If ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ So Can We

On the eve of the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises, I ended up in a heated Facebook debate over the nature of President Obama’s “you didn’t build that” comments — the latest furor in a series of election-year political clashes over tax policy, economic interventionism, class warfare, and the Occupy movement.

After seeing the film, I realized this is no mere coincidence. Because the political themes and allusions in The Dark Knight Rises run thick and rich, especially considering the whole Bain/Bane connection.

Not that the conclusive installment of this latest Batman trilogy has an overtly political agenda. Rather, its script, co-written by director Christopher Nolan and screenwriter Jonathan Nolan, clearly resides in the context of our current, fractured political climate. As British-American filmmakers raised in Chicago, the Nolan brothers offer a unique take on blighted urban political decay. So their epic depiction of Gotham, and the way it captures our gestalt, the spirit of our time, owes just as much a debt to David Simon’s The Wire as it does to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

I’m sorry, did I just say “owes a debt?” There I go again.

See, as much as there is to love about this film, there’s just as much to object to — that is, if your goal is to use it as political ammunition.

(Mild spoiler alert.)

One story, two sides

Liberals can choose to see it as a story of corporate greed and hubris, and see the Batman as a hero of the people, the Ninety-Nine Percent. Conservatives can choose to see it as a story of a city hijacked by a runaway mob intent on redistributing the wealth of the One Percent, foiled by the ingenuity and grit of an American business-owner.

And you know what? They’re both right.

And not just because the Nolans deliberately tried to connect with broader emotional themes rather than align their film with specific political messages.

They’re both right because political factions never have exclusive rights to the truth. There are truths that liberals and conservatives both understand and embrace more or less compared to their counterparts. In the cultivation of these truths, we are drawn to political ideologies. But the pain and bitterness we feel from the losses incurred in the unrelenting allegiance to these ideologies … well, it blinds us. It traps us. We become slaves to the system. As a result, we end up doing things we regret, things we never thought we would.

Different kingdom, different mission

That’s the bad news, that when it comes to systems of this world, we are not in charge. But the good news is that in the scope of eternity, we are not in charge. The kingdom of God is not a democracy, but a benevolent dictatorship. As such, the kingdom goes by a different set of rules than what we’ve come to expect.

After all, Paul famously told the church that in Christ, there is no male or female, Jew or Greek, but we are one in Christ. He also told us that the same spirit that raised Christ from the dead dwells in our bodies. So there’s no reason why we have to remain trapped inside the identity of the closest prevailing political bloc. The more we acknowledge His Lordship, the greater basis we’ll have for humility, unity, and cooperation.

That sense of humility in action is what I found so moving in this latest film. Part of Batman’s redemption was in the way he was able to get beyond his pain and see more value in trusting and working with others. Most of us will never experience Bruce Wayne wealth, but all of us, if we put our faith in Christ, can rise above our fears and work with others for the common good.

Not only that, if we as the church are to fulfill our mission, we must rise above. Because there are others who need to experience Christ, and they don’t have the luxury of waiting for a sequel.

So let’s keep showing up, engaging, and rising above the conflicts that divide us. Because when it comes to saving the world, I have more faith in a risen savior than any caped crusader — even one as cool as Batman.

Praying for the People of Aurora

CRIME SCENE: Police cars and emergency vehicles gather around the Century 16 Theatre in Aurora, Colorado, where early this morning a gunman opened fire on moviegoers during a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.” (Photo: Jonathan Castner/Newscom)

“A lone gunman dressed in riot gear burst into a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., at a midnight showing of the Batman film ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ and methodically began shooting patrons, killing at least 12 people and injuring at least 50,” ABC News reported this morning.

The outpouring of prayer has been swift. President Obama, speaking from a campaign event in Fort Meyers, Florida, asked for a moment of silence and prayed that the Lord bring would bring the people of Aurora “comfort and healing in hard days to come.” He also promised to “stand by our neighbors in Colorado during this extraordinarily difficult time” and expressed heartbreak on behalf of “the entire American family.” The president didn’t hesitate to call the shooter’s violent rampage “evil.” But he also said the tragedy provides us with an opportunity to reflect on “what makes life worth living.”

“If there’s anything to take away from this tragedy it’s the reminder that life is very fragile.  Our time here is limited and it is precious.  And what matters at the end of the day is not the small things, it’s not the trivial things, which so often consume us and our daily lives.  Ultimately, it’s how we choose to treat one another and how we love one another,” said President Obama.

Both Religion News Service and The Huffington Post published round-ups of tweets from faith leaders regarding the tragedy. Charisma magazine followed with condolences from politicians, including House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who said, “Confronted with incomprehensible evil, Americans pull together and embrace our national family more tightly. I join President Obama, and every American, in sending my thoughts and prayers to the victims of this awful tragedy. We will all stand with them, as one nation, in the days ahead.”

At The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf referred to a 2000 Atlantic article about how police in Colorado and elsewhere have changed their training and protocol for mass shootings in public places. Before Columbine, first responders “never rushed in,” but now, “they are being taught to enter a building if they are the first to arrive at the scene, to chase the gunman, and to kill or disable him as quickly as possible.” Sadly, in Aurora, they were too late for 62 people or more.

“It is time we acknowledge US has a domestic terrorism problem with carnage multiplied by easy access to firearms,” tweeted Mercer University ethicist David Gushee.

The city of Aurora is holding a “dark night prayer vigil” at the Aurora municipal building tonight at 7:00 pm, said Colorado Community Church pastor Robert Gelinas on his Facebook page.

Let’s join all these voices in praying for the Aurora community, the families of those who’ve died, the survivors whose lives are forever changed, and for an end to domestic terrorism.

Dark Knight of the Soul

After playing through it, I can confirm firsthand that the latest Batman video game is an amazing experience. Batman: Arkham City is a technically facile, immersive, fantastic voyage into the world of Batman lore, and it gives gamers and third-party onlookers alike the sensation of what it would actually look, sound, and feel like to become the Caped Crusader.

I can understand why millions of fans dive deep into such games, because it’s a powerful simulation of wish fulfillment. Every kid fantasizes about becoming a superhero.

But what I can’t understand is why, after playing through this game, anyone would actually wish to be Batman. Because there’s a lot about being Batman that really sucks.

First of all, there’s the fact that nobody knows your actual identity. Bruce Wayne is they know. So most of the populace either thinks you’re a weakling, or resents you for being wealthy. (Thankfully, Batman doesn’t have to deal with any Occupy Gotham protesters.) Then there are the numerous side missions, initiated by various citizens who need your help, which require you to navigate out of your way to find and assist them.

Plus, there’s the danger lurking around every corner. The plot of Arkham City, the sequel to the 2009 hit Batman: Arkham Asylum, takes place in a district of Gotham populated by violent criminals and walled off from the rest of the city. The Joker may be Batman’s arch nemesis, but he is only one of many super villains you encounter. As circumstances dictate, occasionally you’re required to forge alliances with them, never quite being sure of when they’ll repay your collaborative efforts by trying to kill you.

It’s an exhausting, thankless, tortured life.

Popular speaker and pastor Efrem Smith once preached a message to a group of church workers where he encouraged them to walk in their gifting and in the power of the Holy Spirit. To illustrate, he contrasted the approaches between superheroes Batman and Superman. Superman has actual powers that he was born with, and those powers can save people. He operates from a place of assuredness in his ability. He was born to do it. On the other hand, Batman uses gadgets and combat training to compensate for his lack of actual super powers. And he operates from a place of pain, punishing criminals in his city as a way to vicariously avenge the violent death of his parents, a loss he suffered as a child.

Knowing this about Batman, it’s clearer than ever why his character has endured and become such a fixture in American popular culture. Whether it’s classic superheroes like Batman, renegade agents like Jack Bauer of 24, or even real-life vigilantes like Brian Fodor, (a.k.a. Phoenix Jones of Seattle’s Rain City Superhero Movement), people love to see others fight against the insurmountable tide of evil and corruption. Even if the evil in question simply is in the form of rude passengers or airline bureaucracy, we love to see people stick it to “The Man” and exit on their own terms.

But these are not exactly Christian responses.

Even if we ignore for a moment Jesus’ turn-the-other-cheek doctrine from Matthew 5, there are plenty of places in the Bible where characters take matters into their own hands, and it rarely turns out well afterward. Moses killed an Egyptian because the man was mistreating one of his people. As a result, Moses had to flee the kingdom he grew up in. In Genesis 34, Jacob’s daughter Dinah is raped by a Hivite man, and in response her brothers deceitfully murder all of the men of the city, exacerbating an already fractious set of tribal alliances that eventually descend into war.

But these wrong examples don’t mean that the desire for vengeance is wrong. If all sins are illegitimate ways of meeting legitimate needs, then it stands to reason that vengeance is a legitimate need.

The apostle Paul told his charges not to take revenge, not because revenge is wrong, but because it’s counterproductive to Christlike, sacrificial living. In so doing, he quoted a short verse from a longer passage from Deuteronomy where the children of Israel are being prepared to walk into their inheritance, and Moses is trying to give them a broad portrait of the God that has covenanted with them thus far. This God is described as one who is not only omniscient and omnipresent, but omnipotent — a God who relishes visiting his judgments upon the wicked in order to demonstrate his glory and power.

Exacting vengeance shouldn’t be an option for Christians, not because doing so is wrong, but because He’s the only one who’s good enough, righteous enough, and powerful enough to really do it justice.

So for a man to usurp that role, even someone as powerful as Bruce Wayne, is like a 3-year-old trying to make cheesecake. Better to leave that to someone who knows what he’s doing.

That doesn’t mean Christians can’t enjoy good entertainment. It just means we have to know where entertainment ends and responsible moral behavior begins.

As for Batman: Arkham City, the ESRB rating (“T for Teen”) is there for a reason. While the fighting is exhilarating, there is coarse, suggestive language throughout, especially involving the more scantily-clad female characters of the game (Catwoman, Harley Quinn, and Poison Ivy). Also, during the third act of the main campaign, the game deviates thematically from its urban origins and delves into the realm of demons and the supernatural. It’s not gory, but it is very intense, and not for the faint of heart.

Assuming you follow the age guidelines, though, Batman: Arkham City can make for great recreation.

And in the theology department, it’s not half bad either.

“Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord.

Well, God, you can have it.

After a few days of being Batman, I’m worn out.