragedy and the justice served by our system of laws have to show us about ourselves with respect to violence.
I’m working my way through the Sermon on the Mount this summer, and last week’s chunk of text was the section in which Jesus shows his hearers that conventional wisdom––outside and inside faith communities––isn’t consistent with the ways of God’s Realm. His rhetorical device for this contrasting of conventional wisdom with God’s Way is to say You have heard that it was said…. But I say….
In the week after George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of unarmed, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, I hear these segments of what Jesus had to say ringing particularly loudly:
You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. …
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…
(Matthew 5:21-24, 38-39, 43-44, NRSV)
That’s what Jesus said to his own Jewish community, 2000 years ago in the Middle East. The formulations are still remarkably appropriate today; at the same time, I can imagine what Jesus might be saying now. He would most certainly have something to say in our national conversation, and I imagine it might sound like this:
You have heard that it was said it is right to defend yourself not simply with self-protection, but with violence, even murder. But I say to you, violence is never redemptive, only love is.
You have heard it said that the only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, but I say never repay evil for evil.
These sound naive, even foolish in our culture. They sound like hopeless ideals that no one would ever live, and if we did, it would be a recipe for letting evil crush us without resistance. We’ve breathed the paranoid air that says that destruction is waiting just around every corner, and unless we beat it back, it will overtake us. Whether the evil we see is terrorism, or immigration, or criminals, or the government, the narrative in our culture is clear: if you’re not prepared to fight back, you will get trampled by the evil on our doorstep.
And fighting back, in our culture, is assumed to be about physical power and superior violence. We live under the thumb of what theologian Walter Wink called the Myth of Redemptive Violence: the belief that, when faced with violence or the threat of violence, salvation comes through superior violence. In fact, I’d argue that our mythology tells us there are no real alternatives––that evil can only be defeated with violence.
Examples of this mythology’s vice grip on our collective imagination (and most of our individual imaginations, too) are all around us, from the kind of assumptions we have about personal safety (inflicting or threatening even greater harm on my enemy than he could inflict on me is all that makes me safe) to our national behavior (we fight terrorism by inflicting orders of magnitude more harm than was done to us). The list could go on and on for pages; the fantasy that violence in the hands of Good Guys is redemptive is literally everywhere.
Nowhere is this myth as fun as at the movies. I enjoyed the recent Superman movie, Man of Steel. And I’m a little ashamed I contributed my money to the perpetuation of the myth of redemptive violence in one of its most all-American franchises. Superman, of course, is as all-American as heroes get: handsome, humble, buff, virtuous, and able to accomplish physical feats without breaking a sweat or a bone.
And Superman is our best attempt at a bright spot in a world of violence. Kind & humble or not, he is violent––in the extreme in this most recent film. When Superman responds to an obnoxious bully, he does so by getting revenge with physical violence, destroying the bully’s property. When Superman defends the weak, it is through physical violence. When Superman saves humanity, it is by kicking Bad Guy ass, and in the final battle, it’s an extraordinarily violent fight. The violence isn’t contained to the antagonists, either; there’s extreme collateral damage. The fight takes place in a major city, and the super-people literally crash right through buildings, blowing glass and debris out the side of high-rises in scenes that reminded me of the images from 9/11/01 that are burned into my mind. Except this time, we’re not supposed to think about the folks at work in their cubicles until they were killed by Superman & the Bad Guy flying through in their violent embrace.
The message of our Superman mythology (and that of most other heroes) is very clear: the only way to defeat a violent enemy is with greater violence, and any level of violence is justified in the process of winning. And this supposed “truth” is built on two major underlying beliefs:
- Ultimately, power is in physical strength. The difference between good & evil is not whether strength is the mode of asserting power, but to what end that strength is used. It’s accepted as a given that power equals physical strength. ‘Weakness’ has no power.
- Salvation comes through kicking ass. It might be self-sacrificing ass-kicking, but supreme physical power––the ability to force an outcome––is the final word. (And the good guy always lives through it and emerges unscathed long-term.)
This story-line is about as anti-Christ as possible. …Not that I’m saying our civic cultural mythology should be Christ-like in appearance. But one of the reasons it’s offensive to me that the mythology of America includes that this nation is somehow ‘Christian’ in nature: this is how we approach power. There can be no reconciling the teaching and life witness of Jesus of Nazareth with the lust for power expressed through physical violence we demonstrate in American culture.
Which is one (only one–there are several more) of the reasons it’s shocking and sad to me that this most recent Superman movie’s marketing blitz included marketing through churches to church-goers. Seriously. Church, something is WAY off when we allow ourselves to be marketing tools, especially for a product that uses surface-level similarities to mask the process of turning the object of Christian worship into an American superhero. Jesus was anything but.
I hope it’s clear that I’m not ultimately pointing the finger at Hollywood and its lust for violence. It’s pointed right here, at myself and all of us, because Hollywood is simply a mirror for us and our culture. And it can be painful to look in that mirror. Even in the middle of a bad-ass movie. Our cinema shows us our fantasies. Whether you identify personally with the siren song of the Superman myth or not, it is an uncomfortable glimpse at our culture’s assumptions about how the world works.
In this culture that assumes that Good Guys use violence redemptively, it’s no wonder George Zimmerman was packing heat that night. And it’s no wonder that the ubiquitous imagery of threat––especially hooded, dark-skinned threat––led to an unarmed teenager being shot and widespread shrugging of shoulders about its inevitability & moral justifiability.
There are a number of things about the Martin-Zimmerman tragedy that should give us pause, including these:
- Stand Your Ground laws, especially when coupled with legalization and normalization of widespread gun-carrying in public and the lack of laws that punish racial profiling, are a savage development in our so-called ‘civilized’ society. This trifecta of factors is a recipe for more murders of young men of color and more acquittals (in the cases when they’re even prosecuted) because the murderer ‘felt threatened.’
- Racism is a cancer that is just as present as it was 40 years ago in America. It’s less visible to most of us today because we’ve learned how to be polite about it (which really means we just lie by avoiding acknowledging or saying the dark thoughts that are whispering deep in our hearts). This cancer certainly isn’t cured, and it may simply be evidence of metastasis that it’s less clear on scans than it used to be. The reaction of our black neighbors to this verdict makes clear that there’s no shortage of active racism at work today––even though I may pretend it’s gone, they’re experiencing it every day.