Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Man on Fire (a consuming fire)

Go ahead: make me tons of money.
Everybody likes a good revenge flick, though not every one would admit it. Whether they're done well (like Man on Fire), average (like The Punisher), or poorly (like Colombiana), they all follow the same basic structure: idyllic life is interrupted by some jackass and their jackass minions (whose jackass-quotient rises steadily throughout the film), which causes a highly trained but burned-out protagonist to go vigilante all over the place. This structure is especially potent if the "idyllic life" contains a redemption angle where the burned-out protagonist is brought back from the brink of self-destruction by a central-secondary character (often a child) who is subsequently kidnapped or killed, which sparks the ensuing mayhem. And we, the audience, enjoy said mayhem as the protagonist delivers a whole serving of payback to those who dared touch the heart-strings-pulling plot device. And we love every bit of it.

Nuff said.
Such films are controversial, however, mainly because revenge and vigilantism are controversial. No man is above the law, but there are plenty outside of it (i.e., criminals) who don't abide by its rules. So when law enforcement (or law-abiding citizens) try to play the game of justice with those who don't bother about the rules, they are necessarily handicapped. The whole thing feels completely unfair and counter-intuitive, and yet the "whole thing" makes all the difference in the world. The lines in the sand that we draw as a society may hinder us, but that hindrance is the difference between us and them, between us and those in the darkness outside. Without law and the order it brings, we are no better than criminals. Worse yet, we are no better than animals. Thus, though it may give us disadvantages, we ought to take the more noble path and abide by the law regardless.

"This is where the law stops and I start."
Then again, is the law really such an ideal thing? To put it another way, is justice no higher than the law? The truth is that justice is the real transcendent ideal, while "the law" is a human construct, our best effort to encapsulate justice in our own specific society with its own specific situations. And like most best efforts, we fail. We fall short of the glory of justice. Thus, it is left to the vigilante to deal out justice against evil and thereby shame the law for its inadequacies and society for its failures. It may be nobility to abide by "the law" even when it seems to fight against you, but it is greater wisdom to realize when "the law" has failed, when it has become so hopelessly dis-empowered and corrupted that the only way to serve true justice is to go outside of it as a criminal, and yet not as a criminal, for justice is a line drawn deeper than any law, and that distinction is what makes all the difference, whether you are "in" the law or not.

Hero or psychotic terrorist?
Then again, if justice is the higher, more ideal thing, then it is necessarily the more abstract thing. Abstract things cannot be fully comprehended or understood until they are made concrete, and the more concrete the better. Now, the law is concrete, and thus it is a useful rubric for justice (even if it is sometimes inadequate to fully capture it); but if a vigilante works outside of the law, then by what rubric do we measure him or her? Do we just take them at their word that they are serving true justice? Why should we believe them? After all, they could be lying. They could be just another evil, crazy person looking for an excuse to kill people and have found a golden opportunity to not only do so but also be lauded as a "hero". The law is not always just, but without the law how do we know what justice even is?

So goes the argument, one we will probably never see the end of, which is why I'm actually not interested in an argument. I'm interested in a fact, the fact that, despite all or our arguments and controversies, everybody still loves (or at least sympathizes with) a good revenge flick. My question is, why? Why, despite all of our moralizing and posturing, do we enjoy watching the bad guys "get theirs" in a devastating, scorched earth way?

"I am talking scorched earth!"
Is it because we're Americans, whose culture has idealized the cowboy ethic? Then again, we're hardly the only culture to have idealized vengeance. Perhaps it's because we're degenerates? That sounds better (and more "holy"): our desire for vengeance is a pagan thing (which even pagans like Homer and Aeschylus grew weary of), and it serves to demonstrate how far we've fallen from God. That sounds right, and yet it doesn't sound right at all. Shouldn't evil be punished and justice served, and aren't our laws often futile and inadequate against evil? Is it really degeneracy that breaks our hearts and enrages our souls when justice is not "served" and the law is helpless or even culpable? Is God really displeased with out angry hearts? Or is it possible that His heart is even angrier than ours? One way sounds more pious, and the other more satisfying. Is there no rectification between the two?

Justice is a dish best served hot.
I believe that there is a rectification, one that also explains why everyone loves or sympathizes with revenge flicks. I believe it is this: as human beings, fallen yet made in the image of God, we have an inborn desire for apocalypse. That is the great secret behind the popularity of revenge flicks. They are, in a sense, apocalyptic. Justice is served, not by the bad guys being locked up, but also not even by them simply being killed. My earlier term "scorched earth" is the only true way to describe what happens. The protagonist does not simply kill the bad guy; he also destroys his entire enterprise and empire, burning it to the ground, leaving nothing left. No holdings, no assets, no fall backs, no one left to carry on the work. That is not simply revenge, nor is it merely justice. It is apocalypse: a no-quarter, total war against entrenched evil. It is merciless because it is complete. It is pitiless because it is absolute. It will not compromise, and the whole corrupt edifice will be razed to the ground. As one law-abiding citizen put it (with some profanity), "It's gonna be biblical."

At this point, it does us no good to say that we should "turn the other cheek" because "vengeance belongs to God." It is true that the Christian has no grounds to take revenge for affronts made against them, but that does not mean that revenge will never be taken. On the contrary, revenge will be taken, just not by us. Vengeance is not ours because it belongs to God. And He will repay.

This is a side of God many don't like to think about, so they try to forget it. They trivialize it as just some ancient anomaly. They bury it under more squeaky clean or sanitized caricatures. They isolate all of the Faith around pacifism and then downplay everything else. But the truth is never lost, no matter who hard we try to lose it. And the truth is that God is a God of justice. (Just let that idea sink in for a sec.) He is justice, and that does not simply mean mercy to the oppressed, weak, and poor. It also means wrath to the oppressor, proud, and merciless. In fact, the call for God's wrath is just as common in the Bible as calls for His blessing. And it is not just an Old Testament thing either.

David calls upon God to "destroy" evil-doers, to let "death seize" them and send them to "hell" because of their "wickedness" (Ps. 55:9, 15). Isaiah spoke peace to "fearful hearts" by reminding them that "God will come with vengeance," and that the mountains would melt with the blood of His enemies (Isaiah 34:2-3; 35:4). Jesus spoke of His return as an act of judgment similar to Noah's flood (another apocalyptic event), and that the death toll would be greater than any could imagine (Matt. 24:21-22, 27-28, 38-39). And it is for this return and vengeance that the souls of all the martyrs call out to God (Rev. 6:9-10). This is all apocalyptic language. It is also the language of revenge flicks: salvation for the weak only comes by the utter annihilation of the wicked by someone who is thirsty for blood. And God is thirsty for blood (Is. 63:1-9), and He will repay.

No one "likes" this side of God, and yet we all actually do like it, because we all like a good revenge flick. Everybody wants to see evil dealt with, not in a partial or even legalistic sense, but in an absolute and total sense. That is what apocalypse means: God dealing with evil and sin and the wicked in an absolute and total sense. There will be no mercy for them or all their works, just wrath and a terrible, irreparable ruin. This is meant to be a source of hope to those whom God has saved, saved from wrath (Rom. 5:9). To those still left in the darkness outside, it is to be a warning: apocalypse is coming. The Man on fire is coming. Not a law-abiding citizen, but the Judge who is the Law. He will come with no mercy, for if you are not safe within His fold then you are of the darkness and thus part of the problem. Since we know of the terror or the Lord, we seek to persuade you (II Cor. 5:10-11): be saved from the wrath to come, for it is coming. God is coming, with blessings for His beloved, but with vengeance for all who align themselves with the dark.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

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