Infinity War and the Value of Life

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The latest Marvel Universe movie breaks the traditional mold. Though, they keep it light with typical witty banter and comedic interludes, a heavier topic of sacrifice and failure is depicted. Yes, in this movie, the heroes fail. As sad as this is, the greatest tension in the film comes not from its dark ending but from the characters’  struggle with the decision of who is sacrificed for the greater good. *Spoiler alert*

Who Gets to Decide?

The antagonist, Thanos, is the ultimate pragmatist who sees overpopulation as the greatest evil. His plan is to collect the six infinity stones, not just for his own power, but to enact what he thinks is the best plan–to weed out half of the population of the universe and bring balance to the world. He poses himself as a god-like being with fatherly attributes, even calling his followers and conquered peoples, his children. He comforts himself in the midst of evil with the idea that he is doing what is best for the world. Loki’s dying words to Thanos though are “You will never be a god!” It is Thanos’s lack of valuing life that makes him a monster. This stands in opposition to the Marvel superheroes who indeed value life, but whose actions, however,  often imitate, rather than contrast, Thanos’s greatest faults.

This is because the superheroes like Thanos are still the ones who decide who lives and who dies, often based on their own preferences. This is seen clearly in Captain America: Civil War that focuses on the after-effects of two encounters that leave their enemies defeated but many innocent dead. In particular, Wanda and Stark feel the guilt of the lives taken, especially as they learn the names and histories of these victims. The world is tired of this vigilante justice and seeks to place the Avengers under the power of the United Nations by having them sign the Sokovia Accords.

This causes a rift in the team with Stark and others choosing to sign while Captain America refuses. He believes that signing the accords would limit their ability to do good, and he still trusts in his ability to make the right choice.

Aren’t They Doing the Same Thing?

In this mind frame, Captain America is very similar to Thanos. Both rely on their own understanding to determine the best course of action. The difference though is also clear. Thanos is willing to sacrifice others, including his beloved Gamorah, to accomplish his vision, while, if needed, Captain America is willing to sacrifice himself.

In fact, this trait of sacrificing for others is seen by all the Marvel superheroes. Spiderman decides to stay on the spaceship leaving earth in order to help save Dr. Strange. He comments that he couldn’t be the friendly neighborhood Spiderman if there’s no neighborhood. The snarky Dr. Strange also displays this willingness to sacrifice when, after stating adamantly that he will choose to the protect the stone over Spiderman or Stark, releases the stone to Thanos to save Stark’s life.  As Thor says many times throughout his movies, this is what a hero does. And this is why, despite the ambivalence the people often feel towards their superheroes, they ultimately trust them. They know they will sacrifice themselves if needed.

Despite these noble tendencies, though, we also see inconsistencies in their moral logic. When Vision offers to sacrifice himself by allowing them to destroy the infinity stone he has in his head, Steve Rogers (no longer Captain America) says he won’t trade lives.  Instead, however, an army of Wakanda men and women and other heroes fight the incoming forces in order to buy the time needed for Shuri, Black Panther’s sister and a scientist, to safely remove it. This ploy, however, requires the sacrifice of hundreds just to save Vision’s life, and it ultimately proves useless. Is this a fair valuing of life?

Sacrificing Family for the Good of Others

The Marvel universe is not the only universe to struggle with this balance of sacrifice and life. The great Christian heroes of our past made decisions that brought life and freedom to others but pain and hardship to themselves and their families. Great missionaries like Hudson Taylor, to whom many Chinese Christians can trace their spiritual lineage, often buried wives and children who succumbed to the difficult life. In addition, history reveals stories of great men and women who put their families in peril to rescue others during horrible events like the Holocaust.

These people made a decision of sacrifice that not only impacted themselves but those around them. Did they have the right to make that decision for others?

There is no easy answer to these questions for we know both things to be true: that life is immeasurably valuable and that sometimes we must sacrifice this for the greater good. What we don’t always know is when or how this is required. Any person who seeks to serve God with their lives will feel this tension between serving people and protecting the boundaries of family and self.

What Is the Right Way?

We are all not all called to be martyrs of life or liberty, but we are all called to be willing. In this mindset, we leave room for God to do His work and to orchestrate a plan that might seem nonsensical on this side of eternity, but that we know takes into account the inherent value of every person.  We know in Jesus we serve the one true hero with whom with “whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17 ESV). He is not cold and calculating like Thanos, and he is not inconstant like our loveable Marvel superheroes. Neither Thanos in his pragmatic and selfish vision or the Marvel heroes with their unselfish but inconsistent vision can accomplish Jesus’s redemptive and consistent plan of salvation. This is something no mortal or imagined immortal can ever accomplish, but is the very thing that makes Jesus our penultimate hero and, therefore, completely worthy of our trust.

Learning to Feast

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I am a person who knows how to survive but not a person who always knows how to feast. My family, like many others,  often went through the motions of family celebrations like Thanksgiving but without the heart behind it. Years of hurt would fill the room like a noxious gas, stifling and heavy.  Though I did not perceive it clearly as a child, this has affected my ability to truly feast as God intended.

As I grew older, this expressed itself in my pragmatic nature that sought to do the bare minimum when it came to celebrations, not because I did not care, but because I did not have an example to follow. I worried about cost and time and whether the energy was worth my investment. Weighing and balancing every ounce, I brought my own noxious fumes into every celebration–fumes of deprivation and want.

I have prided myself on my efficiency, but I am starting to see that the driving force behind this meticulous calculation is fear.

God Loves to Feast

It is not so with God. The most glaring evidence of God’s lavishness is creation itself. Without any apparent reason, He has sprinkled, no poured, beauty out upon us—many times in places that no human eyes can even feast upon it. We are surrounded by a spectrum of colors and smells and tastes that are downright dizzying in their diversity. These things have no real purpose in creation either–we don’t need to taste food in order to eat it. Yet, we do taste–flavorful dishes that not only meet our physical needs, but also overwhelm us with texture and nuances of flavor.

Read more here.

A Quest for Home

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I’ll never forget the moment when I finished reading Charlotte Bronte’s book Jane Eyre.  I was on a train in China, travelling to Beijing for our debriefing after teaching English in a Chinese boarding school for a year. I was part of a team ten and a family who had come to China to be ESL teachers as a means of sharing the Gospel. On this particular night, I finished the book late in the evening.  The overhead lights had been turned off, and being before the time of smartphones with flashlights, I had to crouch on the floor to read by the dim ground lights marking the aisle. I remember the euphoria I felt when I completed the book, how I fell back in my bed, feeling triumphant inside. It is not because the ending of Jane Eyre is particularly happy in many ways; instead, I was happy because Jane Eyre had finally found home.

A Quest I Can Relate To

I knew this search.  My life had been filled with various degrees of home where, despite the love of my very good father, tension and chaos often reigned. I longed for a day where I too would find a place where I truly belonged–a place where I could be safe at last.   

This desire for home is definitely a biblical theme.  When studying the book of Ruth, I came across study materials that outlined the major themes.  There were, of course, the obvious ones like loyalty, sacrifice, and redemption. However, the lesson went on to comment that this book was primarily about a quest.  As a fantasy-lover, this certainly got my attention. The notes continued to state that this was a quest for home. When I understood that, it reshaped the way I viewed the book of Ruth. I saw, for the first time, the motivation behind Ruth’s intense determination to stay with Naomi.

Ruth’s Fierce Determination

Ruth was from Moab, the land Naomi and Elimilech fled to during the famine in Israel. The Moabites were a people descended from the incestuous relationship between Lot and one of his daughters. They were often in conflict with Israel despite the family connection. Most notably, they did not worship the God of Israel; instead, they worshipped Chemosh, most likely requiring human sacrifice. This was Ruth’s world: disgrace, conflict, uncertainty.

Then Naomi and Elimilech and their two sons come onto the scene.  Ruth married one of these sons and lived with the family for about ten years. During this time, Ruth surely saw something she desired, a glimpse of truth that was new to her. When both sons and the father die, Naomi decides to return to Israel.  She releases the women back to their families to marry again in their own culture. Ruth refuses. Instead,

… Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”

Why should she be so determined? Perhaps it is because she saw in this imperfect family a picture of the perfect God. This God who creates a home for His people, both in the garden for Adam and Eve and in Israel for the descendants of Abraham.  Because of this glimpse, Ruth is unwilling to go back to her previous family and their culture of death.

Jane Eyre’s Quest

Jane Eyre, in the novel and in the BBC video series, is searching for a home also.  Orphaned as a child, she is sent to live with an aunt who does not want her. She is abused and neglected and then finally sent away to a boarding school that reflects the horrors of Charlotte Bronte’s real life experience. Jane determines to make a future for herself by excelling in school so that she can find a job as a governess.  In time, this dream comes to fruition. She finds a position as governess for Mr. Rochester’s ward in the isolated, and somewhat gloomy, Thornfield. Despite its ominous mood, Jane finds a home here–a place where she is first treated with respect and value.

In true Gothic style, there is mystery, intrigue, and a romance between Jane and Mr. Rochester. But, on what should be the happiest day of Jane’s life, her wedding day to Mr. Rochester, a terrible revelation necessitates her leaving Thornfield forever.  Through no fault of her own, she has lost her home.

The Pain of Displacement

We all know this sense of loss. It has been the human experience since the Garden of Eden. Jen Pollock Michel in her book Keeping Place notes:

The biblical narrative begins and ends at home.  From the Garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem we are hardwired for place and for permanence, for rest and refuge, for present and protection. We long for home because welcome was our first gift of grace and it will be our last. (p. 33)

Michel goes on to quote another author who states that “displacement is the heart of God’s judgment” (p. 33).  She continues to explain that “the biblical drama can be divided into three acts: implacement, displacement, and rseimplacement” (p. 33). We are placed in the garden in a perfect world, but sin causes our displacement. We live in this era, waiting for the hope of our future reimplacement in a world that cannot be sullied by sin again.

Ruth too lives in this era of longing, and it is her longing that encourages her, without a tangible plan, to take the risk of being a foreigner among a people who most likely will dislike her.  However, this step of faith is rewarded by the God who always sees. Once back in Israel, God directs her to collect the gleanings from the land that belongs to Boaz. Boaz is a righteous man, who, observing Ruth, creates a place of safety for her.

She is overwhelmed by his generosity, so he explains:

But Boaz answered her, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told to me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. The Lord repay you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!”

A Home at Last

And the Lord does repay her by using Boaz as the kinsman redeemer. When Israel was first settled, God allotted land according to families. In order to keep the land within families, a custom was created where a redeemer, a close relative, would redeem the land of a family who is in need (Leviticus 25: 23-28).  In Naomi’s case, her situation includes the need for an heir. To be the kinsman redeemer, Boaz had to relinquish his firstborn to Naomi to carry on her family’s lineage and inheritance. This is a risk for him who cannot guarantee that Ruth will have more than one child. In fact, there is a closer relative than Boaz who refuses to act as kinsman redeemer for this very reason.  Boaz is not afraid to take this risk, however, and is rewarded by being the grandfather of King David and in the lineage of Christ himself. Through Boaz, the kinsman redeemer, Ruth finally finds a home.

After Jane Eyre’s dramatic departure from Thornfield, a few remarkable events occur. For one, she becomes the heir of an uncle she never met and learns of cousins of which she knew nothing. For the first time in her life, Jane is surrounded by a family that loves her, which she values more than the money she inherits. The blessing does not end here because the obstacle that prevented her from marrying Mr. Rochester is now removed. She returns to Thornfield though to find it a husk of its former grandeur, having been burned, and Mr. Rochester, blind and alone.

He, at first, is unwilling to burden Jane with himself, disabled as he now is, but her love overcomes his fear, and they are finally wed.  In the BBC version of the movie, the last scene shows Jane and Mr. Rochester, her cousins, and their two children among others adopted into the family, posing happily for a family picture. The joy is palpable even through a television screen.  Gone are the gloomy and foreboding images from before. Now they are surrounded by sunshine and flowers and a welcoming home in the background.

Our Quest Can Have a Happy Ending

We too have a hope for a happy ending. Jesus Himself, our very own kinsman redeemer,  is preparing our new home. He tells his disciples in John 14:1-3 (ESV):

Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.

We are not to be left homeless and family-less.  He has already paved the way for our new home, for which we wait with anticipation, just as creation itself does (Romans 8). I am often amazed by the beauty of this world where the stamp of death and decay is still prevalent.  Imagine a new home where this will not be the case! Revelation 21:1-4 (ESV) gives us a peek at this new world:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place[a] of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

We will finally be in a home that encapsulates our heart’s cry since we were first cast out the garden.  We will no longer be separated from God and at the mercies of the evils of our world, our own cultures of death. Instead, we are invited on a quest towards our real home. We can, like Ruth, go on our own quests, not being satisfied with what the world has to offer, but determinedly pursuing that which is better. In this way, we will be able to anticipate a family reunion marked with joy and beauty that will put in the shadows what was experienced before.

Photo by Evelyn Paris on Unsplash

Stuck

The other night I tried to open a jar that just wouldn’t budge. I tried all my tricks–knocking the edge of the cap and even stabbing it with a knife to release the pressure. Nothing worked. In fact, I tried so hard that I felt something twist in my shoulder (thank you, forties). I finally gave up and called my husband to try. I must admit I was a little pleased that he also wasn’t able to open it easily, but, eventually he was able to exert enough effort. We were rewarded with the satisfying pop of the pressure relieved within the jar.

Sometimes life feels like that. In an effort to keep things together, we put the lid on tight. Before long, the pressure within makes the lid almost impossible to remove. What starts as a method of preservation instead becomes a trap.

I have been learning that my attempts to keep myself safe often result in me being stuck. With my lid on tight, I can’t share the contents within that are meant to be shared. Instead, as in the sad case of my aforementioned jar, I could learn it has expired.

I know this is where I need help. Like Eustace trapped in the dragon body in the Narnia Chronicles, I need some divine assistance to get free. My tricks aren’t enough to get me unstuck. While I wait, though, I will not be afraid of being stuck. I will choose to trust He is coming and that He can and will handle my situation in His perfect timing.

*Written in response to Five Minute Friday Prompt

Learning to Walk through the Storms of Our Emotions

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Emotions scare me. Perhaps one reason is that I grew up in a home riddled with bipolar disorder and unforgiveness and regret. There was always so much emotion and no safe way to process it. As a kid, I withdrew. I read books and escaped to places where complicated situations unraveled nicely by the end of the story. The tumultuous years of teenage-hood tested me, and I found I was less equipped to deal with the emotions within me than I had been equipped as a child to deal with the emotions around me.  It’s harder to hide from yourself, so I learned to reason my way through things. If I found them unreasonable, I shut down the emotion.

There have been benefits to this.  I was rarely carried away by emotions to do things I might regret. As a young person in college, this protected me from a lot of stupid decisions that I saw my peers making around me.  There was one emotion that I could not control though. My life was permeated through and through with fear.

Fear that I would mess up. You see, the downfall to being in control is fearing your ability to lose control, to fail.  This was who I was in college: young (I went at 16 years old), controlled, but afraid. And then Jesus happened.

The Power of the Gospel on My Emotions

While I controlled my emotions for the most part, they still whispered to me.  They told me that happiness was around the corner. If I was independent, out of the crazy home, then I could finally stop being afraid.  Away from home, though, I found I was more fearful. Everything depended on me doing things right. I was doing well in school, but I realized I didn’t even know who I was.

One night, a friend gave me a Christian book about a man’s experience with God.  It was powerful, it was personal, and it was emotional. His story spoke to my deepest fear of being alone, of having to depend completely on myself and how dreadfully afraid of failing I was.  That night, all by myself, I got on my knees and prayed that He would speak to me.

“Everything depended on me doing things right.  I was doing well in school, but I realized I didn’t even know who I was.”

My life was totally different the next day.  I’d love to say the difference was God–I’m sure some of it was, but a large part was me still being in control.  Instead of trying to please people though, I was on a mission to please God.

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