Our five year old son Jim is a huge Batman fan (I should add that his fandom stems from Justice League and The Brave and the Bold cartoons lest you think we have exposed him to Heath Ledger’s Joker and his "magic tricks"). Most days he is wearing a Batman shirt and is playing with his superheroes. Given his precocious expertise on all things caped crusader, people at church have been asking him why Batman and Superman are fighting. Jim's typical response was to scrunch up his face and sternly reply, “Batman and Superman don’t fight! They’re friends!”
Yet friends seems to be in a fighting mood this spring. Back in March, Superman and Batman waged gritty battle as justice somehow dawned. Now this week Iron Man, Captain America, and a slew of Avengers will Civil War it up. In the end, these battling superheroes will work it out. There are sequels to both movies in play. Something worse will come along that will force the good guys to join forces. But the conflict is what is played up in all the ads and trailers. Promotional campaigns have been asking who will win and whose side are you on. Why can’t the world’s greatest superheroes get along?
Part of me understands this. Conflict does make for a more compelling stories on paper. As great as stories are in which Batman and Superman are best bros who switch costumes to hoodwink Lex Luthor (and let me tell you, those stories are awesome), tales in which there is tension between the two have greater dramatic stakes. The problem is Hollywood typically doesn’t do a good job with nuance (some of you are probably pegging director Zach Snyder in particular, but we don't delve into that now) and thus that tension is usually of the super-punching people through buildings variety.
Still this trend of heroes fighting each other is interesting because it is timely. Superhero stories are not merely flights of fancy, but often reflect some aspect of our culture. During World War II, comics embodied a rah-rah patriotism in which one would pick up a comic that featured Captain America punching Hitler in the face. The urban decay of the 1980s led to gritty makeovers for characters like Batman and Daredevil. And in the 1990s, comics tried (and failed) to be as EXTREME as they could; kind of like your church youth group.
Which brings us back to superheroes on the same team coming to fisticuffs. In many ways it mirrors our cultural climate. Both political parties are emerging from battles royal to determine who will be their presidential candidate. As angry rhetoric rises, rallies have turned ugly and in a few cases have resulted in physical confrontations. Neighbors—people who ought to be working together for a common goal—see each other as literal enemies.
The makers of Batman v. Superman and Captain America: Civil War obviously did not know that the political climate would have been so heated this spring. At the same time, it’s not like this conflict came out of nowhere. Political parties have painted the other side as complete enemies for the better part of a decade if not longer. As a result, tribal and ideological purity has become tantamount. “If you are not with us, you are against us.” As that philosophy grows, the list of enemies also swells.
This civil war goes beyond the voting booth. It seeps into our conversations and on to our Facebook feeds. We divide ourselves up into tribes based on our opinions, our likes, our dislikes. We spread rumor and innuendo to discredit the other side. College football, a performance on the Grammys, a sermon: all can become potential ground zeroes for battle.
The divide is even more dispiriting when you consider the Church. People who should be united together in bringing good news and hope to the world are too often, at best, segregated, and, at worst, at each other’s throats. This doesn't mean that there will never be disagreement or discord or parting of ways. But we are better than some of the instances in which we often handle conflict. We are all too eager to draw lines in the sand. You are either for us or against us.
This isn’t anything new. In Luke 9, some of the disciples came to their teacher and said that they tried to stop a guy who was driving out demons in Jesus’ name. Their reason? He was not one of them. In their opinion, this other guy was not Team Jesus. He wasn’t in the group. Jesus answered simply: “Do not stop him for whoever is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9:50 NRSV).
That verse is a good antidote for our culture of a million civil wars great and small. It does not mean that what you believe does not matter; that we’re all just going to hold hands and sing “Kumbaya.” Nor does it mean that we should not stand up against the actions and rhetoric amongst us that wound.
But it does encourage us to find points of commonality to work together because there are real enemies out there that we need to fight. Enemies like injustice, poverty, hatred, and a litany of other villains that wreak terror on human life. We can’t waste time battling each other when those greater threats loom large. The church needs to be a leader in this area of uniting people. It is an unbelievably difficult task. Yet we need to follow the way of our teacher rather than looking for ways to make the story one of us versus them.
My favorite kind of stories featuring Batman and Superman are the ones in which they acknowledge that they are extremely different yet they deeply respect each other. There is a mutual trust and the acknowledgement that the other is striving for what is right. They realize that some of their differences can even be assets in their fight against injustice. They may disagree, sometimes even strongly and have to work separately. Yet they are ultimately on the same team despite their differences. That's a good lesson not just for the five year olds wearing Batman t-shirts, but all of us.