Violence

The Bible and Movies and Violence – Oh My!

David and Goliath illustration, Milena Moiola / Shutterstock.com

David and Goliath illustration, Milena Moiola / Shutterstock.com

Whenever I hear someone lament that kids these days need to read their Bibles, I tell them that the Bible should be rated R for violence, nudity, rape, drug deals, and even genocide – and that’s just in the first book! Of course, as a youth pastor, I’ve found that the best way to get kids interested in the Bible is to tell them that if someone made it into a movie, it would be rated R.

The Bible and movies tell stories. Gareth points out the importance of stories in his article “It’s the Movies’ Fault/It’s not the Movies’ Fault” in which he brilliantly states that, “we could benefit from recognizing that the relationship between storytelling and the formation of human identity is crucial.” Indeed, the stories we tell are crucial to the formation of human identity, but the Bible and movies tell stories that are permeated with violence. So, the question becomes, how do we make sense of those violent stories in terms of human identity?

Family Values and Murder: The Trial of Whitey Bulger

Josh Greenstein / Flickr.com

Media prepare for Whitey Bulger's arrival at Boston courthouse in 2011, Josh Greenstein / Flickr.com

“Family and friends come first,” the witness said in court. “My father always taught me that. The priests and the nuns I grew up with taught me that. They taught me that Judas – Judas was the worst person in the world.” If you have not been following the Boston trial of Whitey Bulger, you might easily imagine that this quote was taken from divorce court, maybe a custody trial. The witness might be trying to paint his spouse as an adulterer, a Judas if you will, in order to bolster his or her claim to a bigger share of the settlement.

It’s not a bad strategy. No one likes a snitch, and many of us know from experience that betrayal is a rotten thing to endure. In hurt and anger we may even have condemned our betrayer as a Judas, if only under our breath. But what if I told you that the witness was a convicted murderer, a mob hit man from the Boston underworld, who was using the Judas analogy to justify his actions? In the 1970s and ‘80s, John Martorano killed 20 people – to his mind, Judases – for “noble purposes:” to protect family and friends from being hurt or double-crossed. He claims never to have enjoyed killing, not like a mass murderer. “I didn’t like risking my life,” he explained under oath, “but I thought if the reason was right, I’d try.”

Yikes.

Barack Obama and the Drone Wars: The Logic of Violence

Military drone, F.Schmidt / Shutterstock.com

Military drone, F.Schmidt / Shutterstock.com

A fundamental principle [of ancient Greek tragedy], often overlooked, is that the double and the monster are one and the same being.

  - René Girard, Violence and the Sacred (p. 160)

The debate about the use of drone strikes in the so-called “War on Terror ” has shed light on an inevitable calculus of war: how many civilian casualties can be tolerated in pursuit of our goals? President Barack Obama, in his speech on May 23 at National Defense University, referred to the drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, admitting, “It is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in all war.” But of course, our wars and our use of drones were conceived as a legitimate response to the civilian deaths on 9/11 and a defensive maneuver to prevent future attacks.

Obama Defends Drone Attacks

In his speech, Obama further justified the use of drones by stating it reduces the number of civilian casualties compared to boots-on-the-ground wars. Though the numbers are hard to determine, it has been reported by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that civilian casualties caused by our invasion of Iraq number somewhere between 55,000 and 60,000. In Afghanistan, from the time reporting began in 2007, the Guardian reports that the total number of civilians who have lost their lives in the armed conflict to be 14,728. For drone strikes, the highest estimates put total civilian deaths at around 950, indisputably a better number.

The Illogical Logic of Violence

Reducing the number of deaths caused by our use of violence is a worthy goal, and Obama does seem genuinely engaged in drawing the number down. So for the sake of argument, I will take him at his word. But (you knew there was a but coming!), he is trapped, as so many of us are, within the logic of violence.

Transcending a Genocidal God

From the History Channel's "The Bible"

The History Channel's The Bible, like so much of so-callled "religious pop culture," seemed to be the product of good people trying to do a good thing, but at best putting the desire to convey a particular message ahead of making the best artwork for the medium.

Gareth Higgins is a writer and broadcaster from Belfast, Northern Ireland, who has worked as an academic and activist. He is the author of Cinematic States: America in 50 Movies and How Movies Helped Save My Soul: Finding Spiritual Fingerprints in Culturally Significant Films. He blogs at www.godisnotelsewhere.wordpress.com and co-presents “The Film Talk” podcast with Jett Loe at www.thefilmtalk.com. He is also a Sojourners contributing editor. Originally from Northern Ireland, he lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

Star Trek: Into Darkness: A Call to Change Course

Star Trek: Into Darkness movie still. StarTrekMovie.com

Star Trek: Into Darkness movie still. StarTrekMovie.com

Star Trek: Into Darkness is a fascinating and complicated story that is well worth watching. Instead of providing a summary, I want to explore three related aspects of the movie: sacrifice, blood, and hope for a more peaceful future.

Live Long and Prosper – The Sacrificial Formula

In a reference to my favorite Star Trek movie, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the current movie’s Spock (Zachary Quinto) restates the sacrificial formula: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.” This formula has generally been used throughout human history to justify sacrificing someone else. As René Girard points out, from ancient human groups to modern societies, whenever conflicts arise the natural way to find reconciliation is to unite against a common enemy.

Of course, there’s a lot of this going on throughout the Star Trek franchise. One conversation in Into Darkness explicitly points this out when Kirk (Chris Pine) unites with his enemy Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), and explains it to Spock:

Kirk: The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Spock: An Arabic proverb attributed to a prince who was betrayed and decapitated by his own subjects.

Kirk: Well, it’s still a hell of a quote.

Al-Khatib and Al Jazeera: Listening to Victims in Syria

Violence in Syria illustration, Lightspring / Shutterstock.com

Violence in Syria illustration, Lightspring / Shutterstock.com

What the heck is going on in Syria? If you are like me, you have a problem keeping all the players straight, and the unfamiliar Arab names don’t help. Thankfully, the Syrian president has a relatively easy name to remember, Bashar al-Assad, but keeping track of who’s who and which side they’re on is a real challenge. Frankly, even when I can keep track, I’m very skeptical that I am getting anything close to the truth from news outlets, the White House, or our State Department. The talk about a “red line,” no-fly zones, arming terrorists, and weapons of mass destruction sounds a lot like the falderal we were being fed going into the Iraq war. So what’s a good citizen of the world to do? If I can’t make sense of the news accounts myself, who can I find to help me out? And if I can’t trust my government to sort out the good guys from the bad guys for me, how can I ever figure out what, if anything, my government should be doing in my name?

It's Time for Outrage: Sexual Violence and the Church

Angel, umbertoleporini / Shutterstock.com

Angel, umbertoleporini / Shutterstock.com

Violence against women is the most prevalent and the most hidden injustice in our world today. From rape as a weapon of war, to human trafficking, to the attack of a young girl seeking an education, the treatment of women and girls across the globe is in a state of crisis.

And we don't even need to leave our own shores to encounter staggering statistics. Here in the U.S., 1 in 5 women have been raped in their lifetime — a number that only jumps when you realize that 54 percent of sexual assaults are never reported. More than 1 in 3 women have experienced some kind of intimate partner violence. Sexual assaults in the U.S. military continue to rise — with an estimated 26,000 in 2012 alone — even as its leaders claim to be addressing the epidemic. 

As I lay out in my book On God’s Side, what has been missing from this narrative is the condemnation of these behaviors from other men, especially men in positions of power, authority, and influence — like those in our pulpits. In a section of that book, I say we need to establish a firm principle: the abuse of women by men will no longer be tolerated by other men. The voices of more men need to join the chorus to make that perfectly clear.

It's time for all people of faith to be outraged.

If Someone Hits You, Hit Them Back

Brown boxing gloves, Csehak Szabolcs / Shutterstock.com

Brown boxing gloves, Csehak Szabolcs / Shutterstock.com

Last year, 506 murders happened in the city of Chicago — the majority of them in black communities. Similar rates of violence swept through places like Philadelphia, Camden, N.J., New Orleans, and the list could go on and on. I have in my life begun to declare myself a pacifist. I have made this change because I think, as a black man, the only recourse for me is to try and stop violence that happens in so many black communities. Turning the other cheek, responding with a gentle answer, forgiving a misunderstanding: these are the paths to recovery in my neighborhood. 

The “if someone hits you, hit them back” mentality is destroying black men at an alarming rate. Dads, teach your boys to talk it over, look the other way, or keep walking when things begin to escalate. 

'Paranorman:' Unmasking the Myth of Redemptive Violence with Cartoon Zombies

Image from Universal Studios

Image from Universal Studios

Paranorman, the stop-motion animated feature by Laika Studios just came out on Netflix instant download, so we decided to watch it for our family movie night. It's a fun film, perhaps a bit too scary for the little ones, but what really stood out for me was the surprisingly deep morality in this little film. This comes in an unlikely package since the film is about zombies and witches. Not surprisingly, if you look for Christian reviews of the film you will see many focus on warnings to stay way from the occult. Sadly, this response misses the profoundly deep moral message behind this film — one that confronts religious violence, and instead promotes a message of redemption and forgiveness. That's quite a bit of insight for a cartoon! 

The premise of Paranorman is that the town of Blithe Hollow (not coincidentally set in Massachusetts, as we will see later) is about to be overrun by zombies because of the curse of an evil witch. Only Norman Babcock, an odd boy who can speak to the dead, can save the day. The movie begins by having us get to know Norman, who is emotionally isolated because his family does not understand him, and his peers ostracize and ridicule him as a "freak" at school. The only person who believes Norman is his friend Neil Downe, and overweight boy who is himself bullied.

The town is in peril because three centuries ago, an evil witch was executed, and in revenge put a curse on puritan judge and her accusers, cursing them to rise from the grave as zombies. So each year the curse of the witch must be appeased by reading from a mysterious book at the grave of the witch in order to prevent a zombie apocalypse. But this year that does not happen, and the zombies overrun the town. The townspeople and local police form the typical Frankenstein mob, complete with pitchforks and shotguns to kill the zombies. As the mob mentality grows, Norman and his motley band are threatened by the mob as well. 

This is the first point where we see the film’s unmasking of "virtuous" violence: in the logic of many films, so long as someone is a "monster" or an "alien," it is okay to kill them. So we have no problem with watching mass killings of monsters or aliens in movies because ... well ... they're monsters. So you're supposed to kill them. That's what good guys do in movies. This is the unquestioned plot of hundreds of movies. As long as the Storm Troopers in Star Wars are faceless, we don't bat an eye when Luke kills one after the other. They have been dehumanized, and so it's okay to kill them all. The same is true for the Orks in Lord of the Rings, or the witch and her minions in the Chronicles of Narnia. 

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