The Worst Hell is Hope

Batman, Jesus, and Original Sin

One of the fascinating elements in The Dark Knight Rises is the prison known as “The Pit.” It is fascinating to me because I’m aware of the Knightfall story arc in the Batman comic books (one of the sources of the movie’s storyline), and the Pit plays a different role. The difference between the two highlights the different role that Hope plays in our development of our individual and collective selves.

Spoilers ahead. Go see the movie, dude.

Comics v. Cinema

Knightfall was a story arc in Batman comic books between 1993-1994. In the storyline, Bane is born in a Central American prison, escapes and breaks Batman’s back. Bruce Wayne spends months in recovery with a mystical healer while a replacement Batman defeats Bane but then become more violent than the original Batman. When Wayne recovers, he has to fight it out with the new Batman and eventually overcomes the replacement.

In The Dark Knight Rises, the storyline is different. Bane was imprisoned in a Middle Eastern prison, is broken out and breaks Batman’s back. He puts Bruce Wayne in “The Pit” where Wayne has to watch Bane take over Gotham. Eventually Wayne becomes strong enough to escape and defeats Bane, winning the day. Loosely.

So that’s the differences in the story. Let’s now turn to the role of “The Pit” in the two story arcs and the difference in the role.

The Pit

In Knightfall, the the prison is above ground and seems like a typical prison. The story opens with a pre-teen Bane put in a coma by another inmate. He has a dream involving his future self and his future potential. He wakes up and kills the inmate who sent him there. The warden sends Bane to Cavidad Oscuro: solitary confinement in a “dark cavity” cell below sea level. Bane survives without food and water, eating crabs and rats, refusing to die. In the Pit, Bane decides that he will “become fear” and not be taken down by it. The comic “Vengeance of Bane” (1993) reads:

 The Cavidad Oscuro was dug by clergy three centuries ago. Those sent here by the priests were told to pray for deliverance. The only deliverance found here was madness or death. And Bane would surrender to neither. And he would not surrender to the fear. He would become fear. And each night he would fight for his life. Hatred gave him the strength to hold on. Hatred and the promise of the man he would become.

The Pit was dug by priests in the story arc and most people died or went insane. But Bane had hope. He had a dream where he met his future self and was promised greatness. So he refused to die and turned the subtle weapons of solitary confinement from internal to external direction. He had a promise and would burn through anyone and anything in his way to achieve what was promised to him.

So that was the comic book story arc. Let’s look now at the recent movie and how it adapts this storyline:

From the movie The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR), the Pit is a prison built into the ground without any guards: a treacherous wall-climb separates the prisoners from freedom. The prisoners can see the way out but they often die or are maimed in the attempt. When characters escape the Pit Prison in the film, they are said to have “risen.” Bane takes the broken Bruce Wayne here and explains why he is there in this dialogue exchange:

Bruce Wayne: Where am I?
Bane: Home, where I learned the truth about despair, as will you. There’s a reason why this prison is the worst hell on earth… Hope. Every man who has ventured here over the centuries has looked up to the light and imagined climbing to freedom. So easy… So simple… Many have died trying. I learned here that there can be no true despair without hope. So, as I terrorize Gotham, I will feed its people hope to poison their souls. I will let them believe they can survive so that you can watch them clamoring over each other to “stay in the sun.” You can watch me torture an entire city and when you have truly understood the depth of your failure…We will destroy Gotham.

We know from the movie that Bane has taken over Gotham and offered an anarchic state to the citizens and they will survive if they play by the brutal rules. But the truth is that there is no hope of survival: there’s a secret timebomb in the city that will explode after a few months. Wayne knows about this and can only watch the city try to build itself up unawares that they will be wiped away in a few short months.

So we see the difference in “The Pit” in both story arcs…and Bane may actually right.

  • The Pit in Knightfall wasn’t torture as there was no perceived external hope, no appeal to a higher power, and no light. The only thing that kept Bane sane was an external hope: an apparition that promised greatness.
  • The Pit in TDKR was torture as there was hope, there was a conceivable way out, and yet it was elusive with hope haunting the prisoners in their dreams and their daily attempts. It was an external hope, a half-promise offered to all but grasped only by those who valued freedom more than their own lives.

And yet Wayne escapes because his hope is internal. He believes that his mission is to save Gotham, has internalized it to the point of psychosis and self-abuse, and nothing can tear him from that hope. Not even the torment of an external hope can stop him from destroying Bane’s plans. But how did he obtain this internal hope?

Original Hope? Or Original Sin?

I wonder why their hopes are different in TDKR. Both Bane and Wayne suffered tragedy at an early age. Both had the same experience of being in the Pit. I wonder if we can trace that to their childhood experiences, to their origins, and see what difference it made in their upbringing.

Process Theologian Marjorie Suchocki frames the traditional doctrine of original sin in this way:

We are born into structures that already shape our existence, molding our identity. We absorb these structures into our normal way of perceiving things, so that we are not only shaped by the structures but we perpetuate them.

M. Suchocki, God Christ Church, page 193.

Thus in the Process view, if we are born into violence, we perpetuate violence. If we are born into a racist family, we likely will perpetuate that racism. If we are born into privilege, we respond with that privilege (and often have to unlearn it). Whatever we are born into we absorb and live out, usually requiring counseling, dramatic experience, or an internal re-ordering of things to undo.

Both Bruce Wayne and Bane had traumatic experiences as small children. But Wayne was brought up in a family that lived outside themselves, who tried to save Gotham by investing in it, building hospitals and transportation infrastructure. Care and compassion was all Wayne knew, along with fear after his parents’ murder. Bane’s mother simply tried to keep him alive amidst all the violence of a third-world prison. Violence and “might makes right” is all Bane knew, along with fear after his mother’s death. In fact, Bane is in prison because he is living out his father’s sentence. Original Sin indeed!

In this way, Bane was born into Original Sin, whereas Bruce was born into Original Blessing.

  • Bane had an external hope of the apparition’s promise that he would become great and he lived out that hope through violence and torture (and, secondly, compassion as we find out in TDKR).
  • Bruce had an internal hope of his ability to save Gotham from itself and his lived that out through compassion (and his fists…but they were born of compassion and a little bit of revenge).

Jesus, the Church and Hope

For the Jewish faith at the time of Jesus, Hope was torturous. The Jews were an occupied nation and their leadership focused on ritual purity to protect again creeping Hellenism. Purity became a sun at the top of the prison, always unattainable, always excluding people. Jesus came and taught many radical subjects, mostly to relocate hope from being defined by the brood of vipers to an internal consistency that could also resist the empire. In short, Jesus removed the purity barriers to the divine in ways that honored tradition but also opened the locus of hope from being defined by “what we are not.”

This helps us articulate that:

  • an external hope is outwardly defined (by religious leadership) but inwardly focused (on purity)
  • an internal hope is inwardly defined (by consistency) but outward focused (on missions)

This treatment of Bane and Batman leads me to the obvious question: Which hope is the Church leadership giving people?

  • Are we giving people an external hope? One where Jesus comes down from the clouds and saves us from earth’s degradation? Where we give them a promise of “Your Best Life Now” if they put money in the plate? Even more close-to-the-heart, is our hope for the church tied to its doctrines and practices? Where purity of church is primary?
  • Or are we giving people an internal hope? One where Jesus reigns in their hearts and guides them through earth’s misfortunes? Where their promise is not of health and wealth but of divine presence no matter what path they walk down? Where even if the church excludes in its doctrine and perpetuates sin, our hope is in our own discipleship and our own communities of resistance? Where missions is primary?

I wonder even in our worship services: are we encouraging an internal hope or an external hope? Do we give people an abiding hope that resonates with their soul for weeks and months? Or the “Red Bull” of worship where people have to come back every week for a spiritual “high?” Tough questions.

Thoughts? Where does hope reside for you? And are you struggling with an original blessing or an original sinful situation you were born into?

Discuss.

(Photo credit: Production photo from The Dark Knight Rises)
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Comments

  1. Stephen says

    Jeremy,

    Great write up, but

    *MAJOR Spoilers*

    Bane was not the one in the pit “serving for his father”(i.e. original sin). That was Talia al Ghul. Bane was the one who helped her escape. We learn that Bane never escaped until they were rescued by Ra al Ghul. It was Talia’s mother who died in the prison, not Banes. It was a minor plot line, but I think it threw off motivations and weakened the movie.

    • says

      Sorry, I was mixing origin stories. In the comic book, Bane’s father was a criminal who died after impregnating his wife/girlfriend. When Bane was born, he was sentenced to serve out his father’s time.

      But you are correct in the TDKR writeup. I was also unhappy with the change as Ra’s being Bane’s father was particularly powerful. In the end, it made Bane look like a severely flawed compassionate character, not the static one he is in the comics.

  2. revmokat says

    This is a beautiful piece getting right to the core of process thought. Great work. I now however may not be able to the film….seems so dark….but that is the point you are making isn’t it? Life can be dark and what are we going to do about it. To bring in another myth Spike tells the hopless/tired/or exhausted, Buffy, “to live so at least one of us is living. ” Maybe the thing for the prisoner in the pit to do is to not look up, in order to get out, but look inside herself/himself for the tools and then begin to climb…..Great work Jeremy!!!!

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