Captain America & the problem of power

When the first Avengers movie hit the theaters, some pointed out that the devastation depicted in it to New York City was worse than that of 9/11. The good guys did more damage than terrorists.

It was a valid point. When does the cure become worse than the illness? When do heroes become villains in the pursuit of justice?

(This struggle is being played out in America in the killing of unarmed black men by police officers, where those who have dedicated their lives “to protect and to serve” end up shooting the innocent. This misuse of power is matched with a need for police protection, especially as our cities continue to grow, leaving us with our tense and racially charged conundrum.)

The recent follow-up movie Captain America: Civil War attempts to address this topic of well-intentioned power gone awry head-on. It pulls scenes from the previous Marvel movies, highlighting the destruction their superheroes left in their wake, while they headed home victorious and never looked back to see who might have suffered for the salvation they brought. In several scenes, the movie gets personal, telling the stories of suffering families.

When faced with this suffering, the superheroes hang their heads in sadness and something akin to shame. They were in the business of stopping bad guys and had somehow become baddies themselves in the process. (By the way, that brilliant Pixar movie The Incredibles used this theme as its launch point years ago. This is a continuing struggle.)

So, what do we do with all of this concentrated power? How do we make sure it gets used for good and not for evil?

While Civil War begins the conversation toward an answer, it doesn’t actually give one. Instead, it offers two possible answers and leans toward one while not committing to it.

The two answers the movie offers are: government regulation and personal self-regulation.

Government regulation boils down to bureaucracy and psychology and various forms of incarceration. Personal self-regulation boils down to hunches and relational feelings. Gee, Marvel, thanks for those two options!

Actually, Marvel does do us a service by pointing out that neither of those solutions are actually solutions. We are not wise enough or informed enough to regulate ourselves — heck, I have a hard enough time not eating food that’s bad for me and I’m pretty well informed about that — so we are not our own solutions. And human systems have a way of degenerating into forms of oppression, especially while maintaining a facade of scientific reason, so government is no real solution.

To control power, there must be something outside of us, since we fail to adequate regulate ourselves. But there also must be something beyond-human involved, since we humans are the very problem in self-regulation.

What is this beyond-human? Some super computer system? We love the idea of science, but so much of science fiction recently has pushed back against the idea of control by computer. There is a recognition that the very soullessness of technology disqualifies it from dealing with and controlling the power of humans. Technology is beyond objective. It’s sterile. Souls must be dealt with my soul, not machine. (The Avengers: Age of Ultron kinda dealt with the machine control thing.)

There’s a very old solution. Ancient, actually. It’s locating ethics and the control of power in God.

This is the central element in Jesus’ preaching: the kingdom of God. God is King and I’m not. Whatever power I have serves him and his purposes in the world, operating by his ethics, done in his ways.

When the powerful bend the knee before God, that humility begins the process of bringing power under control. And when they locate their ethics outside of themselves and their personal perspectives, then there’s a shared understanding among people of what is right and wrong; it’s not up to the whims and limited perspectives of individuals.

This, however, is something we’ve rejected in our post-Christian pluralistic culture. Not only have we set aside Christian faith and the Christian God, but we’ve embraced the ethical relativism of pluralism. “You do you and I’ll do me” sounds like a good idea until the you you do and the me I do end up clashing not just with preferences, but with significant moral-ethical issues.

As long as each of us are independent moral agents, determining our own ethics, we will have no real way of regulating power in the world. It’s only by having a shared moral-ethical system that we submit to that we can live in something approximating harmony. And for my money, I’m betting not on technology or government, but on God.