When the Joke’s on Us
Why We (Don’t) Weep with the Wicked
He grew up a misunderstood child. His mother, rigid and harsh, was incurably critical of the boy. Everywhere he went, everything he did, nothing ever pleased her. If she met him with a kind word, he couldn’t remember it.
But as crushing as his mother’s mean spirit could be, he much preferred her to his father. How Simon could have shown greater distaste for his son, few could tell. But one could tell, by the more-than-occasional bruises on the child, that Simon was not unafraid to lay hands on him (or, as rumor would have it, his neighbor’s wife). Life taught the boy early on to look out for himself — for no one else would.
“We must beware that tales, expertly woven, can endear us even to devils.”
As a young man, he kept company with those who also had been taught this lesson. He and his fellow outcasts did what emotional orphans often do — they stole things. He once had a best friend — if men who were unified by distrust and criminal behavior could have “best friends” — whom he watched get stabbed to death after he, of the two, was caught stealing. A loaf of bread and a bag of denarii ended up costing him the life he was trying to sustain. Stale, the young man wandered the streets again, alone.
Devil in the Details
How one tells a story, whose perspective he highlights and whose he omits, can endanger hearers. Details, carefully selected, can hide devils. One might carry on this apocryphal backstory of Judas Iscariot’s life to induce a sense of investment in the character. The more screen time he would get — the more we see his pain, his struggle, his flirtations with both the light and the dark — the more our protagonist he would become.
We could watch his embarrassment at his Master reproaching him in front of everyone for his “innocent” question about spending the perfume money to help the poor (John 12:1–8), and his ensuing mistake might seem less heinous, more human. We’ve all done things we regret when hurt. Besides, he didn’t know what they would do to him — he tried to return the money. He felt remorse unto suicide. Was he really a villain or more a victim of a cold life? We root for him as we might, well, ourselves.
Wisdom will be mindful of how we hear the story. While the movie Iscariot could feature the tattered life of a neglected boy who grew to die a tragic death, Jesus instead casts the story of Judas, the devil in the fold, the betrayer spoken of before his birth (Psalm 41:9; 109:8), a wicked man whose treachery made nonexistence more preferable than life (Matthew 26:24). No personal history, no wrongs committed against him negates this. We must beware that tales, expertly woven, can endear us even to devils.
And this is relevant today: Have villains ever been in greater demand? In this growing genre some call “anti-villain,” millions consume stories that feature murderers, drug dealers, cannibals, mob bosses, serial killers, serial adulterers. They are the moral monsters we hate to love. Or, just love. Past are the days of predictably boring good guys and two-dimensional villains; we increasingly prefer our heroes more in our own image than in God’s.
The trend continues with the release of the new Joker movie. Wisdom will be wary of this sort of art. It can beautifully and movingly and compellingly get us to embrace, ever so slowly, what God hates. To recast the story to favor the wicked. The first step to indulging in evil, we must remember, is to smile at it.
Such a movie, should it feature the devil as prominently as advertised, can tempt us toward several dangers worthy of discussion — among them, calling evil good, locating the source of wicked behavior primarily outside ourselves, thinking liberation comes from giving in to the darkness, and assuming that vengeance is rightfully ours.
Mistake Dark for Light
“The movie,” as one Rolling Stone critic laments, “lionizes and glamorizes Arthur [the Joker] even as it shakes its head, faux-sorrowfully, over his violent behavior.” It does not merely report brutality and gore, which the Bible also paints with bloody realism; the critic claims that it glamorizes the wicked character. So also, according to The New Yorker, the movie welds together the comic and the tragic in such a way that “we can’t tell the light from the dark.” Satan grabs the pen to tell the story. The movie, and many shows like it, do not merely report evil; it advertises it. If taken to its natural consequence, it invites the curse of God to all who buy in and beautify depravity:
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! (Isaiah 5:20)
“We are too noble a creature for our sufferings of evil to exonerate us.”
But how do they do it? How do they get us to applaud a villain? They rely on the fact that evil, when committed by a complex individual, is no longer as evil. The secret to endear us to the deplorable is to portray the culprit as a victim to be pitied, not a lowlife to be protested. Few have categories for victims of one crime being perpetrators of other crimes. Once the first domino of evil falls, how can we be blamed for what happens next?
So our villains get fired from their jobs, cheated on by their spouses, assaulted by a corrupt cop, made to witness the murder of a loved one, despised by their parents in favor of their siblings — the vicious begin as a victim. As with the Joker. The trailer alone shows him getting embarrassed as a comedian, assaulted by civilians, with someone he loves on a respirator. Unlike young Bruce Wayne, who experienced the tragic murder of his parents and seeks to establish order as a result, Arthur paints his face and embraces moral chaos. His pain leads the Joker to accept nihilism: the rejection of morality and the acceptance that all is ultimately meaningless.
He lives as an evangelist for this message: life is a joke. Various renditions show a character who cares more for converting Batman to his worldview than actually killing him. He walks the streets of Gotham, as someone observed, communicating what the Punisher did to Daredevil: “You’re just one bad day away from being me.” He desires to create that bad day to make Batman (and us?) see the world as he does.
These anti-villain stories often capitalize on a sad backstory to get us to cheer for what our conscience squirms at, at least in the beginning. But compassion is a poor excuse to overlook corruption.
Mistake Sin for Psychology
Culture is not biblically literate enough to be half as fussy as it otherwise would be. If it knew better, it would protest Jesus’s words outright:
What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person. (Mark 7:20–23)
Jesus claims that out of a man’s heart — not out of his childhood or environment or personal suffering — comes his murder, lust, wickedness, pride, sensuality. He is defiled, not by what he eats, with whom he eats, where he eats, or if he eats, but by what is already within him. These factors contribute to expressions of sin, but they never acquit us of that sin.
“When we see sin as sin, villains as villains, lies as lies, true Christianity begins to come into focus.”
To be made in God’s image is to be given the glory and inescapable burden of personal responsibility. We are too noble a creature for our sufferings of evil to exonerate us. But as children of Adam, we are too wont to explain away our sin. It was the woman God gave me. It’s the childhood I experienced. It’s the parents I had (or didn’t have), the unhappiness I felt, or the string of unfortunate events — these, not my heart, stand ultimately to blame. They made me do it.
Mistake Wrath as Liberation
Such stories display humans under the active wrath of God. This may be surprising. They make it look appealing to be given over to sin — which Paul describes as the inauguration of God’s wrath upon the wicked. Arthur, I’m guessing, tries (however feebly) to walk the narrow road for a time. Until finally he snaps. And then we see lightness of countenance, singleness of resolve. We may express it similarly as our de-conversion stories: I once struggled with fighting against X. I was taught that X was bad — it wasn’t who I was meant to be. But it wasn’t until I had the courage to be myself that I forsook the church and found true happiness.
The slow entrenchment into depravity is not liberation; it’s called the searing of the conscience and the activation of God’s wrath. “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). When Jekyll transforms fully into Hyde, he does not cast off God; God has cast him off into darkness. “Although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. . . . Therefore God gave them up. . . . God gave them up. . . . God gave them up” (Romans 1:21, 24, 26, 28).
Stories like these tempt the heart to loosen the lock, pry open the door, and let the caged creature loose. They promise no more war — for the convenient fact that one side has surrendered. They promise a freedom when one is liberated from God’s righteous law. But the only freedom attained is the only one not shown: the freedom to walk toward destruction without any conflicting thoughts of turning back.
Mistake Our Vengeance for God’s
Finally, something about this villain-porn tempts us to grasp for that which is rightfully God’s. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).
“The first step to indulging in evil, we must remember, is to smile at it.”
When we watch the bullying, abuse, and oppression of anyone, the right response is a cry for justice. When the suffering transcends human arbitration, we cry out for vengeance. And when we do, we ought to refuse painting our faces and reaching for grenades and handguns — for God has his own. He is not the divine pacifist, unmindful of malevolent deeds. He is the God who stores up wrath against the unrepentant (Romans 2:5). We are not the avenger; God is.
Bored with the God-man?
Maybe our love for such a plainly sadistic sociopath who desires nothing more than to watch the world burn is owing to our already having taken too many steps his direction. Perhaps we love the darkness rather than the light because our deeds are evil (John 3:19).
Yet when we see sin as sin, villains as villains, lies as lies, and hell as hell, true Christianity begins to come into focus. Salvation no longer is an option; grace no longer a lyric we merely sing. Forgiveness becomes relevant, and Jesus unspeakably glorious. “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:22–23).
Our heartbeat becomes to watch this God-man in his word, over and over again, teach, act, love, die, rise, ascend, and empower his church to storm against the kingdom of darkness. Our portion is to meet with him and worship with his people.
God watched all of us, in one way or another, play the villain, and sent his Son to be brutalized to make us new. When we see it, he demands our utmost, which we gladly give. And should we think that this reality is vanilla, unexciting, and boring, while the world of R-rated films holds the real intrigue, then the joke — indeed, the horror — is on us.