Ethics, Eschatology, and Avatar

I recently saw the film “Avatar,” prompted by lots of press and the opportunity to spend time with my family, who also wanted to see it.  Long story short?  Pretty good movie if I’m just thinking about it as a movie.  Fairly concerning if I think about it with my theologian hat on.  Why? Two reasons.

1) It enforces a belief in the myth of redemptive violence while ostensibly trying to the cause of environmental protection.

In discussing the film, director James Cameron has commented that

I’m not trying to make people feel guilty… I just want them to internalize a sense of respect and a sense of taking responsibility for the stewardship of the earth.. and I think this film can do that by creating an emotional reaction.

What worries me is that Cameron’s “taking responsibility” amounts to killing the people who don’t have a sense of respect.  Now I know that it is a fictional fantasy, and that I might be taking it all too seriously, but it just seems as if it unnecessarily weaves support of the myth of redemptive violence into notions of stewardship. [An article by Walter Wink about the myth of redemptive violence is here.]  Given the internal logic of the film, were the protagonists justified?  Sure.  Does such justification exist in our own story?  I think not.

2) It suggests an eschatology of hope that entails the physical intercession of some Divine force that allows the “good guys” to continue just as before, just without the “bad guys” around any more to bug them.

As a Member of the Religious Society of Friends, I’m more of a proponent of what we call a “realized eschatology,” what more evangelical/emergenty folk seem to refer to as some form of Kingdom Theology.  I don’t think everyone is obligated to believe this, however it seems to be worth noting as it contributes to my concern for some hope of a future wherein the direct intercession of the Divine defeats all my enemies for me, and I am left to my paradise in peace.

Cameron’s Avatar portrays the god of the protagonists as some magical force which can intercede on behalf Her people, and whose direct intercession is necessary to continue.

I do not think that there is a direct correlation between such cinematic suggestions and individual theological thought, however I do believe that our perceptions of the Divine are influenced by the media we consume.  Thus, while I doubt anyone walked away thinking verbatim that “I can’t wait till God returns and destroys all the [INSERT HATED GROUP] and I get to live exactly as I was before I met them,” I do think that the amazing appeal of this film plays on our fanciful hopes that, in fact, just such a thing will happen.

I’m not opposed to magical thinking in films, but when the film is an explicit attempt to sway the hearts and minds of folks in this world for the sake of engaged change, I find the reliance on magical thinking to be yet another impediment to finding ways forward that are not coercive or fanciful.

I am reminded of a passage in Theodore Jennings’ The Liturgy of Liberation,

If violence is the symptom of despair then the sporadic and systematic violence that charecterizes our world betrays an epidemic of dispair. We despair of justice, we despair of reason, we despair of the other person and so we destroy the other person, and we prepare to be destroyed by the other person ourselves.  In short, we despair.  We are without hope for ourselves, for the other, for our world.

If it is only through some belief that our enemies will be swept away by the wrath of a God-figure that we manage to find some measure of hope, then perhaps despair has indeed won out.  I, for one, though, still tend to think there is yet another way forward.

8 Responses

  1. Callid, great analysis. I saw the redemptive violence suggestion in the movie as well and it made me very sad. There was no justice or redemption, just the circular comic book style narrative like you said. Nothing was finished, the bad guy was punished and the movie ends. No transformation and no reconciliation. That’s not the story that I live in. Thanks for the post!


  2. Wow, so it would have been a better movie if they would have all sat down at the tree of life, plugged in their hair, and churned up so much power that the evil capitalist humans would have been met with a force field that stopped them in their tracks, disabled their equipment and changed their minds. Oh that would have made a great movie. Thank goodness I did not go to this movie with you. I would have cringed just walking in with you in your ghetto hat and scruffy beard. Ah, relax a bit, dude. Bring your arms down from flailing in the stratosphear, close your mouth, take off your hat (you’re in your office for goodness sakes!) and see that for once there is a main stream movie that looked for things good and kind, generous, selfless (on the part of Trudy). Perhaps if you took that hat off and let your freak-flag fly, improve the circulation to the contents of your cranium, you could see the beauty, the suggestion of connection and incredible creativity. You must be looking for the 3D movie about Jesus of Nazareth. Reminds me of the book “Lamb” by Christopher Moore. Now that book should be made into a 3D movie! One more thing, I could not help but notice, as your hands were diving and flapping that they have not done a days physical work in a very long time, if ever. You need to get a shovel and dig in the dirt, get a blister or two, break some honest sweat. You may get a new perspective.

  3. The setting of the movie is in the future 2154. There is a reference made that there is no longer any green left on planet earth. Our illness for mass consumption and destruction apparently grows. Seems that some making decisions within our future military apparatus are willing to continue to do whatever it takes, including killing anyone in their path and destroying cultures in order to feed their hunger for power. Jake is aware that this powerful heavily weaponized force will stop at nothing. The Na’vi people are at least distrustful and somewhat hostile toward the dreamwalkers — though it unclear if they are aware of the history. The Na’vi people do ultimately learn of their invaders power and destruction as they watch their sacred tree destroyed.
    What sort of non-violent action could you possibly imagine as the tanks began rolling in. By that point its too late. Their only hope was to defend themselves. Neither Jake nor the Na’vi people premeditated a bloody revolt against capitalism as you stated. They were protecting their lives, their culture and their land against a direct assault. I cannot remember any examples of Jake or the Na’vi people acting for the sake of retribution.

    For me this movie was many things including a wake up call and a cautionary tale. What the so- called bad guys were doing in this movie is not a far cry from what our members of the military have been commanded to do for sometime. We rape and destroy people’s sacred land and kill innocent people. We need to recognize it and take responsibility for it. The cautionary tale for me is, those that might possibly be capable of stopping the destruction of our earth and entire cultures need to be doing all we can, otherwise innocent people are forced into the position of defending themselves or dying.

    Jake doubted that his prayer would be answered and acknowledged to the tree that he was acting out of desperation. Neytiri educates him that this is not how Eywa, their goddess works. She says Eywa does not choose sides, she finds balance. What transpires is a miracle–as they exist in many religions and cultures– those things stories and folklores are made of. You said that the message was that we should passively wait for some supernatural force to save us. The Na’vi were not living in this manner. They were living in balance with their environment. They saw life and their world as sacred. They built supportive communities. When they had no other choice but to defend themselves they did.

    I did, to some degree, agree with David Brooks critique that the movie smelled of the white messiah male saves the native people. On the other hand I do think their is an important message even with this decision. Jake was a military man himself that was broken and then transformed by ‘seeing’ another culture. A people that if he were on assignment would have been following commands to shoot and kill. Because of his connection and understanding of the invading army he was able to protect the Na’vi from being dessimated. A message is that it is most effective for people within a culture, that understand a culture, to have an influence in ending their own cultures’ destructive tendencies. Imagine if Grace had spoken in defense of the Na’vi sooner. Imagine if Jake had not been so desperate to walk and then exploited with a promise for surgery. What if more of the military folk learned to see and appreciate the Na’vi or spent more time in the forest.

    Having said all of this, I do agree that it did have a comic book or fairy tale quality of good vs. bad. But for me the imagery and message of life, nature and balance as sacred were more powerful than the good vs bad storyline. It was the justaposition of the sterility of the lab and the concrete landing area to the beauty of the natural world. Other imagery – tanks and giant man controlled robots within the context of the beautiful forest seeking out super condensed natural energy to quickly expend and continue to be too powerful and destructive. I’ll stop there for now. I didn’t spend enough time trying to understand your perspective, obviously I liked the movie and the message alot. Paul hasn’t seen it yet. I may even go a second time with him, I’ll let you know if my opinion changes.

  4. I don't know too much about the Friends nor process theology but I do wonder why you want (or even think it possible) to separate the eschaton from this discussion about God's justice.  It's not so much about Jesus defeating our enemies as it is defeating his own enemies.  The view of God's justice you're proposing sounds very akin to the Enlightenment project, especially when the role of the Spirit & the Son of Man's return is downplayed in creation's restoration.  Also, I don't think evangelicals these days will share your view that realized eschatology is mutually exclusive to a literal second coming.
    Help me understand.
    @Rhoda This post was not so much about beauty (as your word "better" suggests) as it was about truth.  But thank you for providing another example of ad hominem attacks to put in our satchels.  We need these for illustrative purposes when teaching logic to inquiring minds.

  5. A Theology of Ecology or ideals of stewardship do not necessarily dictate a strict employment of nonviolent resistance techniques. This argument is akin to standing there watching your family get killed because fighting back would be to embrace a violent reaction.

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