X-Men First Class tells the story of the origins of Professor Xavier’s community of mutant superheroes and their mutant archenemies, led by the evil Magneto. We learn that Xavier and Magneto, originally named Eric Lensherr, begin their relationship as dear friends, united in the common cause of defeating the wicked Nazi scientist, and fellow mutant, Sebastian Shaw. Shaw is bent on bringing about the destruction of the human race by catalyzing a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. This fictional tale is integrated with the true history of the Cuban missile crisis: Shaw and his band of evil mutants orchestrate the crisis to provoke both sides into war. The plot centers on the efforts of Xavier, Eric, and their band of young mutant recruits to thwart Shaw’s plan and save humanity from nuclear holocaust.
The moral themes of the story emerge from the motives of Sebastian Shaw to decimate mankind through nuclear destruction, which are the same motives that turn Eric away from Xavier to become his archenemy. Both men believe that mutants and humans cannot peacefully coexist. Their survival threatened by the genetically superior mutant race, humans would inevitably seek to eradicate them once they were no longer useful to their interests. Mutants thus should regard humans as enemies and bind together not only to protect themselves but to gain power over them. Xavier, on the other hand, has an optimistic view of humanity, believing that most people are basically good, and therefore holding out hope that mutants will eventually gain acceptance into society. His mission, in contrast, is to use mutant power to protect humanity while working to achieve peace.
These different approaches to human-mutant relationships of represent two basic models for how different ethnic groups should relate to each other, especially the relationship between ethnic majorities and minority groups. Theologian Miroslav Volf (a Croatian who had firsthand experience with ethnic conflict in the Balkan Wars of the 90’s) summarizes these paradigms as “exclusion and embrace.” In his book where he evaluates these paradigms (Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation), Volf regards exclusion as one of the fundamental sins of the human race and the chief barrier to peace between peoples: “Forgiveness flounders because I exclude my enemy from the community of humans and myself from the community of sinners.” We all have a tendency view those who are culturally other as our enemies, regarding them as less than human, and consequently fail to empathize with their common humanity. At the same time we pridefully regard our own culture as superior, which blinds us to our own sinfulness, which also hinders a sense of empathy with our enemies.
Our bent toward exclusion is so instinctive, so ‘natural’ that shifting from exclusion to embrace of those who are culturally other is not a facile act of the will. Rather the ability to embrace one’s enemies must come from a powerful spiritual motive grounded in theological truth. Volf grounds one’s ability to embrace an enemy in the work of the cross (emphasis added):
But no one can be in the presence of the God of the crucified Messiah for long without overcoming this double exclusion — without transposing the enemy from the sphere of the monstrous… into the sphere of shared humanity and herself from the sphere of proud innocence into the sphere of common sinfulness. When one knows [as the cross demonstrates] that the torturer will not eternally triumph over the victim, one is free to rediscover that person’s humanity and imitate God’s love for him. And when one knows [as the cross demonstrates] that God’s love is greater than all sin, one is free to see oneself in the light of God’s justice and so rediscover one’s own sinfulness.
In the X-Men saga, Magneto’s pessimism toward human nature is more justified than Xavier’s optimistic view of human nature (common people are good, it’s just their leaders that are corrupt). People do have an inclination to turn those who are culturally other into enemies and seek their demise or destruction. His somber view of human nature though leads him to an evil purpose: not just protecting mutants from humanity, but seeking to conquer and enslave humanity in order to place mutant in the proper place of the evolutionary order. How often in human history have minority groups struggled to gain power against an oppressive majority only to rule just as malignly once in power? The tyrannical rule of minority ethnic groups in places like Syria and Bahrain come to mind.
The tendency to either regard another group as less than human or regard one’s own group as untainted by sin surely propels the unending cycles of ethnic conflict around the world. Only in the cross of Jesus Christ can we find a cure to such a malady. The cross shows us the triumph of justice and love, allowing us to see the common humanity we share with those who are most different from ourselves while admitting our own sinfulness and need for grace. Thus as the apostles Paul writes, for those who are in Christ: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).