Batman: On violence against violence

“Criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot — so I have to wear a disguise that will strike terror into their hearts! I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible, like a… a… a bat!”

-Bruce Wayne/Batman

Let’s do this.

Batman has long been my favorite superhero. The cape, the mask, the voice, the car, the martial arts, the toys, everything about the man is cool. As for Robin… we’ll get to him in another article. He’ll just have to hold on to his shorts for a while.

But why is Batman cool? Is it all the accessories? Partly, but any rich guy could afford them. The martial arts? Also awesome, but just a method, not a drive. No, what makes Batman cool is the driving force that pushes him to do what he does. Part guilt, part fear, part obligation, part obsession, Batman is the man who has been pushed over the edge by violence, and come back to tell the tell. Well, almost.

It has often been said, that Batman isn’t all there. In Batman Begins, he says it as Bruce Wayne: “A man who dresses up like a bat clearly has issues.” True, this is to cover up his identity, but one gets the feeling that he kind of knows that what he does at night is not something an average person does. However, he has pushed himself to the point of being almost the pinnacle of human achievement, through physical and mental training, with the aid of a few billion dollars. Rich, powerful, and above all, smart, it would take an extraordinary event to push a man to the point of beating up gangsters, thugs, and psychopaths in the street. But Bruce has had something extraordinary happen to him. He watched his parents being killed in the streets by a guy with a gun.

Being physically present in the midst of violence is a powerful catalyst; some people never recover from it. Something snapped, and set off a chain of events that led him to put on the suit that would put fear in the hearts of criminals, so that no one would be put through the kind of pain he had to endure. At least, not if he had anything to say about it. So is the beginning of Batman.

So one looks at his tactics: is using all that money, all that power and intelligence really all that efficient when you use it to take down criminals one at a time? Well, in the beginning that was all he had to go on. Eventually he would work his way up the food chain, and take down entire crime syndicates and mob families, and later on to super-villainous psychopaths who would like nothing more than to see people suffer, or to gain wealth no matter the human cost. So one man, taking on the cycle of violence that created him. Batman sees it as his mission. His crusade. His holy war.

And this is where I start seeing problems with my hero.

Is violence justified in the pursuit of peace, especially if we see it from the perspective of a follower of Christ? Jesus once said, in Matthew 5.38-39: “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…”

Does one fight the powers of violence, the rules of this world, by using the same tools? Can violence ultimately solve violence? If the history of the world has proven anything, violence can be only temporarily suppressed by war. There may yet be extended periods of peace when there aren’t any wars. But there is always another war it seems. Just wait a few years. The United States is in the middle of two wars, and is beginning a third. Ending wars is one thing. I think the bigger question is how we can prevent wars from happening.

If you take the perspective of Reinhold Niebuhr, one could possibly see the value of the power of coercion to contain evil, primarily from the government . In “The Relevance of an Impossible Ethical Ideal, he suggests this:

“Obligation can be felt only to some system of coherence and some ordering will. Thus moral obligation is always an obligation to promote harmony and to overcome chaos. But every conceivable order in the historical world contains an element of anarchy. The world rests upon contingency and caprice. The obligation to support and enhance it can therefore only arise and maintain itself upon the basis of a faith that it is the partial fruit of a deeper unity and the promise of a more perfect harmony than is revealed in any immediate situation… The meaningfulness of life does not tempt to premature complacency, and the chaos which always threatens the world of meaning does not destroy the tension of faith and hope in which all moral action is grounded.” (From An interpretation of Christian Ethics (New York: Harper & Row, 1935).

Batman represents order in the world of chaos. This was made all the more clear in The Dark Knight. Yet doesn’t a masked vigilante, using the tactics of his enemies against them, represent chaos in and of itself?

This is the conundrum. Batman looks forward to the day when there is no longer a need for a Batman. He’s looking for a time when there is no danger of a young boy’s parents being gunned down in the street.

He’s looking for a Peaceable Kingdom, a kingdom of Heaven.

Batman is an example of retributive justice looking forward to the day when retributive justice no longer has a place in society. He is no God sent from the stars to save us from ourselves. Batman is a human, doing everything possible for a human to do to fight injustice, from his perspective. He’s not perfect; he knows he’s flawed. But he has the resources to do what he can. No, I would not exhort you, dear reader, to don the cape and cowl and roam the streets at night. After all, Batman isn’t real. The fight against violence and injustice? That is real.

For me, he’s an inspiration to be all that humanity can be, by exercising both body and mind. But Batman can’t do it alone.

None of us can do it alone. This is why salvation and atonement are necessary in this world, as is the perfecting grace of God. We are not perfect yet, but God has the power to make us perfect and holy. We should always be striving for holiness and unity with God. We can be the loving people that the world so desperately needs.

War is inevitable as far as we can see it from our position in time, and I have tremendous respect for those who confront it on a daily basis. Soldiers, policemen, all of them have the grit and courage to do what needs to be done in a world that desperately needs order to contain evil, and far more courage than this Nerdcore Theologian. But we all look forward to the day when there will be no war, no violence. As Christians, we call this world the Kingdom of Heaven.


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About grantimusmax

Grant Barnes, aka Grantimus Maximus, aka The Nerdcore Theologian. He is a graduate of Perkins School of Theology with a Masters Degree in Divinity. He is also a commissioned elder in the United Methodist Church, and Senior Pastor at Hemphill First United Methodist Church and Pineland United Methodist Church. He graduated from Texas State University Cum Laude with a Bachelor's degree in English, minor in History. He watches way too many movies, reads too many books, listens to too much music, and plays too many video games to ever join the mundane reality people claim is the "Real World." He rejects your reality, and replaces it with a vision of what could be, a better one, shaped by his love for God.
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