I took my son to see Captain America: Civil War on opening weekend. If you haven’t seen it, I will warn you ahead of time about the post. I am not trying to spoil anything and I won’t give away any surprises but I am going to talk about the overarching plot line. So you have your spoiler warning and can decide if you want to keep reading. I hope the post still makes sense without the movie but it is definitely heightened when you know the example I am using.
I thought the movie was tremendous. Not only was it everything you could ever want from a superhero movie but because it wrestled with a few important themes.
The two main themes I want to explore today are the need for community in decision making and revenge.
First, community. What fascinated me in this story was how both Captain America and Iron Man were totally convinced they were right. And I think each of them had good reasons to be as convicted as they were. It was so interesting because both sides came to the decision on their own. Both believed they were doing the right thing as an individual. In the end, one was proved right and the other proved wrong. But their decision making process and conviction was entirely the same. Which is fascinating. It almost makes the end result of who is right and who is wrong a matter of luck and circumstance.
I also noticed that neither Cap nor Iron Man really sought much outside advice, they only got people to “join their side.” All too often this is how we do things. We decide as an individual what is right and what is wrong, and then we simply look for confirmation of what we have already decided. It draws lines in the sand, we take sides, and then we have no choice but to fight those who are on the opposing side. Which is how enemies are made.
The other dominant theme in the movie is revenge. The movie depicts really well what happens when revenge takes hold of someone. The main conflict is motivated by revenge, we see what happens to people when they become consumed with revenge, and we even catch a glimpse of what happens when someone breaks the cycle. The movie portrays how the desire for revenge can not only destroy one person but it seeps out and affects those around you.
Revenge is a vicious cycle which increases the violence with each revolution and drags in more and more people (for a brilliant example, read the story of Sampson – then listen to this). We want revenge because we have been hurt or wronged, but we always want to hurt the other person a little bit more than they hurt us. As we seek to do so, we drag more and more people into it which means more and more people get hurt, and thus more and more people desire revenge. Which is the basic plot of Civil War.
There was a line towards the end of the epic the battle of the heroes which stuck with me. The people who are supposed to be all on the same team have thrown all they have at each other and there is wreckage and beat up super heroes everywhere. Captain America has one of the other heroes in a position to really end the fight and asks: What do I do? Falcon tells him to keep moving because “this is not the real fight.”
My son and I spent Saturday morning deciding if we were team Iron Man or Team Cap and he kept wanting to know who was going to win. At the end of the movie he asked me: Who won? The answer is really: no one. The heroes fighting each other was actually the wrong battle. And when you are fighting the wrong battle, no one wins.
If haven’t read the Anselm prayer, I encourage you to go back and reflect on it. It takes a little bit of unpacking, but when you do it is extremely profound and deep.
First, I think Cap and Anselm teach us we need to make sure we are fighting the right battles.
The Anselm prayer reminds me that loving our enemies actually is a fight. Loving our enemies never comes naturally or without hard work. We are trained to think dualistically. We often believe we have made the right choice because there is another option. By labeling something wrong, I feel right. And those who are wrong become enemies we must fight.
But Jesus comes to show us we are all on the same team. Not just Christians, but all of us.
Anselm’s prayer reminds us how all human beings have the same standing with God. We are all in need of love. We all screw up, we all have faults. What Anselm’s prayer seeks to do is remind us that our enemies are loved and valued as much as we are to God. And so Anselm takes the next step and asks God to give to his enemies the same way God gives to him.
This is a profoundly disorienting prayer to pray. But it is trying to get us to fight the real fight.
As I mentioned a few weeks ago: our fight is not against flesh and blood. If we pray Anselm’s prayer we fight the real fight. We are fighting the internal capacity to demonize, fear, hate and do violence to those who are other. Our fight is not against that person we dislike. The fight is within.
The real fight is against the things (call them forces, Satan, spiritual powers, or even just circumstances and events if you need to) which keep us from loving our neighbor. The real fight is to make sure we are not making enemies out of the people who are on our side.
When we chose to love our enemies, when we chose to forgive those who have wronged us, when we refuse to let our opinions and beliefs divide us, we enter into the real fight and stop the cycle of revenge.
We also get a glimpse of this in the movie. When the cycle of revenge is stopped, something new happens. Revenge makes things worse and involves more and more people. Small acts of love and forgiveness for those who do not deserve it open up the possibility of an entirely different way of living.
Second, Anselm’s prayer reminds us loving our enemies is not something we can do alone.
We cannot reverse the patterns of revenge and enemy making with only individual effort. In fact, Civil War reminds us that our individual certainty is often what creates enemies in the first place.
When we have lots of diverse voices in our lives, it frees us from our own individual blindspots. We make better decisions and we stop making enemies out of those who aren’t really enemies. We see the world a little more clearly and know the battles we truly need to fight.
Anselm knows individual effort alone is not enough, so he calls on the power of God. He recognizes that there needs to be something beyond his own power to truly transform him into the kind of person who loves his enemies.
When we pray Anselm’s prayer we not only call on the power of God, but we are entering into the long, historical stream of Christianity. We pray together with Anselm and all the of the people who have prayed the Anselm prayer. We are lifted up on the shoulders of those who have come before us and enter into the transformative power of God.
Loving our enemies is no easy task. But the beauty of Anselm’s prayer is that we do not do it alone. He gives us the seeds we need to plant: We set our will, we pray this counterintuitive, historical, communal prayer, and we ask God to make it grow.