Real Heroes Don’t Use Lethal Force

In a country where the top pop culture hero right now is “Jack Bauer” on 24, where “pro-life” conservatives justify waterboarding, where infanticide is compassion and police carry portable electric chairs, is the murder of George Tiller by Scott Roeder really that shocking to anyone?

We often hear, in contrast to fictional superheroes, that “real heroes” are police and firefighters. In some sense, that’s true.
But the real heroes are not firefighters and cops: they’re saints (though firefighters and cops may be saints).
And what makes superheroes special is not their powers. Their powers make them cool. But their *values* make them special. True superheroes are characters who are saints.
Sometimes, we Catholics-who-like-science-fiction think more in terms of making spiritual warfare something tangible: having a clear cut “good guy” fighting an evil “bad guy” in a physical representation of the intellectual warfare the angels are waging all around us, all the time.

But perhaps a better model is to see the superhero as kind of the saint-in-action, the person who combines the “policeman” model of hero with the heroic virtue of the saint, as well as the saint’s “special powers” that derive from heroic virtue.

Geeks are required to like Lord of the Rings. Conservative Catholics are required to like Lord of the Rings. People who like C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton are required to like Lord of the Rings.

I liked the Rankin & Bass Hobbit and Return of the King, but I wasn’t able to appreciate The Lord of the Rings until I read it simultaneously with the Peter Jackson movies.
What struck me most, in terms of Catholic themes, is how Gandalf doesn’t support killing people.
We want to see the bad guy get his due, but Tolkein holds back. Villains get killed in battle in Lord of the Rings, but whenever a defeated villain is confronted, and the other heroes want to summarily execute him, Gandalf says “No.” Wormtongue, Saruman, and Gollum are all given second, and even third chances. All three end up dying in acts of self-destruction (I forget which is shot by a hobbit, but it’s clearly justifiable self defense), but none is executed. It would have been nice, given the themes about Gollum/Smeagol, if Tolkein had allowed us a character who was evil and fully repented. But then again, maybe that is speaking to the lack of Christ’s salvific grace.

Recently, DC Comics completed the “Battle for the Cowl.” Apparently, Dick Grayson is the new Batman, with Bruce Wayne’s son Damian Wayne the new Robin. How long this situation will last is anyone’s guess. But since Batman was of course involved in multiple storylines, the “death of Batman” story actually happened a couple of times: in the main Batman titles, where Batman fell to his apparent death in battle, after a very literally maddening storyline, and then in the “DC Universe” wide story arc Final Crisis -published simultaneously but set months afterwards–in which it was explained that Batman had faked his death for some reason, but then he really does die in combat with demigod villain Darkseid, with the memorable image of Superman holding the charred body of his fallen comrade.
While the death was about as final as a comic book death could be, the writers left a loophole: Bruce Wayne is still “out there” somewhere, cursed to shift between eras of history in a perpetual, mind destroying hell of miserable lives. I’m not sure if it’s like reincarnation but he’s aware of it or if it’s like a negative version of the “Nexus” in Star Trek Generations.
Why do I bring this up? Well, part of Batman’s trademark is that he does not use lethal force or lethal weapons. The last time they tried a “new” Batman was in the mid-90s Knightfall storyline, where Bruce had his spine broken by newly introduced villain Bane, and an up and coming anti-hero called Azrael took up the Batman mantle. But Azrael-Batman was violent and brutal. Eventually, Bruce had to put a stop to him, and did as soon as his spine was miraculously healed, as happens in comic book/soap opera land (lending to the delusions of poor guys like Christopher Reeve).
This time around, as noted, Batman’s last couple storylines were apparently very harrowing, and the Caped Crusader left the R.I.P. story pretty torn up (including having fallen to his apparent death while battling a new mysterious archvillain and having that villain proclaim himself to be none other than Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s father).
So there’s some kind of cosmic confrontation between the DC heroes and Darkseid. And Batman uses some kind of supernatural bullet and points it at Darkseid. Making a “once in a lifetime exception” to his “no firearms” rule, Batman shoots Darkseid, but Darkseid in turn curses Batman, destroying his mortal body and sending him on the aforementioned trip through time.
The writers saw it as the whole symbolism of Batman’s career starting with the gun that killed his parents and ending with the first time he’d ever use a gun: to shoot a being that was evil incarnate. Still, many fans were disappointed that Batman would even make this exception.
More recently, in the “Battle for the Cowl” storyline, former Robin Jason Todd (famously shot by the Joker 20 years ago but brought back from the dead a few years ago) took up the Batman mantle but was going around killing people, so, despite a will from Bruce Wayne saying he didn’t want the Batman mantle taken up, Dick Grayson took over as Batman to keep others from abusing it.
Superman: ‘Nuff said.

He-man: in some ways, just a Superman “rip off,” especially given that the original He-man story was developed by DC Comics (and actually involved a Superman cross-over).

But He-man could kill Skeletor with a single blow. But he won’t. Because, to use the Spider-Man phrase, “with great power comes great responsibility,” and he’s morally obligated to use his power within moral limits, or he’ll lose it. His power is a sacred trust. It is precisely because of his great powers that he is able to use them to disable rather than kill his adversaries.

And then there’s Optimus Prime.

As Transformers mythology has developed, although recent incarnations have tried to steer away from the Unicron/Primus/Matrix thing, the “Prime” is basically almost like the Cybertronian Pope: the single guardian, per generation of the sacred Creation Matrix, the encapsulation of the divine power of Primus.

I think of the classic moment in the 1986 movie where, after their “battle to the death,” Prime has Megatron on the ground, gun pointed towards him.
“No more, Optimus Prime, grant me mercy,” says Megatron, seeing a gun just barely out of reach.
“You, who are without mercy, no plead for it?” asks Prime, himself not willing to shoot even Megatron in that circumstance.
(Although later comic book stories have dealt with Prime battling his conscience over whether his merciful nature merely perpetuates the violence by not putting an end to Megatron’s evil, that is answered by the various Decepticons who’ve taken over–sometimes more genocidally–in Megatron’s absences).
Gandalf would not have killed George Tiller. He would have called on Scott Roeder to respect Tiller’s dignity and give him a chance to change.
Batman would not have killed George Tiller. He would have committed him to Arkham Asylum and expressed hope that Tiller might change his ways.
Neither Superman nor He-man would have used his immense strength to kill George Tiller. They might have crushed his abortuary to a pile of rubble, but they would have, again, offered him the chance to change his ways.
Optimus Prime would not have killed George Tiller. He would have said, “all life is precious.”

And if this sounds trivial, it’s not. Because that is the real thing we look for in our fictional heroes: it’s why fictional “heroes” like Jack Bauer express the worst, not the best, in our nature.

We look for virtue. We look for the ability to stop the evil, to put an end to the threat without putting an end to the perpetrator.

As much as our fictional sagas give us catharsis in our desire to see evil defeated, they also do something else: they help us to see in the humanity in the villains. We don’t really want to see Skeletor or Megatron or Lex Luthor killed, both because then the story would be over and because we can see the good in them, whether it’s charm or nobility or some other feature we admire deep down. That admiration should remind us that all our brethren are made in God’s image and likeness.

And perhaps the last and best example of this is the redemption of Anakin Skywalker. I’ve read many commentaries on the Internet that condemn Return of the Jedi for allowing a genocidal mass murderer like Darth Vader a “pass”. He gets to go to Jedi heaven for something so meager as an act of self-sacrificing love.

But the hope of any Christian should be that the bad guys-real and fictional-will eventually see the light.

And that’s what spiritual warfare means, for those who say that “rhetoric” of spiritual warfare leads to incidents like the death of George Tiller.

Spiritual Warfare is not just a metaphor, and it’s not a code word for physical warfare. No, spiritual warfare is intense prayer for the liberation of one’s enemies from the grip of the greater enemy, Satan, and the prayer for their conversions.

After all, this is what happens when Batman resorts to using a gun:

6 responses to “Real Heroes Don’t Use Lethal Force

  1. Pingback: Amazing what posts get lots of hits « The Lewis Crusade

  2. Theodore Seeber

    This post may get slashdotted in the next 24 hours- I just used it as an example of absolute vs relative morality.

  3. Thanks, Ted. This post gets hits almost every day, and is always in my “Top Posts of the Week” list, but I’m surprised it hasn’t received more comments.

  4. I also just found out that it’s the top of it’s class on Google for the title.

  5. He-Man is in no way a rip-off of Superman.

    SOMEONE had to say something here.

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