The Hobbit and the Problem of Disordered Affections: Thematic Analysis of The Battle of the Five Armies

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The final installment of the Hobbit films (and of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien-based movies) opened this weekend.  While I concur with the critical voices of the Hobbit trilogy that the story was strung out artificially out of corporate greed and that the violence of these films was excessive, betraying the essence of the Hobbit as a children’s story, I commend Peter Jackson for continuing to portray faithfully Tolkien’s vision of the nature of evil and understanding of the corruptibility of human nature.

The newest Hobbit film tells the story of the aftermath of the dwarfs’ recapture of the Lonely Mountain. Having driven the dragon Smaug from their ancestral home, the dwarfs can now reclaim the hordes of gold and other treasure that were guarded by the dragon.  Thorin, the heir to the dwarf throne and leader of the company, soon succumbs to “dragon-sickness” – an psycho-spiritual condition, akin to greed, induced by the gold.  The “dragon-sickness” manifests itself in stubborn pride (Thorin refuses to listen to the council of friends) and in self-centered obsession with his treasure (he also refuses to give over any of it to those making legitimate claims on it).  Though Thorin is the rightful king, he is not sovereign:  the gold is sovereign over him to the point where he will sacrifice both his integrity and his friends to it.  He sacrifices his integrity by not honoring his promises to the men of Lake Town, promises he made publicly to reward them for their help after his people were originally invaded and exiled by Smaug.  He is willing to sacrifice his friends by plunging them into an unnecessary war against the men and elves making claim on the treasure.

The story makes Thorin’s folly clear:  he is taking something that ought to be valued more (integrity and friends) and subordinating it to something that ought to be valued less (treasure).  The consequences are unmistakably disastrous.  Renowned 4th century theologian Saint Augustine understood that all humans participate in Thorin’s folly.  He understood that human’s hearts are profoundly sick with disordered loves:  that is things we ought to love less, we love more, and vice versa. Augustine writes that we need to re-order our loves:

But living a just and holy life requires one to be capable of an objective and impartial evaluation of things: to love things, that is to say, in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less, or an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally. (On Christian Doctrine, I.27-28)

In other words, an objective economy of things exists (integrity and friends are really more important than material riches) and our personal valuing of things (our loves) ought to be in harmony with this moral order.  When our loves are not aligned with this objective order, they are disordered.  This disordering is the essence of sin and it inevitably unleashes destructive forces into our world:  our hidden disordering in our hearts results inevitably in the disordering of our lives. As C.S. Lewis observed, when our loves our disordered it destroys our enjoyment of everything:

The woman who makes a dog the centre of her life loses, in the end, not only her human usefulness and dignity but even the proper pleasure of dog-keeping.

The man who makes alcohol his chief good loses not only his job but his palate and all power of enjoying the earlier (and only pleasurable) levels of intoxication.

It is a glorious thing to feel for a moment or two that the whole meaning of the universe is summed up in one woman—glorious so long as other duties and pleasures keep tearing you away from her. But clear the decks and so arrange your life (it is sometimes feasible) that you will have nothing to do but contemplate her, and what happens?

Of course this law has been discovered before, but it will stand re-discovery. It may be stated as follows: every preference of a small good to a great, or partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice is made.

. . . You can’t get second things by putting them first. You get second things only by putting first things first.

Of course, God occupies the highest place of this order; people follow.  This is why integrity (who we are before God’s all knowing eye) and friendship is more important than material things. Only we order our loves rightly can we relate to God, people, and things as we ought.  C.S. Lewis again echoes Augustine’s theme:

To love you as I should, I must worship God as Creator. When I have learnt to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now. In so far as I learn to love my earthly dearest at the expense of God and instead of God, I shall be moving towards the state in which I shall not love my earthly dearest at all. When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.

Ordering our loves rightly is an ongoing struggle won by repentance.  This is what Thorin has to do: turn from regarding his gold as most important and put his integrity and friends in their proper place.  Only then is his will enabled to do what is right. May God help us do likewise!

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Lessons about Evil from The Hobbit

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After seeing tonight for the first time The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, I was reminded at how insightfully and realistically J.R.R. Tolkien portrays the nature of evil throughout his tales of Middle Earth.  Peter Jackson remains faithful to this vision still, I believe, in the Hobbit film trilogy. What does this most recent installment of the film series remind us about the nature of evil?  A few basic thoughts:

1. Evil prefers largely to remain hidden – concealed from plain sight.

Gandalf leaves the company to investigate reports of a gathering darkness at the abandoned fortress of Dol Guldur, the effects of which have become plainly and disturbingly evident in the sickened forest of Mirkwood.  His suspicions are confirmed when he discovers that the hidden tombs of the nine Ringwraiths (the Black Riders in LOTR) have been emptied.  When he arrives at Dol Guldur, he realizes that its emptiness is an illusion resulting from a concealment spell.  When he uses his own magic power to reverse its effects, he decries that these forces have been mustering discreetly, escaping his and other guardians of Middle Earth’s notice.

Jesus’ teaching on the nature of darkness resonates: “Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19)  Evil flourishes only when it is concealed; light exposes and weakens it.  Thus, in describing the coming of Jesus (the eternal Word) into the world, the apostle John writes, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

To drive this point home, consider the ways you have covered up, or continue to cover up, things that are contrary to your conscience.  This might take the form of surrounding yourself with people who will only affirm you in your behavior and never confront you to hold you accountable.  We learn such behaviors at the earliest age.  My 2 year old just this week was caught multiple times hiding on the table (not well concealed at all!) gorging herself on candy she knew she was not supposed to have.

2. While it remain hidden, it gains strength until it is too powerful to overcome.

As Gandalf uncovers the evil that has been hidden, the Orc-chief (the white one that is not in the book and whom I wish they had not added to the movie) tells him that he is too late.  The forces of evil have gathered enough strength that they are powerful enough to unleash themselves on the world (in the form of a massive army of Orcs). Gandalf encounters the Necromancer, who pre-figures the dark lord Sauron, who is described as “growing stronger day by day.”

Once evil is strong enough to reveal itself for what it is, its power is to great to fight without great cost and destruction. It is much easier to combat when it is timidly hiding in the darkness, slowly gaining strength.

Think about times when little sins in your own life grew and grew until you became slave to this sin, unable to stop even though you knew how destructive it could be. This also happens at the societal level.  The forces working to undermine marriage in this country have just recently begun to show their true, gruesome nature, but they have been working subtly under far more tolerable guises for decades.  Now that the forces have been revealed, they are unleashing a torrent of destruction that is extremely difficult to stop.

I think about my 20-yr old brother who died last year as a direct result of his enslavement to addiction.  The evil in his life became evident to plain sight three or more years earlier.  But the origins of it are much earlier in his life.  I remember feeling disturbed and angry whenever I would see his childish acts of evil (mostly disrespectful, profane kind of behavior) go undisciplined, but instead laughed at and reveled in.  I knew that if evil was not driven out of him as a child, when its presence was largely concealed by a “cute” boyhood guise, it would cause much pain and grief in the future when its true nature came to fruition.

3. Evil works from the inside out; not from the outside in.

This point emerges from comments in this film, and the last one, about how the greed of the dwarf king (Thror, grandfather of Thorin Oakenshield) attracted or enticed the dragon Smaug to invade the kingdom of Erebor.  As the king’s lust for gold became insatiable, the dwarfs unearthed far more gold than they could ever need or have use for.  But it wasn’t just the increase in wealth that attracted the dragon.  It is not as if the dwarfs were innocently going about their mining business when they suddenly became the victims of a wicked monster.  The kingdom had become weakened from within from moral corruption, which made them more vulnerable to external attack.

One gets the impression that the dragon is an external manifestation of the king’s deep internal greed.  This idea is more directly conveyed in the book.  After watching the movie, while combing the book for comparisons, I came across this passage describing Smaug’s reaction to Bilbo’s taking of just one gold cup from his treasure hoard: “His rage passes description – the sort of rage that is only seen when rich folk that have more than they can enjoy suddenly lose something that they have long had but have never before used or wanted.”  Sounds like the essence of greed!

This theme also resonates with Jesus’ teaching that the human heart is the wellspring of evil: For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person” (Mark 7:21-23).  Evil on the outside of us, when it is visible, originates on the inside of us, when it is invisible but easier to defeat by bringing light to bear upon it.

On the Glory of Self-Sacrifice: Catching Fire and the Incarnation

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Catching Fire, the second installment of The Hunger Games movie franchise, follows the lives of the heroes of the first film – Katniss and Peeta – as they experience the aftermath of their newfound fame as “victors” of the 74th Games.  As victors, they secured for themselves a lifetime of wealth, comfort, and ease, in contrast to the impoverished communities – exploited by the oligarchy that reigns in the opulent capital city – from which they came.  Yet as they travel throughout the 12 Districts that comprise the nation of Panem on their obligatory “victory tour,” they immediately discover that the defiant manner in which they achieved victory and their willingness to sacrifice themselves for each other has fomented a rebellion.  And their tour, contrary to the government’s design, is fanning the flames of revolutionary fervor.

Their tour culminates in an enormous celebration at the mansion of the president at which they are the honored guests.  There they are offered an endless array of the choicest foods.  When Peeta declines an offer of some sumptuous pastry because he is too full, another of the guests offers him a lavender colored elixir that will “make you sick so that you can keep tasting things.”  This offer is clearly intended to make the audience sick in their conscience over the injustice of severe wealth inequality in their society:   while the masses toil to find just enough food to survive, the privileged eat not for nourishment but solely for pleasure, vomiting up their food so as to continuously satiate their palettes.

The glow of Katniss’s and Peeta’s victory diminished abruptly when they learn that the next games will feature previous victors from all the Districts.  After surviving the games again, as a result of figuring out a way to destroy the invisible virtual arena in which they take place, Katniss and Peeta are separated, with Katniss being kidnapped by a band of rebels led by other former victors, including her mentor Haynich. She learns that many of the victors in this newest round of the games had secretly pledged to protect her with a view toward using her as a catalyst to spark a nationwide revolt against the capital.

These victors, along with Katniss, made an uncommon choice:  the choice to forego the pleasures and privileges provided them by the state to risk their lives in order to liberate the powerless and restore justice for the poor. While most would commend this choice as moral, few would probably make it.  What would motivate anyone to do this?

This moral theme in The Hunger Games plainly echoes aspects of the Bible’s teaching on the Incarnation, which we celebrate each Christmas.  I thought about this connection while reflecting on the words of the Advent carol “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus”

Come to earth to taste our sadness, he whose glories knew no end;
By his life he brings us gladness, our Redeemer, Shepherd, Friend.
Leaving riches without number, born within a cattle stall;
This the everlasting wonder, Christ was born the Lord of all.

The divine Son of God forswear fame (‘he whose glories knew no end’) and ease (‘leaving riches without number’) to condescend into an impoverished state (‘born within a cattle stall’) for the sake of an oppressed and enslaved people (‘by his life he brings us gladness, our Redeemer’).  Thus, the Apostle Paul proclaims Jesus as one who, “Did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”  Liberating captives often requires becoming one of them.  Enormous moral force is exerted when someone who could stay comfortable and free chooses to give it up so that others can gain the same.  I am not saying that Katniss is meant to be a Christ-figure, and she by no means is a complete one, but all good stories whisper the penultimate story of history, which we celebrate this Christmas.

The Hobbit and the Dynamics of Living Hope: Providential Aid

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In my last post, I explored the necessity of approaching life as a purposeful adventure to living hopefully – an adventure focused on doing battle against the forces of evil in the world, primarily as they are manifest in ordinary life. The Hobbit also teaches us that living hope grows fuller from faith that you are being aided in your fight against evil by higher forces for good.

To fully understand how this theme is expressed in The Hobbit, it is necessary to draw more links to the companion story, The Lord of the Rings. So I will begin this meditation with a scene from The Fellowship of the Ring; what I regard as the most meaningful dialogue in the LOTR film trilogy. It takes place between Frodo (Bilbo’s nephew) and the wizard Gandalf while making their way to the other side of the Misty Mountains by passing through the mines of Moria. Frodo notices that they are being followed by an unknown creature who Gandalf identifies as Gollum – the creature from whom Bilbo took the ring.

“It’s a pity Bilbo didn’t kill him when he had the chance.” – Frodo

“Pity? It is pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that live deserve death; some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death and judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me Gollum has some part to play yet – for good or ill. Before this is over, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of men.” – Gandalf

“I wish the ring had never come to me.” – Frodo

“So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that has been given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, beside the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the ring in which case you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.” – Gandalf

This idea that Bilbo’s adventure was not an act of chance, but part of a larger, hidden plan is also found in The Hobbit. We learn from Gandalf that “fate decided Bilbo would play a part” in the dwarfs’ adventure. Similarly, Gandalf speaks about “reading the signs of the time.” The major characters make decisions with a sense that they are being carried along by something greater than their own plans and purposes. Bilbo’s path to discovering the ring, though not immediately apparent, reveals that, from the larger viewpoint of the whole story, much more than chance and courageous willpower are responsible for what happens to him.

Consider the sequence of events that result in him finding the magic “ring of power.” He does not seek out this adventure in the first place, but adventure seeks him, in the form of Gandalf coming to his home and beckoning him to join the dwarfs, while also having to convince the dwarfs that Bilbo will benefit their quest. Shortly after leaving the refuge of Rivendell, the ethereal home of the elves, Bilbo and his companions, being chased by dwarfs, flee for safety into a cave, only to end up in the cavernous lair of the Goblin King. In the chaos that ensues from their capture, Bilbo falls into a ravine, landing next to the ring. The ring had just been dropped accidentally, and unwittingly, by Gollum, who had possessed it, in isolation from the rest of Middle Earth, for centuries. Bilbo was in “the right place at the right time” not by luck but by the hand of the “other forces at work in the world beside the will of evil.”

Why was Bilbo “meant to find it”? He had no idea that he was holding the power to change the future of the whole of Middle Earth, only that it was magical, able to make its wearer invisible. Only decades later is it discovered that this ring was THE RING, the ring that gave its wearer absolute power and that Sauron was seeking in order to complete his conquest of Middle Earth. Bilbo was meant to find it so that it would be destroyed once and for all. Only hobbits, because they were meek, of low stature and power, were qualified to wield it long enough to destroy. Being the weakest of races, they were most immune from its power to corrupt. The ring later passes on to Bilbo’s nephew, Frodo, who learns the truth about it. But even Frodo, who manages to bear it all the way to the precipice of Mount Doom (the only place where it can be destroyed), needs an extraordinary act of providence to prevail over evil.

This is why the first part of the Gandalf-Frodo dialog in Moria is significant. Once Gollum realizes that it was his ring in Bilbo’s pocket, he sets out to hunt him and kill him in order to get it back. Fleeing from Gollum, Bilbo discovers that putting the ring on makes him invisible. While the invisible Bilbo is trying to escape the labyrinthine caves to rejoin the dwarfs, he finds Gollum standing in the way of his exit. Being invisible, he has an easy chance to slay Gollum to escape, but just as he is about to strike, he changes his mind, out of “pity.” The film does a marvelous job showing his emotional response, without the assistance of words. Only at the end of The Return of the King, the last film, do we understand how the “pity of Bilbo [rules] the fate of men.” Dangling the ring over the lava of Mount Doom, Frodo betrays his mission and, seized by the ring’s power, decides to keep it for himself, unable to freely let it go. But Gollum, tracking him through Mordor the whole time, unexpectedly shows up and attacks the invisible Frodo. In the resulting mayhem, Gollum falls into the lava, together with the ring, thus destroying it forever. If not for Gollum, even in his obsessive lust for the ring, it would not have been destroyed, and thus Middle Earth not saved. In sparing Gollum out of pity, Bilbo, who obviously could not see the larger plan of which he was a part, having only a faint sense of being called to something greatly, acts indirectly to save the world.

Gandalf directs this conversation to provide encouragement to Frodo, as he is sinking into despondency. As we engage in a daily battle against the forces of evil, both from within and from without, it is easy to succumb to discouragement, especially when the forces arrayed against us seem so strong. Facing them on our own, we have no reason to hope. But knowing that other forces at work in the world, specifically the force of God’s sovereign hand moving throughout history, to ultimately defeat evil inspires hope. The hymn “This is My Father’s World” captures such hope beautifully:

This is my Father’s world.
O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world:
Why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King; let the heavens ring!
God reigns; let the earth be glad!

The Hobbit and the Dynamics of Living Hope: Purposeful Adventure

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Hope is a positive orientation toward the future in which we believe at the core of our being that our past and present actions are meaningful because they are shaping for us and our progeny an existence tomorrow that is better than what we experience today.   The need for hope is intrinsic to the human psyche.  JRR Tolkien’s  The Hobbit, faithfully represented by Peter Jackson’s film adaptation, teaches us that living hope springs from being possessed by a purpose higher than one’s own narrow interests of living in maxim pleasure and comfort. 

Bilbo Baggins was not seeking adventure.  Rather he was summoned to one by the wizard Gandalf.  The company of dwarfs from Erebor was setting out to regain their ancestral kingdom from the dominion of the dragon Smaug.  Decades earlier Smaug had invaded Erebor, driving its inhabitants into exile in order to take possession of the famed treasure of the dwarfs, which they had greedily hoarded in their mountain kingdom.  Believing this band of thirteen dwarves needed a “burglar” to help them succeed in their quest, Gandalf recruits Bilbo, a hobbit, for his craftiness and stealth.

But Bilbo is a reluctant adventurer.  Life is good in Bag-end, the name of his family estate in the Shire, homeland of the hobbits.  Born into a family of means, Bilbo leads a life of comfort and ease:  a spacious home (the envy of his relatives), an abundance of hearty food and drink (not to mention the Shire’s renowned ‘Longbottom Leaf’), good standing in his community.   Furthermore, hobbits are an adventure-averse people.

Thus, even though Gandalf secretly organizes a meeting of the dwarfs at Bag-end to persuade Bilbo to join their cause (one of the best scenes of the movie is the arrival of the 13 dwarfs at Bag-end and the festive feast that follows), he initially declines.  Dejected, Gandalf sets out with the dwarfs without him. Yet for reasons unclear in the film, Bilbo changes his mind and races from his home to make up lost ground, crying, “I’m going on an adventure!”

There is something alluring about the call of an adventure that compels him to leave home, and it is weightier than the promise of riches (his ‘payment’ for his services would be 1/14th of the Dwarf’s treasure).  It is the promise of purpose, the promise of fulfilling one’s need for meaning by living for a bigger, worthwhile cause.  Whereas Bilbo had a homeland, a place where he essentially belonged, the dwarfs of Erebor did not, but were sojourners, wandering restlessly.  Evil, in the form of a terrible dragon, had driven them away and taken up residence in their homeland.  By taking on the dwarf’s purpose as his own, his own life becomes imbued with a significance it would never have if he’d stayed home in the Shire and chosen ease and security over helping the dwarves.  Joining with this company on a purposeful adventure to fight evil and restore justice by winning back what is rightly theirs  orients Bilbo’s life from the present (his comfortable, easy life)  toward a better future, not just for himself but for the world, and thus makes him a more hopeful person.

Purposeful adventure is not limited to fantasy tales or great historical figures.   The story of The Hobbit gives us a number of reasons why such a life of hopeful purpose is one that anyone can have

  1. Evil is not a foreign, distant force that on rare occasions makes a terrifying appearance; evil forces exist close to everyone, threatening to enslave and destroy souls and civilizations.
    Tolkien’s portrayal of evil in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings gives us insight into the true nature of evil.  Evil is a personal entity, not an impersonal force, with a will and a purpose, a purpose to desecrate God’s image on earth, i.e. human beings, by enslaving and exploiting us.  We see this kind of evil exemplified more in Sauron, whose presence is hinted at in The Hobbit film, than in the dragon Smaug.  But there are echoes of it in the film.  We learn in the prologue to the film, which describes the power and splendor of the dwarf kingdom of Erebor and Smaug’s sudden, horrific conquest, that “evil seeks a foothold.”  The dwarfs provided such a foothold in their insatiable greed for treasure, which had weakened them from within, thus inviting, as it were, the dragon’s attack.Thus, the seeds of evil are sown in the human heart, greed being just one way the heart is corrupted from within.  Jesus understood better than anyone the propensity for evil in the heart: “But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them” (Matthew 15:18-20).  Given that evil resides in every heart, there is evil to be struggled against and overcome in every time and place.  Therefore, ordinary life can be lived with a daily purpose of resisting and defeating evil.
  2. Defeating evil is not best achieved by great power or by extraordinary acts of strength.
    Gandalf disagrees with the view of the venerable wizard Saruman (the head of the order of wizards to which Gandalf belongs) that “it is only great power that can hold evil in check.” That is why Saruman opposes the dwarfs quest to drive Smaug out of Erebor and why he criticizes Gandalf for his interest in hobbits.  You may remember from LOTR that unlike Gandalf, Saruman could not resist the temptation of the ring.  He wanted to possess the ring for himself and tried to persuade Gandalf to join forces with him to use the ring against Sauron.  Gandalf refused, knowing that the power of the ring corrupts anyone who wields it, making one just as evil as the evil powers defeated with its help.The problem with using great power to defeat evil is that you gain power through power, the power will corrupt you making you as bad if not worse than the people you overthrew.  This pattern is repeated throughout history, a recent example being how the new prime minister of Egypt, Muhammed Morsi, has declared powers for himself that are equal or even exceed the power held by the tyrant Mubarak, who Morsi replaced after the revolution.
  3. Simple, ordinary acts of love by ordinary, humble folks are most effective for fighting evil.
    Gandalf instead believes that it is “the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay:  small acts of kindness and love.” This is why the wizard has faith in hobbits.  Though they are weak in physical stature, they are humble, kind, and trustworthy.  Bilbo is an unassuming, reluctant hero.  It is his humility and simple care for others that makes him an effective agent for good. Most of us aren’t warriors who fight threatening forces abroad, or police officers that fight against the forces of chaos at home.  Few ever run for elected office, to try to make society more just through legislation.  But we are all sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, neighbors, employers, employees, fathers, mothers, husbands, or wives.  Being faithful, kind, and just in the way we love our spouses, discipline and train our children, watch out for our neighbors’ interests, honor our parents, and work our hardest to do the best job we can with integrity, does more to establish and maintain peace, safety, justice, and prosperity in society than any army or government could do.  We live hopefully when we push back at the forces of evil and chaos through “small acts of kindness and love.”  In this way, we should all emulate hobbits.

But like hobbits we are each small and weak in the face of darkness that at times appears so much more powerful than any good we possess.  Thus we need aid in our struggle from other forces at work in the world in opposition to the forces of evil, forces that sustain our help.  This will be the theme of the next post in this series.

Exploring the True Nature of Justice through Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy – part 2

In my last post, I made the claim that we reach consensus about what is unjust much more easily than about how we should right injustices and establish justice.  In Nolan’s Batman trilogy there are at least three different and incompatible views of justice set forth for the audience to consider.  In this post, I will briefly survey these as they are portrayed in the story.

The League of Shadows View

Dark Knight Rises makes a number of important connections to Batman Begins, thematically and in the plot.  We encounter the League of Shadows in the first film – a mysterious group of vigilantes who recruit and train Bruce Wayne in his essential fighting skills.  At the end of his training, he is about to be commissioned to join their historical mission of bringing justice to the world by helping to destroy Gotham because of its corruption and injustice, when he revolts against them, unable to align himself with their murderous ambitions in the name of justice.

In this view, injustices must be made right through eradicating the offenders.  Injustice is not a result of the actions of a few wicked people, but a plague that inflicts the entire society.  For justice to be established, there must be a purging by a social and/or political revolution.  This view is carried in the latest film by the villain Bane, who catalyzes a revolution against the ruling and privileged classes.  The oppressed classes rise up and put to trial those who supposedly abused their power by exploiting the masses.

The League of Shadows’ view is aligned with an understanding of justice as vengeance.  The difference between justice and vengeance is a major theme in Batman Begins.  Rachel Dowes reminds Bruce Wayne, who was tempted to seek vengeance against those who killed his parents, “Justice is about harmony; vengeance is about making yourself feel better.”

 The Super-hero View

In this view, what we need is a heroic leader with superhero qualities to save society by punishing the bad guys and rooting out corruption.  This person must be from outside “the system,”  a knight in shining armor who saves the day, but who is unlike any of us in his extraordinary powers and purity of character.

Ironically, Bruce Wayne/Batman himself rejects this view in the end, believing that in the long-term it was unhealthy for Gotham to rely on him for justice because it was unsustainable in the long-term and because he was inspiring a trend of dangerous vigilantism.

The Ordinary-hero View

This is why at the end of The Dark Knight Batman takes the rap for Harvey Dent’s death.  Though Dent had become a psychotic criminal himself under the guise of “Two Face” Batman believed that Gotham needed an ordinary hero  – a man just like everyone else whose courageous, sacrificial stand against injustice would inspire the whole city to greater justice.   Batman wanted to work himself out of a job, so to speak, by enabling men like Harvey Dent to lead a more just state.  The citizens of Gotham needed to take the mantle of justice upon themselves to save their society, following the leadership of ordinary heroes.

I hope that this is a fair representation of the different views of justice in the story.  If you would add, correct, or extend either of these, please chime in.  In my next post, I’ll evaluate these views by what the Bible teaches about the nature of true justice.

Exploring the True Nature of Justice through Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy – part 1

The Batman narrative depicts a society, encapsulated in the city of Gotham, that is scarred and deeply burdened by injustice. A survey of the injustices portrayed in Nolan’s trilogy ranges from particular crimes against the innocent (e.g. the murder of Bruce Wayne’s generous parents resulting in the orphaning of a child) to more general systemic corruption characterized by the shameless exploitation of the poor by the rich and the failure of the legal system to punish criminals for their crimes. It is a society where the rule of law has largely collapsed.

It is worth noting that when we watch these films these unjust actions and social conditions are immediately recognizable by the audience. And given the Batman movies’ global success, this response is probably not peculiar to an American or Western audience. Regardless of the degree to which one’s own society is “Gotham-esqe,” people everywhere sense, perhaps intuitively, the injustice portrayed in the story.

One might go so far as to argue that a sense of injustice, or the ability to discern injustice, is an essential characteristic of human nature. I am the proud father of three small children. Nearly from the moment they began talking they have learned to cry out: “That’s not fair!” in response to perceived wrongs against them (they also use this plea when someone does something they don’t like that isn’t necessarily wrong; isn’t it interesting how we make our likes and dislikes matters of right and wrong?)

A recent article in the Science and Technology section of The Economist reports on a study of this universal yet poorly understood (at least scientifically) characteristic of human nature. The study was a psychology experiment that sought to better understand exactly when people judge something as ‘not fair.’ Without going into the details of the methodology (it involved trivial amounts of money being exchanged between pairs of subjects leading to each having different amounts in the end), they tested two different hypothesis: “One is that the desire to punish is simple revenge for an offence. The other is that it is related to the offence’s consequences—specifically, whether or not the offender is left better off than the victim.” Their results suggest that what really provokes peoples’ sense of injustice is “not so much having money taken, but having it taken in a way that makes the taker better off than the victim.”. In other words we are creatures who keep accounts instinctively. When some have more than we think they deserve and others have less, we cry foul.

The renowned British author CS Lewis critically examined his own sense of injustice in view of his belief as an atheist (at one time) that there was no real justice in the universe:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of  a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too–for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist–in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless–I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality–namely my idea of justice–was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Lewis is simply arguing that it would be absurd to have a sense of injustice, a deep belief that something is really wrong with the world, if there was not some real, universal justice (“a straight line”) in the universe.  In other words, if there was no justice in the universe, we should never have known there is injustice.  These categories would be meaningless.  That we all carry in our hearts this sense of injustice is a sign of Real Justice outside of us.  This Real Justice is an aspect of the character of God.

I have found that people agree on what is unjust much more easily than on how to respond to injustice and attain justice.  A central theme in Batman is how to bring it about true justice in a thoroughly unjust society.  In my next post, I will look at some of the competing ideas of justice in Nolan’s trilogy and compare these to what Scripture teaches about the nature of justice.