“Let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or a meddler. But if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed but let him glorify God in having that name.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
The story of God lies at the heart of all of our stories. Because He is the creator of all there is, and because He left His fingerprints all over it, this shouldn’t come as any surprise. What this means in practice is that if you pay attention to the stories we tell, you are highly likely to find at least a whisper of the Gospel in them somewhere. Perhaps the authors intended to put it in, but far more often, it is there without the authors’ even being aware of it. This past week, I found yet another example of this. Come back with me to the series, Young Justice, and let’s talk about why the end of the third season was the best moment of the series so far.
I’m not going to give much background on the series here because I did that a couple of weeks ago. You can find that post here. Suffice to say for now that it is a superhero cartoon rooted in the DC Comics universe. It’s based on the sidekicks of the various members of the Justice League (think: Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, and etc.), although by the third season they have all mostly come into their own as heroes.
The third season opens with the Justice League’s apparently fracturing into pieces over the increasingly restrictive conditions under which they must operate thanks to the United Nations’ constant oversight. The UN in the series functions much more like a supranational governing body than it does in real life. From watching the series, we should indeed be grateful this is only a comic book fantasy. In any event, the reason for the increasingly tight operating bubble is that the UN is led by Superman’s arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor, as the Secretary General. He’s there as a member of The Light, a kind of secret council of supervillains with plans to eventually control all life in the entire galaxy, and which has functioned as the main antagonist for the entire series.
The League’s fracturing, however, is only a ruse. The deception is only known to a handful of members – Batman, Aquaman (a title which has been passed to the former Aqualad who was a founding member of Young Justice), Nightwing (the former Robin), M’gann M’orzz (aka Miss Martian, the niece of Martian Manhunter), Wonder Woman, Robin (Tim Drake, who took on the mantle after Nightwing left it), and Oracle (Barbara Gordon, who was originally Batgirl but was paralyzed in a fight with The Joker, and who now provides tech support for the entire team). This allows them to each form an apparently independent team whose overall aim is to try to thwart the Light’s goals by playing their game better than they do.
Because no one knows about the larger picture than this handful of heroes, all of them are forced throughout the season to make a number of very difficult choices which include lying to close friends and loved ones, and placing people in harm’s way who are completely clueless both of the real harm they are in, but also that they are really working for and with heroes they would never support if they knew.
One of these heroes is Jefferson Pierce, aka Black Lightning (who was actually the focus of an eponymous live action series on the CW Network). In addition to struggling with balancing being a superhero and a divorced father, his disgust at Batman’s apparent refusal to play by the rules the League had adopted for themselves leads him to resign his position from the League entirely. When he is later recruited by Nightwing for a secret, non-League mission, he is willing to go along and help based on his assumption that it indeed doesn’t have anything to do with the League…which isn’t true. The mission goes awry, and he winds up drawn back into the business to serve as a mentor to a group of new young heroes.
By the time of the climax of the season, Jefferson finally discovers the truth about the ruse of this smaller group of League members and is understandably incredibly upset. This group had been trafficking in lies for months. They may have told themselves over and over that they were doing it in order to beat the bad guys at their own game, but each time they lied, they were selling more and more of their soul off, and becoming more and more like the very people they were trying to defeat.
To bring a far too long summary to a close (you try to summarize 26-episodes in five short paragraphs), in the denouement of the season, Jefferson has forgiven the other League members for their deception, and has had a change of heart about his total disavowal of the League. He actually winds up being elected as the leader of the League. Upon accepting the position, he takes a moment to make a statement about his vision for the League and the kind of work they will be doing going forward.
He says this: “We all believe the League needs course correction, because we’re all afraid of the same tired old story. ‘The hero gets lost fighting the good fight and becomes the very thing he or she is fighting against.’ And, sure, it happens. Vandal Savage, Teth Adam, Ra’s al Ghul. And now, sadly, Geo-Force. But it will not happen again. Not to any of us. Because from here on out, we will not keep secrets from each other. We need each other to know each other’s secrets to keep each other on the straight and narrow. No more making decisions to protect each other from the choices we might be forced to make. In this League, the ends will not justify the means! We will not sink to using the methods of our enemies. We will keep our covert team, not for the sake of it being covert, but because it affords our young heroes a place to learn out of the spotlight. But, otherwise, like the Outsiders, we must live in each others’ spotlights. If we fail while doing right, then at least we went down swinging on our own terms. But in the long term, we will not fail. Holding firm to our principles will guide us to an honorable victory! Now, let’s get down to business.”
And as I sat and listened to this speech, I found myself nodding more and more vigorously along with him because he was basically making the same argument Peter did in his first letter to believers living scattered across Asia Minor. Peter’s point with them, like Jefferson’s with the Justice League, is that we cannot effectively stand against our ideological opponents using the same methods and tactics they are using against us. If we respond to the hatred of our enemies with hatred of our own, we’re not going to be accomplishing anything but introducing more hatred into the world which is rather decidedly not how to effectively advance the kingdom of God.
Pretty much every single person who contributed to the New Testament made a similar point somewhere along the lines of their argument: following Jesus is hard, and if you do it well, the world is going to come after you for it. The world won’t play fair and you are going to be the victim of that. Sounds fun, right?
When this happens, we have a choice to make. We can give in to and go along with the world and its demands of us. This gets the world off of our backs, yes, but it also separates us from God thanks to our embrace of sin. (All that accomplishes, by the way, is to increase the overall amount of sin in the world which benefits exactly nobody.) The second choice we have is to resist the world in order to pursue the kingdom of God.
Simply because we choose to resist, though, doesn’t mean our course forward is all charted out for us. We have a second choice of how we will go about resisting. We can resist by joining in the world’s game and trying to beat it on its own turf, or we can model our resistance after the pattern of Jesus.
Choosing the world’s approach as our path to resistance is easy to do. In fact, it is the far more natural choice here. That allows us to be angry and vindictive and divisive and small-minded and so on and so forth. It allows us to embrace our sin nature, scratching that itch rather thoroughly, all the while looking and claiming we are doing it for the sake of the Gospel. We talk like the church and look like the world. It’s the best of both. At least, that’s what we tell ourselves.
The truth is that it’s the worst of both. It’s the worst of both in the worst possible way. When we take this route, we don’t distinguish ourselves from the world at all because we are using its tactics. At the same time, in our claims of fidelity to Christ, we show the world a version of Christianity which can easily attract a crowd because it promises all the benefits without demanding any of the sacrifices, but it isn’t actually true and so isn’t able by itself to lead anyone to salvation. In fact, because it is essentially a twisted copy of the original, it leads people away from Christ all the while thinking they’re solid with Him. Plus, when we resist the world using the world’s tactics, the world will feel perfectly justified in going after us with all of its fury.
The other option is the path Jefferson set before the Justice League and which Peter sets before us as followers of Jesus. This path is not on an equal footing with the other paths in terms of ease of access. It is harder. It is often much harder. This path will require us to deny ourselves and refuse to give in to the screaming desires of our heart to respond in kind when we are mocked and abused and persecuted by the people arrayed against us – including fellow believers who have chosen to take the last path. It will put us in a place where it seems we are simply opening the door to our being taken advantage of by a world all too happy to oblige our apparent weakness with even more abuse and derision. Yet in taking this path, we are refusing to lay our profession of faith in Christ on the altar of our personal desires for retribution and justification for our anger and resentment. In this, we will be committing ourselves to the victory Christ has already won. We will honor our confession and bring glory to our king. We will also show the world what kingdom life looks like. And while not nearly all of them will respond to it, some will. Some will see our righteousness and question their own pursuit of self-righteousness, finally concluding that our path – the path of Christ – is the better one to take. Gospel resistance like this, is about the Gospel, not us, and so the Gospel it will advance. In this, we will always win. Indeed, in this we can’t lose.
Our culture is divided and angry in ways that are unique to our age. Yes, there have been divisions in the past, but while the divisions were sharp, there was a common worldview most people shared, and which allowed them to see each other as fellow citizens and even brothers and sisters in the Lord when all the dust settled. That’s gone now. The curtain is pulled back and the invitation to respond in kind rather than with the kindness of Christ is insistent and demanding. We dare not give in lest we lose ourselves and the battle. Taking the path of Christ here will lead to an honorable victory. The honor will not be for us, but for Him, and that’s always the goal.
Who would have imagined Gospel wisdom from an animated superhero TV series that was originally billed for kids, but is now packaged for adults. Yet all stories are at their base tinged by the Gospel. If we look carefully enough, we can just almost always find it.