Modern cinema is a lot about revenge.
If Christians tend to flock to these payback films, it’s probably because Jesus is so not about revenge, and yet revenge feels so good.
This summer audiences cheered lustily as the Batman prevailed over the baleful Bane, a seemingly invincible villain who was poised to kill millions of innocents.
In earlier years we shouted our approval as Captain Kirk destroyed Kahn, or when Rambo reduced his enemies to quivering piles of bleeding flesh, a movie so high concept it can be rendered as a Haiku:
Rambo reduced his
enemies to quivering
Piles of bleeding flesh
My favorite revenge film is Lethal Weapon 2, a 1989 action comedy film directed by Richard Donner, and starring Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Patsy Kensit, Joe Pesci, Derrick O'Connor and Joss Ackland.
Ackland – who five years earlier had portrayed the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis in a BBC version of Shadowlands – plays a deliciously evil bad guy, a thugly functionary of South Africa’s all-white regime who epitomized everything we hated about apartheid.
Ackland, who I love, plays a character viewers not only love to hate; they have to hate him. He is a vicious, murdering racist who, as minister of affairs for the South African consulate, exploits his governmental power to deal drugs with impunity and make millions of dollars to line his own pockets and sustain the apartheid regime.
The efforts of the glib good guys, Gibson and Glover, to arrest Ackland’s character (fittingly dubbed Arjan “Arian” Rudd), are thwarted because he has diplomatic immunity.
But as the film rolls on, the viewers’ antipathy for the character grows to despairing frustration. It is revealed that Arjan Rudd had ordered the murder of the wife of Mel Gibson’s character, Riggs. And when Arjan binds Riggs’ arms and throws him into the drink to die, Riggs sees Arjan has already murdered the leggy, luscious character played by Kensit, whose pale, perfect body lies inanimate on the bottom. The audience gasps; some stifle a sob and shout, “NOOOO!”
A reel or two later, Gibson and Glover catch up with the malevolent South Africans. In a climactic scene, Arjan appears on a high balcony and coldly shoots Gibson. As Gibson falls, Glover raises his pistol to confront Arjan.
Sneering, Arjan raises his consulate ID badge. With South African-accented contempt, he shouts: “Diplomatic immunity.”
The audience groans in frustration – and vicarious hatred.
Glover appears to be catching his breath. But then he raises his pistol and shoots Arjan in the head.
“It’s just been revoked,” Glover declares as the audience cheers in thunderous affirmation.
How sweet the revenge.
And what a brilliant acting job by Ackland. It’s difficult, while watching Lethal Weapon 2, to remember that Ackland is a nice gentleman who made us love him when he brought C.S. Lewis to life with deep sensitivity and showed the great man grieving and wrestling with God over the death of his wife.
It should also be remembered, while watching Lethal Weapon 2, is that it was filmed before Nelson Mandela was released and became president of a free South Africa. And it was before South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation commission gave thousands of malicious racists like Arjan the opportunity to repent, confess and become functioning members of the new South Africa.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed at the insistence of Christian leaders like Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The commission was formed because the smell of revenge lingered poisonously in the air when apartheid was dismantled. And Desmond Tutu reminded his fellow citizens of an awkward truth: Jesus is so not about revenge.
It’s an awkward truth because revenge is so satisfying. And when our need for payback is the greatest, God’s truth intervenes.
So it is in this week’s bill of fare from the Revised Common Lectionary. St. James chides us for allowing our inner cravings to attack others (4:1). St. Mark quotes Jesus as telling us to give up the pursuit of power and status and assume the humble status of little kids (9:37). The Hebrew Scriptures offer no respite. Jeremiah talks about lambs being led to the slaughter (11:19) and Wisdom talks about the gentleness of the righteous being tested by insult and torture (2:19).
And although the Sermon on the Mount is not one of this week’s lectionary texts, all of this Sunday’s readings lead to the same conclusion:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’” Jesus said. “But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:38)
“Love your enemies,” Jesus said, “and pray for those who persecute you.”
I often wonder what kind of audience reaction Jesus got when he first said “love your enemies.”
Monty Python imagines, not unreasonably, that the acoustical challenges of breezy lakefront property may have caused some to mishear Jesus’ words. “What did he say? Blessed are the cheesemakers?”
But what, some must have wondered, would have been more implausible than love your enemies.
“What did he say? Love your remedies?”
“No. He said, ‘don’t be lemony.’”
It’s not as far fetched as it seems. Years ago, I taught a Sunday school class of seventh grade girls. It was not one of my more successful endeavors, but no other sane adult had volunteered for the assignment so I took it on as a favor to the pastor.
I was in trouble almost immediately because the first lesson was the Sermon on the Mount. I remember droning on for a few minutes as the girls talked and giggled among themselves. I wasn’t sure if they even realized I was in the classroom, so I raised my voice.
“JESUS,” I said, “SAID … ‘LOVE YOUR ENEMIES.’”
The chattering ceased and the girls looked at me with contorted expressions.
“He what?” said one.
I cleared my throat. “Jesus said, ‘love your enemies.’” I grinned hopefully.
The girls were briefly silent as they considered whether they heard me right.
“He did not,” said one emphatically, bobbing her head sideways in contemptuous defiance.
“Not in my bible,” said another.
I started to point to the verse in my bible, but the girl looked away.
“Jesus may have said it,” said another, “but he didn’t say it in no seventh grade.”
“Nuh uh,” said the head bobber. “Wouldn’t last three seconds in the seventh grade.”
“Love your enemy,” said another as if it were a punch line. The class burst into laughter.
And you can hardly blame them, especially if you’re among those who enjoy revenge-oriented action movies. Loving your enemy is not nearly as satisfying as reducing them to quivering piles of bleeding flesh. And I have a feeling that enemy loving is not the best path to survival in the Serengeti of Middle School.
We also know that loving one’s enemy is no way to pick up votes. “Bin Laden is dead,” goes the Democrats’ prideful boast. “General Motors is alive.”
I don’t know what the major party candidates pray when they go to church, or if they see any dissonance in celebrating their hatred of a dead enemy.
I suspect they do what many of their fellow Christians have done for centuries: pray for their enemies on Sundays, and seek vengeance against them for the rest of the week.
It’s a form of spiritual compartmentalization we all do so well. You can see it brilliantly depicted in one of the greatest series of morality plays of all time: The Godfather I, II and III.
It is disconcerting to watch the devoutly Christian Don Vito Corleone raise his family in the church while ordering the termination of those who have betrayed him or dispatching messengers to his enemies to offer deals they can’t refuse.
For the Don, church and family are personal and his underworld empire is business and the two must never connect.
There are two scenes in the Godfather trilogy where piety and vengeance are simultaneously carried out but separated in hermetically sealed compartments. At the end of Godfather I, the new Don, Michael Corleone, stands dutifully in church at the baptismal font and prays as his infant godson is baptized in a rite that expresses uncompromising acceptance of Christ and rejection of Satan. While he prays, the split screen exposes gory glimpses of the bloody murders he has ordered on all his enemies.
In Godfather III, Michael visits a cardinal in Rome. Cardinal Lamberto, a wise and gentle man who is intended to remind us of Pope John Paul I, urges Michael to make his first confession in 30 years. Michael tearfully confesses to his crimes, including the murder of his brother. The cardinal tells Michael his sins are terrible and “it is just that you suffer.” But the cardinal also tells Michael that God would still forgive him if he asked, “but I know you don’t believe that.”
Michael walks away, still in his sins. The theme of unholy revenge is played out to the end of the film until Michael has lost all he loves.
The confession scene, I think, is one of the great sermons of cinema. Michael Corleone’s sins are terrible beyond imagining, but he has been given a great gift: the opportunity to lay them all before God and walk away unburdened, a free and redeemed man.
But all his life he has placed his faith and his sin in separate boxes until one no longer has access to the other. He dies an old and rejected man, separated all his life and now for all eternity from the love of God that has been within his grasp all along.
When Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” he probably was thinking about the seventh grade and he was thinking about Osama bin Laden and racists and homophobes and all the other dastards with whom we are forced to share our lives.
When our enemies do us great harm, there is nothing sweeter on earth than vengeance.
But, inconveniently, Jesus is not telling us to love our enemies on Sunday while we savor their destruction the rest of the week.
As entertaining as that may be, there are better things in store for us.
And one of those things is the unconditional redemption God extends to all of us once we are able to set aside the need for revenge that, sweet though it may be, prevents us from accepting God’s unimaginable gift.