At times, violence in movies may serve a cathartic purpose.
On Saturday, a friend and I watched Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, the newest film from Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino, whose movies are notorious for gratuitous violence, seemed relatively controlled in this film, however, only employing violence in a few short scenes. And when he did use violence, he largely directed it against characters representative of evil, meaning the violence acted as a sort of retributive justice. The bad guys got what was coming to them.
Tarantino isn’t the first to do this. Maximus’s defeat of Commodus in Gladiator, Eowyn’s defeat of the Witch King in The Return of the King, Iron Man’s defeat of Thanos in Avengers: Endgame – these scenes and others satisfy us because they ring true. Good overcomes evil. We know that’s how the story goes. I think that’s also why movies where evil wins leave us feeling uncomfortable and cold. We recognize the ultimate reality echoed in or absent from these stories: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
Granted, I don’t think many of us relish the violence itself in these cases. We recognize that depictions of violence in movies are artistic portrayals of good overcoming evil, and we affirm the message even if we may cringe at the sights. This is natural, especially for those of us who are called to carry the message of hope in Jesus Christ to those deserving of wrath. We remember who we were before Christ saved us, and we want others to walk with us from death to life. So we make our appeal with both word and deed to those who do not yet know Jesus, challenging their world views and arguments to show them the truth of Christ. As Paul exhorts Titus concerning the church,
Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.
Because we have been changed, we pray for and urge others to turn from sin and to be changed as well. And this may require us to respond to faulty theologies. In fact, Paul writes that an overseer “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). But rebuke, for Paul, is for the sake of soundness of faith in those who err (Titus 1:13). We don’t relish the confrontation, and we don’t pick fights in order to destroy those who are wrong. We rebuke and correct in order to save those who are off base.
I struggle in two major ways to follow Paul’s instructions here. On one hand, I tend to avoid conflict if possible, meaning I shudder at the thought of rebuking someone who contradicts the truth. I’m much more comfortable teaching on the truth than on challenging falsehood. Yet Paul lists the two together. To truly serve others, I need to lovingly rebuke those who err, prayerfully correcting them that they may be sound in the faith.
On the other hand, I tend to forget that those who err still need the truth, that our aim is correction and fellowship rather mere defeat. I’ve shamefully laughed as deceived souls were ridiculed along with their positions, image bearers who, without loving correction, may not come to know the God they think they serve. I’ve found pleasure in viewing theological disagreements as battles, desiring to defeat an opponent’s argument rather than to win the soul to truth. To return to the image of violence in movies, I’ve sometimes relished the fight itself and forgotten the point of the pushback. On both counts, whether in avoiding the fight or relishing it, I’ve strayed from the goal.
I want to stand for truth. I want to see justice upheld. I want to defend orthodox teaching. Yet I want to do so in love, in gentleness, and in humility. I don’t want to relish the fight itself, thereby possibly damaging the very souls who may most need grace and truth. I want to follow Paul’s instructions to Titus: “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us” (Titus 2:7-8). And may everyone I meet be drawn closer to Christ.