Monthly Archives: January 2015

Enemy Love and The Good Samaritan in “Fury”

I love going to see movies, especially ones which make me think! Several weeks ago, my wife and I went to see the movie Fury, starring Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouff, and Logan Lerman. Fury is a war movie about a tank crew at the end of WWII who must keep fighting deep in enemy territory in hopes of finally ending what has often been called, “The Good War.”

Now, as a person who has come to the conclusion that Jesus taught his followers to reject violence, it may seem strange that I should go to see a movie about war. My non-pacifist friends have often pointed out the perceived disparity. However, I have discovered that watching films and reading books about war and thinking about war has often proved to be most helpful. In fact, many of my closest friends are veterans of wars and have often given me some of the most valuable insights in my understanding of the gospel. I am grateful for their open-mindedness, patience with me, and reflection on their experiences.

That said, Fury is a very violent film. People who are easily disturbed by cinematic violence should probably avoid the movie. I would not recommend it for children. However, the movie is not the type which glorifies this violence. Much like Saving Private Ryan and the HBO series Band of Brothers, the graphic violence in Fury serves to do the exact opposite: reveal the horrible violence of war for its brutality and universal cost. Everyone suffers in war. Not just those who die, but those who go on living having killed. In fact, the brutality of Fury is really a part of the story. And it is valuable for shocking us out of the delusion of war that our technology sometimes provides—the delusion that war is not about killing people.

Here is where I must issue a “spoiler alert.” I found Fury to be most thought-provoking. In fact, it may be one of the most reflective examples of the genre I’ve ever seen. For this reason, it’s caused me to do some reflecting which will require some discussion of the plotline to write. If you don’t want the film “spoiled,” read no further!

The movie begins with a scene in which the tank crew has been involved in a losing battle. They are the only crew to survive. As the crew strives to repair their tank in order to retreat, Sergeant Collier (Pitt) is forced to kill a Nazi officer who comes through the battlefield to inspect the wreckage. Because the sergeant must keep from attracting attention to his crew, he is forced to kill the officer with a knife, knocking him off his horse and stabbing him repeatedly. It is a horrifying kill, which Pitt’s character executes with grim determinacy.

This moment, in fact, sets the tone for the film—and it is not incidental; it is so by design. The graphic violence reveals a facet of the brutality of war in a way which popular media tends to gloss over in its “authorized” portrayal of war and our nation’s participation in war. Nations require wars to establish and solidify their national identities and our nation is no different. The sense of we have of ourselves as a “moral” people is not founded in the ways we care for the poor, show compassion for national neighbors, etc. It is grounded by our participation in wars.  And, since war is so central to the identity of the nation, the nation requires that we continue to see war as not just morally ambiguous, but in fact, often a moral necessity.[1] And, so, even the “liberal” media which functions as a propaganda machine for the national interests (“propaganda” being the story that is told to convince people of the righteousness of a cause in a way which will convince them to make great sacrifices for that cause) will rarely focus on any facet of the brutality of war which calls this assumed morality into question, unless it is under the guise of justifying it as “ends” and “means.”

Fury is a wonderful exception to this rule. The facet of the violence of war that it reveals with such honesty is the manner in which war necessitates the “dehumanization” of the enemy. In every war the enemy is given derogatory names which serve to draw attention away from the fact that war is about humans killing other humans. The enemy is often portrayed with monstrous and evil caricatures of themselves in order to maintain the sense of our side being the “righteous” who are “defending freedom” in the throes of hellacious and terrifying violence. In fact, even the word “killing” is often changed to “wasting,” “eliminating,” “neutralizing,” etc. as a means of helping those who must participate in it forget what is really happening long enough to get the job done.

Fury, quite intentionally, highlights and focuses on this tendency. From the aforementioned opening killing scene, to a scene not much later in which a new recruit (Lerman) must clean up the facial remains of a member of the crew who was killed in battle, to another in which the same new recruit is literally forced to kill a German soldier by shooting him in the back of the head “execution style” because he had reservations about killing, what the movie never loses focus on is that, to this tank crew, the Germans were not just the “enemy.” They were evil, monstrous people…people without conscience…bloodthirsty animals who must be treated with extreme prejudice. This premise is taken for granted by all but one of the primary characters, and the one who questions it is treated with disdain until he accepts it. The enemy must be hated. This is beyond contestation.

As someone who was raised to be a good American, I had a hard time watching the film and not sympathizing. The evil of the holocaust makes it easy to think of the enemy in WWII as monsters. And, certainly, the holocaust revealed more about how evil people can become than we would ever want to know. But the truth is, the German soldier on the front was often just as convinced of the righteousness of his actions as the allied soldiers. They had been fed propaganda as well. And, so, though the Germans had done evil, they were still humans.

Of course, even those Christians who do not share my conviction that Jesus’ teaching is that his followers must reject participation in violence should be able to see that the practice of dehumanization of the enemy is in hot tension with Jesus’ teaching about loving our enemies. In fact, I contend that those Christians who are not “pacifists” must be all the more aware of the tension of being at war and killing and being in a position in which they must continue to love their enemies. Anyone who understands that Jesus has forgiven and died for those who were his “enemies” is forced to acknowledge that, even if they justify violence, they certainly cannot justify hating their enemies.

What I found fascinating about the film, from a Christian perspective, was the “twist” ending. The climax of the movie is a battle scene in which the battered tank and its crew must engage in a battle with an overwhelming force of the most elite German soldiers. The battle lasts into the night and all but one of the tank crew are killed—the one who remains is the young soldier (Lerman) who had had reservations about killing but who had learned to hate the enemy as the others did and accept that they were simply evil monsters with no conscience.

The surprise twist happens as Lerman’s character realizes the battle is lost and must hide in order to save his own life. As he digs in under the tank he can see the feet of the German soldiers looking for survivors when, suddenly, one of the Germans sees him. Lerman’s character has been told that he would receive no mercy from the Germans. That they would torture him (which may have been true). But this soldier makes eye contact, sees the fear in his eyes…and then looks away. In the end, in the film, it was the hated enemy who showed compassion. And it is the German soldier’s mercy which is the real climax of the film and the point of this fictional story.

I found a distinct parallel between this story and Jesus’ “Good Samaritan.” The Jews of Jesus’ day were familiar with the command to “love their neighbors.” And, like all of us, they struggled with knowing who that should apply to. I don’t think it’s a stretch that everyone has people they are tempted to hate, and to hate without feeling guilty! I know it is true in my own life. Yet, the Jews, who had been told in Leviticus, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord,”[2] struggled with this as we do. “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus was asked in Luke 10. The person asking was “an expert on the law,” a scribe and a teacher who lived among many enemies—people like the Roman soldiers who occupied Israel and the Samaritans who lived north of Judea. The Samaritans were considered “half-bred” Jews, the descendants of people who had intermarried with Gentiles and were less than good, faithful, and pure Jews.

Because of the political and military tension of the day, it was often tempting to think about Samaritans as a blight on Israel—one of the reasons God was not blessing Israel by giving them the strength to throw off Roman oppression. And, so, though they were “neighbors,” the Jews treated them as enemies. Like all enemies, they were dehumanized. “Samaritan” was a name one might use to insult someone. It is likely that these people (Romans and Samaritans) were in this teacher’s mind when he asked Jesus to clarify what was meant by the law telling them to “love their neighbors.”

Jesus’ response was to tell the parable of “The Good Samaritan,” which you are, no doubt, familiar with. And, just as in the film Fury, Jesus’ story came complete with a plot-twist at the end. Throughout the story the wounded protagonist’s “friends” are the ones who treat him poorly. It is the “enemy” who shows mercy and compassion—who takes the great risk.

It was then that Jesus turned the teacher’s question back on him. “Tell me. Who was the ‘neighbor’ to the man who was injured by the robbers?”

The only answer was the one who had mercy.

Jesus’ approach to these kinds of things is a sort of “upside-down” one. Jesus was always trying to get his listeners to think very differently than the rest of the world. When it comes to enemies, rather than dehumanize them or hate them, Jesus promoted loving them and recognizing their nature as image-bearers of God (even when they actually do evil).

This is one of the primary things that sets Jesus apart from the rest of humanity. For that matter, it is also what sets his followers apart. We are a people who have committed to (whether we realize it or live it or not) a person who made it a point to teach us that all people are people, even when they don’t act like it. That love is not just for the lovable, but that real love, complete love, God’s love, is that which is also given to those who deserve it the least (Mt 5:43-48). And it is this love which has the power to change things on this earth for the better.

Truth is, I’m not very good at it. There are people who I struggle to love. People who continue to hurt me and who I am not liable to want to call my “neighbor.” In fact, I’ve had “neighbors” who I didn’t want to call “neighbors!” It’s pretty complicated. I don’t always know how to do it and sometimes when I know how I just don’t want to. I wonder if this command to “enemy love” will ever get easier. It’s hard—maybe impossible—for us weary warriors in this war-torn world to see Jesus clearly enough through the evil and the hatred that we might find a way to love those who hate us. I am nearly convinced that it will always only come in small moments…moments of compassion that we were not quite ready for…moments when we are more attuned to the Spirit of God working in this world…moments when we have turned our eyes upon Jesus so that the things of this earth will grow strangely dim. Moments when our fury turns to Christian love.

[1] That war is a part of our cultural identity is a central assumption of this essay and founded on my own experiences in being taught American and world history. History is, in fact, the story of wars. In my experience, nations which were considered “peaceful,” or less likely to go to war or more likely to be “neutral” in a conflict, were often treated as morally poor. I highly recommend Stan Hauerwas’ War and the American Difference for a detailed treatment of this claim and my others regarding war and our nation’s identity.

[2] The New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), Le 19:18.

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