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Moderate violence and scenes of peril

I wanted it to be The Avengers reallyOr that one the other day with the sardonic raccoon and the slow-witted tree and the mixtapes. It was a bit optimistic, but -- too tired after an intense weekend cocktail of cleaning and serious reading to move or to try to think deeply -- I talked myself into Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It was ... decent. Some nice thoughtful touches about the Information Age and the tensions between security and freedom, leadership and egalitarianism. And they have managed to make Steve Rogers a far more appealing and nuanced character than the all-American cliché I was apprehending. But ... it lacked the energy of the aforementioned Marvelous ensembles, and I did find myself a little fidgety at having surrendered my mental energies for two straight hours to moving images and noises that were only ... decent.

It also re-raised, for me, another, far more significant objection. I am increasingly unimpressed by this idea that -- as long as it's not gory or icky or emotional -- high-volume death (such as the story arc of Captain America inevitably entails) is completely acceptable within a 12A certification. I am increasingly of the opinion that blasé non-gory/icky/emotional portrayals of death are never particularly acceptable and are at their most insidiously dangerous when aimed squarely at the lucratively broad 'child appropriate' market. Show them the gore, I say; show them the horror. Show them that every single one of those plummeting/exploding/cloven bodies is or was a living, feeling, human being, just like them. And if that's too much for the 12-and-unders, then make it a 15 or an 18 or whatever and take the accompanying revenue cut on the chin. Leave the little ones to the animate toys and anthropomorphic vehicles and articulate insects making friends and getting lost and going on adventures, and throw in some hints of poignant sorrow and loss to gently awaken them to an appropriate sense of the sadness of every ending, every parting. Every individual is valuable, not just the ones with a lead role or their name in the title; every death is tragic, not just the ones that are filmed up close with ample air time and emotional monologue.

There's stuff I don't like to think about. A vague sense of detachment comes only too naturally. Sanitised portrayals of mass violence serve to entrench it further, to cultivate a comforting delusion that the majority of suffering and injustice is somehow of minimal consequence. But there's ... stuff ... going on out there in the world. In Iraq, in Syria ... in South Sudan, Gaza, Afghanistan, Somalia ... in countless cities and streets and houses globally on far tinier but no less intense scales. How are we (any of us, already-adults as well as adults-to-be) possibly supposed to begin to grasp, let alone respond wisely and compassionately to, all that ... stuff ... when we're absorbed from an early age in an entertainment culture that portrays most of humanity as disposable minor characters?

The Bible ... hmmm. The Bible has its own share of seemingly 'disposable minor characters'. Take the story of Samson, for example -- the famously hirsute judge of pre-monarchic Israel whose four whole allotted chapters in the book of Judges narrate such remarkable personal feats as the striking down of 1,000 men with the jawbone of a donkey, and the kamikaze crushing of 3,000 of his Philistine captors in the house where they feasted. The 1,000 and the 3,000 and most of the other casualties of his brawn are just numbers; what those individuals did in their lifetimes, what they were like, whether they might be said to have 'deserved' their fate, how greatly their loss was lamented by those left behind, the provision that was or wasn't made for their families in their absence ... such details are outside the scope of The Samson Story. And this is not an isolated example; the Old Testament is peppered with the often violent passing of nameless numbers -- sometimes, even, apparently, confusingly, explicitly sanctioned by God (Deuteronomy 20:16-18 and Joshua 10:40-43, for example).

These episodes cause considerable unease and confusion precisely because the Bible as a whole, and the experience of many Christians, testify to a loving, merciful, sovereign God who cares immeasurably about people. At the very moment He calls Abraham out of Haran, He promises "in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:3) -- that is, even as He begins to work out His purposes for Israel, He has in mind all of humankind. But the establishment and survival of Israel takes place within human history, in the context of the brutal, human-precipitated realities of the world then and there. It was also recorded by people -- people for whom numbers defeated and quantities of spoil and measures of land acquired were markers of prestige and success, evidence of the greatness of YHWH Whom they served; as one debatable-in-places but thought-provoking blog-post puts it, "God lets His children tell the story".

Certainly, not everything reported in the Bible is endorsed by the Bible, 'approved by God' ... As for those instances where there does seem to be a divine command behind an act that we find abhorrent ... well, I don't want to fall into glib answers; the best I can think to do is throw in some links to what wiser people have already said: Tom WrightAmy Orr-EwingWilliam Lane Craig (audio is a bit, erm, but there's a transcript below).

Let's not overlook that the Old Testament also contains overwhelmingly many expressions and evidences of God's immense love, especially in His concern for the least and the weakest -- widows, orphans, outsiders (Psalm 146Deuteronomy 14:28-29Isaiah 58:6-12) -- the 'extras' of human existence. But it is with the arrival of Jesus that the full implications of the promise to Abraham begin to be realised; that the inestimable worth of human beings in the eyes of God is decisively affirmed:
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-31)
It is a powerfully comforting assurance ... but, it is two-edged; it places renewed significance on our failures to love and honour one another appropriately to each others' individual value. It is the central premise which makes much of Jesus' teaching on righteousness so scarily uncompromising:
You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matthew 5:21-22)
I like to think I'm doing alright in my treatment of others as long as I haven't unleashed any obvious physical or emotional damage ... No murders committed today; I don't even think I made anyone cry. Yay me! But a single contemptuous thought -- whether harboured in silence or verbally expressed in a throwaway comment -- offends against the God-ordained preciousness of the target of my scorn or anger and allies me with the most violent of murderers. "Every idle word which we think so little of betrays our lack of respect for our neighbour, and shows that we place ourselves on a pinnacle above him and value our own lives higher than his. [...] With our hearts burning with hatred, we seek to annihilate his moral and material existence," as Bonhoeffer puts it (The Cost of Discipleship, Chapter 9). And this places a barrier between us and God, utterly undermining our 'worship':
If we despise our brother our worship is unreal, and it forfeits every divine promise. When we come before God with hearts full of contempt and unreconciled with our neighbours, we are, both individually and as a congregation, worshipping an idol. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, Chapter 9)
Yet, there is hope. Zooming out from the teaching aspect of his ministry, Jesus himself is revealed as the ultimate expression of the worth of a person -- God identifying inseparably with humankind, becoming (in Bonhoeffer's words) "the Brother of us all", bearing the shame and the insults that we so violently, thoughtlessly, selfishly, foolishly fling. And it is the cross -- in all its inexpressibly profound hugeness -- which is the ultimate response of a loving, sovereign God to the mass destruction that we have made of our existence: one excruciating, graphic, costly, undeserved death, for many lives; for the real and radical hope of reconciliation to Himself, and to each other...
For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. [...] For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. (Romans 5:10-11, 17)

[Thumbnail image cc from Seo2 | Por Puro Amor Al Rap on Flickr]