anarchy, pacifism and the theology of Captain America

recently, a brief exchange on Showbread’s formspring account over our love for Captain America and how it does or does not conflict with our strong belief in Christian non-violence. It began like this:

“Why is Captain America cool? What makes him so unique?”

His moral character. He’s the patriarch of the marvel universe, all the heroes admire him and all the villains fear him. -Josh

“Captain America has a “moral character”, yet his objective is to defend America by use of force/violence at the orders of a militaristic government. How can violence be an analogy to morality if it is actually immoral in reality?”

Captain America also has a perfect physicality by way of a serum, spent decades in a block of ice and returned from the dead with the help of a ray gun that displaced him in the space-time continuum.

I understand that for a anti-patriotic, pacifistic, anarchist type Christian to have Captain America as a favorite comic book character is a bit odd… But at the end of the day he’s just that: a comic book character. It’s not real. It’s pretty out-there science fiction and fantasy. I wouldn’t get too tied up in it. -Josh

I assumed this person was a fellow pacifist challenging us to align our love for a violent, patriotic superhero with our strong disdain for patriotism and violence. As it happens, this fellow was actually a staunch supporter of what they called “physical justice,” as is evidenced by their lengthy follow-up question:

“Josh, the point is that you cannot separate morality from fiction. No Xtian could accept the premise of a fictional world where rape or murder is considered a moral virtue. Thus, if violence itself is immoral in reality, it cannot be moral in fiction.To do so would be no different than justifying ANY sin in a fictional world. Can a Xtian justify pornographic material in the context of fiction? Of course not! That would be completely inconsistent, just like your position. Please think this through. This proves that violence itself is not always wicked. We identify with superheroes because we KNOW that physical justice and self-defense is righteous. You affirm this every time you root for the ‘good guy’. Be consistent.. God himself affirms this, he sets up guidelines for holy violence (death penalty-Gen.9). Angels with swords drive out man from the garden. Paul calls civil rulers ‘God’s ministers’ of justice.Warfare takes place in Heaven in the book of Revelation. How do you justify these things if all violence is ‘immoral’? Trading pacifism for the evils of militarism is one extreme to another. God teaches a balance. The biblical examples cannot be “metaphors” for the same reason that fictional stories cant.”

this is an interesting conversation, so i decided to extend it to my website here. i tend to be a bit long-winded in these types of debates, so I’m going to to do my best to keep things concise as i make several points about the conflict in question.

1) The “Marvel Universe” VS. the Actual Universe

The point is being made that sin—whether depicted fictionally or actually taking place in real life—is always sin, i.e. a rape cannot be despicable in real life and commendable in a movie. Christian morality is absolute, thus our convictions extend from reality to fiction. Two points need to be made in order to understand how this has to do with my personal affection for Captain America. First, there is, sometimes, a limit to how much literal morality a fictional world can withstand. For example, the film District 9. As a Christian, I believe that for all Christians, violent self-defense is contrary to Jesus’ teachings, even within the confines of government. But what if one is defending themselves against a giant alien “Prawn?” Is the Prawn more like a human or more like an animal? It would be acceptable to use violent self-defense against an animal, but not a human. This is a question we cannot answer because a Prawn is not real and there is no “spiritual data” we can gather to asses such a predicament. They exist only in a singular movie universe and are not real. Therefore, if a Christian believed it permissible for fictional characters to violently defend themselves against a fictional creature, there is no real dilemma. The entire debate, while entertaining, is completely irrelevant.

Now, in the case of Captain America and my affection for the character it is worth mentioning that in my personal history of reading the book (beginning with Ed Brubaker’s run in 2005) Captain America (Steve Rogers) has almost exclusively battled super-powered villains with other-worldly/mutant abilities, giant robots, space aliens, genetically enhanced super-nazis and even Norse Gods. The “Is a Prawn more human or more animal” conundrum easily negates any moral conflict in each of these situations. No theological thought has been put into whether or not it is ethical to destroy a robot body if there is a human presence of some kind within the robotic shell. No one has shed any blood or even ink over the idea of killing a shape-shifting Skrull alien. No one loses sleep over the consequences of going to war with a race of Norse Gods. In each and every scenario, something is so outlandishly unreal that no real dilemma is worth debating. I believe all physical violence is wrong for Christians, but what about physical violence against cloned, half-robot, super-nazis? I don’t know because they aren’t (and most likely, will never be) a real issue because they will never be real themselves.

So, while I affirm that sin is always sin (even when fictional), when the “realness” of the fictional world in question is strained to a point, certain “gray areas” introduce themselves, i.e. can a pacifist root for an autobot against a deception when they do physical battle?

My second point is this: When/if Captain America uses physical violence against someone other than aliens or robots, even though it isn’t real, I do not believe that this is an ethical or “Christian” act. This is not something I had in mind when I mentioned his “moral character”. I would list this as a violation of his moral character, a sin, a mistake, etc. Captain America is written as a flawed, imperfect human being, and whether his authors agree with me or not, i believe the use of violence against semi-real human opponents is flawed and imperfect. This won’t cause me to put his book down, but it won’t make me believe in violence either. I think I should once again insist at this point that HE’S ALSO NOT REAL.

2) The supposed “Biblical case” for just violence.

There has been a certain amount of debate between Christian pacifists and those who disagree with them for hundreds of years, so I don’t expect to settle the issue right this moment over the internet. I think there’s a pretty strong historical case for believing that the first century church was entirely non-violent and this only began to change drastically around the time of Constantine. For the sake of space I’ll respond only to the biblical cases made by the person via formspring.

1) “God sets up angels with flaming swords to guard the garden and instates the death penalty in the book of genesis.” In the case of the angels with the flaming swords, I’m not sure there’s any case for “righteous violence” at all. We are never told what, if anything, the angels did with “flaming swords.” We have no idea how literal or symbolic the description is, and even if we assume that it is indeed literal and that the angels did indeed decapitate humans with flaming swords, how on earth can this apply to us? Surely we can’t argue that if God tasked two angels with violent guard via flaming swords we all have a permission slip to ignore the sermon on the mount?

Using Genesis (or any of the Torah) to argue in favor of the death penalty is very problematic. The Torah demands the death penalty for adultery, lying about virginity, blasphemy, violating the sabbath, cursing your parents or even being a rebellious drunkard of a son. Jesus insisted that anyone who divorces and remarries commits adultery (Luke 16:18) and yet I’ve never heard of anyone quoting Leviticus 20:10 in order to have them put to death for it. Why is it then that so many Christians insist that the Old Testament condones capital punishment, but only for the crimes we feel like punishing, not Old Testament crimes? In John 8 when Jesus was given the opportunity to comment on (and even carry out) the Old Testament death penalty he, amazingly, said “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

2) “Paul condones a violent civil government in Romans 11 and 13.” This is a popular passage used against Christian anarchists. It’s interesting to note that many Christians seem to assume that Paul only had America in mind when he wrote that the governments had permission to “wield the sword.” If we are to take this passage the way many Christians insist on taking it, then we must remember that Saddam’s Iraq and Hitler’s Germany were both appointed by God to wield the sword and that when we fought against them we are “rebelling against what God has instituted” and where therefore “bringing judgment on ourselves.” It’s also interesting that Paul wrote these passages at a time when emperor Nero was violently oppressing Christians. Did Paul intend for the church to rally behind their governments and confess that when they were fed to the lions that they were justly “wielding the sword”? Rather than completely derail the discussion here, I’d just like to direct anyone still reading to the works of Jaques Ellul, Walter Wink, Alexandre Christoyannopoulos, Shane Claiborne, John Howard Yoder and Greg Boyd to name a few, for more on this.

3) “The book of Revelation contains violent warfare.” Revelation is one of the most mysterious, cryptic and debated books in the entire bible. To argue that it supports your case for violence is to argue that your interpretation of Revelation is correct, and within orthodox evangelical Christianity, there has been tremendous ongoing debate on the meaning of the entire book for ages. Even the doctrine of “The Rapture” is relatively new in the church. There are many folks who insist that the book of Revelation is, in many ways, as Greg Boyd said to us last Saturday, “a pacifist war scroll.” John’s use of apocalyptic literature, the cultural climate that he wrote within and the nature of his exile are all important things to consider when reading Revelation. I, like many others, would argue that the largely accepted “violent” reading of Revelation is completely mistaken.

3) Our intrinsic nature is to root for the good guy.

This is true and I believe it comes from God. But I believe it is also that in our fallen nature we naturally—and sinfully—crave violent retribution rather than forgiveness and peace. Part of us that bears the fingerprint of our creator craves justice and for good to triumph over evil. Another part of us that is defiled by our sin nature craves violence and revenge.

and finally, 3) The sermon on the mount

A lot of effort has been spent to try and make Jesus mean something else when he taught:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5: 38-48)

The New Testament is very clear in forbidding violence, retaliation and revenge. Yet when we read these things we search, in desperation, to find a way to excuse them away. How can anyone do this? How can someone love their enemies so much that they won’t kill them? How can someone love peace and humanity so dearly? Surely this is not what is expected of us, it’s too hard! And yet we find the bible explicitly commanding we do just that.

What a terrifying and beautiful idea.

Captain America: The First Avenger hits theaters July 22nd.

18 thoughts

  1. I love reading this sort of theological thinking, especially how this was applied to works of fiction and rooting for the good guy even thou violence is used. It’s hard to figure out how to stand on certain issues as a (new) Christian pacifist.
    By the way, the “love your enemys” part is Matthew 5:38-48. Not Matthew 3. Just a heads up.

  2. Great and encouraging post, Josh. I’m a youth pastor and I’ve faced the same dilemma over the last couple years as I’ve developed a pacifistic attitude and yet still love Spider-Man, Optimus, etc. Interestingly, pacifism has drawn me away from being entertained by the stylized violence and narrowed my focus more on the characters and stories and mythology.

    In his book “Planet Narnia,” Michael Ward described how C.S. Lewis loved mythology and cosmology before following Jesus. Instead of abandoning those things as unclean, Lewis allowed them to be baptized as well, and they became integral parts of his allegorical fiction. I try to take similar approaches in my own life.

  3. thanks josh for talking about “christian pacifism”, that takes more bravery than walking around with your gun ready to kill people in “jesus name”

  4. As a huge Cap fan myself I was ecstatic to read this post. One thing that I found interesting about Captain America when I first began following him (back during Civil War) was that Captain America does not necessarily stand for America. I mean this in the way that when the government passed the Super Hero Registration Act into law, he led the resistance against it even though it had passed through the proper channels (with some help from Tony Stark) to become law. I took this to exemplify that his values come not from the government and what they believe is right, but from the ideology that America (in a perfect world) stands for. So although he may be America’s Super Soldier, he is not under any pretenses that the American government is anything but fallible.

  5. Another interesting thing to note is that Jesus tells parables in which a character performs acts he does not condone, particularly when a human character in the parable cuts somebody into pieces.

    He uses fiction to represent greater moral realities in the really real world.

  6. His attempt to compare reading comic books to pornography really misses the point here for two reasons:

    1) He hasn’t considered the intent of men like Stan Lee and other authors who created the Marvel Universe. Men who direct porno films seek to bring out lustful emotions in viewers. They’re purposefully drawing out sinful thoughts, emotions, and motives in their work and calling it art.

    I don’t think Stan Lee wants people to run around in costumes with a heavy shield beating the crap out of people. He definitely presents at least a few moral views within his work (aside from violence).

    2) What we’re touching on here cannot be painted as sinful or saintly, but must be viewed as a matter of personal morals, or to put it Paul’s way, a food sacrificed to idols matter. In the same way, Josh, that you opt not to drink (read the autobiography; nice stuff!), I am allowed to do so insofar as I find it permissible and do not cause a brother to fall. The same is true here. If seeing the new Captain America movie inspired someone to join the Army, I’m going to have to help them reconsider what violence really is and what God has to say about it. Fiction is indeed a powerful weapon we must wield carefully, but to not wield it at all is just as destructive.

    Thanks, Josh. Keep being awesome, man!

  7. God bless you. I read this entire article and it really made me think about a lot of things. It makes you wander why we choose to look for ways to bring each other down instead of fasting for what God wants.

  8. Pingback: Called as Caretakers « Αγαπτε τους εχθροθς!

  9. Alright, I am huge fan of Jesus’ pacifist teachings, and I hold that if some one were holding a gun in my face, I would not hate or try to kill this person because my salvation is secure and I know nothing about theirs, also I believe that God has the complete power to jam that gun, change the persons heart, even make me bulletproof if necessary etc., this situation I hope never arises. However last weekend my mother and I walked in on my dad and (one of) his mistresses, the other woman hit my mom over the head with a wine bottle causing my mom to bleed profusely. I grabbed said woman, slung her away from the situation went outside and called 911. Since this I have been quite distraught that I, a pretty fit 20 year old guy, would near throw a very drunk, fairly small woman. but, in me doing this what ever fighting was going on was stopped, and the situation was tuned from hate to trying to figure things out. I know this strays from the topic somewhat, but in this specific situation, was what I did an act of violence? and by no stretch of the truth, had I just watched, or called 911 and waited, some one could have been killed. How does this sort of thing fall into non-violent Christian pacifism?

    • a common misconception about non-violence is that it implies total passivity. it doesn’t. while not all pacifists (Christian or otherwise) agree on an exact standard of when violence begins and ends, i would hold that what you did was a disarming act that was not violent. there are physical ways to disarm attackers without bringing harm to them, some martial arts are even designed for this very purpose. some folks seem to assume that the non-violent way of Jesus leads to standing by with a sigh as an attacker murders your family but I don’t know of any non-violent individuals that would do so.

  10. I think war, fighting for “honor”, and/or entertainment(UFC, boxing, professional wrestling) is wrong. With that in mind, if a women pulls out the pepper spray to prevent herself form being raped I can’t say that’s wrong.

    Even thou I’m not a Captain America fan, I liked your post. I prefer indie and Vertigo comics. When I do decide to give super hero stuff a chance I’ll go with FF4, Batman, Super Man, Spider Man, and Iron Man.

  11. I’ve been following you via Showbread on formspring and other social media for quite a while now, and through this have been exposed to Christian pacifism for the first time. I grew up in a military family and always intended on joining the military myself. It turns out I can’t pass muster physically no matter how fit I am (I have Asperger’s Syndrome, so I fatigue easier than the average person), but I still value the military tradition–respect, honor, integrity, order, etc.
    I say all that to say this: when I first read your posts on pacifism, I just blew it off as a “meat offered to idols” kind of decision. But the more I read the more I realized I was in the wrong. I still value the military tradition but I’m starting to see the value and the godliness of non-violence and that military tradition doesn’t have to be, well, military. So thanks, I guess.

  12. Pingback: RELEVANT Magazine – Patriotism, Devotion and Captain America « Αγαπτε τους εχθροθς!

  13. i stumbled upon your page trying to find a copy of each of your novels, and am very much enjoying what is here… your thought processes and arguments are brilliant, as i shouldn’t be surprised because your lyrics are too. thanks

  14. Pingback: Thoughts on Captain America « Αγαπτε τους εχθροθς!

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