The Common Good

The Myth of Redemptive Violence: The Day the Earth Stood Still

In the spirit of peace on earth and goodwill toward all, I went to see the remake of the 1951 movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, in which Keanu Reeves plays the role of "humanoid alien" Klaatu. In both films, the premise is that the human race threatens the survival of the planet itself, and a governing body of alien races has sent an ambassador to inform us that we will be eliminated in order to protect the earth. In 1951, we had just bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki; nuclear pacifism was in its formative stages. Today, we again face the very real possibility of irrevocably altering the earth through global warming.

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Of particular note to evangelicals is the subliminal message inserted in the original film by screenwriter Edmund North. He had written in a messianic disposition to the character of Klaatu (a messenger of peace known as Carpenter, rejected by the world, killed and resurrected, finally ascending into the heavens, etc.). The latest installment avoided many of the overt Christian overtones, but it also failed to evade the problem inherent in the original -- that a violent race (you and me) should be dealt with violently in order to quell said ingrained tendencies. It is a study in the myth of redemptive violence, and it is a view confusingly held by a seemingly uber-intelligent alien race (or more accurately, a coalition of races).

The 2008 remake, unfortunately, plays like a series of commercials (Windows is clearly being pushed, with logos popping up throughout). I did find it noteworthy that the U.S. plays a domineering role, refusing the world access to Klaatu and grasping at almost any chance to control the situation, then finally seeing that reason -- while valuable and valid -- must at some point give way to sympathy (a concept Wendell Berry outlines superbly). I don't want to spoil the movie for those who are still interested, but I will say that it is the victory of sympathy over reason that finally triumphs. It serves as a good Advent reminder that even uber-intelligent aliens (and hopefully governments and individual humans as well) can be brought to the realization that the whole violence-to-solve-violence approach is just a bunch of malarkey. After all, the impotency of state violence (in Herod's infanticide -- evoking memories of Pharaoh's attempt, and later in Rome's death penalty at Calvary) is a strong theme of the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke.

Let us reject terror and remember the Magi, who refused to serve Herod's death warrant. May we all turn from the nonsense of violence and realize the sense of nonviolence this Christmas season. May peace reign in us and through us, on earth as it is in heaven.

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