Batman, Peter Rollins, and Discipleship
“What if the Church should be less concerned with creating saints than creating a world where we do not need saints? A world where people like Mother Theresa and MLK wold have nothing to do.”
~ Peter Rollins, Insurrection, page 142
In Batman Begins, a reboot of the Batman storyline, we learn that Bruce Wayne’s father Thomas was a philanthropist for the city of Gotham. He built a rail system so that the impoverished could work in the city and be able to travel. In the movie’s flashback to that fateful night when they died, Thomas Wayne explains this decision:
Thomas Wayne: “Gotham’s been good to our family, but the city’s been suffering. People less fortunate than us have been enduring very hard times. So we built a new, cheap, public transportation system to unite the city.”
Both of Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed before those less fortunate had enough time to be bettered by this project. In their memory, the philanthropists in Gotham were “galvanized” into building onto more of the city’s infrastructure and Gotham has “limped on ever since.” It is in this environment that Bruce takes a more direct approach to fighting crime and Batman emerges as a one-man fighting force who gets criminals off the streets and into hospitals…but there’s always more and more, it seems. Indeed, by the second movie, the police officers at a press conference say “things are worse than ever” and even the District Attorney says “the night is darkest before the dawn.” It seems that even though individuals battles are won by Batman, the war to make Gotham better is still ongoing.
In Peter Rollins’ book Insurrection, Rollins writes about this difference between Bruce Wayne and his father Thomas Wayne’s approaches to crime:
In order for Bruce Wayne to fund his high-tech covert military campaign against the criminals of Gotham, he must secretly siphon off vast sums of money from Wayne Industries…one must wonder whether it might not be much more effective if he took that money and spent it on developing a strong educational system within the city, setting up training programs for the unemployed, and helping small businesses develop…
A city without the infrastructure to provide good education and work opportunities simply feeds Joker’s evil schemes by sustaining the conditions that lead to a large underclass unable to find representation in the city. Batman’s archvillains would have a difficult time carrying out their crimes if they did not have an unlimited number of poor and desperate people to prey upon, people who turn to crime in order to survive and find identity. If Batman spent his time and money supporting a life-giving infrastructure, the crime wave in Gotham might be broken.
Insurrection page 141-142
Thus, to Rollins, if Bruce had followed in his father’s footsteps and recommitted himself and all that money to bettering the environment of Gotham, then it would be a better place. It’s similar to the approach against terrorism mapped out in Three Cups of Tea, where the journalist discovers that by educating women they know to not encourage their sons to not go into terrorism and thus they rob terrorists of their needed clientele. A rising tide lifts all boats.
Instead, like any partially-crazy traumatized child would do, Bruce Wayne sought revenge in the form of the Caped Crusader: which made for a much better comic book and movie series, I’ll admit, but perhaps not the best choice to be effective. So who made the right decision? Bruce Wayne or Thomas Wayne? Thomas’s approach obviously didn’t remove all the corruption and crime, even though it kept it from dissolving into anarchy (which was the preference of Batman Begins’ antagonist Ra’s Al Ghul). But it looks like from the teasers of The Dark Knight Rises that anarchy is on its way even against Bruce Wayne’s approach as Batman too.
Rollins concludes with this statement that I find meaning in today:
Bruce Wayne is able to look and feel like he is part of the solution when, in his overall material practices, he is really a part of the problem. It is one thing to beat up a criminal; it’s another to commit oneself to the difficult task of transforming society.
I wonder if we are making discipleship too easy. Being a disciple is easy. Going to church is easy. Reading the bible is easy. Praying is easy. Even implementing biblical principles into your private life is sorta easy. In the grand scheme of things, these are easy practices and sacrifices of time. Half of the United Methodist Church’s mission statement (“To Make Disciples of Jesus Christ…”) is easy.
The second half of that mission statement (“For the Transformation of the World.”) is hard. Speaking up for the oppressed is hard. Choosing to preach on controversial issues that will lose you members is hard. Finding another person to read the bible with is hard. Praying for one’s enemies is hard. Choosing to leave a church that offers you spiritual therapy for another one that galvanizes you is hard.
Obviously, being a Disciple necessarily means a combination of both private devotion and public action, so discipleship really isn’t easy. But it’s amazing how many churches are filled with Superheroes in both the pulpit and the pew who tackle spiritual problems one at a time and who create programs and structures that are dependent on them rather than creating a culture of call and service that can change the world around them. I’ve seen too many churches lose the wind from their sails when one super-layperson dies or becomes disgruntled, too many churches fall when one pastor falls short or suffers from indiscretions. Discipleship in a church context ought be more than reliance on a single person.
Perhaps the shift we need to make in discipleship is from being the heroes in our communities whom everyone relies on to being the ones who create the conditions for other heroes to emerge.
Don’t get me wrong: our world needs heroes these days, doesn’t it? In a world where a fear and hatred of enemies as wholly ‘other’ is encouraged; where a psychology of enmity rules; where polarization is lifted up; where a hostile imagination is inflamed; is it not up to us to call for a Hero to emerge? Is it not up to the dreamers, the idealists, people called by God to stoke a heroic imagination in the people, to create the conditions by which a hero might appear, where Jesus might return, where the Spirit might be moving, where love might conquer fear, where Jar-Jar may magically disappear from the Star Wars prequels (can I get an AMEN?)?
From an article on Heroism, is not this description of the heroic imagination a parallel to any ministry context?
“Those who engage their heroic imagination are making themselves aware of opportunities where they can help others in need, and may be more prepared to accept and transcend the consequences associated with the…decision [to help].”
Z.E. Franco, K. Blau, P.G. Zimbardo. “Heroism: A Conceptual Analysis and Differentiation
between Heroic Action and Altruism.” Review of General Psychology. April 11, 2011, page 9.
Perhaps we are called not to be Bruce Wayne but to be Thomas, to create the conditions for a hero to emerge in our contexts, to stoke a heroic imagination in our community that faces down oppression and stands with the marginalized. To tell the stories of liberation, sing songs of freedom, celebrate the Risen Christ triumphant in our midst.
Perhaps we are not called to be individuals with a perfectly crafted relationship with God, but communities seeking perfection in our relationships with each other. Perhaps we can start with working on our relationships with each other rather than God. Perhaps when we focus on God’s creation rather than our individualistic relationship with God, we can push against the trends of our time towards individualism and modernity.
Will the pastors and lay leaders among us work to create a heroic imagination in your communities? Ones that endure, ones that create the conditions for change, ones that trust in the slow work of God, ones that transform the world? Or will you be content doing everything, getting all the credit for good works in your community, creating programs and churches that rise and fall with the beating of your own heart?
The choice is yours.