theological reflections at the intersection of (my) perception with reality
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
"The Dark Knight" and the Final Scapegoat: Or, When Batman Meets Girard
Some films utilize philosophical and theological themes as a way of adding a little substance, some reflective moments, to a plot which could just as well do without it. Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" is different: He weaves into the fabric of the narrative explorations of the nature of humanity and reflections on the possibilities for the future of our society in a context characterized by pessimism about the future and by an always latent fear of "the other." The implications of this fear are intensified by the faulty assumption that violence can only be overcome by violence.
No philosophical theme is more obvious in The Dark Knight than the pervasive allusions to Nietzsche's Uebermensch, (the "over-man"), that ideology-buster who spurns all social rules and expectations, throws all caution to the wind, and deconstructs the falsely erected boundaries through which the powerful elite (and their imposed rules of behavior) try to subdue the spark, creativity and strength of the primal human will. Ledger's "The Joker," plays Nietzsche's Uebermensch to perfection. Unlike everyone else in the narrative, the Joker has no "plan." His behavior is beholden only to the strength of his own primal passions; his only objectives being the release of instinct, the unleashing of chaos through violence, and ultimately, the deconstruction of society's illusion that safety and predicability can be secured through the rule of law. He does this by erecting situations in which people must choose between their own will to survive (primal, human instinct) and their (socially constructed) desire to prolong the lives of others. The Joker's faulty assumption is that altruism (beneficent concern for the welfare of others) will always give way to egoism when a life is confronted with the possibility of its elimination.
On the theological side of things, Renee Girard, a philosophical anthropologist whose work has influenced many contemporary theologians, explored the role of sacrifice in the formation and sustenance of human cultures. Girard proposed that human cultures employ ritual violence as a way of channeling their collective violence, alleviating their own guilt and as a way of subduing violent conflict within their own communities. When violence and chaos erupts, someone (or some thing) must pay the price. The "scapegoat" then serves as a kind of canvass upon which the guilt and anger of a community can be laid. And as a result, the collective violence of the community is subdued--for the time being. In Biblical terminology, the scapegoat becomes the "expiation" for the sins of the people, and those sins are "expiated" when the animal is rejected from the community and sent out to die (or slaughtered in ritual sacrifice).
In The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent (the district attorney and, as the "White Knight," symbol of all that is good in humanity) and Batman take turns serving as scapegoat for Gotham. Each manifests their willingness to "be whatever Gotham needs them to be," in order to bring an end to violence and, simultaneously, to appease the wrath and guilt of the community. Batman, of course, is the "final scapegoat" of the narrative. The final appeasement of Gotham's anger--and, presumably, the end of the cycle of violence (for a time, anyway)--occurs through the ritualized destruction of the bat symbol. It turns out that Batman is no "superhero" at all. A true hero is singled out from within a society as the very best (strongest, brightest, bravest, etc.) that society has to offer. A hero is, while one of us, the best of us. Batman recognized he had to be "more than a hero"; he would become a scapegoat in order to bear the shame and anger of the people, and to bring about peace. He would be the "Dark Knight," rather than the "White Knight" (read: Harvey Dent).
While this diverges from the plot of the film, one is reminded here of Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels, who as Girard points out, serves as the "Final Scapegoat." His sacrifice served to put an end to the usefulness of the scapegoat model as the way to eliminate violence and guilt. In taking guilt, anger and sin upon himself, his sacrifice declared an end for the need for ritual violence and, most importantly, it exposed the scapegoat function as fundamentally mistaken and misguided. The object of sacrifice is not deserving of punishment, exile or death. The object of sacrifice is, in fact, a victim (and not, for Girard, the object of God's wrath). Rather than seeking to perpetuate the sacrificial system, the Gospels then proclaim that, on the basis of the Christ-event, the sacrificial system is now null and void. The cycle of violence can (and should) end.
I'm a theology professor at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, MN. I teach about Kierkegaard and postmodernity, theology and contemporary culture, the doctrine of salvation, theological perspectives on evil and suffering, and contemporary issues in the person and work of Christ. I enjoying cracking the mysteries of "Lost" with my beautiful wife, Sara.