Violence boomerangs

Romantic comedy or action movie? Thought-provoking drama or superhero extravaganza? I’ll admit it. Left to myself (read, “if I were a bachelor”), my knee-jerk choice of movie would be action-packed, even if the story suffered. Don’t get me wrong: I have a real appreciation for a good story, told well. These are the films that I’m most glad to have watched. But it takes an act of will for me to watch something I “should” watch, when what I want to watch is Jackie Chan or The Avengers.

Unfortunately, that’s despite the fact that I know there’s an implicit lie behind much cinematic violence: if the “bad guys” do it, it’s bad; if the “good guys” do it, it’s good, or at least excusable and morally justified.

That’s an oversimplification, of course. Many films have explored the grey areas. Antiheroes like Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry (1971), for example, were popular during the height of the Vietnam War and the public moral crisis it engendered. At the end of that film, when the psychotic villain is blown away by a shot from Eastwood’s massive .44-caliber revolver, the violence doesn’t feel morally cleansing. It’s an ugly, necessary evil. Even Dirty Harry himself throws away his badge in disgust and frustration. You leave the theater feeling like you need a shower. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in 1977, two years after the fall of Saigon, Hollywood gave us Star Wars, where we could go right back to celebrating the violence of the good guys triumphing over the bad.

The real world doesn’t work that way. The good guys aren’t as good as we want to believe. And violence, however one might justify it, often solves little if anything; it only breeds further violence.

. . .

Psalm 7 contains a similar moral lesson. Throughout the Psalter, the psalmists’ enemies are typically portrayed as godless and arrogant people who lie, scheme, and use violence to get their way. But the psalmists give us a vision of a world in which God, in righteousness and justice, must have the last word. Sometimes, that means that the schemes of wicked people — to use Eugene Peterson’s phrasing in The Message — will “backfire” or “boomerang.” The New Revised Standard says it this way:

They make a pit, digging it out,
    and fall into the hole that they have made.
Their mischief returns upon their own heads,
    and on their own heads their violence descends
. (Ps 7:15-16, NRSV)

I’m tempted here to think of the hapless Wile E. Coyote of Looney Tunes fame. For all the seeming cleverness of his Rube Goldberg devices to catch the Road Runner, he never succeeds. He falls into his own traps. He incinerates himself with dynamite. He drops anvils on his own head.

He should have bought stock in the Acme Company instead, and called it a day.

The psalmist, however, is not describing buffoonery. The image is more tragic than comic. Yes, the fate of the wicked is related to what the Psalms and Proverbs call “foolishness.” But this is not the slapstick foolishness of a clown; it is the foolhardiness of those who don’t see reality as it is, who live according to the lie that there is no God, or if there is one, then God doesn’t care what humans do to one another.

. . .

Peterson’s translation of the end of verse 16 is “violence boomerangs.” But I don’t want us to think that his is only about evil people getting their just desserts. It is folly and arrogance to assume that our own violence — be it physical or verbal — is “good guy” violence. Jesus himself taught that even if we’ve never actually committed murder, the kind of anger that leads to verbal abuse makes us guilty before God (Matt 5:21-22). And note in particular that he says this to his followers, to people who would like to consider themselves in the category of the righteous.

Violence begets violence. Those who follow the crucified one, the one who took upon himself the violence of the mightiest empire on the planet, are called to be peacemakers (Matt 5:9).

The good news is that love boomerangs too.