I’ve had some contrasts on my mind of late. Unity and divergence. Oppression and Justice. Order and Chaos. Control and Creativity. And I feel like sometimes we need to embrace the contrast. To balance the opposites. To embrace divergent ideas that seem to contradict each other equally. To achieve balance. I’ve been chewing over the idea that the balance in the universe that the Ancient Yin Yang represents is not Good and Evil. I’m in fact repulsed by the idea that Good somehow “needs” evil to exist, to be defined and even to be recognised. I’m also pretty confident that in the end Good Wins and eradicates Evil. No, it is not Good and Evil which must exist in balance to bring wholeness to our world, but Chaos and Order. Consider the Creation Narrative of Genesis – God does not destroy Chaos (the waters) but tames it to bring life. He places Order in the garden, but without Chaos the garden has no life.
Chaos without Order brings destruction. Order/Law without Chaos is sterile and oppressive. Chaos is an essential component of creativity (a defining Trait of God’s nature – hence Chaos being a part of God’s nature) yet there can be comfort in Order. Unbridled Chaos often causes pain and hurt (the chaos of war is probably the best example of this) but unbridled Order is equally hurtful – legalism, controlling abuse and oppressive leadership are unbridled Order and cause a great deal of harm.
The past year I have been somewhat obsessed by the contrasts within two movies that made an impact on me and that ostensibly could make opposite arguments for the response to authority, order, unity on the one hand and freedom, choice and justice on the other. Hero and Serenity are both beautiful films. Both have action, both have amazing cinematography, both have brilliant performances. But they have very different lessons, opposite lessons; they are based on almost diametrically opposed ideas. I used to think I was able to believe in both of the opposing ideas presented in the stories, like some sort of Double-Think. But after understanding the King in Hero I cannot maintain this Double-Think any longer.
So Hero is a story of a lone man who “kills” the kings enemies (because the king has said that anyone who kills one of them can advance ten paces towards him) in order to get close enough to the king to then assassinate him. It’s made clear (well it was clear to me) that the King is a despot, a bully and a murderous tyrant who desires to squash rebellion within his own borders and to extend those borders by conquest and thereby unite the whole “Land” of China. The unification hinted at throughout and confirmed at the end is portrayed as inevitable and as a good thing. It is what makes “Our Land” a great one, and for the sake of “Our Land” the King’s survival is key.
There are also ideas of stories from different points of view and different interpretations of a narrative that are interesting, but for now I don’t want to concentrate on that. Nor do I want to, for now, wrestle with the beauty of the fight scenes whilst myself abhorring violence.
No, it’s this idea that for the good of the land, for unity, for “Our Land” to achieve and maintain greatness, the king must not be slain. That it is the king who holds the land and the king who unites the land. That it is the king who will increase the size, influence and power of “Our Land”. And oh it does sound Heroic to sacrifice oneself for that idea; to sacrifice your own desire, your own need for personal vengeance for the greater good, so that the whole community can flourish. And actually yes, it is heroic to do that. It is important to sacrifice our own hurts and pains for the sake of unity, for the sake of mutual flourishing, for the sake of the mission, for the sake of community. I would wholeheartedly believe, support and promote that idea. The Whole is more important than personal desires. That’s community.
And towards the end, in an interaction between the nameless assassin and the king, the king reflects on a piece of calligraphy commissioned by Nameless from one of the enemies defeated by him. It’s a poignant, almost beautiful moment, shockingly pacifist from the king, kind almost. He muses that the calligraphy doesn’t reveal the artist’s understanding of the sword, but something deeper – his whole philosophy of life.
“In the first stage, man and sword are interchangeable, even a blade of grass can become a weapon. In the second stage, the sword does not dwell in the hand, but in the heart. Even without a weapon, the warrior can slay his enemy, In the third stage, the ultimate ideal is when the sword disappears altogether. The warrior embraces all that is around him. The desire to kill is gone. Only Peace remains.” See, told you it was beautiful. I would be all “yes! The sword disappears!” If this doesn’t make the inner pacifist cheer nothing will…. Except, that’s not what this king means. It’s not what despots and tyrants mean. It’s not what abusive leaders and bullies mean. It’s not what control hungry narcissists mean.
What they mean is that their enemies should lay down their swords while they keep a firm grip on their own. What they mean is, peace is me winning and you being quiet (or gone, or dead). What they mean is unity is you agreeing with me and if you don’t being quiet and sitting down. What they mean is when “our Land” is built on the broken backs of slaves and rebels and “enemies”, when our privilege is dependent on the shoving down of others, then for the “sake of unity” we should forget that oppression, forget that violence, forget bullying and injustice and rally around our great leader. What they mean is, don’t question, don’t engage in critical thinking, colour inside the lines, stick to the rules, eschew chaos. What they mean is disagreement and opposition to me is opposition to the higher power (whether that be God, the concept of unity and community or peace itself). What they mean is they alone are the voice of God and no other voices or interpretations must be heard – and while you must put down your sword and be peaceful, meek and mild, they retain both sword and noose and relentlessly enforce rules that are both reasonable and arbitrary equally (and even the “reasonable” rules are there to protect the abuser, NOT the ones being abused). What they mean is we should all reasonably stand by passively while people around us are bullied and squashed because we need to be “nice” to one another – even bullies.
And yes, God forgives the bully, as do I. But I will protect myself from them, I will protect my Community from them and I will protect them from themselves. Which for me, means speaking out, means standing up to the bully and if I had been “Nameless” in this story, would have meant me fulfilling my mission and assassinating this ruthless, despotic tyrant whose only desire was to murder and control. I’m all for unity. I’m all for Peace. I’m all for Shalom & community. But not under the authority of an abuser. Not at the cost of hurt to others. Not as a result of oppression and unrestrained Order. No, I’m not up for that. I’m not buying into your unity rhetoric designed to shut down questions and opposition and the voices of the oppressed. Unity in your mouth means Uniformity, means Conformity, means the relentless oppression of the HiveMind (Think the Borg if you want.) It means the sacrifice of the outliers and marginalised and the sacrifice of the scapegoated “enemies” of the organisation (church, state, business). And I say, no; No I’m not buying into your “unity”, I won’t be submitting to your “authority” (ie abuse). I’ll be sitting, I’ll be taking a knee, I’ll be taking down your imperial flag and shouting far and wide “But the Emperor has no clothes on at all!”
And that’s where Serenity comes in.
When Joss Whedon’s show Firefly ended thanks to myopic TV executives, the fans never imagined that it could be revived for a one off film. The film Serenity sort of takes up where the show left off, yet one doesn’t have to have seen the show to “get” the film or understand the background of the characters or the universe they live in. Captain Mal Reynolds and his crew are fleshed out enough and the introduction to the world and characters are clever enough that you can easily see how these are outcasts from “organised” society who have their own sense of honour and community.
Here we have an “Alliance” of Order who some years back defeated the Indepenants and now write history (as all victors do), control dissemination of information and are hunting for the girl River Tam who is on Mal’s ship and who was rescued by her brother from an experimental programme to design living weapons. (Whoop! Isn’t sci-fi wonderfully crazy!!) River, being a psychic and having shared a room with important members of the ruling elite knows one of their darkest secrets – and it is something which haunts her until the crew of Serenity unearths it. The Alliance is all about Order, Order unbound. They are the ultimate in controlling and will employ agents of Chaos to maintain that control.
In contrast to the Alliance we have the ultimate agents of Chaos, the Reavers. Portrayed in both the show and film as a bogeyman level monster. Completely violent, completely amoral, utterly embracing the darkest most chaotic corners of human depravity with no motivation or desire other than to maim, destroy and remove the humanity from their victims in order to wipe away any memory of their own humanity. Utterly merciless, utterly relentless, stoppable only in their death.
And in between, balancing Order and Chaos, are the crew of Serenity. Thumbing their noses at the control and Order of the Alliance, peddling their trade as smugglers, semi-pirates and participants in semi-successful heists. The crew, even amoral mercenary Jayne, have at least some level of loyalty both to one another and to the community across the “ ‘verse” that supports them and gives them succour after jobs. They also balance the appearance of order on the ship – Mal is definitely the Captain – with the madness of making do with what they have, the creativity of genius flying and a biting humour that undercuts some of the serious moments.
But the Alliance can’t even countenance this level of independence. The Alliance deems that all lives are theirs to control. The Alliance and their Agent, the man who represents their interests for this one story, dream of a world where all fall under their purview, where there are no questions, no difference and there is no delicate balance between Chaos and Order. There is only unbridled Order. And this Order is to be achieved with no thought to the damage and violence that is needed. The Agent’s words “I believe in something greater than myself. A world without sin” seem to be what all of us would and should want. But the means that unbridled Order employs to achieve this world are more sinful than the sin and Chaos they wish to eliminate. Mal’s answer shows to us his open and broken heart for the victims of those means – “So me and mine gotta lay down and die so you can live in your better world?” And Oh, the bitter truth of those words are at the heart of the great secret of the Alliance’s parliament.
For what the crew discover is a planet. A planet called Miranda. A planet designed as an Eden, a utopia. A planet that would be the experimental forerunner for the Alliance’s great dream of unbridled Order and Control. A planet where the Alliance took away people’s choice, took away their independence, took away their agency. A planet where their scientists placed a chemical in the air filters, a chemical designed to make the population more placid, less aggressive, more agreeable. The chemical, Pax, worked well. It did remove aggressive tendencies, people didn’t fight or complain or question or dissent. They were calm and they stopped fighting. Now, doesn’t that actually sound great? Isn’t this all what those who call for unity are asking for? For us all to just be nicer to each other? Isn’t it? Except these people did not choose this. They were controlled. Their agency removed, their consent subverted. You can’t “make” people better. That’s unbridled Order. And without Chaos? The people stopped more than fighting. They stopped everything else. They stopped caring, they stopped working and breeding. They stopped. They just lay down and gave up. They stopped breathing. That’s the Peace that abusive tyrannical controllers really want. It’s not the Shalom of God.
To top it all, about ten percent of the planet’s population had an adverse reaction to the Pax. They had the opposite reaction. And so in a heartbreaking sequence we learn the truth. We learn that not only did 30 million people just give up on life and lay down and die, but that the Alliance, grand defenders of Control and Order actually created the Chaotice Reavers. In their attempt to control and subvert freedom they created the worst bogeyman one could imagine.
The crew then of course embark on the last part of their journey to restore justice for the inhabitants of Miranda, both the pacified and the Reavers. They bring the truth to light by broadcasting it publically across the whole Alliance territory and outer rim planets. They embrace the Chaos in themselves and “aim to misbehave”. They stand up to the bully, they call out the abuser. They stand and say, this far into our lives and no more. You don’t control us, you can’t make us, you don’t speak for us.
Through the story there are deaths and tears (it wouldn’t be a Joss Whedon show without someone you love dying), things you can’t control or predict. But there is also the predictable comfort of community and compassion.
In this end of story exchange between Mal and Inarra (yes they totally belong together, sadly a story we won’t see) I feel the hope of rejecting unbridled Order.
Mal “You ready to go back to civilised life?”
Inarra “I don’t know.”
Mal “Good answer.”
Questioning is not a bad thing. Let’s embrace the questions in our Bibles and not treat is as an answer book. Let’s welcome questions to our theologies and ideologies and behaviours. Let’s live in questions as a community and be satisfied with sometimes not having an answer and being able to sit together in the not knowing.
As for me, I want to be a Hero who sacrifices for the greater good. But not at the expense of others. I want to give people the comfort of predictability, but not at the expense of creativity. I want to be part of partnerships whereby my tendency to be an immovable object is balanced by others’ unstoppable force. If we were all unstoppable forces, there would be much violence and harm. If we were all immovable objects, nothing would get done. I want to be a rebel, but not to tear down, rather to protect and bring about justice. I need rules, but to be without legalism. I need direction, but not control. I need abounding, Chaotic, limitless Love and I need bordered, predictable, comforting Law.
And I aim to misbehave.