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Questions that Rise: A generous reading of The Dark Knight Rises

August 8, 2012

Presumably there’s a limit to the amount you can learn about life from a man with a rubber mask. Admittedly, the themes of the final part of the Batman Trilogy don’t entirely hang together with its complex plot. However, I have to say I loved watching it and, if you have too, I think it deliberately raises the following questions, which I appreciate.

What is property?
Throughout the film property is stolen, commandeered, damaged (of course) and represented by figures on a stock market screen. Who does it belong to? When does legitimate ownership end and theft begin?

‘When surplus is possessed, other people’s property is possessed’, said one church father, though how we’d work this out now is far from straightforward. Perhaps closer to the mark is the observation that though the notion of property does exist in the Bible (do not steal, etc), property is held conditionally. For instance, the laws around boundary markers and jubilee indicate that everything is NOT for sale, and cannot be held absolutely. Absolute property belongs more to a Roman legal framework than a Hebrew one. What limits to the abuse of property might be a corrective to our society?

What is justice?
This, again, is a key theme in the film. There is the justice of a civic status quo, upheld by more or less corrupt officials. There is the justice of the kangaroo court. There is the justice which throws out the rich and seizes their assets. What justice should we seek?

From time to time I have heard people express a desire to move from ‘charity’ to ‘justice’. Charity is patronising, justice is liberating. But actually you would be hard pressed to demonstrate a movement in the scriptures an emphasis on charity (which, of course, means love) to one on justice. If anything the movement would be the reverse. In fact, though, what we really need is both: love cannot be separated from justice, though it may go beyond what justice requires; justice cannot be separated from love, though it may create space in which truly mutual love can flourish.

What is good?
This theme is not so hard to spot. Bruce Wayne is a man who gives everything for the welfare of his city. He does this overtly, as a big city donor (though he is easily judged for his outlandish lifestyle) and covertly, bringing improvised and unusual acts of equalizing justice (while dressed as a nocturnal mammal). At one humbling point, Wayne must ponder the question: what does it mean to give everything for the welfare of the city?

When do I stop?
Finally there is the question of how much is enough. Can the good go on holiday? Can crusaders retire? Can noble work be abandoned after a season? In some ways the Christian answer seems obvious – we can never give enough, we must always give everything. But I wonder if this answer is right, both psychologically and theologically. In every act of giving there is a payoff – utter sacrifice is in that sense impossible. Even giving can become a way of securing our identity. The practice of sabbatical, for instance, is one way of mitigating the potentially addictive effects of service. And theologically, is it possible to give everything, when really our giving is an overflow of God who can never be outgiven? We are signs, some clearer than others, of God’s generosity – but we are flawed signs. We can indeed try to give our all, as God’s Spirit leads, but we can also pause, rest and move on as he directs. We are not seeking to justify ourselves by our giving. Therefore rest is possible.

These are some of the big questions that arise from the movie. I hope you enjoy it. A lot of cars also get blown up, too, if you like that kind of thing…

(Also posted on my Consumer Detox blog)

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