Captain America, Freedom, and Christianity

spoilers

Movies always have a point, it isn’t an explicit point, but movies do make a decision of how to portray humanity in a display of what is good and evil. I recently watched Captain America: The Winter Soldier and I am struck by its portrayal of good and evil. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, the way it keeps one in suspense, the pace of action, and even the plot (which can sometimes be a rarity in these sorts of movies). However the movie did leave me thinking about the nature of government and how good and evil are perceived by people in the West today.

I believe that the central point of this movie is the purpose of governments. I propose that there are two main government archetypes that also define what it means to be good and what it means to be evil in this film: (1) government exists for the preservation of liberty or (2) government exists for the creation of order and right behaviour. In the movie we find that good good government supports the right of individuals to choose both right and wrong, and that evil means we wish to impose a vague sense of order, as set by the few on others. For us living in the 21st century this is a very important question. Was Snowden (reflected in Black Widow setting lose the darkest parts of SHIELD for the world) right? Or is the NSA justified? In the West, especially those who are younger, take Snowden’s side because we believe, implicitly, that governments should be liberal in how they control the lives of people. However, so many others would believe that order is more important, that people cannot necessarily be trusted with finding their own good. Captain America left no middle ground. The members of SHIELD were made to choose between the destroyers of the middle way, led by Captain America, and those who wanted the extreme of order, HYDRA.

Many of us, though preferring individual liberty over imposed order, fail to find fault in the actions of Captain Amerca and we enter into the realm of ethics where we apply inconsistent principles towards what people do on screen. For example, HYDRA agents are in the wrong because they are intending to impose order through force and death, but Captain America’s use of lethal force is right because his actions increase liberty for all. So killing the few so that all might have peace is wrong, but killing the few so that all might have more liberty is right. What makes Captain America implicitly justified? What makes liberty more important over peace? In this case, we view people that would harm a concept of liberty to be inherently in the wrong. Thus, it is because he is killing those that would impose a vision of society through force that makes the actions of Captain America justified. So regardless of wrongs that Captain America does in failing to follow orders and in using excessive amounts of lethal force by assuming all on the ships are evil, we find Captain America still to be good. So, perhaps ironically, both sides forward a sort of consequentialist ethics that treats the final result as the most important part of what we do and not the process by which we get there.

As a Christian I find myself somewhat outside of this dichotomy as both end up failing humanity. Why? Because orthodox Reformed Christianity teaches that people will always, in the end, prefer the absence of good over good itself. People have a tendency to be in rebellion towards God; they have concupiscence and so liberty is an option that is bound to fail. However, imposed order by higher powers also fails as the call to follow Christ is individual and not able to be imposed and both of the proposed purposes of government fail. However, for Christians, liberty should cease to be about choosing what one wants (recognizing that what we want is usually the lesser good); rather, liberty is choosing what is right over over a loose conception of freedom by following the call of Jesus Christ to surrender. So in one odd sense, Christianity chooses the latter model that the movie advocates — individual liberty is paramount in that we have to choose to do right having been given the ability to, but Christianity becomes a choice to voluntarily embrace the first option and create order by submitting before Jesus and confessing that Jesus is Lord. Christian freedom is not anarchy; it is instead the acceptance of higher order in a society that increasingly prefers individual choice.

Captain America has themes which strike directly at the heart of what it means to be human and what it means to be Christian. There is a story of redemption mirroring the Christian view of Christ’s role where Bucky forms the archetype of humanity, having entirely lost himself, and Captain America plays the role of the redeemer bringing back Bucky to a sense of humanity. However, the greatest message is that of the nature of freedom and government. There is also a message that there are only two options: order by force, or liberty of individual choice. Christianity, however, says that both of these options are false and the real option is that of voluntary surrender before Jesus Christ. This is the message of Christianity, that being unable to run ourselves, we give ourselves before a King who imposes an order we cannot understand, but in which we can find peace that transcends understanding.

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2 thoughts on “Captain America, Freedom, and Christianity

  1. Hi Tim,

    I enjoyed reading this article and seeing how you’ve related aspects of the movie with Christianity. I found that while many of your statements were true, others weren’t really what I thought to be consistent with messages from the movie. More importantly, I feel you’ve created a false dichotomy between the liberty and order represented in the movie and then attempted to insert Christianity as the “third path”.
    My first point is how you describe the choice characters make within the story in choosing between “freedom” and the “extreme of order”. I would have put it down to poor word choice, however your previous examples relate back to examples of current issues that epitomize “order versus freedom”. The problem here is that “extreme of order” implies it is order which is the extreme, not the fact that HYDRA wanted extreme order. I found it fairly clear in the movie that order in and of itself was not what Cap was against, but rather an order that was not voluntary and somehow gave other people the right to dictate the lives of others in an unwarranted manner.
    My second point is how you’ve addressed the actions of Cap, particularly the taking of lethal action and injury. I will admit that the movie is definitely done in a way that supports the actions of the main character, but not without a few scenes that show his ideal being mentally challenged, something refreshing in the entertainment industry. What I have a problem with is how you’ve presented the rationale behind his actions, essentially equalizing his actions with those of HYDRA by stating they just had opposite ideals, “peace vs. liberty” and then duked it out. You’ve simplified what occurred in the movie to the point it is no longer true, an analogy would be saying a gunman is about to shoot your family because he believes their very existence is a threat to him and so you do what you can to stop him until it becomes necessary to use physical force and equivalating that to two people shooting it out because they have opposing opinions.
    As such, the movie does not present that dichotomy you were stating, in fact the ability to make the voluntary choice to surrender to Christ is exactly what Cap is fighting for. He isn’t fighting for people to nilly-willy run around and do whatever the want, simply that people can have the opportunity to make their own choices (such as willingly turning to Christ). The type of order that he’s fighting against, order involuntarily imposed by man, is so far from the order of Christ that I feel it is truly misleading to be comparing the two.

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    1. I dont agree, I think they are fighting for a dichotomous ideal because of the nature of the film as a superhero movie. We can see this at the end of the film were it essentially goes “why shouldn’t we just arrest you” / “because you need us” as if they are above the law (which as it turns out, essentially they are both before after after the destruction of SHIELD). The individuals protecting the people against “government” win. The status quo was an organization that facilitated world peace through international means, diplomacy backed through force. This status quo was destroyed in a snowmen-esque revelation of all the wrongs committed. The reason i say it’s dichotomous is because Fury hands over the destruction of SHIELD to Cap. Thus, the status quo is irrevocably destroyed and so is a middle way of trying to balance imposed order (in the background through control of the most undesirable elements of society through covert operations) and personal freedom (by subsuming shield under an international organization). The fact that both HYDRA and Cap in this film come out of SHIELD shows that these two ideas are what are in conflict and the destruction of SHIELD shows the opinion of the makers that these ideals cannot forever coexist.

      You say that Cap was against “rather an order that was not voluntary” which is what i’m saying, he is for individual libertarianism as a defender of democracy. The opposite is a government in the style of china, where the people are “free” but the thoughts are contained. Order through the management of citizens’ free expression. I think it is clear in the film that what is wanted is not a dictatorship, but an oligarchy in the style of meiji japan (which was an oligarchy backed by the people through a sort of democracy, but maintained a top down order in society). Order is the extreme, it is the good that hydra wants and Cap wants the opposite, a society where good is determined by a collective individualism which is shown in his blatant ignoring of orders (violating his role as a soldier) and destruction of his employer. So perhaps i’m making a false dichotomy (and life certainly isn’t so dichotomous) but the movie I think portrays this dichotomy in a way that should be addressed.

      I don’t exactly present christianity as the third path because christianity isn’t a government. It is, rather the way individuals should function in a government I’m not quite sure what government should be, and whether it is more a defender of order of if it is a defender of individual liberty. However, as Christians we are called to submit ourselves before God because Christianity is not a democracy, it is a monarchy headed by Christ.

      I think cap does fight in the same way as hydra. Why do I say this? because he kills everyone, except bucky who he spares because Cap has a personal connection to him. It is inconsistent. Everyone doesn’t get a choice, unless you happen to have a personal connection to Cap. The killing of bucky would have been among the most justified actions he could have done given the circumstances, but he opted to try and redeem him. The fact is, Cap had no idea if everyone on the ships were all hydra. In all likelihood, the answer would be no (especially as it is shown that some on the ship were killed so that hydra could take over) Therefore he sacrificed people who had no choice in he matter. He killed for the greater good, the mark of consequentialist ethics. Cap is only a moral paragon if you take his ideal as true that individual liberty must be guarded at all costs even if that means sacrificing people who have no choice in the matter, or sacrificing people who chose to follow legitimate orders from a higher power, or killing all those who don’t agree with you. Let me grant your analogy of someone holding a gun to your head. I don’t think it goes far enough, the analogy is someone about to shoot you, and then you disarm them, take their weapon and shoot them in the head. Your action to disarm the intruder is justified, but can you justify killing someone after they have no means to hurt you? That I think is wrong, and that is what I think is displayed in this film.

      The dehumanization of Cap has already been addressed by Christianity Today. (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/april-web-only/captain-america-winter-soldier.html)

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