[Anti]Heroes and Villains

I saw Suicide Squad when it first came out, and it concerned me. I didn’t believe that bad people should be cast on the good guys’ team. I have a history of being black-and-white to a fault.

We’ve seen a lot of these types in pop-culture recently, from Suicide Squad to Deadpool, Maleficent to less obviously candidates such as Dark Phoenix. Dark, tortured souls, identifiable and dangerously relatable.

“It’s irresponsible to make villains relatable,” was what I was thinking to myself on the way out of Suicide Squad. Dangerous and irresponsible. And for a short time following Suicide Squad, across social media there was raised interest particularly in that infamous [abusive]power-couple, Joker and Harley, and the sentiment was largely shared that these dynamics were not relationship-worthy goals. But of course that wouldn’t stop young impressionable girls from idolizing Harley and normalizing her abusive situation.

My mind has changed.

Actually it isn’t so much that my mind has changed but that I have met my mind. I spent much of the last two years hesitantly allowing the forgotten shadows in my own head to come back into the light – I shared some of the results of this shadow-work regarding my sexuality in a previous post, and have continued to speak to it either directly or in allusion in some of my writing since. With the help of a very informative book, I began to take a more compassionate look at my own villains–and to ask them what their needs were. And, to my surprise… some of them answered.

Not long ago I went to see Joker, and I wasn’t disappointed. It was raw. And I’m beginning to understand that perhaps this trend of unseemly characters on the big screen is actually much more connected to the movement I’m beginning to see taking place among my peers: people are waking up to themselves. I’ve spoken to a number of people recently who also speak of learning to love and care for themselves–in the face of their shadows–one or two of which also have noticed this awakening trend. It excites me immensely to see this happening, because it is the dream I’ve nursed for a decade or more.

So how do anti-heroes and villains fit in?

I used to believe, as a christian, that the problem with us today is that we are aware. We’ve still got the residue of the knowledge of good and evil on our lips, sewn into our sinews. I used to believe that to live sinless, that transcendence would require a return to pre-fall ignorance. Maybe that’s a logical-but-child-ish view of the matter. Certainly the notion of sin needs to change; too many young people have grown up under the oppression of guilt and shame for what old men believed ‘sinful’ and shameful. This won’t do in a religion with a claim to a divine action that ended sin some 2,000 years ago. I’ve got news for you: if you believe in the cross, the events in Revelation have at least largely already taken place. I used to bawk like the best of them at people who minimized sinful behavior, who wanted to thrive on the goodness and grace and not think about their supposed incurably immoral nature. I used to believe as much as anyone that that kind of thinking was greasy–as if there were any real danger in letting people follow their own self-defined concept of ‘good’. According to that oh-so-loved book, giving people back their good nature (as if they had ever truly lost it in their dis-ease) was kind of the whole point, so why is it that Christians don’t trust anyone to behave to their personal prescription of right?

Could it possibly be that the Christian prescription of ‘right’ doesn’t actually match the inherent ‘right’ we were created with? But back to villains.

The thing about many villains is that the more you understand them, the less villainous they seem. You see motives, mental illnesses, tragedy. You begin to feel sympathy, empathy, emotions deeper than yourself over the story of someone who is supposed to be unquestioningly evil. Dangerous thinking, indeed. Anti-heroes become misunderstood, villains become broken people taking wrong-but-nearly-justifiable action against very real wrongs done them. And we walk out of the theater second-guessing the good guy for not doing better, or being more aware of the problem. The brute-force battle heroes of the world are still wrapped in glorification, but in the face of the villain backstory their actions are becoming more and more tainted. We begin to wonder, if only something different could have been done, if only these encounters had gone differently. We switch sides and fall in love with the villain.

And the real question is, “Why not?”

Why not feel empathy for the villains? Isn’t that what a man named Yeshua taught before he was brutally killed by his? ‘Love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you.’ The ways of the world are changing.

The reality is we’re much closer to them than we realize with our fragmented selves half hidden in subconscious shadow. We misunderstand the deep things of ourselves and so misunderstand the deep things of others. We maintain flawless personas and scapegoat our undesirable, unacceptable traits onto others and these Others become our villains because we refuse to empathize for our own wounds and so cannot care for our projections on them. It is too convenient to blind yourself to your own narcissism by railing against the narcissism you see in others–but a narcissist by definition will see narcissism in others because they themselves can never be wrong; it must always be others with the problem.

I welcome the anti-heroes and villains into pop-culture, into our homes and living-rooms and minds. I gratefully accept the challenge of empathy, realizing that empathy of itself is a powerful and all-too-rare commodity in this life. I kindly remember the villain-characters of my own subconscious I have honored and allowed to reveal my deep needs to me, which they have always fought for. I cry for every horrible event that has brought those characters into misguided action in the lives of others under the genuine motive of self-preservation, and in so doing created our villains. The world ought not to be this way.

And I don’t know anything else but love. There is nothing else that can bring us back into wholeness. Love–compassion, empathy, mercy, the ‘softer’ sentiments. But there is nothing ‘soft’ about choosing to look your enemy in the face and say, “I love you,”–and mean it. There is nothing ‘soft’ about looking at a criminal and saying, “I honor your experience,” and mean it. There is nothing ‘soft’ about love; it is hard, gripping, it will break your heart into a thousand pieces a thousand times. It will break yours and it will break theirs and maybe it will be the fire from which a phoenix will arise. Love your villains.

 

 

The Hid [A Shadow Narrative]

I was a boy when the stranger appeared. It came as a veiled mystery, beauty and passion emanating through the folds of an only almost opaque cloak. I was instantly intrigued; I set out to Know the mystery, and she began to take vague form beneath the pen of my imagination, teased by glimpses through the veil.

I experimented, searching out ways to awaken her, to coax her from her divine mystery, but one day I cheated; I approached the veil and took hold of her folds; I parted the veil, just ever so slightly–and found myself dazzlingly blind. I reached in my hand, and jerked it back again at the pricking of wicked thorns against my fingers.

I left her there for a time; I was bewildered by the enmity of the thorns so that I forgot the beauty and had only the image of needle-sharp spears. But my ears were attuning themselves to her song, and so I returned.

I went deeper the next time–ignoring the scratches of the thorns, for I told myself that was all they were, determined as I was to caress the Mystery. Yet I still could not reach her, and the wonder was so unrelievedly great that eventually I had to retract my reach for hopelessness.

When I removed my hand from the folds it was torn and bleeding bright red. I felt the ardour of mystery; I had never seen my own blood before, warm and metallic on my skin. But the aroma was immediately nauseating, and my stomach was in knots with it. My innocence had surfaced and I could not undo it.

The next time I tried to part the thorns with both hands, still determined to her mystery, but when I attempted to retrieve my reach the thorns became barbs and tore gaping wounds.

And I could not help but return.

After only a few trespassed visits her brilliance became dark to me. The light pulsed deeper and deeper within, brighter and brighter, but more distant with every visit. The thorns became dark claws which first drug me in, and then regurgitated me, cut and bleeding back without the veil. I blamed her for seducing me to her beauty and mystery, and she became a demon, black as death within the veil. I cried for deliverance from this foe but deliverance came not, and now I wore her like a blood-soaked cloak, her barbs sinking ever deeper.

I heard a voice that intimated friendship with her, but what I believed I heard was merely a distant promise that her power would be wrested from me if I could only last that long. I held a hindering hope, and maintained my animosity.

I fought against her for what seemed lifetimes; and she fought back for mere survival and recognition. But my vision was filled with only monsters and demons, black terrors in the night which engulfed and ravaged me. I banished her to the very depths, but found that I lived in the depths with her–but for rare moments when I found myself rising the great stair to a life without her, only to stumble in the middle and find myself back in the dark and slime of the depths again.

I survived only by continually defining myself intentionally as her opposite, and by emphasising our separateness, and she survived by the thorns she lay in my flesh, and the blood which issued from each fresh wound. Who will deliver me from this body of death? I wailed endlessly. How will I ever be the same again?

I feared her always, reaching out as she did from behind her black shrouds. You’re dead to me, I would scream, Remain in your grave, foul fiend! Often I would tire, and she would cloud my mind in despair.

And then one day I stopped fighting. I thought that I had truly won, for when I stopped fighting, she ceased to grow stronger, and was contented to the shadows. I saw less of her, and when I did her fury was less vile and shorter-lived. My mind was no longer filled with her, and the wounds and scars covering my body began to heal and fade faster than the fresh ones were appearing. But she was not finished with me yet.

You see, I awoke one day, and I found that there was no mystery where I knew there had been. There was no longer tender discovery, but only dried decrepit vines and sword-like thorns. I knew then that I had lost the mystery, desensitised in my trespass, and because I no longer saw her mystery, I no longer tasted her wonder or smelled the scents of discovery.

And I mourned. I mourned the death of wonder, my ignorant vanquishing of mystery.

And then I heard a whisper: Always has she been your truest friend.

Jesus Christ, Our Sabbath Rest

Some time back now, I wrote an article on the Sabbath from my less-than-new covenant viewpoints of the time. I unfortunately removed that article not long ago, and no longer have it to reference to. However, I’m turning a new page in my journey tonight; this is how I came to believe that the Sabbath means something much, much greater than I ever imagined before.

It all began when somebody read somebody else’s book and told somebody else about what they had read. As it happened, the last somebody in that chain of events happened to be my fiance. In passing one afternoon she happened to mention what she had heard–essentially that since we can find rest in Jesus, Sabbath as a day is irrelevant now. At least, that is the gist of it as well as I can remember now. I utterly rejected it.

You should understand that I hadn’t begun to study new covenant at that point–hadn’t even begun to think that there could be something amiss in my view of things. It was a predictably defensive, Adventist response that I gave to this new idea about my precious Sabbath. Even after beginning to understand the new covenant more, and even after really starting to get a revelation of grace, I was still in a fog about the Sabbath. But one night it just hit me like a hundred-pound hammer.

Sabbath started after creation, in Genesis 2:3; God looked at everything he had created, saw that it was fantabulous, and sat down to take a commemorative breather (as if God ever needed a breather), and he declared the day holy. But actually, we don’t see this day called ‘Sabbath’, (or shabbath in the original Hebrew) until Exodus 16:23-29. And what was going on here you ask? The Israelites were complaining again; they didn’t have anything to eat. So God sent them quail, and manna from Heaven. For five days they gathered only what they could eat in a day–if they kept it over, maggots got into it. But on the sixth day Moses commanded them to gather twice as much manna, enough to last two days. When the people asked what this meant, he gave them a command from the Lord: “Tomorrow will be a day of complete rest, a holy Sabbath day set apart for the Lord.” (Exodus 16:23) They ate what they wanted on the sixth day and saved the rest over for the Sabbath, and what they saved on the sixth day didn’t spoil. On the seventh day, no manna came.

The Israelites were in a perfect position to learn that God’s goodness is new every morning, as new as the manna. But some went out on the Sabbath to collect more anyway, and God said,

“How long will these people refuse to obey my commands and instructions? They must realize that the Sabbath is the Lord’s gift to you. That is why he gives you a two-day supply on the sixth day, so there will be enough for two days.” (Exodus 16:28-29)

God said it himself, the Sabbath was a gift to the Israelites. Why? So that they could rest from their work. So that they could chill out, munch on some day-old manna and just rest in the goodness of God.

After this, the next mention of the Sabbath is in Exodus 20:8-11 when God includes it in the ten commandments. Further instruction is found later along, and not only does God give a weekly Sabbath, but others as well; for instance, every seventh year they were to live off the produce they had stored up, leaving their fields unplanted, so that the land itself could have a Sabbath rest for a year. Sabbath in the old covenant is pretty in-depth, but I’m not going to cover it too thoroughly.

One point, however, is important. The next mention of the Sabbath in Exodus after the giving of the ten commandments comes in Exodus 31. Moses was still on the mountain, and God was settling the terms of the old covenant with him. God had just finished giving him all the instruction to build the earthly tabernacle–the place where the old covenant priesthood would minister. Then God seals the deal with final instruction about the Sabbath. Let’s take a look at that:

 

12 The Lord then gave these instructions to Moses: 13 “Tell the people of Israel: ‘Be careful to keep my Sabbath day, for the Sabbath is a sign of the covenant between me and you from generation to generation. It is given so you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy. 14 You must keep the Sabbath day, for it is a holy day for you. Anyone who desecrates it must be put to death; anyone who works on that day will be cut off from the community. 15 You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day must be a Sabbath day of complete rest, a holy day dedicated to the Lord. Anyone who works on the Sabbath must be put to death. 16 The people of Israel must keep the Sabbath day by observing it from generation to generation. This is a covenant obligation for all time. 17 It is a permanent sign of my covenant with the people of Israel. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day he stopped working and was refreshed.’”

18 When the Lord finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two stone tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant, written by the finger of God.

                       – Exodus 31:12-18

The Sabbath was not just another commandment; it was central to the old covenant. And it was a serious deal; anyone working on the Sabbath got the death penalty, and in Numbers 15:32-36 we find the first account of someone being stoned for breaking the Sabbath–by gathering sticks. But let’s not leave off Exodus just yet.

In verses 13, 16 and 17 of the above passage, God explains to Moses that the Sabbath is the sign of the old covenant, and that it is an obligation for all time. And at the end of 17 he throws in another reminder about what the Sabbath is all about – rest and refreshment. Then in verse 18 he wrapped it up and handed the terms of the covenant–the stone tablets with the ten commandments written on them–over to Moses.

It is important to remember (though not as relevant to this post) that the ten commandments were the terms of the old covenant, therefore when the old covenant was done away with, the ten commandments were too, as part of this package deal that God just handed over to Moses at the end of Exodus 31.

Let’s jump for a moment over to Colossians 2:11-17. We’re going to get back to Exodus in a little while, but first let’s take a look at some new-covenant teaching, courtesy of Paul:

11 When you came to Christ, you were “circumcised,” but not by a physical procedure. Christ performed a spiritual circumcision—the cutting away of your sinful nature. 12 For you were buried with Christ when you were baptized. And with him you were raised to new life because you trusted the mighty power of God, who raised Christ from the dead.

13 You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. 14 He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. 15 In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross.

16 So don’t let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. 17 For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality.

               – Colossians 2:11-17

First, Paul recaps what happened when the Colossians accepted Christ and began living under the new covenant; they came to Christ, he cut away their sinful nature in a spiritual act of circumcision (the symbol of this is baptism rather than physical circumcision, as Paul goes on the explain in verse 12 and 13). Then in verse 14 he explains that Christ canceled the record of the charges against us (more on this in future posts) and nailed it to the cross. But the part that is most important for the moment is verses 16 and 17. Paul goes on to say that “these rules (the holy days, new moon ceremonies and Sabbaths) are only shadows of the reality yet to come.” And what is that reality? Jesus Christ. It is interesting to note that this passage is the last time the Sabbath is mentioned in the Bible–by pointing toward Jesus as the real Sabbath.

Everything in the old covenant was a shadow of a better counterpart in the new covenant (Hebrews 9 and 10:1-18). The earthly tabernacle that God instructed Moses to build back in Exodus was just a shadow of the heavenly sanctuary. The offerings the priests ministered with were only shadows of Christ’s once-for-all offering. And the feasts, holidays and Sabbath days were a shadow of Jesus himself.

Let’s just spend a moment to recap. The Sabbath was given by God so that the Israelites would have assurance of rest from their work–rest assured. It was a symbol of rest from the very beginning when God rested from his work of creation (Genesis 2:3) and God reminded the Israelites that he gave them the Sabbath day so that they could rest in his provision and goodness (Exodus 16:28-29). The Sabbath was the sign of the old covenant, and obligatory for anyone under the covenant as long as the covenant was in effect; anyone breaking the covenant died.

But if Christ is the true Sabbath, the Sabbath which the old covenant Sabbath was just a shadow of, how does it fit? This is what hit home for me only just recently:

The Sabbath was God’s assurance to the Israelites that they would always have rest from their labor. And now that Jesus Christ has made his once-for-all sacrifice for sin, he is the very embodiment of eternal rest from our labor of earning God’s favor through the work of keeping the law. Christ made it possible for us to rest from our work of earning salvation by offering salvation as a free gift–forever! Now we can rest in God’s goodness and providence forever, trusting to him to take care of our every need, the same way he gave the Israelites manna, new every morning! What an incredible picture of Grace! Jesus himself invites us into his rest:

28 Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”

                           – Matthew 11:28-30

Jesus was essentially saying, “Come to me all you who are tired out and trying to live up to the perfect requirements of the law, and I’ll give you a new burden–resting your souls in my teaching, humility and gentle heart. It’s an easy burden! All you have to do is accept it; I’ll do the rest!”

And if we don’t accept this rest? The penalty for disregarding the Sabbath was severe–death! How much more the penalty for disregarding Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath, the provider of our ultimate rest from the labor of the old system of law!

Finally, to close:

God’s promise of entering his rest still stands, so we ought to tremble with fear that some of you might fail to experience it. For this good news—that God has prepared this rest—has been announced to us just as it was to them. But it did them no good because they didn’t share the faith of those who listened to God. For only we who believe can enter his rest. As for the others, God said,

“In my anger I took an oath:
    ‘They will never enter my place of rest,’”

even though this rest has been ready since he made the world. We know it is ready because of the place in the Scriptures where it mentions the seventh day: “On the seventh day God rested from all his work.” But in the other passage God said, “They will never enter my place of rest.”

So God’s rest is there for people to enter, but those who first heard this good news failed to enter because they disobeyed God. So God set another time for entering his rest, and that time is today. God announced this through David much later in the words already quoted:

“Today when you hear his voice,
    don’t harden your hearts.”

            – Hebrews 4:1-7

God’s rest is still available in Jesus for you and me–today! And by resting after his work of creation, God assures us that he has the capacity to rest. There is a place of rest in Him, a place planned for us since the beginning of the world. That place of Sabbath rest is found in Jesus. So in the words of King David, “today when you hear his voice,” beckoning you into his eternal rest, “don’t harden your hearts.”

P.S.: Yes, the view that the mark of the beast is Sunday worship and that the remnant church is marked by Saturday worship is blown right out of the water if Jesus is the new-covenant Sabbath.

That’s fine by me 😉