Is there ever really a situation in which we’re not ruled by someone else, even when we think we’re calling the shots? Self-rule, autonomy, is a delusion. We are utterly dependent creatures, created to be dependent upon and cared for by a good and loving God, whose law points the way to real, full, freedom. But we’ve all broken that law; we are way beyond the category of repeat offenders. We need a redeemer who loved God’s law enough to keep it, obeying it himself, suffering the deserved death penalty on behalf of lawbreakers who’d trust in him, and risen to reign not as a superhero, but a sovereign. Jesus frees us from the tyranny of autonomy and its delusional pursuits. He calls us to renounce autonomy, not just rein it in a little.
Christians call Jesus the Redeemer, and he is, but we sometimes forget that biblically, to be redeemed means to be ruled. To be redeemed means more than being brought back from bad circumstances; it means being bought back, transferred from one allegiance to another. There’s no redemption through Jesus without a renunciation of our deepest craving since humankind’s collapse in the Garden of Eden: autonomy. Watch for this pattern in society – and in your own heart! So much of what popular culture demands in the name of freedom is better understood as autonomy, literally, self-law. We want autonomy so bad that we even fantasize about extraordinary beings who can provide and protect it.
So far this century, superhero films have been wildly popular. If we’re into these characters at all, we have our favorites. When my oldest son was eight, after thinking it over, he concluded that superman was a pansy. This is just one of the many reasons I am so proud of my boy. Superman has it all – ridiculous strength; x-ray vision; the ability to fly; a full head of hair. It all comes so easy to him that he’s hard to respect. But no matter what their story or respectability, all superheroes have something in common.
Superheroes are like us, but superior in some way. They excite our imaginations about life just beyond the normal. Their stories make us wonder about what it might be like to fly, to run with super speed, or to have a full head of hair well into one’s thirties. But for all their spectacular powers, they all agree to let us rule ourselves, and we love them for it. Superheroes transcend us, but they don’t try to transform us.
We don’t even want our superheroes to be that morally good. The purer they are, the less interested we tend to be. We want some darkness and moral failure in their stories, or we’ll yawn and turn on Dead Pool instead. So far, Captain America has maintained his virtue, but just wait. If audiences start to suspect that Cap’s old-school sense of honor and self-sacrifice is more than just a healthy balance to our “anything goes” era, if they feel threatened that cap is getting too morally pure for his and our own good, writers will make him the biggest meth dealer in the Marvel universe. Admit it: “Cap Breaks Bad” would break all Avenger box office records.
Even Thor, a god who can fly between galaxies, agrees to respect our autonomy. Though earth is full of fools who keep killing each other, he won’t intervene to really restrain them. That’s what his adopted brother Loki wants to do. Loki’s the bad guy, not least because he wants to rule the fools. “Is this not your natural state? To be ruled?” he asks a crowd of terrified Germans as he displays his power. A survivor of the Nazi concentration camp responds by standing defiantly as people around him bow in fear to this new incarnation of Hitler. Then, right when Loki is about to make an example of him, Captain America shows up to save the day.
Notice that in all of these films – though I’ve not seen Deadpool nor do I plan to – any absolute rule over people is immediately equated with evil. And fair enough; Loki would be a lousy god to live under. So was the Reich. So is the United Nations, as Captain America maintains in Civil War. And so are we, as we prove every day. But is being ruled in and of itself bad, or does the badness depend upon the ruler?
In the West, especially in America, we think that not being our own gods is the ultimate evil that needs to be defeated, by slightly supernatural forces if necessary. Thor, Superman, Batman, Captain America – we love the good guys for letting us live like we want to and swooping in for the rescue only when our autonomy gets out of hand. Jesus is not like this.
The Apostle Paul tells a group of Christians in a place called Corinth: “Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God? You are not your own. You have been bought with a price. So honor God with your body.”