Batman, Superman, Jesus and the Culture of Violence

The action movie Batman v. Superman will open on Good Friday, March 25, bringing the sights and sounds of bone-crunching violence into theaters across the country. The film has a rather strange premise -- two popular superheroes, both good guys, doing battle with one another.

And yet, it fits our presidential primary season very well, with candidates attacking each other with a virulence that is usually reserved for enemies of the United States. Lines from the movie trailer could have been plucked from today's headlines. "Today is a day for truth," says a United States Senator, speaking about the damage that Superman has done. "The world needs to know what happened, and to know what he stands for. That kind of power is very dangerous."

Change "Superman" to "Hillary Clinton," and the trailer sounds like a transcript of the Benghazi hearing. At the same time, Batman seems to be channeling Donald Trump in attack mode when he says, "Superman has the power to wipe out the whole human race. Now I have to destroy him."

Why this focus on violence, in both the movies and presidential politics? Superhero movies often make big bucks for entertainment companies, and tough talk is popular among many Americans. Trying to explain Donald Trump's popularity among evangelical Christians, Southern Baptist pastor and Trump supporter Robert Jeffress has said, "I want the meanest, toughest, son-of-a-you-know-what I can find in that role, and I think that's where many evangelicals are."

Such a position is hard to align with Christian beliefs, especially on Good Friday -- the day that Jesus died on the cross. He was accused of blasphemy and sedition and put to death by the meanest and toughest leaders of Jerusalem. Instead of fighting back, Jesus prayed, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34).

Although many Americans do not consider themselves Christian, most will agree that our leaders often "do not know what they are doing." The use of violence -- in action and in language -- is a case in point. Science has proven that torture does not work in the fight against terrorism, and research is now making a link between violent political rhetoric and violent attitudes. Sadly, this is a bipartisan phenomenon, with Democrats and Republicans equally likely to express support for political violence.

Clearly, we live in a violent world and there are times in which we must use force to constrain evil. We are all stunned by this week's suicide bombings in Brussels, which left over 30 people dead. The anger and hatred of Islamic State terrorists is completely disconnected from any true religious sensibility, and the masterminds of such violence must be degraded and defeated by the military powers of the United States and its allies.

But the message of Good Friday is that violence cannot be completely conquered by violence. "The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy," said the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. "Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate."

Jesus knew that all of the commandments of God can be summed up by the phrase, "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Romans 13:9), which is why he accepted the cross instead of picking up a sword. The ultimate victory over evil will come not from violence in action or in language, but from generous, just and loving actions both at home and abroad. That's a message that our political leaders need to hear, and one that we need to take to heart as we seek to make peace in an increasingly violent world.