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Hollywood Violence and Christ’s Kenotic Counter-Example (Jacob Given)

The core of the Christian message, that Jesus liberates us from oppression and demonstrates a means of non-violent resistance to evil through his example, is not often portrayed in Hollywood. More often than not, force is met with force, violence with violence. In blockbuster films, explosions, car-chases, and raw spectacles of destruction predominate, and for good reason—violence sells.

The core of the Christian message, that Jesus liberates us from oppression and demonstrates a means of non-violent resistance to evil through his example, is not often portrayed in Hollywood. More often than not, force is met with force, violence with violence. In blockbuster films, explosions, car-chases, and raw spectacles of destruction predominate, and for good reason—violence sells.

Hollywood violence assumes many forms. Take “slasher” horror flicks, which indulge graphic violence for its own sake. The horror movie Saw,which spawned a six-sequel franchise, may be the most flagrant example of gore-for-the-sake-of-gore. We view these films to experience, much like an amusement park ride, the high that comes with disgust and horror but without the threat of real danger. Then there are action movies, many of which include stylized martial arts scenes choreographed to elicit an aesthetic reaction on our part. The lightsaber battles in the Star Wars saga come to mind, as well as the slow motion effects in the 1999 classic The Matrix, both of which set precedents for stylized action violence. Often the aesthetic quality softens the impact of violence, broadening the movie’s appeal. Even those who might be offended by graphic portrayals of violence are able to enjoy the aesthetic action sequences in, say, Guardians of the Galaxy.

The crime drama, exemplified by Francis Coppola’s The Godfather and The Godfather Part II andMartin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, represents another Hollywood staple. The plot usually turns on a hard-working American (an immigrant in the case of Vito Corleone) who comes to distrust legal authorities, finds protection from an organized crime family, and begins to acquire status, power, and wealth. An emphasis on the characters’ family values, sometimes religious in tone, is often juxtaposed with the violence and crime of the mobsters. This back-and-forth between violence and brutality on the one hand, and providing for family on the other hand highlights the dissonance between their double lives. It also explains how they justify their “business methods” — after all, they’re doing it for the wife and kids. See, for example, the famous scene in The Godfather, when Michael Corleone stands as godfather during his nephew’s baptism service. The priest recites the Latin liturgy off-screen as we view brutal assassinations being carried out per Michael’s orders. These crime films are especially valuable, because they portray not only the tragic cost of protecting privilege with violence, but also the perils of succumbing to the seduction of power and privilege in the first place.

Finally, we reach the Hollywood war movie. The war movie is particularly difficult to talk about because, when we discuss it, we also discuss political factors external to the story of the film. One’s opinion about the nation’s military, about a particular war, or even about a particular aspect of war will influence how one tells or receives a war story. Zero Dark Thirty’s depiction of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” for example, caused quite a stir.[1]

A more recent example of war violence is Eastwood’s American Sniper. This film follows Chris Kyle, the United States’ deadliest sniper, through his tours of Iraq and the effect that his deployment has on his marriage. Throughout the film, Kyle is consistently patriotic, insisting that the United States is the greatest nation on earth, and that a true patriot would do anything to defend it. There are minor notes of protest in the film, calling into question the legitimacy of the war and the virtue of patriotism. However, these minor notes are always used as a foil to highlight Chris Kyle’s unshakeable will and dedication to his country. The final scenes of the movie show footage from Kyle’s funeral procession and ceremony with a reverent tone. Then the credits scroll in silence. The final ten minutes of the movie leave the viewer with the impression that Kyle was a larger-than-life hero, leaving little room to question him or the things he did in the name of his country.

To the average viewer, this logic makes perfect sense. The example of Jesus, however, is counterintuitive. It flies in the face of our everyday notions of power and domination, a fact Paul highlights when he speaks of Christ’s kenotic “self-emptying” in the incarnation: “Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross,” (Phil. 2:6-8, ESV). Rather than opposing power through force, Christ subverts power through solidarity with the oppressed, exposing the oppressor by taking the form of a servant. He disarms worldly powers by putting them to shame, triumphing over them through the cross (Col. 2:14-15). Woodland Hills pastor Greg Boyd calls this “God’s aikido way of defeating evil,” referring to a martial art in which one redirects an opponents’ attacks against them.[2]

This “aikido logic” is not altogether absent in contemporary film. In 2014, Ava DuVernay’s Selma received a nationwide theatrical release. The film presents Martin Luther King Jr.’s activism in Selma, Alabama, where he led large demonstrations to protect the voting rights of African Americans. This movie is the closest Hollywood has come in recent years to a truly Christian understanding of liberation. King (played by David Oyelowo) uses the violence of the local authorities against itself, allowing injustice to be exposed and broadcast to the public without resorting to coercive force. The authorities’ violent reactions to the non-violent protests in Selma incriminated the police force itself. The aggression of law enforcement backfires, and King succeeds in disarming the oppressor using the oppressor’s own force.

And yet, Selma has not done nearly as well in the box office as other recent films that display an economy of lex talionis, an eye for an eye. In terms of the current gross of all movies released in 2014, American Sniper holds the number one spot with $348M, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1 ranks number two with $337M, Guardians of the Galaxy comes in third with $333M, and Selma ranks sixty-fourth with $46.4M.[3] There are a lot of factors that can contribute to this smaller number, and we have to be careful about the conclusions that we draw from the box office. Ater all, I have personally seen all of the films mentioned above, but I much prefer Selma’s portrayal of non-violent resistance, so clearly not everyone who purchases a ticket to American Sniper, or Guardians of the Galaxy automatically buys into the ideologies portrayed in those films. Nonetheless, at the very least we can say that films that function within ideologies that promote coercion and violent retaliation have done extraordinarily well.

Our response need not be to boycott films that rely on violence or push a nationalist agenda. Rather, I ask that we political theologians carefully engage and make explicit this violent ideology when we see it so that our faith communities do not consume these agendas uncritically. Hollywood produces what we consume, and we consume what Hollywood produces. Perhaps the job of the political theologian, then, is to interrupt this cycle of uncritical consumption and production and remind our faith communities that their deeper identity is in one who stands with the oppressed, exposing the bankrupt economy of violence on which Hollywood relies. By utilizing and exposing the aggression of the persecutor, Christ is able to non-violently neutralize oppressive systems. Jesus’ death is our victory; his subjection to oppression is our liberation from it. Christ is victorious on our behalf through his self-emptying.


Jacob Given is an M.A. Candidate in the Theology and Religious Studies program at Villanova University. His interests lie at the intersection of philosophy and theology, including especially Kierkegaard studies, phenomenology, and hermeneutics.


[1] Samuel G. Freedman, “’Zero Dark Thirty,’Through a Theological Lens,”New York Times, February 22, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/23/us/a-theological-view-of-zero-dark-thirty.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[2] Greg Boyd, “God’s Aikido Way of Defeating Evil,”ReKnew. reknew.org, 5:43, posted on April 1, 2013, http://reknew.org/2013/04/gods-aikido-way-of-defeating-evil/

[3] As of May 4th, 2015. IMDB. “Top-US-Grossing feature Films Released in 2014,”http://www.imdb.com/search/title?sort=boxoffice_gross_us&start=1&title_type=feature&year=2014,2014



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