Friday, January 25, 2013

Justice And Blood

In Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” Jamie Foxx portrays a slave named Django (“The D is silent,” he tells another character) who frees his wife from a sadistic plantation owner. (Spoiler alert!)  In the process he kills every white person on the farm, including the owner’s unarmed sister. Among Django’s victims is Tarantino himself, appearing as a minor character so debased and irredeemably stupid that I’m sure even the Pope would say he deserved to die.

I can’t account for everyone’s reaction to the half-hour of airborne intestines at the end of “Django Unchained.” Priest of God and follower of the Prince of Peace, I was rooting for Django all the way. You know the feeling when the bad guys are getting what they deserve. If filmmakers have done their jobs, few in the audience are hoping the suspects will be read their Miranda rights and given the opportunity to reflect on their poor decisions. Something deep in us aches for instant justice. We want to see righteous vengeance in the flash of steel and gunpowder. We want blood.

If you really want to see a bloody mess, ask screenwriter and director Tarantino to justify Django’s mayhem in the context of the Newtown massacre. In one TV interview in early January, he refused to answer. But a few weeks before, on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” he made a useful distinction. The worst moments in “Django Unchained” are depictions of savagery against slaves. They’re not stylized, and Tarantino doesn’t dwell on them. It’s this documentary violence, the vicious reality of slavery, which provokes Django and his friend, played by Christoph Waltz, into an orgy of what Tarantino called “the fun violence.”

Fun violence is the concept I’ve been wrestling with since seeing Tarantino’s entertaining movie (not suitable, in my perhaps too conservative view, for most under 15 or 16). Some think that his movies could inspire real-life attacks by sick people. Others just believe they’re in poor taste. But most critics miss the point, which is that the blood lust is in us already, an integral aspect of our nature. Tarantino is showing us exactly what we’ve come to see, which is also what we came to see when Bruce Willis battled terrorists in "Die Hard" and Luke Skywalker blew up the Death Star. Fictional violence against the unquestionably evil gives our animal instincts a chance to bubble deliciously to the surface under carefully controlled conditions.

Owning our instincts, including our taste for violence, is vital to our formation as Christians. Especially as we prepare for Lent and Good Friday, it helps us understand how we might have been persuaded to add our voices to those who shouted “Crucify him!” Jesus’s antagonists concocted a narrative about his blasphemy and pretensions to kingship that triggered the audience’s craving for a spectacle of torture and death. During the long era of public executions in the U.S., people also gave themselves permission to enjoy watching someone die.

It’s up to the experts to say what came first, our hunger for righteous payback or for sheer blood, and how they’re intrinsically bound. But understanding how deeply we want vengeance can help us make better decisions about dilemmas in the world and our lives. Do we ever catch ourselves rushing to judgment, deciding too quickly who’s right and wrong so some sentence can be speedily pronounced? We leave behind the vivid colors and moral clarity of a Tarantino movie and rediscover gray areas and stubborn facts. In a complicated world, give me “Django Discerning” on the judicial bench and in corridors of power, hungry for justice but with a lust for due process.

Movie violence can also deepen our understanding of biblical violence – the massacre of the priests of Baal by God’s prophet Elijah on Mt. Carmel as depicted in 1 Kings or, as described in Exodus, God’s killing of the Egyptian firstborn to free his people from slavery. In their time, these events were portrayed not as fun but as good violence, leading to righteous worship in 1 Kings and freedom in Exodus. God’s role in bloody biblical acts is a question for another time. But God does say this much to his violence-prone people: “Promote justice. Strive to walk in peace. Vengeance is mine, and never yours.”

This post was first published in the parish newsletter of St. John's Church, the Vaya Con Dios.