Marching into a gang lynching at the start of the film, Batman saves the victim but beats the attackers to a pulp. During the confrontation, he is asked, “Who are you?” Batman replies, “I’m vengeance!”1 Although he heroically saves an innocent victim, this confrontation lacks the mercy that Batman has stereotypically shown in other adaptations of the franchise. Haunted by his broken past and motivated to end all suffering, Batman retaliates against all that injured him as a child. His deepest motivations for punishing evil lie in his personal unresolved pain. He is thirsty for retribution; thus, punishing evil is fueled by pain and rage. Unlike other portrayals of Batman being characterized by justice and fairness, this Batman begins the movie characterized by vengeance; a desire for revenge typically manifesting through violence in the name of justice.
As the violence of Gotham tallies up and the dark underbelly of the city’s corrupt leaders shows itself, viewers begin to wonder: Is there any hope for Gotham? All seems corrupt. Almost every leader whom the city is supposed to trust is marred by evil. Villains and henchmen are secretly in control of the government. Even Batman seems to fight against evil while practicing evil himself, forsaking justice for vengeance.2
Later in the film, when a minion of the main villain removes his mask and states, “I’m vengeance!” Batman is shocked. This confession of a villain (“I’m vengeance!”), is an oracle to Batman. In a moment of complete epiphany, Batman is paralleled with the evil villains. Both Batman and the villains chose to act violently in order to punish or humiliate those who have hurt them—vengeance is fueled by a desire for revenge. Batman realizes that vengeance is not the proper way to face evil because it perpetuates a cycle of unjust violence.
From this point forward, Batman’s philosophy about evil and violence seems to change. He becomes sacrificial, willing to die to save the rest of the city. His thirst to punish evil shifts from a self-centered motivation to a desire for hope for the city. Batman realizes, “Vengeance won’t change the past, mine or anyone else’s. People need hope.”3
Biblical Justice: Responding to Evil
Bruce Wayne is right—vengeance perpetuates cycles of oppressive and violent behavior, and it will not solve the problem of evil. However, omitting the punishment of the guilty will not amend problems of evil either. Faced with this dichotomy, Wayne unknowingly holds an idea that the Bible asserts continually: authentic goodness and redemption are not accomplished through vengeance but through justice and hope.
Gotham City’s story is like the story of our world. We are plagued with injustice. Sin causes brokenness between individuals and groups. People oppress each other and disrespect inherent human value and identity as an image-bearer of God. Evil, according to a Christian worldview, is fundamentally rebellion against God—it is often called sin. Sinful humans are jealous and selfish, which causes evil and disorder to run rampant (James 3:16). Evil is not the result of institutions or systems, instead, evil is the result of the distorted human heart and mind.
The story of Scripture reveals to us that hope can be found in the middle of suffering and that justice is attainable. In the Old Testament, the word for justice is “mishpat” which can mean both retributive justice and restorative justice. Both types of justice are important and are referred to throughout the Bible. Retributive justice means that you get what you deserve; if you commit a crime, you pay the fair consequences. This is the kind of justice that most people are familiar with. Restorative justice, however, is different.
Restorative justice begins with recognizing people’s equal and inherent worth before God. All human beings possess value as image-bearers of God.4 Because humans are created with inherent worth, restorative justice seeks out the oppressed and vulnerable and restores them to a state where they are treated with respect and dignity. This reflects their importance as image-bearers. It advocates for those who cannot advocate for themselves, meets the needs of the vulnerable, and creates institutions that prevent injustice towards anyone (Proverbs 31:8-9; Jeremiah 22:3; Psalm 146:7-9). Biblical justice is a physical manifestation of what redemption looks like and encourages people to live with authentic hope.
God made humans with the need for authentic hope. So, Batman is right to note that Gotham needs hope, too. Hope is what motivates us to continue through difficult circumstances, describes the reality we want, and prescribes how we act until that reality is obtained. The quality of hope is only as strong as what the expectation is placed on.
When Batman suggests that people need hope not vengeance, he is making a big claim. He’s saying that people need to feel like the city is moving away from crime, toward peace and prosperity. The quality of the citizens’ hope in the future of the city rests on both Batman’s ability to bring that reality to fruition, and on the condition of life after the city is rid of crime.
In America, we often hope for similar things that the people of Gotham City do. We hope that our nation is moving away from violence and difficulty toward peace and prosperity. Although there is no Batman to save us from high gas prices or war, we do look towards politicians and presidents for relief. It is easy to have optimism when the political leader that we like is in office or when a law is passed that we think will fix problems. Conversely, we live in tension and frustration when a leader does not accomplish what we believe is best.
Characters like Batman are applauded in our culture because we have the desire for one person (or power) to save us from trouble. We want to hope there is more than our present darkness because it motivates us to endure through difficulty. But when we look at flawed people in a flawed world, there seems to be no enduring hope. No sinful person can save us from the evil in the world and bring about circumstances that will give us lasting peace or security. Presidents and powers cannot save us, they are not strong enough.
The good news, however, is that humanity does have a hero. The greatest story of all time is about one man who saves the world from abounding darkness and evil. When he takes on the darkness, it does not overcome him (John 1:1-5). He administers justice perfectly, rescues us from our own evil, and gives us hope that goes beyond our circumstances. Jesus Christ is the source of authentic hope. He is the only one with the power and sinlessness to overcome the evil in our world. Batman was right when he said people need hope. The hope we need is Jesus.
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