By Matthew Brake
When an immoral leader leaves office, it’s too easy for his detractors to breath a sigh of relief in the hopes of “going back to the way things were.”
And for the moment, that’s fine, but we must do the hard work of asking about the conditions that allow such a leader to come to power in the first place.
But as the Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel points out, “we the people” are responsible, at least in part, for the sins of our leaders.
Let me explain using the example of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s groundbreaking graphic novel, V for Vendetta. In a dystopian future, Britain is ruled by a fascist government confronted by an enigmatic figure in a Guy Fawkes’ mask known only as “V”.
As Greg Carpenter points out in his excellent book, The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer (seriously! Buy this book!), “Despite his contempt for the fascist government, V places the responsibility on the people of England who have let fascism rise. That’s a bit more complicated than simply pitting the hero against the oppressive government” (33).
To one extent or another, we all imagine ourselves as heroes fighting against an oppressor, but V doesn’t make it that simple for the people of England and doesn’t allow them to appeal to “bad management.” After all, he asks in the pages of the graphic novel, in a very interesting speech between pages 113-118, “Who elected them?”
The answer is simple: “It was you!”
He goes on: “While I’ll admit that anyone can make a mistake once, to go on making the same lethal errors century after century seems to me nothing short of deliberate. You have encouraged these malicious incompetents….”
I’m sure many Black readers can appreciate the indictment of a country who century after century continues to make injurious policies to their communities, whether slavery, Jim Crow, or even the “new” Jim Crow, and let’s be clear that neither Democrat nor Republican can escape rebuke, whether because of intentional harmful action or a smiling sympathy that leads to inaction (Malcolm X warned about this).
When the same error is made over and over again (one could think of police shootings of Black men), one might be forgiven for thinking that these choices are nothing short of deliberate indeed.
Moore, showing his English working class sensibilities (writing during the Reagan/Thatcher era), further notes that people have specifically encouraged those “who have made your working life a shambles.” One can almost hear resonances of modern critiques of growing income inequality and flat wage growth post-Reagan/Thatcher.
While V condemns the people of England for their complicity and threatens to “fire them,” he generously offers them a timeline to improve their behavior.
Two years. They have two years to improve the situation. They created the conditions that allowed for the rise of fascism in England, and V assigns them the task of changing those same conditions.
V’s words have a structural similarity to the Hebrew prophets, who offered their own sometimes colorfully performative critiques of Israel. The prophets often condemned the actions of Israel and Judah’s kings, which led to grave consequences for the entire nation.
The judgment of God upon the Hebrews took many punitive forms, eventually culminating in the exile to Babylon. But one may ask, “Is it fair to judge the whole nation based on the actions of the ruler, who is only one man? Surely, such a leader has made victims of the very citizens he was supposed to protect.”
That would be a fair point, as the story of Ahab’s and Jezebel’s murder of Naboth in order to acquire his property demonstrates in 1 Kings 21.
And yet, as Abraham Heschel notes in his famous book, The Prophets, “Few are guilty, but all are responsible” (19). How can this be?
Heschel continues, “If we admit that the individual is in some measure conditioned or affected by the spirit of society, an individual’s crime discloses society’s corruption. In a community not indifferent to suffering, uncompromisingly patient with cruelty and falsehood, continually concerned for God and every man, crime would be infrequent rather than common” (19).
We must ask how our own apathy of xenophobic cruelty led to the conditions for kids in cages, or what on-going systems, structures, and rhetoric allow Black men and boys to be killed through the violence of the state. As V says, those who refuse to say “No!” to these things are complicit, as are those who don’t recognize the punitive cruelty, narcissism, and “alternative facts” from the last four years.
But the message of the prophets is not without hope. As Heschel says, “The prophet’s predictions can always be proved wrong by a change in man’s conduct” (19).
There is still time to do justly (not just punitive, but restorative), to love mercy (more than judgment), and to walk humbly with your God, and to allow truth to set us free.
This is the promise of the prophets.
Matthew Brake is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Pop Culture and Theology blog. He edits the Theology and Pop Culture series from Lexington Books/Fortress Academic and co-edits the forthcoming Claremont Press series, Religion and Comics, with A. David Lewis.