Peacemakers

Matthew 5:1-9
February 14, 2021
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

This past Wednesday, the actress Gina Carano lost her job with Lucasfilms.  Carano was on the television series “The Mandalorian,” and for those not familiar with it, the Mandalorian is a show set in the Star Wars universe.  Even those of you who have never watched it may have heard of its most beloved character, Baby Yoda, and in the show, Gina Carano played a ‘tough as nails’ mercenary who helped the Mandalorian protect Baby Yoda from evil men.  Draped in body armor, decorated with battle tattoos, and packing knives and guns, Carano’s character decimated the bad guys with her impressive martial arts moves and well aimed shots from her blaster.  She was one awesome rebel.

Gina Carano, however, will no longer be playing the trigger happy warrior because on her real-life Twitter account, Carano posted anti-semitic statements, mocked transgendered people, and spread conspiracy theories about the election and Covid-19.  Lucasfilms said that they decided not to renew her contract for another season because “her social media posts denigrating people based on their cultural and religious identities are abhorrent and unacceptable.”

Let me say upfront that I agree with Lucasfilms’ decision: the kind of hateful words that Carano tweeted were similar to the social media posts which led to the attack on the Capitol on January 6th, and Lucasfilms has the right to disassociate itself from people whose speech they feel contributes to the increasing violence in our society.  At the same time, however, I can’t help but note the strange juxtaposition here:  Lucasfilms, which has cinematically killed thousands of fictional characters in explosions and laser battles and destroyed entire planets with the beam of the Death Star feels that the real life hateful words of an actress might “harm their reputation.”  Their reputation for what?  Their reputation for producing ‘peace loving, all people are worthy of our respect’ kinds of films?  Can the Star Wars universe grounded in cinematic violence be sullied by the real-life bigotry of one of their actresses?  And yet at the same time, I can’t call them out for hypocrisy because while I, too find Carano’s tweets incredibly disturbing for their potential to inflame violence, I also have to confess that I watch the Mandalorian and enjoy it.   For Christmas, John gave me a Star Wars light saber knowing that I would appreciate the nerdy-ness of the gift and he and I had mock battles with it.  Moreover, I have blasted zombies to smithereens with Mathew and Stacy on the X-box; I have laughed when Wile Coyote fell off a cliff, and I regularly read and watch murder mysteries for entertainment.  I suspect that I’m not the only one listening today who abhors the hate and violence people inflict upon one another while at the same time enjoying an exciting crime thriller.

What is the difference between being a violent person and just playing one on TV? 

I believe that the answer to that question is crucial to our understanding of Jesus’ command to be peacemakers here in Matthew 5.  As strange as it may seem, I think that we can learn how to make peace by looking at how Lucasfilms makes cinematic violence.  Bear with me while I lay out my argument.  You may want to take notes!

To begin with, I am basing my case on this assumption:  I believe that human beings prefer peace to violence.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes the way in which God would have us live together, and in that vision for society, God blesses the merciful, the humble, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers and I think that he describes the kind of world that all of us long for.  If I were to take a poll right now of all American people — of all the people around the globe, in fact — and ask, “Would you rather live in a peaceful neighborhood or a violent neighborhood?” the results would be nearly unanimous for peace.  Who would answer, “I would love to live in a violent neighborhood where every time I go out for groceries I have to watch my back?”  Even members of gangs belong to gangs because they believe that they are safer in the gang than out of it.  We all want peace at least for ourselves because no one wants to live in fear for their lives nor worry about the safety of their families.  If we disagree about peace, it isn’t over its value but over how to achieve it and who deserves it.  There are pacifists who say the only way to lasting peace is by living every moment non-violently, while at the other extreme are those who argue that the only way to get to peace is to first overturn current power structures through war or violent protest.  And again, we might disagree on whose peace we are striving for: some might argue that peace for only a few is not peace at all, while others would be willing to discard the peace of their neighbors if it means their own family’s peace will be secured.  So we may disagree on how to achieve peace, we may disagree on who deserves peace, we may disagree on whether it is ok to use violence in order to achieve peace, but as human beings I think we all agree that peace — at least for our families — is a valuable thing and we are disturbed when something threatens to take that peace away.

If my axiom is true — that human beings prefer peace to violence — then it is necessary for producers who are making an action series, and who require violence to ratchet up the suspense, to find a way for their audience to go against our natural inclination and become comfortable with a heavy dose of violence.  How do they do that?  

Looking at how they do that is key to understanding how we do the reverse as peacemakers.  In other words, if you want to know how to follow the call of Christ and make peace, just look at how Lucasfilms makes us comfortable with violence and then do the opposite.  So let’s go back to Lucasfilms and the Star Wars universe and I pick on them because even the most culturally ignorant among us is familiar with Star Wars.

1.  The bad guys in the Star Wars universe are always ridiculously bad.  They have little human warmth about them; no sense of humor; they don’t just shoot people but destroy entire planets with glee while the good guys, even the ones packing guns, demonstrate noble feelings, loyalty, compassion for the vulnerable, moments of tenderness, self-depreciating humor, and moral courage. Even the rogues do the right thing in the end.  Violence as entertainment requires a very dualistic universe of right and wrong, good guys and bad guys, lovable characters and despicable extreme enemies.  There is always an “us” with which we are to identify as the good guys and a “them” — the bad guys — who are so alien that they are unworthy of our compassion. 

2.  In the Star Wars universe, the bad guys are dehumanized by their storm trooper uniforms. There are hundreds of faceless white suited storm troopers chasing our embattled heroes and if dozens of them fall in an explosion, we know that there will be hundreds of identical ones waiting to replace them.  Again, this is intentional on the part of the script writers.  If one of those storm troopers took off his uniform so that you could see he had red hair just like your favorite cousin and an endearing dimple when he smiled, and if you were told that his name was Sam and that Sam had two young children at home, and just as you were learning all of this, the hero nonchalantly blasted a hole through Stormtrooper Sam’s heart leaving his children fatherless, our hero wouldn’t seem so heroic.  By keeping the enemy faceless — by denying the enemy individuality and assuming that if we know one of them, we know them all of them — Lucasfilms allows us to forget their humanity. 

3.  Finally, in the Star Wars Universe, the bad guys rarely bleed.  When the heroes mow them down with their battle lasers, the storm troopers don’t lie wounded and bleeding on the battle field, groaning in pain, and calling out for their mothers in agony.  We do see pain in the films but it is always the hero’s pain: Luke Skywalker cries out as he loses his hand, Han Solo groans from torture.  The good guys bleed and hurt and suffer but the bad guys die with barely a peep, and when the worst of the worst of the bad guys dies, they often conveniently fall into a deep canyon or disintegrate into powder and smoke so that we don’t even have to look at them stilled by death. They don’t feel what we feel and their death is not a tragedy.

In order to make violence acceptable to us, movie makers and television producers create a dualistic world where the good are lovable, relatable, and human while the bad are faceless, bloodless, and animals because the movie makers know that dehumanizing the enemy will make it easier for us, the audience, to delight in their destruction.

Which is why Lucasfilms also knew that Gina Carano’s tweets were so dangerous to our society because she was using those same tactics in real life.  Her tweets, and the words of so many like her, create a dualistic universe of good versus evil; of us versus them; they dehumanize whole groups of people, strip them of their individuality, deny their capacity for real pain, and make it easier for us to discard our natural inclination to compassion and peace and choose instead violence.  In an article on hate speech, Dr. H. Colleen Sinclair said “Targets of dangerous speech are often dehumanized, depicted as fundamentally lacking qualities – empathy, intelligence, values, abilities, self-control – at the core of being human…Outgroups are depicted as evil, due to their alleged lack of morality. or may be portrayed as animalistic.  During the Rwandan genocide,” she says, “Tutsis were referred to as cockroaches in Hutu propaganda.” (1)

Jesus calls us to be peacemakers and to do that, all we have to do is turn the tactics of movie makers around and do the opposite in our real lives to ensure that the choice for violence remains a hard one, a disturbing one, one that as human beings we would never find acceptable.  We are called, with Jesus, to refuse to dehumanize our adversary, to see all people as individuals, to resist stereotypes or make the assumption that because we one of them, we know everything we need to know about all of them, to refuse even to divide people into us and them, the good guys and the bad guys.  We are all flawed, we are all in need of confession; even the worst among us is deserving of human compassion.  Making peace is not an easy task but it is one that Jesus pursued throughout his ministry as he welcomed people to his side without judgment, giving even a place at his table to his betrayer.  May we follow in his footsteps working to make peace, promote peace, and be people of peace in all things.

Footnotes:
1. https://theconversation.com/incitement-to-violence-is-rarely-explicit-here-are-some-techniques-people-use-to-breed-hate-153585