A Proposal for a Violent Entertainment Decision-Making Framework

Enjoy the clip above from the film Gladiator, if you can. I pray, literally for Christ’s sake, that you can’t. In our year of “devolution” and “getting small” so far in 2017, we’ve been repeatedly confronted by the link between Mammon (which wears late capitalist clothes these days) and violence, and somehow we’ve been consistently surprised by the extent to which both are embedded not only in the culture of U.S. empire, but also in the church. I’ve written a lot this year about our efforts to resist Mammon, however halting they may be, and I’ve written a little about our efforts to resist violence. It’s actually pretty interesting. Both efforts- to resist Mammon, and to resist violence- are apparently offensive. What’s interesting about it is the fact that it seems that they’re most offensive to “church people,” to otherwise well-meaning would-be Jesus followers. It seems that if we say, as we now do, that we think it’s utterly essential to following Jesus that we recognize that the U.S. is a violent, Mammon-serving empire more powerful than violent, Mammon-serving Rome of Jesus’ day and that therefore our relationship to U.S. empire must be similar to that of Jesus and his first followers in regard to their relationship to Rome, then such a stance is received as implicit judgment. We do not mean for our actions to imply such judgment, but the fact of it is revelatory. That said, this is not the focus of this post.  

What I do want to focus on is violence, and specifically violent entertainment. It has become clear to us this year that, as Brian Zahnd says, “God is like Jesus; God has always been like Jesus. We haven’t always known this, but now we do.” At the core of this truth is the fact that Jesus is the Prince of Peace and therefore among the many meanings of his death on the cross is this one- that on the cross Jesus absorbed the world’s violence without retaliating and so violence was put to death along with Jesus. Thus we knew that in a multitude of new ways we had to re-double our focus on peacemaking and nonviolence. It only followed then that if we were to be transformed in this way, our minds needed to be renewed, as they have begun to be. For this to fully take effect, though, we knew we needed to stop filling our minds with violent entertainment. If violence is something we are to renounce and resist so that we can better join God in restoring his image in us and in all whom we meet, then it cannot be a source of entertainment. It’s no coincidence that our violent culture is filled with so much violent entertainment. The two go hand-in-hand. Violent images and words normalize violence. They re-wire our brains to accept it as a fact of life.

 Even if we try to take what amounts to the moral high ground in this culture by asserting that violence is to be avoided when possible but is nonetheless acceptable as a last resort when confronted with violence, we still wind up condoning some measure of limited, hopefully proportional violence. This is the myth of redemptive violence, and it is a fallacy. Violence begets violence, after all, because the means are the ends in the process of becoming. Some folks misread Scripture and think it tells us to spank our children. It does not. However, for the sake of argument let’s say it does. Remembering that spanking can only ever be punishment, not discipline- for the only thing it can possibly “teach” is how to avoid getting hit by your parents in the future- would you then hit (spank) your child for hitting another child on the playground? Of course not. It makes no sense to do the thing you’re trying to get your kid to stop doing in order to get them to stop doing it.

The myth of redemptive violence is pervasive, however. From “The War to End All Wars” (it didn’t) to the NRA promulgated argument that “good guys with guns” can stop “bad guys with guns,” we see it everywhere. The crowd’s endorsement of this “logic,” however, does not actually make it logical, and I give you Star Trek of all things to make this point:

 

 As the alien said, “your good and your evil use the same methods (violence), and achieve the same results.” What are the results? Well, for starters:

“He pulls a knife; you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital; you send one of his to the morgue!” So again, violence begets violence, but though one might hope that the violence that violence begets would be proportional and limited, it seems to me that it usually does not work out this way, as the “Untouchables” clip and quote above reveals. The only way that violent force can overcome an opposing violent force is if one side escalates the force. This “win” by one violent side can only ever be temporary, however, and at the very least the threat of overwhelming violent force must be maintained by the victor perpetually. It’s why nation-states maintain standing armies, and the U.S. empire seeks to maintain the biggest, most violent military of all. Gandhi knew this, of course, when he said: “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary. The evil it does is permanent.” This pernicious myth of redemptive violence must be rejected outright. One of Dr. King’s most famous quotes is that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Often missing, though, is the context:

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

So the quote isn’t just about darkness being ineffective in driving out darkness or hate in driving out hate; it’s about violence being ineffective as a means of stopping violence. But I digress.

So then, if following the Prince of Peace must mean resisting violence in all its forms, especially the form that lays neural pathways in our brain without us even being aware of it (visual entertainment), how can we do so, when the culture of U.S. empire is saturated with so very much violent entertainment? Until I find something better, I propose a violent entertainment decision-making framework that involves asking three questions:

  1. Is the violence gratuitous and unnecessary?  Can the same story be told without it?
  2. Related to #1, what do I most look forward to about the entertainment? Is it the violence? (Think light-saber duels or space battles.)
  3. Does the entertainment promote the myth of redemptive violence?

If the answer to any of the above is yes, I shouldn’t be entertained by it. Let’s unpack these questions, though, and try applying them.

Question #1: Is the Violence Gratuitous?

Answering this question seems fairly straightforward. A proxy question might be: “Was the movie directed by Michael Bay?” If so, being entertained by it can’t be a faithful choice, it seems to me. Bay is famous for making needlessly violent movies full of “big explosions.” The violence in his films, of which I’ve seen probably more than a few, in my experience almost never moves the story very well. It may heighten the tension, but only artificially, and it makes the storytelling disjointed at best. You don’t learn much you didn’t already know about the characters, and I suspect many viewers would have to admit that what they’re most invested in is not a positive outcome for the “good guys with guns” in the story. Rather, what’s most interesting is how big the explosions are, how many things get blown up, how amazing the violent special effects are, etc. This brings us to question #2.

Question #2: Is the Violence What I Most Look Forward To About the Entertainment?

This question is very much related to question #1 above, but I think it must be addressed as well. (As I write, I’m aware of the violence in language. In writing the sentence just above, I wanted initially to say, “but I think it must be tackled as well.” When I realized that didn’t work, the next phrase that came to mind was “wrestled with.” It was only on my third try that I came up with “addressed.”) Let’s continue using Michael Bay as an example. You would have a hard time convincing me that most people who are most excited about his films aren’t most excited about the “big explosions” in them. The man likes blowing things up on film, and he has legions of fans who are ready to pay top dollar (ah…there’s that ever-present link between violence and capitalism) at the multiplex to see him do so. I used to be one of them. I’ll talk more about Star Wars later, but I think this is at the heart of why I’ve had to give up my life-long love of Star Wars, and try to quell my sons’ growing love of it. When I think about a Star Wars movie, I have to admit that what most excited me about seeing one is a “good ol’ fashioned” light-saber duel, or a “force fight,” or an epic space battle. I have to, therefore, conclude that being entertained in this way is not a choice that is faithful to the Prince of Peace.

Question #3: Does the Entertainment Promote the Myth of Redemptive Violence?

I spoke at some length about redemptive violence above. It’s the idea that essentially “good guys with guns” can stop “bad guys with guns-” that violence, while regrettable, is sometimes necessary as the only possible way to stop violence. The logic of this argument is flawed, short-sighted, and betrayed by experience. The “war on terror” is an Orwellian perpetual war for lots of reasons, but one of them is because for every alleged terrorist blown up by a drone strike, many more are made. This is true not least because of the “collateral damage” such strikes inflict, and perhaps most because of the horrifically evil practice by the forces of U.S. empire of blowing up an alleged terrorist first and then when not just his associates but family and children and neighbors and friends gather for a funeral, your secular government (if you’re a U.S. citizen) then will often blow up the people at that gathering too. This practice is so evil that one wonders if it isn’t intentional. It surely insures that the “terrorists” (and let’s be clear, the violent forces of U.S. empire are no less terroristic than any violent jihadi) will keep coming, and therefore insures that the ever hungry military-industrial complex will continue to have a steady market for its products. And there, yet again, is the link between violence and capitalism.

Making Decisions With This Proposed Framework

Star Wars
Picture Credit: Brian Stauffer

I’ve already said above that I concluded that I couldn’t be entertained by Star Wars any more, because I had to admit (question #2) that what I most looked forward to about a Star Wars movie was the violence. Whatever else I would say here, I won’t say it as well as Roy Scranton did in his seminal New York Times essay, “Star Wars and the Fantasy of American Violence.” Scranton, an Iraq War vet, writes:

“Star Wars” managed a remarkable trick. Two years after the fall of Saigon and America’s withdrawal in defeat from a dishonorable war, Mr. Lucas’s Wagnerian space opera recast for Americans the mythic story so central to our sense of ourselves as a nation.

In this story, war is a terrible thing we do only because we have to. In this story, the violence of war has a power that unifies and enlightens. In this story, war is how we show ourselves that we’re heroes. Whom we’re fighting against or why doesn’t matter as much as the violence itself, our stoic willingness to shed blood, the promise that it might renew the body politic.

The literary historian Richard Slotkin called this story “the myth of regeneration through violence,” and he traces it from the earliest Indian captivity narratives through the golden age of the western, and it’s the same story we often tell ourselves today. It’s a story about how violence makes us American. It’s a story about how violence makes us good.

Looking out over Baghdad on the Fourth of July, I saw the truth that story obscured and inverted: I was the faceless storm trooper, and the scrappy rebels were the Iraqis.

Indeed. What Star Wars may get right is that there is an evil empire that should be resisted. What most Americans get wrong is that we are that evil empire. Moreover, as Chris Hedges makes clear in the title of his book by the same name, “War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning.” Ask any U.S. President with a flagging domestic policy agenda; what better way to boost your poll numbers is there than getting involved in a war somewhere? Scranton’s essay is worth the read and I urge you to do so. I think it’s clear, though, that Scranton is talking about the myth of redemptive violence and how it sits at the heart not only of Star Wars, but the collective consciousness of U.S. empire. Thus, my family has given it up.

“American Football”

I grew up in the Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex. Therefore, loving the Dallas Cowboys was as central to the identity I was nurtured into as viewing Texas as better than other states but otherwise being a patriotic, flag waving, apple pie loving “American.” So, for the first time in conscious memory now 2 years into my fifth decade, I am not following the Cowboys this season. (Again, I’m aware of my own language. Why would I have “followed” them in the first place? Aren’t I supposed to be following Jesus?) I do not know what their record is. Sundays are not spent hoping the Cowboys are on national TV or wishing I had NFL Sunday Ticket instead. No longer do I even put on a game I might be less interested in simply so that I can stretch out on the couch on a Sunday afternoon and fall asleep to it. Why? Because “American football” is needlessly violent (question #1), and again if most fans were honest, I think they’d have to admit that the violence is among what they most look forward to about football (question #2). It’s needlessly violent because the sport can be played without violence. Pudgy middle-aged guys like myself (well, almost middle-aged) play touch football in parks across the country nearly every day, and especially on Thanksgiving. Kids and adults play flag football frequently too. Tackling and hitting need not be part of the sport, though the NFL would not be the billion dollar industry it is without the violence, and there again is the link between violence and capitalism (do you see a connection here, as I do?). What’s more, the evidence is daily mounting that there is also a link between the violence in “American football” and devastating health effects on those who participate in it, including violence on the part of those afflicted by CTE towards others and themselves. Finally, while I may not follow the Cowboys any more, I do follow the news; so I know that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones recently, though unsurprisingly, picked sides in the debate surrounding activism and free speech as it has surfaced in sports especially since Colin Kaepernick began protesting violence, discrimination, and the devaluation of black lives during the national anthem when it is played during football games. Jones recently said that team unity was not nearly as important as “respecting the flag” and so any player who he thought was disrespecting it would be benched. This patriotism toward the symbols of U.S. empire over/against any symbolic resistance to the evil that empire has subjected its citizens of color to is abhorrent, and it makes it that much easier to not be a Cowboys fan any more.

Star Trek

Can you tell I’m a sci-fi fan? I’ve loved Star Wars from a young age, but that love was nurtured by my older siblings, who probably love it more. I came by my love of Star Trek, though, all on my own. My mother liked it, if memory serves; so I suppose that’s a characteristic that I’m willing to admit I share with her (my long dead mother was the abuser in my dysfunctional, though “Christian,” childhood home). Still, I appreciated Star Trek for lots of reasons that were all my own. For starters, there was simply literally more to love. With now 6 live action television series, 1 animated one, and I think 13 movies, I’ve been exposed to a lot of Star Trek in my life. Gene Roddenberry’s (Star Trek’s creator) progressive vision of a multi-racial future in which everyone (at least on Earth or in the United Federation of Planets) largely gets along or at least tries to and (by the second television series) in which war and famine and poverty have been eliminated on earth even had a fledgling critique of capitalism, as again by the second television series it was stated that most Earth citizens lived enlightened lives in which they were free to pursue their most meaningful life. As Captain Picard said in the episode “The Neutral Zone:”

A lot has changed in the past three hundred years. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We’ve eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy.

It’s quite debatable whether this ideal is carried through throughout the series, but it’s at least posited as an ideal that humanity achieved to some degree. Still, there’s plenty of conflict in Star Trek, even war (apparently not all species and cultures are as enlightened as futuristic humanity), and though I like Star Trek just a little more than Star Wars, I must be consistent and ask of it my three questions above.

Regarding question #1, I think some Star Trek is certainly needlessly violent. I will confess that I like the revival of the movies that J.J. Abrams started before moving on to Star Wars, but they’re violent, and probably gratuitously so. Thus, I won’t be watching them again. Likewise, I was excited about the latest iteration of Star Trek on TV, the capitalistic snare it represented (you have to sign up for CBS’ streaming service to watch it) notwithstanding. So I watched the first couple of episodes. It quickly became clear that the new series would be set in a time of war. That doesn’t automatically mean that it fails my violent entertainment decision-making framework, but it doesn’t make for a good start. By the second episode, though, a full on special effects laden space battle had occurred with many casualties. Lots of money was no doubt spent on those scenes, and they were no doubt very entertaining. For some viewers, those “big explosions” may be what they most liked about that episode, and thus question #2 is failed. Really, though, I only needed to get as far as this scene in the first episode, in which the central character said:

240 years ago, near H’Atoria, a Vulcan ship crossed into Klingon space. The Klingons attacked immediately. They destroyed the vessel. Vulcans don’t make the same mistake twice. From then on, until formal relations were established, whenever the Vulcans crossed paths with Klingons, the Vulcans fired first. They said “hello” in a language the Klingons understood. Violence brought respect. Respect brought peace. Captain, we have to give the Klingons a Vulcan “hello”.

This is the myth of redemptive violence in a nutshell, literally. In the quote above there are only four words between “violence” and “peace,” and they’re packaged in a nice little chiasm:

Violence

Brought

Respect

Respect

Brought

Peace

Thus, I won’t be watching the new series. There’s still some question, though, of re-watching some of the older series, particularly Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG). My boys and I have been re-watching this show together. They look forward to it immensely. My stance since our conversion to rejecting violence in all its forms, including violent entertainment, has been to withhold judgment regarding TNG. There is certainly some violence in it. What may be redeeming about at least some Star Trek, though, is that this is not the focus of the show. Many episodes are spent on character development with little violence thrown in, even for “good” (not really) measure. And when violence does come up in TNG, so far at least as we’ve re-watched most of the first three seasons, there’s some actual thoughtfulness involved, and even some questioning of the myth of redemptive violence. Take, for example, the third season episode, “The Enemy.” Wikipedia describes the episode:

In this episode, Lt. Cdr. Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton) is trapped on an inhospitable planet hazardous to human life with a Romulan. The two adversaries must work together if they wish to survive. Aboard the Enterprise, Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn) is faced with a conflict between his duty as a Starfleet officer and his Klingon prejudice against Romulans, and Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) must contend with a Romulan warbird intent on recovering their own personnel.

So on the planet two enemies must work together to survive, challenging their stereotypes about the other along the way. Meanwhile, Worf must decide whether to help save a Romulan’s life, a decision made all the more difficult by the fact that Romulans killed his family. Finally, Picard must work to avert a violent confrontation with a Romulan ship. In this exchange Commander Riker and Worf (indirectly) discuss the myth of redemptive violence:

Lieutenant Worf: I am asked to give up the very lifeblood of my mother and my father to those who murdered them!

Commander William T. Riker: So you blame all Romulans for that?

Lieutenant Worf: Yes!

Commander William T. Riker: Forever? What if someday, the Federation made peace with the Romulans?

Lieutenant Worf: Impossible.

Commander William T. Riker: That’s what your people said a few years ago, about Humans. Think how many died on both sides in that war. Would you and I be here now like this, if we hadn’t been able to let go of the anger and the blame? Where does it end, Worf? If that Romulan dies… does his family carry the bitterness on another generation?

And then, in this exchange Captain Picard interrupts a potential cycle of violence before it begins by choosing to extend trust to a would-be enemy threatening violence:

Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Commander, both our ships are ready to fight. We have two extremely powerful and destructive arsenals at our command. Our next actions will have serious repercussions. We have good reason to mistrust one another; but we have even better reason to set those differences aside. Now, of course, the question is… who will take the initiative? Who will make the first gesture of trust? – The answer is, I will. I must lower our shields to beam those men up from the planet’s surface. Once the shields are down, you will, of course, have the opportunity to fire on us. If you do, you will destroy not only the Enterprise and its crew, but the ceasefire that the Romulans and the Federation now enjoy.

Captain Jean-Luc Picard: [to Worf] Lieutenant… lower the shields.

I was very grateful when the boys and I watched this episode. Though clothed in futuristic storytelling, this is at least to some degree not only a serious show wrestling with serious issues, but is one that is at least in part willing to question the myth of redemptive violence. For that reason, we will warily watch on.

Not a Rule, a Guidepost

As Captain Picard himself said, “There can be no justice so long as laws are absolute. Even life itself is an exercise in exceptions.” Or, as I like to say, “rules are for relationship.” So is every war movie out for me? No. It’s possible, I suppose, to tell a war story that is not needlessly violent because the violence is an essential part of the story and the story could not be told without it. Questions 2 and 3 above then would still apply. If I find myself being entertained or most looking forward to the violence in our proverbial war movie, then I probably shouldn’t watch it. If not, I look toward question 3 for guidance. Does the movie promote the myth of redemptive violence? If not, if it ultimately tells a tale that shows how violence does not achieve its stated ends, that it only perpetuates itself, then this proverbial war movie may be one I can still watch and think myself faithful to the Prince of Peace as I do so.

Nonetheless, these are hard questions to ask, let alone answer. It takes work to resist violence in all its forms, but it’s necessary work that I’m glad to do. I follow the Prince of Peace, and I want to be transformed by him, to have my mind renewed. Lord, I ask that you would “make it so.”

P.S. Let’s Not Forget The Doctor

In all my geekiness, I came to enjoy Doctor Who as I binge-watched it during a particularly cold Christmas break some years ago in NE Ohio. The show can be scary and is known for featuring monsters, and yet is quintessentially British, which maybe is part of its appeal for me. Notably, The Doctor does not usually employ violence. He does not have superheroic powers (except the ability to “regenerate”), and does not carry a weapon. His tool of choice is a “sonic screwdriver,” which is good for making sounds, unlocking things, and scanning things, but often is not very good even at that. The Doctor’s most powerful “weapon” is his tongue, and his monologues are epic. Anyway, while researching for this post I did a search for “Dr. Who Nonviolence.” That search led me to this post, at what is now one of my favorite blogs, “Experimental Theology” by Richard Beck. His site is worth checking out. I especially appreciate the header at his site, a quote by Thomas Merton:

You are not big enough to accuse the whole age effectively, but let us say you are in dissent. You are in no position to issue commands, but you can speak words of hope. Shall this be the substance of your message? Be human in this most inhuman of ages; guard the image of man for it is the image of God.

Perhaps you might imagine why this quote would be meaningful. “You are not big enough to accuse the whole age effectively” is a good word to one who is trying to “get small,” and the encouragement to speak words of hope in “this most inhuman of ages” is a helpful reminder. Anyway, in the short post I referenced above, Richard tells a story about an interaction with his son regarding Dr. Who and nonviolence. He thought it worth sharing, and so do I:

Let me quickly apologize to Doctor Who fans for the title of this post as it might have excited them. I’m sorry that this post isn’t a theological analysis of Doctor Who and non-violence. But please link to good work in this area in the comments.

This post is simply a funny exchange I had with my son Aidan on this subject.

Aidan loves Doctor Who. I’ve only watched one episode. So the other day I was asking Aidan lots of questions about Doctor Who and what he liked about the show.

As Aidan shared I quickly discerned that in most episodes the good Doctor has to deal with a variety of creatures, aliens and monsters.

And then Aidan says, “But Doctor Who doesn’t use violence.”

I’m intrigued, “He doesn’t use violence?”

“Nope.”

“Well,” I ask, “then how does he fight all these creatures if he’s non-violent?”

Aidan pauses and then says, “Well, he runs away a lot. There’s a lot of running away.”


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