Friday, March 20, 2009

Truly fighting evil

Our culture loves comic book heroes. For many years now, one of the surest ways to make big money on a movie has been to base it on some superhero. Not only do we like the idea of someone having some kind of special edge such as the ability to climb walls or a super-capable suit of armour, but we like the idea that these advantages can be used for "good". We get a visceral kick out of seeing the mob bosses or the cruel warlords or the sadistic psychopaths get their comeuppance at the hands of the the hero. It's nice to see the scales tipped toward good for a change, given how often they're tipped the other way.

This is hardly a new idea - it's just the latest incarnation of a theme as old as mankind. The image of The Hero kicking the stuffing out of the Bad Guys and rescuing the victims is a thread that runs from Beowulf to Iron Man and will presumably continue as long as men tell stories. The Evil is always over the top: excessive, egregious, and crying out for action. The response is inevitably force in some form, be it sophisticated intelligence or technology or simply superior strength. The Evil is vanquished and life can return to normal.

The drawback of this view is how it treats Good, Evil, and the conflict between them. For one thing, something as blatant as warlords terrorizing villages or psychopaths blowing up hospitals is but an extreme manifestation of evil. It is like a big, bright dandelion flower in the middle of a green lawn. It's obvious, and for that reason the most offensive, but it's only the most visible aspect of the problem. The Superhero Solution is the equivalent of firing up the John Deere and mowing off all the dandelion flowers. Swift, decisive action with dramatic results - there you go, all green again, problem solved.

Any groundskeeper knows that mowing off the flowers doesn't solve the dandelion problem - you have to dig them out by the roots. Similarly, the problem of evil cannot truly be dealt with by simply blasting away the most obvious manifestations. To eradicate evil, you have to dig it out by the root. But that simply moves the question: what is the root of evil?

If Scriptures is to be believed, then the answer is as simple as it is intractable. The root of evil is the unsubmitted will - a will that chooses its own way over God's way. This is a problem we all share, great and small, superheroes and supervillans. The solution is conceptually simple but practically impossible: perfect submission of our will to God's. There's only One Man who has pulled that off, and He's the true superhero.

This is where our superhero paradigm breaks down. We envision the Good Guy showing up and imposing his will on the Bad Guy, usually by exercise of extreme force. There's no submission - it's all subjection. It's human will against human will, and the one with the most strength wins. We hope it'll be the guy with the good intentions, but sometimes that's where our knuckles get white gripping the theater seat. The idea is that one human will overcoming another human will is sufficient to address the problem.

But that's never sufficient. I'm not saying that there aren't men with good and noble wills as well as men with corrupt and depraved wills. What I am saying is that someone with a good and noble will recognizes that it takes all the effort he can muster to submit that will. Truly conquering evil within another will is beyond his ability. Efforts to subdue other wills may be necessary to prevent complete chaos in human society, but in the long haul they can only bind evil for a time - it's just like mowing the heads off dandelions.

As long as we're enamored of the Superhero Model, we won't truly conquer evil in ourselves or anyone else. It perpetuates the myth that evil is something obvious, dramatic, and (most of all) Out There. The true path for conquering evil has been modeled for us: perfect submission of will. That's the only real example we've been given, and our only way of truly battling evil, because our own will is the only one we can really conquer. The problem is that submitting our will is far less excitement - and far less entertainment - than watching the Bad Guys get thrown around or blown away or outsmarted by the Good Guy. But we have to decide whether we want illusion or reality.

Part of the impact of the recent movie Gran Torino lies in this very tension. The gruff, profane hero Walt has to deal with some real evil threatening those he cares for. He tries the Superhero approach, directly confronting the evil mano a mano. It backfires horribly, and he realizes that direct confrontation is useless. The young lad he befriends wants to respond with more superhero tactics, but Walt takes another path that involves submitting his will - and that ultimately conquers. (I won't spoil it - but be sure to see the movie.)

We love the idea of fighting evil. Are we willing to do what it takes to really do so?

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