Sunday, May 29, 2016

Zero Dark Thirty and the Morality of Revenge


A sermon preached in the chapel of Queen's College in the University of Melbourne as part of a Film Text series of sermons.
Film: Zero Dark Thirty
Biblical Text: Romans 12: 9-21

Theme: The Morality of Revenge

* * * * * * *

Zero Dark Thirty is a very dark film. It tells a very dark story.
Deception, torture, murder, children traumatised.

Yet the film is itself a chapter in a larger story of apparent triumph: the American killing of Osama bin Laden.

In the film, and in fact, the sheer darkness of the story was vanquished by the light that apparently came with the national – and indeed – international – celebration of bin Laden’s demise.

The film plays its own role in American patriotism – and made a lot of money for its producers in doing so.
As a Hollywood product, the film is, of course, embedded in a matrix of power, money and politics – an extension of the national matrix of  power money and politics.
Located in that matrix, Zero  Dark Thirty  is an one act in the drama of the politics of triumph – or more precisely the politics of revenge.


I lost no sleep over the death of Osama bin Laden.  Indeed, I recall responding to the news of his demise with a sense of relief and satisfaction. Although as to what exactly drove that relieve and satisfaction, I’m not quite sure.

I’ve also greatly enjoyed watching the dramatised and idealised version of the hunt for and murder of the leader of Al Qaeda. For the sheer force and the intricacies of its cloak and dagger plot, Zero Dark Thirty is riveting.
It’s the story of a young CIA operative (the character presented in the film apparently a composite character of several actual operatives) picking up the minutest of clues from a tortured Al Qaeda leader and running with it. She runs with it against suspicion, sexism and fear – all the way to the chief of the CIA – and through him to President Obama.

And I admit, I enjoyed watching it – its cloak and dagger rhythms and edge-of-the-seat plot – despite the film’s graphic presentation of deception, torture, murder and children being traumatised. I enjoyed it, also notwithstanding the fact that the director seemingly made no attempt to interrogate the morality of the deception, torture and murder. The film itself seems not to make any explicit moral statement. It simply echoes the morality of the political and patriotic decisions which produced this story.

And that, of course, raises a moral question in itself. How is it that we can find violence entertaining?

But that’s not the question I want to wrestle with tonight. In fact, there are a couple of alternative questions I’d like to put out there.

* * * *
I’ve already suggested that the film itself is a chapter in a larger story of revenge. It’s a celebration of the revenge that a nation took on one by whom it had been attacked.

Of course, for many, this was not revenge but justice. So, what is the difference between justice and revenge? Can something be an act of revenge but also just?

The other question is one that I must ask as a Christian. Even as I took that quiet satisfaction at Bin Laden’s demise, and even as I enjoyed the cloak and dagger plot of Zero Dark Thirty, I have some well-known words of Jesus echoing in my ears.

“You have heard that it was 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.’” (Matt 5:38-39)

But also echoing in my ears are the words of the early Christian leader, Paul, in the passage we’ve heard tonight. In a teaching which surely echoes Jesus, Paul instructs his readers:
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  … Never avenge yourselves.” (Rom 12:17, 19) 
How might a Christian shaped by these teachings respond to Zero Dark Thirty and the story it tells?

Well, let’s pause from these questions and watch the trailer for the film – either to jog your memory or to give you a bit of feel for the film if you haven’t seen it. (You can watch the trailer here.)
* * * *
Of course, the trailer spares us the torture which makes the mission possible in the first place. And it also spares us the film’s climax.

The moment of climax is this: Bin Laden has already been shot. His wife is screaming. One of the marines takes aim at Bin Laden again, pummelling further bullets into his body. And then this same marine declares: “For God and country.”

And this was no script writer’s embellishment. From all accounts, these are the very words which rippled through the airwaves all the way to the White House to confirm the success of the mission.

And, of course,  those four words were an echo: the cry of Allah Akbar which we can imagine the Al Qaeda pilots declared as they guided their planes into the World Trade Centre a decade before.

Those two cries – 10 years apart – each its own declaration of triumph: a triumph in the name of God. 

Each cry so contrary to Paul’s exhortation: “Do not repay evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all”
Invoking God in violence is not unusual – monarchs and Generals,  presidents, patriots and priests have done it from time immemorial. To invoke God is to invoke the ultimate sanction of one’s violent cause.

Yet vast tracts of the Christian tradition are by and large deeply troubled by such invocations – and the teachings of Jesus and Paul we have already heard are the basic reasons for that.

"Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.”

Certainly in contemporary Christian ethics, ideas of retributive justice are seen to be basically unChristian. Yes, even though that same passage of Paul says something like, ‘Leave room for the wrath of God’. (And, that sentence warrants a sermon on its own.)

But it is nevertheless, a fundamental element of early Christian conviction that the ultimate moral ordering of the universe was God’s prerogative. Christians could not play God in terms of judging others.

And the resistance to revenge, to repaying evil for evil, is not a belief unique to Christians. Long before Jesus, Plato, for instance, had departed from Homeric values and argued that vengeance was always unjust.

Yes, it is true that some modern philosophers draw a distinction between revenge and retribution – revenge being emotive and retribution being a constrained but necessary response to evil.
But most contemporary social and legal theorists regard retributive justice as problematic. It is seen to be a vehicle for perpetuating violence. And so, in matters of justice, contemporary Western societies have a developed orientation to theories and practices of restorative justice prevails.

But can restorative justice be applied to disputes carried out on a global scale? Could restorative justice ever been applied to the relationship between the US and Al Qaeda? Was there ever any hope of it after9/11? Was there any ever hope of it after the murder of Bin Laden. Is there any hope of it today between the West and ISIS?

Are there disputes so deep, so embedded in violence, that restorative justice is simply naïve? Are there disputes so deeply mutually destructive that hopes for restorative justice will simply evaporate?

And are there disputes so embedded in violence, so mutually destructive, that the Christian invocation ‘not to pay evil for evil but to take thought for what is noble in the sight of all’ is not only naïve but also an expression of  indifference to the realities of violence and destruction.

Whilst historically you could make an argument that Christian teaching has helped Western societies develop notions of restorative justice and to have put in check some ideas of retributive justice, that Christian influence has not checked the world’s history of violence

 And when some Christians have been prepared to invoke God to sanction their nation’s violence, thy only make the problem worse. The marine standing over Bin Laden declaring, ‘For God and Country’, is hardly an isolated story in the history of war and terror.
Is it not the case that humanity seems trapped in a endless cycle of violence. Indeed, even an ever ascending spiral of violence? War, domestic violence, bullying, terror, colonial and imperial dispossession. 

Every generation seems to think it has reached some threshold of violence only to see that threshold broken by some yet more terrible horror.

Perhaps films such as Zero Dark Thirty keep that spiral spinning. It whets our appetite for the story of the world’s violence.

What then of Jesus’ teaching of turning the other check? What of Pauls’ echo of that teaching with his exhortation not to repay evil with evil?

The first thing that perhaps needs to be said is that Paul wasn’t addressing leaders of nations or policy makers. He was addressing a small group of first century Christians about how they should relate to each other and to those who were giving them grief.

It’s a reminder that the Bible is a book for Christians. Only by historical accident did it assume a kind of de facto cultural authority in the history of the West. (Remember, the next time you see someone quoting the Bible on Q&A telling this or that politician how to develop policy, you can be sure they are misusing it.)

* * * *

What then is the status of this Christian teaching in a violent world, and in a world (a world that includes people like you and me) which is happy to be entertained by films about the story of the world’s violence?
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
For me, it is best understood as a dissenting voice. A voice that interrupts our dominant narrative about violence. A voice that resists the quest for revenge.  A voice that says no to soldiers and terrorists whenever they declare either ‘For God and Country’ or ‘Allah Akbar’.

It is also a realistic voice. Listen to something else in this exhortation from Paul: “If it is possible, as far as it depends you, live at peace with everyone.”  If it is possible.

Sometimes it is not possible. Perhaps this recognition explains why pacifism has never quite won over the totality of the Christian tradition – even though it is an honoured and authoritative element of that tradition.
Be that as it may, this note of realism is at least a kind of concession to forces that we can’t control.

What we can control is how we understand the use of violence in an inevitably violent world. It is a tragic consequence of whatever it is that is wrong with the human condition – what Christian call sin.

It must always be an act for which those humans who exercise it must take responsibility. No soldier, no president, no general, no priest, no terrorist can legitimately claim that God is on their side.
They can never claim that God sanctions revenge. They can never claim ‘For God and country’. That is what the Christian tradition calls blasphemy.

Zero Dark Thirty, for all its embellishments, tells a true story. It really happened. It has taken this powerful story of geo-political revenge into popular culture. It has allowed some to celebrate that story; others to be troubled by it. Christians will vary in their view of the morality of the act of killing Bin Laden. And they will vary in their view of the morality of making a film about it.

They will vary their view of how widely restorative justice can be employed in this violent world.
But, it seems to me, Christians who watch this film, and reflect on the story it tells of the world’s violence, must at least spend some time reflecting on the words of Paul: “Do not repay evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with one another.”  AMEN.