How The Punisher is a picture of justice without God

Mild, very mild, spoilers. 

Remember you are only human. You’re going to die.

I’m a sucker for the Netflix section of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU); the gritty ‘street level hero’ excites me more than the fly-in-fly-out Avengers, and the even more infinitely removed Guardians of the Galaxy (though I do enjoy those). The big guys in the MCU are set to fight the ‘infinity wars’, and they’ve left a power vacuum in street level New York. The city is reeling and trying to figure out what these big heroes mean for the pursuit of justice, and even what heroism means; while the physical fallout from the Avengers explosive battle with the ‘chitauri’ (Avengers 1) — dubbed ‘the incident’ — has created opportunities for exploitative and opportunistic criminals to step in (which is pretty much the story of Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Netflix’s Daredevil).

Remember you are only human. You’re going to die.

I’m also a sucker for The Punisher. Frank Castle. He’s perhaps my favourite Marvel antihero. I grew up reading Phantom comics, so his ‘death’s head’ symbol and willingness to kill criminals in pursuit of justice not just mark them with a skull from a fancy ring (ala the Phantom) makes him feel like a grown up superhero. His story — where he is pursuing justice, or seeking vengeance, after his wife and kids were slaughtered is, perhaps, more poignant now I have a wife and kids. Plus I enjoy his aesthetic generally, and the Marvel take on it specifically (though this series is gritty and violent, and there were scenes where I had to look away or cover the screen of my laptop with my hands (I couldn’t watch this series with Robyn)).

 

Marvel introduced us to this version of The Punisher in Daredevil season 2; which was framed as a battle between darkness and light — between the conflicted (though blind so permanently in darkness), thoroughly Catholic, ‘Devil of Hell’s Kitchen’ who refuses to take life, and The Punisher’s dark pursuit of the violent end of his enemies. There’s a scene in this latest series where the TV news reports Castle has killed 37 people, his new ally Micro (a hacker with his own score to settle), turns to him incredulous. 37? Castle replies that this is just the number they know about. He is judge, jury, and executioner just without Judge Dredd’s state sanction.

Remember you are only human. You’re going to die.

This season is a battle for Castle’s soul — or his own battle to keep his soul in the face of his personal devastation.

And I can sympathise with him. If this life is all there is, and it seems to be in the story, the Punisher offers some hope for justice in the face of the state’s failings. Unlike Daredevil, whose religious faith is overt and shapes everything, The Punisher seems to operate in what philosopher Charles Taylor calls ‘the immanent frame’, he’s not haunted by questions of whether his victims are ‘made in the image of God’ and so capable of good, he’s not fascinated by an afterlife, such that his ethics are driven by his sense of where he’s going… he just wants to cause pain, as proximately as possible to the pain caused to him and his family, to those who perpetrated evil against him. He is the grim reaper. The personification of death. The knock at the door for these criminals who are part of a complex system of evil — and for those who happen to incidentally cross his path during this crusade.

Remember you are only human. You’re going to die.

There are moments where Frank has to decide whether to live or die, and a vision of his deceased wife beckoning at him from the other side of death suggests there is something more; but that he refuses to take that step in order to pursue his vengeance suggests he doesn’t have any certainty that these visions are anything other than a delusion.

So if this life is all there is; if there is no hope for justice beyond the grave; then what does justice actually look like in the face of awful systemic crime, that exploits and that treats human life as cannon fodder? That’s the question the Punisher forces us to ask as viewers. In all its grit, blood, mess, and violence. If this flesh and blood existence is all there is, then how do you extract the price required to restore balance — how does the classic view of ‘justice’ (the blind lady with the scales) operate in response to deadly evil?

How does a human participate in the bringing of justice in response to evil without taking on some of that evil? Or admitting that it actually lies there in every human heart? Whose hands are clean enough to exact vengeance without crossing a line into something impure? Or how does one get dirty hands, in the grit, blood, mess, and violence of this world without continuing the vicious cycle?

If this world is all there is, if the dead are not raised, if there is no God who judges, then I want The Punisher in this world, but I don’t want to be the Punisher, and I think it’s reasonably clear (and this is something that both the Marvel and DC cinematic franchises are grappling with) that violence begets violence. In the DC world there’s the perennial suggestion that Batman being the personification of fear, armed with fancy gadgets, has forced Gotham’s criminal underworld to evolve (and so compete) and so you get the cartoonish roll of villains from The Joker to Catwoman (and everyone in between)… what sort of New York exists five years from The Punisher season 1?

What is justice? Where is it found? Castle’s hacker sidekick has this dialogue with the purer face of justice, Agent Dinah Midani, about why he’s thrown in his lot with The Punisher not with the system.

Micro: You want justice. Because you haven’t figured out that there is no such thing yet… 

Agent Madani: You don’t believe in justice?

Micro: No I did. I did. You were it. You and the system. I’ve learned different. 

Agent Madani: Good men have died trying to expose this thing. They believed. 

Micro: Well. I believe the only way to get these assholes is to become like them. 

Agent Madani: No. I don’t believe that. 

Micro: You will. In the end.

The only way to get these assholes is to become like them.

There’s a cost.

To fight evil and pursue justice, in the world of The Punisher, you have to become evil. In a world where death is all there is, you respond to those who bring death on other people by bringing death. Only. If there’s no system… if it’s just vigilante stuff… who decides who is worthy of death? The market? Ability? Castle goes head to head with an old army buddy who is his equal in everything; while being willing to cross more lines.

The Punisher embraces this; the black, the skull logo, the warpaint, this is his embodiment of his cause — death. Justice in a world where nothing resides beyond that door. Painful death (seriously… it’s painful to watch). He’s driven by knowing that death is all there is… that’s his thing.

Micro: You’d rather be dead than feeling? Frank Castle. The Punisher. On a suicide mission, because what, he doesn’t like it when, uh, his feelings get hurt?

That skull. That’s a memento mori. It’s Latin for ‘remember, you will die.’ In Rome, victorious generals would return from war and so they didn’t get blinded by glory, they’d have a slave who would just say “Remember, you’re only human, you’re going to die.”

Frank: Well. That sounds good to me. 

Micro: Well, it’s meant as an admonition to value your life, to live it well. 

Later, when Madani challenges Micro’s faith in Castle because Castle was complicit in the system he’s seeking to overthrow before he realised and started his crusade, Micro says “Frank is resigned to die because he’s not sure he deserves to live. That’s a shame.” This is Frank becoming that which he seeks to overthrow; what’s good for his victims is good for him.

Remember you are only human. You’re going to die.

But what if this isn’t it. What if Daredevil is right, and The Punisher is wrong? What if not only are people, made in God’s image, are in some way capable of redemption (though because I’m not Catholic I think this redemption comes supernaturally from God, it’s not something we can work towards, or that we’re even capable of)? What if there is something beyond death that should shape how we live? What if there’s a judge who judges not just us, but our enemies. Who promises real justice — only, justice that includes justice for the evil in our hearts too?

And what if that judge had a different game plan to handle the same insights The Punisher raises — the idea that to deal with the problem — to ‘deal with these assholes’ — you have to become one of them?

What if you do have to step inside the vicious cycle; but somehow; somehow; you have to break it?

And break it in a way that convicts the offender (while offering redemption), but also comforts the afflicted with justice and hope. If you want mercy and hope in the mix you’d have to break it in a way that reaches beyond the grave to bring both justice and life… because if this life is all there is, how could the death of some ‘innocents’ like Castle’s family ever be paid for by the death of the guilty, especially if they then experience mercy (or if there’s the small mercy of the death of the body being all there is)?

Frank Castle is a man seeking atonement. But he seeks atonement in a purely immanent frame; there’s no horizon beyond the endorsement of the system he rejects that will vindicate him. And one day, when he fails, he’ll die (he certainly cops enough bumps, stab wounds, and bruises to have you questioning his mortality).

Jesus is a man who brought atonement. A man who did enter the vicious cycle of this world in order to break it; one who ‘became sin, who knew no sin, so we might become his righteousness’. A man who on the cross, in an act of substitution, became all the assholes he saved; and experienced justice for them; for us; on our behalf (as an interesting aside, Marvel’s Netflix partnership has so far presented Daredevil as the good samaritan (and New York as the victim), and as the suffering servant, and Luke Cage as a ‘liberation’ style messiah figure, some substitutionary atonement would be great (though the end of the Defenders leaves that possibility open).

Jesus is a man who stepped into the blood, grit, and violence of this world but did not take up his sword to seek vengeance, but a cross to bring both justice and mercy. A man who wasn’t a vigilante, but who was failed by a corrupt, deadly, self-interested state — the Roman empire — whose followers eventually overthrew that system simply by refusing to take part in that particular vicious cycle (at least at first, Christians would later go on their own crusades).

Frank Castle was a man ‘resigned to die because he’s not sure he deserves to live,’ Jesus was a man who was resigned to die though he deserved to live… A true innocent. Blameless.

But a willing victim of injustice; and the grand threat embodied in that Roman memento mori: Remember you are only human. You’re going to die.

Jesus did this — faced death — bloody, gritty, violent, death — because he didn’t operate in Castle’s immanent frame. He did this because he believed death is not all there is. His approach to life, and justice, and his hope, is meant to shape those who live in the world following him. The writer to the Hebrews says:

And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” — Hebrews 12:1-3

There’s some interesting stuff in the following versions about how we might discipline or punish ourselves when we take sin seriously, not because we have to pay its price, but because Jesus has. Our sense of how to live in this world comes from what we believe about the judge; the ‘punisher’, and what we believe about our future. Hebrews suggests the short term pain is a result of the discipline of a father who loves us — a father who has lost his son to violent — but that we can believe this pain is good because “it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” — its end point is quite different to those being trained by the vicious cycle of vengeance, violence, and blood.

Remember you are only human. You’re going to die.

Is it possible these words aren’t just a reminder to live good lives rather than a fatalistic death sentence that leaves us throwing our lives away trying to pursue revenge for wrongs we’ve experienced? Is there more to life, more to justice, than the latin maxim? Is there more to reality than death? Is there a life-giver (God), not just a life-taker (death)?

Ultimately those are going to be the question that shapes our approach to justice in this world; whether we’re on Team Punisher or Team Jesus. Is there more to life than death? Is justice something we’ve got to extract in pounds and pounds of flesh now, or can we trust that God has to exact justice not just for crimes committed against us, but for humanity’s execution and rejection of Jesus — whose blood debt we all owe as participants in a corrupt system. If we believe God will be judge, jury, and executioner it means we don’t need to pull the trigger. It means we don’t need to get our hands dirty, because he did. It means we have hope that death has been defeated, that it has lost its sting, but also that there is a just judge who will give us the justice we crave, and mercy we require, and this means we can live different lives to the cycle we see play out so gruesomely in The Punisher.

So Paul can say, in Romans, in a ‘cycle-breaker’…

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.

On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. — Romans 12:17-21

Don’t become like them.

Don’t be an asshole who just begets the vicious cycle of a broken system. Join a new one. See the world differently. Death differently.

This makes for a truly beautiful and compelling way of life; I’m just not sure this makes for great (though ugly and confronting) television.

Anonymous v Westboro: Unappointed arbiters, justice, and the dangers of repaying evil with evil

In the past, Anonymous, the anonymous group of hacktivists, were reportedly set to lock horns with Westboro Baptist – the hatemongering group who protest at the funerals of dead soldiers and the victims of tragedy, shout slogans outside concerts around the US, and target other churches. They also recently appeared on Russell Brand’s TV talk show.

The problem with being an anonymous group is that you’re pretty easy to imitate, and the group initially denied targeting Westboro – but claimed they were watching, and then hacked their website for the lols.

Now. Anonymous is getting serious.

After Westboro announced they were going to picket the funerals of the victims of the Newtown school shooting (note – not a particularly Christian response to tragedy), Anonymous acted. Circulating contact details for the members of the church around the internet, and posting this ominous video on the Westboro website.

Just be warned – there’s a pretty shocking high pitched noise at the end of the speaking, that might make you jump.

Anonymous – Message To The Westboro Baptist Church from @kyanonymous on Vimeo.

Here’s a snippet of the script – which you can find in full on the Vimeo page.

“Your pseudo-faith is abhorrent, and your leaders, repugnant. Your impact and cause is hazardous to the lives of millions and you fail to see the wrong in promoting the deaths of innocent people. You are self-appointed servants of God who rewrite the words of His sacred scripture to adhere to your prejudice. Your hatred supersedes your faith, and you use faith to promote your hatred.

Since your one-dimensional thought protocol will conform not to any modern logic, we will not debate, argue, or attempt to reason with you. Instead, we have unanimously deemed your organization to be harmful to the population of The United States of America, and have therefore decided to execute an agenda of action which will progressively dismantle your institution of deceitful pretext and extreme bias, and cease when your zealotry runs dry. We recognize you as serious opponents, and do not expect our campaign to terminate in a short period of time. Attrition is our weapon, and we will waste no time, money, effort, and enjoyment, in tearing your resolve into pieces, as with exposing the incongruity of your distorted faith.”

Anonymous may or may not have orchestrated this petition to have Westboro’s tax exempt status withdrawn by declaring them a hate group (perhaps a more useful petition than the bid to build a death star). That petition has passed the threshold required for a response from the White House.

Part of me really wants Anonymous to succeed. I love the idea of hacktivism, especially when it’s directed at such an insidious group who do real harm to people, and to the gospel of Jesus.

It’d be nice to have the power to do something when tragedy strikes. When there’s someone who is clearly in the wrong – be they directly involved, or a parasitic third party.

But another part of me worries about a society where censorship is dictated either by the consensus of the majority, or the activism of a powerful, and hidden, minority.

It presents another dilemma – given that Anonymous is anonymous – and completely not accountable to anybody but themselves – unlike duly elected representatives of the state – this classic dilemma, is expressed in this manner in Latin:

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Or “who watches the watchmen?”

Who watches those who appoint themselves as gatekeepers for society? The moral arbiters? Especially if they’re vindictive, and have something that approaches unlimited power to wreak carnage.

The society anonymous seeks to prevent, at least if it’s really channeling V for Vendetta – which the Guy Fawkes mask they own as their own would suggest, is a totalitarian society driven by tyranny, where opposing views are silenced.

There’s something disturbing and ironic about Anonymous appointing themselves as the totalitarian regime, potentially enabling lynch mobs through the publication of contact details of a widely hated group.

There’s a tension here. Words have consequences, and speech is never really free. There’s a problem when “free speech” means you can say anything to harm anybody without the fear of consequences. But there’s an obvious problem, too, with preventing people from speaking because you disagree with what they’re saying.

I hate what Westboro do. I hate that they stand outside funerals and compound the grief of the grieving. I hate that they claim to do it in the name of Jesus. But I’m not called to hate the individuals who make up Westboro. I’m called to love them. I’m not called to silence them. I’m called to speak truth to them. With love.

There should be consequences for Westboro’s hate speech. And they shouldn’t be allowed to say what they want to say wherever they want to say it (namely, outside funerals). But if they want to preach their abominable gospel from their abominable pulpit, and from their website – then they should be free to do it. We get into dangerous territory if people can silence views they disagree with, rather than simply having equal opportunity to speak against them, and let the market decide.

But the Anonymous campaign goes further than that – it aims to silence the group.

They say:

We will not allow you to corrupt the minds of America with your seeds of hatred. We will not allow you to inspire aggression to the social factions which you deem inferior. We will render you obsolete. We will destroy you. We are coming.

Everyone is equal.

They mean everyone is equal – except Westboro. It’s all very animal farm – and they’re the pigs. Again, a subversion of anti-totalitarian literature…

There’s a little bit of recent form for this – Anonymous also targeted the advertisers who were prepared to continue advertising with 2Day FM after the recent tragic outcome of a prank call. Blaming the network for the unfortunate, and unforeseeable, outcome of the broadcast. YouTube has canned the videobut you can still see it at The Australian (you may need to google it to get behind the paywall).

“We have studied the facts and found you guilty of murder. You have placed yourself in an untenable position. You have placed your advertisers at risk – their databases, their websites, their online advertising.

We are Anonymous and hereby demand you terminate the contracts of Mel Greig and Michael Christian. We will not listen to any more excuses. We will not let you escape your responsibility. You have a funeral to pay for. We are Anonymous. We are legion. We are amongst you. Expect us. This is not a prank call; this is no laughing matter. This is your one and only chance to make amends. You have one week to do so.”

They’re Judge. Jury. Executioner. Pretty totalitarian – the separation of powers is one of the checks and balances modern democracies use to prevent something of the situation we’ve seen in the past.

Westboro’s idiocy, their evil, their hate – it doesn’t dehumanise them. It just makes them stupid, evil, hatemongers.

My inner idealist would just like to see people continue to be able to sustain the distinction between Westboro and the rest of the people in the world who call themselves Christians, without the need to even talk about them when they do stupid stuff. But their hateful message is powerful because people are always on the look out for an other to hate, and a cause to belong to. We have skinheads. Gangs. Anonymous web terrorists.

I can’t help but think that a much better – particularly if you’re a Christian – response to Westboro (and to Anonymous) is to respond with unexpected love, bizarrely – this is just what Russell Brand did. And what Mars Hill did when Westboro came knocking at their church doors.

Doing this properly requires two things of us.

First, we’ve got to believe that there’s a just God waiting at the end of time to punish wrong doings, and judge justly. The sins of Westboro will not go unpunished. No wrongdoing will.

And this takes the need for us to act as judge, jury, and executioner out of our hands. Leaving us to love. Romans 12 says it best:

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

That’s the first bit – and already it takes some of the wind out of the sails of the Anonymous campaign (and it’s something Westboro should be taking note of too – but they’re not particularly adept at reading the Bible).

The second factor, perhaps more important. Is to remember that not only are we Anonymous – wanting to run things our way. To decide right and wrong for ourselves, and judge others by our standards. We are Westboro. We are the radio DJs whose poor judgment spiralled out of control. We are sinners. We are subject – by right – of judgment, by a perfect juror, and the execution that comes as a consequence.

Only, if you’re a Christian, Jesus took that judgment for you. Who are you to judge, if this is the case. The (potentially apocryphal) story of the woman at the well is a story worth heeding at this point, from John 8.

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

11 “No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

At this point Anonymous finds themselves in the dangerous position of being the Pharisees – those opposed to Jesus – who miss the spirit of the law, and the true nature of humanity – rather than the righteous. They’re not claiming to be Christians – but they are claiming to be the righteous judges who serve a higher calling than mere mortals.

But what do I claim? What can I claim?

I am Fred Phelps. I am a hater. I am a sinner. My heart is a factory of pride, and my pride always comes at the expense of others. I need Jesus to step in for me. How can I do anything but offer love and grace to other sinners?

That’s the most worrying thing about Anonymous taking control – not only did we not choose them as the moral police, not only do they lack any of the accountability required stand in judgment over other sinners, they seem unprepared to treat those they oppose as humans. With love.