Batman, Bonhoeffer, and Respecting Authority

“I feel weird fighting cops.”

I’ve been thinking that a lot in the last few months while playing Batman: Arkham Origins. Since this game takes place early in the Dark Knight’s career, he’s yet to make any allies in his war on crime, let alone any in the Gotham City Police Department (he doesn’t even play nice with Lt. Jim Gordon). I fought some cops as I navigated Gotham, but I figured it was self-defense since they didn’t know if Batman existed or if they could trust him. Yet something didn’t feel kosher about beating them up.

Then came the point where Batman must infiltrate GCPD headquarters to acquire some information, which leads to the usual Arkham shenanigans of sneaking and combat. The in-game justification is that most officers in the GCPD are corrupt, taking bribes from crime lords, so in Batman’s eyes, they’re no different than criminals. During a Predator Encounter, I heard these officers talking about killing Batman (i.e. me, the player), which only solidified the Caped Crusader’s statement from the previous cutscene. I was grateful to see Jim Gordon was, as Alfred put it, “the one good apple in the bad bunch,” but my uneasiness still didn’t waver.

In most games where players fight cops, they’re playing as criminals, like in the Grand Theft Auto series. Those games’ negative perception of cops was one of my many reasons for finding them unappealing, but at least I knew where they stood. Arkham Origins, however, swims in the murky gray. Ironically, it’s because Batman sees the world in black and white: people are either law-followers or criminals, regardless of whether or not they carry a badge. While he’s a vigilante, he isn’t a bad guy. He (sort of) works with the police by having Alfred contact them to come pick up the criminals he captures and leaves them the evidence he collected. This dichotomy only added to my uneasiness.

What made this feeling weird is I don’t have it fighting against other “corrupt” authority figures. I come from a military family and hate seeing American soldiers be demonized by politicians and the media, yet I have no qualms about fighting the military in video games. But battling the police bothers me. Part of it might be all the recent tragedies/controversies regarding so-called police brutality. But even before that I heard people spout phrases like, “@#$& the police!” Rap music is replete with anti-cop vitriol. I think it’s because the police are the most immediate government officials most people deal with. They enforce laws; they keep the peace. Criminals rightfully see them as enemies. Others—like people who are pulled over for speeding—see them as nuisances. Not only will they be late for work, they’re financially inconvenienced by the speeding ticket. This breeds resentment against cops. Adding reports of alleged police brutality is like pouring gasoline on a fire.

Are there crooked cops out there who are abusing their authority and/or neglecting their duties? Yes, but they’re a minority. I believe most police officers deserve the utmost respect for the risks they take and the sacrifices they make.

On the other hand, I, like Batman, have a strong sense of justice, so I want to see evildoers punished. Despite my uneasiness about fighting cops, I’m inclined to rebel against a government that is abusing its power. If I lived in a country suffering under the boot of a tyrannical dictator, I’d join a resistance movement.

But then there’s what the Apostle Paul says in Romans 13:

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves (v. 1-2).

“Aye, there’s the rub,” as Hamlet said.

It seems like a paradox. God establishes all rulers. Does that include the likes of Adolf Hitler, Sadam Hussein, and Kim Jong-il? Christians are commanded to overcome evil, but what if that evil is perpetrated by the leaders God has, apparently, appointed?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Image courtesy of www.religionnews.com.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, author of The Cost of Discipleship, faced this dilemma when the Nazis seized control of his beloved Germany. As a pastor, he believed the above Scripture, but he couldn’t deny the evils the new government was committing. So, he made the difficult decision of joining a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. While the plot failed and he was captured and executed by the Nazis, Bonhoeffer is a hero to many people (including me). But were his intentions justified?

Perhaps the answer lies in something Bonhoeffer said: “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” It may not be our right to kill the tyrants—that privilege belongs only to God—but I would argue Christians must do whatever they can to combat their evils.

Paul’s fellow apostle Peter offers some related advice. When questioned by the Sanhedrin about why the Apostles kept preaching against their orders, he replied,

We must obey God rather than men

Acts 5:29

Proclaiming the Gospel defied authority and broke the law, but God’s commands trumped man’s laws. Peter probably had Isaiah 55:8-9 in mind:

For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.

The Sanhedrin obviously didn’t know or understand the mind of God or else they’d let the Apostles preach. But the Apostles never tried to kill the Sanhedrin or usurp their authority, which might have happened in most similar cases. Instead they simply continued to do what was right and let God deal with their antagonists.

Going back to Arkham Origins, Batman arguably does the same thing. He never kills any of the crooked cops or tries to become judge, jury, and executioner with criminals. He gathers evidence and captures bad guys, but he leaves the justice process to the police and legal system.

These are just a few of my own thoughts on this multifaceted and difficult topic. Feel free to discuss it further in the comments. As my French ancestors (hopefully) said during WWII, “Viva le resistance!”

  • Matt Vernon

    First off, I want to say that I enjoyed most your assessment of driving a spoke in the wheel of machines of injustice and your analysis of Peter before the Sanhedrin. However, I also want to say that this article drips with white privilege… I am guessing you are either white or an apologist for the white power structure. That being said, any criticism of the article would be useless because the article itself is innately flawed. There is no data to support your claims of bully cops being a minority. Your labeling of police brutality with the prefix “so-called” exposes a gross bias that exists in spite of heaps of evidence to the contrary.

    Now I am a Christian, and I mark what Paul says. However, he also goes on to say that rulers are a terror not to good works but to the evil. What is our obligation when this is not the case? Furthermore, the original translation of the text does not mention governmental authority, it mentions “higher powers.” A bit more ambiguous. I wonder what the motive of the translators was in changing this to something so specific? The original Aramaic is much closer to the King James version.

    The police force may be the face of the law, but are they truly a force for good? Is the law good? Was segregation upheld in the South without the law and without the aid of police enforcing those laws? Does the war on drugs really do more to help than hurt (this is, of course, a matter of opinion, but there are heaps of evidence that support an opinion that the war on drugs has not only lead to higher profits for drug lords, higher rates of addiction, and mass incarceration, it has also been unfairly used to target people of color)? If you believe in the justice system and the innate goodness of an institution like the police force, then it makes sense that would would draw the conclusions above. However, when you look at the data, and observe the trends in policing, and how they are trained to not think critically, to only follow orders and not question morality, when you hear people of color talk about how they govern their interactions with police differently from how a white person would have to… I think it begs the question is this an institution that receives its authority from a just and forgiving God? Or is this an institution that receives its authority from a morally bankrupt government that has been turned toward the worldliness of the devil?

    For even though Paul says that all authority comes from God, we also know that the world is the devil’s domain, and that he is capable of perverting all things for his purposes. I think Peter’s words are more appropriate here.

    • Matt Vernon

      I also wonder what Value Jesus would put on video games in general… It seems like any medium that would have one spending hours of God’s gifted time in front of a dancing television screen would be spiritually fruitless…

      • Zachery Oliver

        Hi! I’m the owner and proprietor of this here blog!

        Nathan is a contributor, and I’m sure he has something to say in reference to your response in particular. However, if you’d like to discuss this subject of video games in relation to Christianity in greater detail, there’s at least a million of my written words on the subject strewn throughout this blog, as well as many discussions happening on our Theology Gaming University fB group.

        https://www.facebook.com/groups/548925621838693/

        I’m sure the answer as to whether video games can be a theologically and spiritual rewarding activity would be affirmed by many of us. And yes, there is a struggle from an outsider’s perspective to understand how, but that was the genesis of this site and I am quite amazed at its growth as I just kept writing my thoughts about it. Rash generalizations are not suited to dialogue and understanding in this case, I think.

        • Matt Vernon

          If you felt generalized, let me be clear that my reference to the author being either white or an apologist for the white power structure was an observation of what his words were reflecting and supporting – however unintentionally – not a knock on his character.

          Other than that, I’m sorry I tried to critique your groupthink exercise and pointed out lack of supporting evidence. It seems I, too, have been guilty of wasting my time on fruitless exercises. But no more! Parting words: remember that just because others affirm your beliefs does not mean they hold water.

          -and-

          You can have your microphone back.

          • Zachery Oliver

            I don’t believe my post was affirming ‘grouptgink’. Many of us disagree on a wide variety of issues (such as, right now, the use if the nude human body in art as per the game Apotheon), and it’s almost certainly true that no one agrees with me on why I find games interesting from a Christian perspective. In fact, I do disagree with some of the content in this article…and yet, I published it anyway. Why? Because I want to elicit conversation. I want to see people communicate about tricky subjects, and not just come to oat answers their authorities or professors told them

            If you feel as if you are wasting your time, I am sorry. Not every person on earth agrees with the existence of a white patriarchy, and to assume that as a baseline for right/wrong in this case is not exactly productive, as the above prices. Rather, it does seem to have given yiu, however slight, smug self-satisfaction. Rather than helping them understand your view, you have judged their words and (contrary to your assertions) their character. I can’t imagine Jesus would be for blowing up relationships before they start, either.

            If I gave ‘wasted your time’, my apologies, but just because your on the Internet gives you no right to make assertions about people without taking any time to do your research or even bothering to understand us at all. So that, and you might find it easier to have your opinion heard. I don’t care either way, given my penchant for debate, but you have assumed a lack of evidence without having bothered to click the Essays or Features tab on the top there.

          • So…you’re not impinging my character, but you’re calling me an “apologist for the white power structure,” which you label corrupt? I think you’re talking out of both sides of your mouth.

            I presented you with evidence for my claims, both empirical and anecdotal. I suppose I could present more, but that would require more time than I have on hand right now. I do appreciate hearing your perspective.

            And thanks for returning my microphone.

          • Matt Vernon

            This is where I sigh and shake my head. Being an apologist for white power structure is not a character trait… If you were offended by that you missed the intention of the statement. In which case I am to blame for not being clearer, but then I hope you understand that being an apologist for the status quo is rarely something people do out of choice. Privilege is powerful because it is often invisible to the one exhibiting it. We are raised with it, it’s part of our upbringing and our society reinforces it daily. If it was a character judgment it is not one I would have been able to excuse myself from.

            This is a very real problem with discussion on the internet. One I forget exists, admittedly. A criticism and a personal insult are not the same thing. Where is this empirical evidence you speak of? Where if the data supporting your claim that only a minority of cops are guilty of brutality? There is no data on that, it is conjecture. Furthermore, my point was that the institution of the police force itself is corrupt and oppressive, especially to folks of color.

            I have met very few people who will admit they are racists. That’s the nature of the beast. You can be actively reinforcing racism without realizing or intending to. I would trust your answer more if you had said “I recognize that as a white man, I probably perform racism unintentionally, but it is something I actively am working at changing.” I think to truly acknowledge you understand your privilege, a statement like that would be much more appropriate that simple denial.

            Until now I’ve been trying to respond point for point, but at this point I think it’s best just to say that I think your interpretation of my post – based on the responses of yourself and Zachery – was that I was putting up fences. Again, I will just say that a criticism (which I stand by) and a personal attack are very different things. I did not intend for you to feel I was in anyway separating myself from you. I am guilty of enacting racism on an almost daily basis, and I certainly say things that reinforce the status quo – white power structure and all that. However, when I talked about responsibility in my first reply to Zachery… that is what I think is important here. Even though we are both guilty parties, the difference between us is that you have an article published and an audience. You have accepted the responsibility of putting these ideas into the public sphere in a very real and readable way. To do this is to accept a much higher level of responsibility.

            My problems with this article are not because I think I am in any way morally superior or that you are some monster wanting to reinstitute slavery or something. I simply wanted to point out that there are some major flaws IN THE TEXT ITSELF – not the author – that really should be addressed because they reinforce something that is decidedly unsavory. I accept that it is incidental, I did not mean to suggest otherwise, but your interpretation of my meaning is all that is all that really matters so I will apologize for being unclear. Other than that, though, I stand by all I said originally.

          • Zachery Oliver

            Honestly, I do not have a problem with you criticizing Nathan’s article. That’s exactly the kind of thing I appreciate. However, the way you’re going about it places the onus on him when, really, the onus is on you.

            The problem is, “white privilege” and “identity politics” are still theoretical frameworks for understanding reality. You have made certain assumptions which lead you to certain conclusions; that does not make them realities, nor commonly accept among the people in whom you are discussing. Rather than recognizing this fact, you are pushing your interpretation of reality onto us without first asking “is this, in fact, how other people view things?” I imagine you would have had a much more fruitful discussion from the beginning. We are not starting on common ground.

            I mostly reject privilege theory, due to a few different factors. First, it is an unfalsifiable theory. I can say “you have white privilege” and there is literally nothing one can say to disprove this. On the flipside, the same evidence used to prove it can be interpreted in many different ways, and could even be used to dispute it. Frankly, such kinds of ideas make me uneasy due to how people can make claims, and then cannot be criticized because it’s just an assumption. No, not everyone accepts that assumption; you must PROVE that we all agree on this assumption before any kind of discussion can happen.

            In fact, discussions of privilege, in their most diminished form, uncritically applaud the perspectives of the marginalized by their mere origin in the marginalized classes; and, conversely, they reject the discourse of the dominant classes as inescapably tainted by power. That is not fruitful basis for dialogue or understanding, I have found. That is just not real; it is a bludgeoning tool and weapon to “get your point across”, and remove one group from criticism. Trust me, I have taken many classes and read many books on this very subject, and I have come to the exact opposite beliefs and answers when examining things for myself.

            And, of course, you can always fallback on the “you are white and privilege, etc, which automatically makes your point moot”, but that’s just an easy escape from the real question at hand: is it, in fact, true, or just a way to look at things? Are we really guilty parties, or is that just a function of your worldview, now forcibly placed upon us?

            Furthermore, privilege theory places people and ideas into complete binary categories. It does not assume “rights” as a philosophical ideal exist; only the privileged and oppressed. There’s absolutely no room for middle ground in such a worldview. It is a worldview of constant conflict of the oppressed against the oppressors, and vice versa; the world is much more complex than that. Privilege theory is fundamental tribal and racial, because it must always have two groups which oppose each other in order to function. I reject such simple holistic theories because they never, ever account for the surprising exceptions in reality.

            We should be arguing for “rights”, things that all humans deserve, not “who gets privilege and who doesn’t”

            As for the police brutality issue, I think Nathan forgot to actually link the study he cites. It was there at one point, not sure what happened in the editing process.

          • Actually, Zach, it is in my comment, but here it is again: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/181312.pdf

          • Correct me if I’m wrong, Mr. Vernon, but it seems to me like you’ve had this idea that you are inherently racist whether you know it or hammered into you. This is fundamentally flawed. Racism must be taught, whether by parents to children or by experience. It is something a person is conscious of and practices willingly and knowingly. It’s not a passive thing. This idea that one people group (i.e. whites) are *all* inherently racist is a lie propagated by radical minority leaders who want to stir up trouble. (Radical feminists do the same thing with their rhetoric, saying all men are sexist). It would suit you and our discussion to reject this idea.

            But that is simply my opinion. I’m not your therapist.

    • Hello, Matt. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      If I have “white privilege,” I never asked for it. I can’t help when or where I was born or what color of skin I have. I’ve never knowingly exploited this “privilege” in my life, either. While you didn’t mention it, I will also let you know I’m not a racist.

      That being said, I looked up the KJV translation of those verses, and you’re right that it says, “higher powers.” However, I don’t think it’s necessarily ambiguous in context (which is key to interpreting Scripture). Verse 3 still says, “For rulers…,” which would indicate Paul is still talking about government leaders. Also, while this is a nitpick, Romans was originally written in koine Greek, not Aramaic.

      As for police brutality, I think the hatred of cops comes more from the overhype of a few such incidents. I don’t deny that there are bad cops out there who have abused their authority. But that is a *human* problem, not a cop problem. I’ve personally worked with or known police officers, and most were upstanding people. They do a lot for people.

      I said “so-called” because the officers in question were/are still under investigation, and in America people are innocent until proven guilty. I used to work as a journalist, and I was told to always phrase court reports like this for that reason.

      I suggest you read this paper. It takes a neutral look at the issue:

      https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/181312.pdf