Two Murders, Two Cities, Two Loves

William_Blake's_Cain_and_AbelAccording to Augustine, it is common that earthly cities are founded by murderers. Fratricides to be exact (City of God, Bk. XV.5). In Scripture, we learn that the first city Cain who slew his brother Abel was the founder of the first earthly city. He was jealous of Abel’s favor before the Lord in offering a right sacrifice and so the sin crouching at his feet overwhelmed Cain as he overwhelmed his brother.

It’s no wonder, then, that he was followed in this “by a kind of reflection” in the founder of the archetypical “capital” of the earthly city of Rome. As the founding myth would have it, there were two brothers, Romulus and Remus. Disagreeing about which hill to build their future city on, they quarreled and Romulus slaughtered his brother, founded the city, and named it after himself. After that, Romulus built his armies, legions, and spread from there.

The two foundings, while similar, also reveal different conflicts at work. In the case of the second pair, Augustine thinks it is obvious what the root of the issue is: both Romulus and Remus were citizens of the City of Man whose aim is self-glory.

Both sought the glory of establishing the Roman state, but a joint foundation would not bring to each the glory that a single founder would enjoy. Anyone whose aim is to enjoy glory in the exercise of power would obviously enjoy less power if his sovereignty was diminished by a living partner. Therefore, in order that the sole power should be wielded by one person, the partner was eliminated; and what would have been kept smaller and better by innocence grew through crime into something bigger and worse.

As the lust for glory provokes Romulus to kill Remus, it would spill into further violence and bloodshed. The lust for dominance and glory is insatiable, and once it has found a crack in the wall, the dam inevitably bursts forth.

But what of Cain and Abel? There was a difference there, right? Cain was the founder of the first city and a representative of the City of Man, but Abel was a citizen of the “Eternal City” of God whose glory is the love of God. There was not “the same ambition for earthly gains”, and Cain was clearly not jealous of Abel’s power–he was a poor shepherd and their was no city to be founded yet. Instead, Augustine says that “Cain’s was the diabolical envy of that the wicked feel for the good simply because they are good, while they themselves are evil.”

Thus the quarrel that arose between Remus and Romulus demonstrated the division of the earthly city against itself; while the conflict between Cain and Abel displayed the hostility between the two cities themselves, the City of God and the city of men. Thus the wicked fight among themselves; and likewise the wicked fight against the good and the good against the wicked.

The city of man built on love of human glory and power is inherently destructive. It not only opposes the good, but eventually tears itself apart. Because human glory is a limited resource, those who desire it cannot share it. And, what’s more, they even hate those who do not seek it, because it seems to diminish their own pursuit of it. Try to opt out of the competition and it makes the prize at the end seem all the less desirable.

But what of the love of the city of God? What of the desire to possess goodness?

A man’s possession of goodness is in no way diminished by the arrival, or the continuance, of a sharer in it; indeed, goodness is a possession enjoyed more widely by the united affection of partners in that possession in proportion to the harmony that exists among them. In fact, anyone who refuses to enjoy this possession in partnership will not enjoy it at all; and he will find that he possesses it in ampler measure in proportion to his ability to love his partner in it.

Love of good and the God who is the Good is an inherently social love. Those who have it naturally seek out fellow citizens who with whom to delight and rejoice together. And this is the joy of the Heavenly Jerusalem that descends from above. There the citizens of the City of God will have their eternal good and delight together in their unchanging possession of, or rather, possession by, the Infinite, Unlimited Subject of their affection.

 

Soli Deo Gloria 

Jesus is Batman and Jonah is Ra’s Al Ghul (Or, How Christopher Nolan Reminded Me of the Gospel)

Jonah is Ra’s Al Ghul and Jesus is Batman. I made this realization the other night at the young adult Bible study I lead. We have some serious game and comic people among us, so occasionally little flashes of nerdly brilliance will strike in our midst. I prefer to think of it as the Holy Spirit’s little-discussed comic book habit shining through. In any case, it came to me as we were studying chapter 4 in the book of Jonah. But first, for the uninitiated, a little background on Ra’s Al Ghul.

Admit it, part of you wishes there was Batman movie with an older Bruce played by Liam Neeson.

Admit it, part of you wishes there was Batman movie with an older Bruce played by Liam Neeson.

Holy Liam NEESONS, Batman!!
The comic-book villain has had multiple incarnations over the years as one of Batman’s greatest enemies, most recently and famously played by Liam Neeson as the lead villain in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. (Late Spoiler-Alert: Liam Neeson is actually Ra’s Al Ghul, not Ken Watanabe. If this is news to you, well, I don’t apologize. You should have already seen this movie. It’s brilliant.) In this iteration, he appears as the head of the ancient and morally-ambiguous League of Shadows, a secret organization dedicated to rooting out evil and corruption in society, restoring balance and justice in the world. He gives Bruce Wayne some sweet ninja training, teaching him how to us “theatricality and deception” to fight the underworld, and lead the team to Gotham to clean it up. Great goal, right? Sure. The only hiccup is that by “cleaning it up” he means absolutely destroying it. More of a “Noah and the Flood” cleansing, than anything else.

As Al Ghul says, “Gotham’s time has come. Like Constantinople or Rome before it the city has become a breeding ground for suffering and injustice. It is beyond saving and must be allowed to die. This is the most important function of the League of Shadows. It is one we’ve performed for centuries. Gotham… must be destroyed.”

Predictably, Bruce has a problem with this, and refuses to go along. At that point, he burns down the sweet ninja training house, setting up the great conflict in the rest of the movie.

Back to Gotham, er, I mean Nineveh
As I mentioned, this whole background struck me the other night during Bible study. We were in chapter 4 of the prophet Jonah where we find the root of Jonah’s odd behavior in the first few chapters. I guess I should recap that too:  See, the “evil” of the great Assyrian city-state of Nineveh had come up before Yahweh (Jonah 1:2), so he tells his prophet Jonah to go preach against it. Then, in the very famous part of the book, Jonah, quite foolishly, runs away instead, jumps on a boat, gets stuck in a God-sent storm, gets chucked off the boat by the sailors, and then is saved by God who has a big fish swallow him. From there Jonah kinda repents, gets spit out on dry land, goes to Nineveh and preaches the lamest sermon ever, “40 days and Nineveh will fall” (Jonah 3:4), the city freaks out, repents, and then God has mercy on them.

Now, initially you might have thought that Jonah was running away from fear. Nineveh wasn’t a nice place. As one of the main cities in the aggressive, Neo-Assyrian empire, it was dark, pagan, cruel and imperialistic. The historical evidence we have depicts a culture drunk with violence and a lust for power. With a message like, “40 days and you’re going to be wiped off the map”, you might expect some opposition there. Turns out that wasn’t the main problem. Jonah wasn’t scared of Nineveh’s reaction, but Yahweh’s:

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.

(Jonah 4:1-2)

Nineveh was a desperately wicked city and as an Israelite, whose nation lived under the constant threat of Assyrian intimidation, Jonah wanted to see it burn. He wasn’t scared of Nineveh’s evil, but rather wary of God’s gracious mercy. In fact, he gets so mad about God’s mercy towards Nineveh that he wants God to put him out of his misery. (4:3) God questions him on this, “Do you do well to be angry?” (4:4) After an odd object-lesson with a plant (4:5-10) He calls him out and says, “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (4:11)

I would imagine Jesus in a Batman suit is far more intimidating. Actually, Jesus in a Jesus suit more than that. Still, love this pic.

I would imagine Jesus in a Batman suit is far more intimidating. Actually, Jesus in a Jesus suit more than that. Still, love this pic.

Yahweh is Batman
When I read that line I realized that Yahweh is Batman. In the movie Al Ghul saw only Gotham’s evil, but in Batman’s mind Gotham is a city worth saving. He would fight its injustice, but he refused to become an executioner.  Similarly Jonah saw only wickedness and evil needing to be destroyed, but Yahweh saw more. He certainly saw the evil, so much so that he threatened them with real judgment. Yet, he also saw people made in his Image so morally disordered (“who do not know their right hand from their left”), and far from his original intentions for human flourishing, that he had pity on them. So he threatened in order to bring about repentance; he judged in order to save.

One other Batman-related insight: Batman’s concern isn’t just for individual Gothamites, but for the flourishing of the whole city, with its economy, infrastructure, and shared civic life. In the same way, God calls Nineveh that “great city”, and commentators have pointed out that his mention of “much cattle” isn’t just a reference to animals, but the economy of the city. The repentance we read about is structural, from the king of the city, to his officials, down to the lowest peasants. God is concerned with cities and cultures, not just the people in them.

Yahweh and Grace
This was the gracious and merciful God Jonah knew and feared. As a prophet, he knew Israel’s long history of being spared despite its rebellion. In fact, the phrase “you are a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” comes from God’s own self-description in Exodus 34 when he spares Israel after the incident with the golden calf. Yes, he is a just a God, “who will by no means clear the guilty”,  but he is one whose fundamental stance is “steadfast love…forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” (Exod 34:7) He doesn’t take evil lightly, but his love goes deeper than our sin. Of course, that’s what the Cross is all about.

Jonah couldn’t handle that disturbing grace. He is the OT equivalent of the elder brother in the parable of the two sons (Luke 15), angry at the Father for showing grace to the undeserving younger brother, while self-righteously refusing to see his own need for it. We’ve got the same God in both testaments. It’s not the case that God is angry and just in the OT, and nice and gracious in the NT. As we see here, He’s just as gracious in the Old. (And if you read it properly, there’s plenty of justice in the New.) In the same vein, the God of Israel isn’t merely a tribal God, but the God of the “nations” as well–both of the Jews and the Gentiles. (Rom. 3:29)

As a figure representing OT Israel, Jonah’s story stands as a rebuke to his countrymen and a warning for their NT counterpart, the church. Far too many of our churches are more like Jonah and Ra’s Al Ghul than God and Batman. Instead of looking with pity on a culture that can’t tell its right from its left, we’d rather take a seat and watch the destruction go down. (Jonah 4:5) We would do well to reconsider our stance towards the culture and towards our neighbors. Are we more like Al Ghul or Batman? Do we look out and see only evil, or signs of a fallen creation awaiting redemption? Are we eager to go to the ‘nations’ (neighbors) with God’s word, a much better Gospel-word than Jonah had? Let’s hope so.  If not, let’s be quick to repent anyways.

A Final Word
Let’s be honest, my initial impulse to write this was nerdy excitement about connecting one of my favorite books in the Bible to one of my favorite comic-book movies. Once I started writing it though, I realized there are all sorts of applications and insights to be gleaned from it. If you’re looking for it, you can see imperfect glimpses God’s truth anywhere–even a comic-book movie. Be on the lookout for it. Also, read your Bible. If you don’t know God’s “authorized” truth, you’re not as likely to recognize it elsewhere.

Soli Deo Gloria