Real Life Vigilante Sounds More Like a MovieCulture, Ethics, Featured, Film, Religion — By J.F. Arnold on October 19, 2011 at 3:33 am
Oh wait, it was a movie.
It turns out Seattle has their own crime-fighting team, known as the Rain City Superhero Movement. In fact, this idea of a real life superhero is growing much larger than I realized. Vigilantes are cropping up, and people are acting like Batman to the best of their ability (while lacking Bruce Wayne’s funds). Recently a self-proclaimed superhero going by the moniker Phoenix Jones was arrested for pepper spraying two individuals who were, he claims, fighting in the streets. Police say that the pair was not fighting, but rather dancing.
The question of vigilantism is nothing new, nor is it new fodder for Hollywood to cover. Even before superheroes the concept of cowboys taking justice into their own hands was common, and the idea runs older than the Wild West. There are a lot of interesting things to discuss when it comes to the subject of taking justice into our own hands, but I wanted to just comment on my own (current) take on things.
I get really, really hesitant with vigilante justice. I’ve seen films like The Boondock Saints, Batman, and even the movie that seems to best show (within reason) what is actually happening, Kick Ass. The films’ heroes range from having validity in the minds of the police or law enforcement (Batman, in most iterations, and to some degree) to being hated by the police and hunted down the same way as other criminals (The Boondock Saints), or, in the case of Kick Ass, supported by the general public but not by police. The reason I get hesitant is that I do not think that justice has (for the most part) been delegated primarily to the individual, at least in our American social contracts. While I do think it is probably my responsibility to act if I were to see a crime taking place, my responsibility is first and foremost to get the proper authorities involved. If I do not, I have to face potential repercussions of acting illegally to uphold moral goodness. If I stop a mugger by knocking him down and holding him until the police come, for instance, I may end up with charges for assault on the mugger; this is unfortunate, but perhaps a worthwhile price to pay for the morality of the situation.
But even that response is one I find just barely satisfactory. Why would I be willing to be punished by a system that would punish those who are just? I rest my argument primarily on 1 Peter 2:13-14, which reads: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” Peter goes on to explain that we are to follow the law in order to silence the ignorance of foolish people. I think our general orientation towards our government should be submission. But why do I believe it is right to stand up to a mugger and potentially face punishment from the government? Frankly, because protecting people is an important part of our lives and our ministries. Sacrificing ourselves for the betterment of others is, after all, the best display of love (hint, hint: it is what Jesus did). If we find ourselves doing a genuine good and being punished for it, submit yourself to the punishment while legally seeking to make the system more just intrinsically (after all, we live in a society which votes on things, and does not force us to simply follow an emperor).
Vigilantism, however, is something different than stopping a mugger you see on the streets. To take on the role of a superhero is to actively seek out the injustices being done on the streets. While there is a sense in which the believer should seek to right injustices, there is a subtle shift when one seeks injustice to be righted. Surely we should seek to rid our own lives of injustice that we participate in whether knowingly or not, but looking for and devoting ourselves to finding injustice strikes me as unhealthy.