Authorial Note: Having now seen Darren Aronosky’s Noah, I was planning to write a fairly negative review of the film, and while I may still do that, I thought I rather meditate and write out some initial reflections on violence given that it is the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide.
“And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart…Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth.” (Genesis 6:6, 11-13, ESV)
Violence must be viewed as the sin that makes even God regret humanity’s existence. Later traditions, such as the Enochnic tradition, imagine that the “Watchers” were the beings that taught humanity how to make weapons (1 Enoch 8), and whether we as humanity had to be taught how to make them or not, one thing is clear, we did not need to be taught how to use them. Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of the AK-47, in a letter to the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, said,
“My spiritual pain is unbearable…I keep having the same unsolved question: if my rifle claimed people’s lives, then can it be that I… a Christian and an Orthodox believer, was to blame for their deaths?…The longer I live, the more this question drills itself into my brain and the more I wonder why the Lord allowed man to have the devilish desires of envy, greed, and aggression”
What we should see in Kalashnikov’s cry is God’s own, “Why did I make humanity? Look at my creation! Am I to blame for these creatures? Am I to blame for their destruction? Should we just start over?” Aronosky’s greatest short-comings in his film, Noah (Paramount Pictures: 2014), were not the intricate creationist details, or Noah himself as homicidal, or the robot-like rock-giants (all irrelevant details in all seriousness), but in his portrayal of a God who is a distant tyrant, as cruel as nature, as unchangeable as fate, and as retributive as an avenger for the family. The Genesis narrative presents God as a weeping painter who smacks the ink bottle down to spread across the canvas because the picture was becoming too horrific to look at, and could not bear to think that he had a part in it. Ah, but that, which is the problem of evil for God, is for us the problem of us. The litany of our violence both past and present need not be guilt-inducingly listed here, we know…what we refuse to know is simply that we have no other option than the absolute abandonment of violence as a means for achieving peace. The parameters of our thought for global conflicts appear quite depressingly to be either ‘do nothing’ or ‘bomb’. Militarism is equated with compassion, and pacifism is viewed as cowardly, from the militarist point of view. Militarism is viewed as a bloodthirsty endeavour in each and every case, and pacifism is viewed as the saintly humble position, from the pacifist point of view. Our trouble quite simply is: how do we keep the interventionist and outward compassionate stance of militarism, while also keeping the gentle and non-aggressive posture of the pacifist? How do we stop conflict, intervene in conflicts, without conflict?
The God character portrayed in the Biblical narrative appears to think that humanity is so bad, that we would have to wipe out almost everyone aside from one family that can hopefully do it right…which they couldn’t. God’s solution in this narrative is the interventionist break up of conflict by mass slaughter, saving Noah and his family alone. No amount of dialogue, conflict-resolution talks, peace building etc… was enough. To save humanity from itself and its corrupt governments it was necessary to eliminate all those implicated, which was nearly everyone. The claim that nearly everyone was implicated in the crimes of humanity is only trumped by the Christian claim that “…death spread to all men because all sinned…” (Romans 5:12, ESV). God’s method may appear an overreaction, but the charge is even more offensive. The charge against humanity in our violence is only offensive however in the same way charging a cheating husband with adultery is offensive, not because it isn’t true but because we claim that the accuser does not have enough evidence to substantiate the charge. What we did not know however is that God saw us in our very act of covenantal adultery, because he was there weeping and suffering for our sins. Would not the death of even one child be enough to substantiate the charge of humanity’s complicity in our violence, that we allowed the death of even one? At this point in the Noah narrative we want to implicate God for his harsh overreactive judgment, but when we consider for a moment the untold suffering of violence, suddenly we have the interventionist stance of saying, ‘The dictators must be brought to justice!’ Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in his masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, has Ivan give Alyosha a story, that brings the sense of justice and retribution out of the saintly brother,
“One picture, only one more, because it’s so curious, so characteristic, and I have only just read it in some collection of Russian antiquities. I’ve forgotten the name. I must look it up. It was in the darkest days of serfdom at the beginning of the century, and long live the Liberator of the People! There was in those days a general of aristocratic connections, the owner of great estates, one of those men- somewhat exceptional, I believe, even then- who, retiring from the service into a life of leisure, are convinced that they’ve earned absolute power over the lives of their subjects. There were such men then. So our general, settled on his property of two thousand souls, lives in pomp, and domineers over his poor neighbours as though they were dependents and buffoons. He has kennels of hundreds of hounds and nearly a hundred dog-boys- all mounted, and in uniform. One day a serf-boy, a little child of eight, threw a stone in play and hurt the paw of the general’s favourite hound.
‘Why is my favourite dog lame?’ He is told that the boy threw a stone that hurt the dog’s paw. ‘So you did it.’ The general looked the child up and down. ‘Take him.’ He was taken- taken from his mother and kept shut up all night. Early that morning the general comes out on horseback, with the hounds, his dependents, dog-boys, and huntsmen, all mounted around him in full hunting parade. The servants are summoned for their edification, and in front of them all stands the mother of the child. The child is brought from the lock-up. It’s a gloomy, cold, foggy, autumn day, a capital day for hunting. The general orders the child to be undressed; the child is stripped naked. He shivers, numb with terror, not daring to cry….’Make him run,’ commands the general. ‘Run! run!’ shout the dog-boys. The boy runs….’At him!’ yells the general, and he sets the whole pack of hounds on the child. The hounds catch him, and tear him to pieces before his mother’s eyes!… I believe the general was afterwards declared incapable of administering his estates. Well- what did he deserve? To be shot? To be shot for the satisfaction of our moral feelings? Speak, Alyosha!”
“To be shot,” murmured Alyosha, lifting his eyes to Ivan with a pale, twisted smile.
“Bravo!” cried Ivan delighted. “If even you say so… You’re a pretty monk! So there is a little devil sitting in your heart, Alyosha Karamazov!”
Little Devil? Ivan’s judgment here is very perceptive, for in Alyosha’s response for the man to be shot he exposed that the satisfaction of being right, retribution, ‘justice’, being asked for with the crooked twisted smile of a vicious murderer, was not about justice, but accusation. Is not the lust to execute ‘justice’ just the excuse to hide murderous violence? In thinking about global conflicts, there should not be much doubt that the purport reasons of humanitarian intervention and justice are merely the excuses used to justify to ourselves our lust for violence and senseless slaughter, our little devil. We then know the problems of aggression and militarism even under ‘just’ pretensions. An example of a global conflict that comes to mind in this case quite obviously is the Iraq war. It is here where there appears to be much agreement that the intervention was a senseless war of aggression. However, was not Saddam Hussein a megalomaniacal dictator? Should we have let him continue in his aggression against his own people? Shouldn’t someone have stopped him? Even now, it appears that if we do not intervene in Syria that we as humanity have learned nothing from the Rwandan genocide. It is at this point that the problem appears to be passive cowardly self-centered pacifism that lets injustice rage outside of its own sphere of care. Militarism certainly appears to be the compassionate stance, no matter how many mistakes it makes.
What about Noah? How does this tension relate to Noah? Aronosky’s Noah is ironically the worst of both worlds for he has the aggression to contemplate killing his grandchildren to fulfill his mission, along with the passivity and self-centeredness to forcefully exclude others from being saved from the flood. What of the Biblical Noah? In the Hebrew Bible we do not get much character development as to whether Noah is an interventionist in resolving conflicts or passive and indifferent to the suffering of those outside the ark, but in the New Testament we do get an extension. The New Testament calls Noah a “preacher of Righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5), which is most likely an allusion to the idea found in Josephus that,
“…Noah was very uneasy at what they did; and being displeased at their conduct, persuaded them to change their dispositions and their acts for the better: but seeing they did not yield to him, but were slaves to their wicked pleasures, he was afraid they would kill him, together with his wife and children, and those they had married; so he departed out of that land.” (Antiquities of the Jews, 1.03.1)
Noah then, in this telling, is not self-centred and passive but rather is actively trying to save people onto his ark, by preaching and spreading the word, activism, a ‘soft’ interventionism, if you will. Eventually though he gives up coming to God’s own conclusion in the Biblical narrative, that humanity is beyond repentance. In relation to our global conflicts, our violence, our sin, we, like Noah, seem stuck with activism as our resolution. Preaching, spreading the word, seems to keep the compassion of interventionism in wanting to help those suffering outside of our own sphere, without taking advantage of our lust for violence by succumbing to our aggressive tendencies. It appears to be the solution to our query posed early, and yet, as we can see from Noah himself acting as God’s voice of grief for repentance, it may fail, and it may not be enough. It as this point where we recognize that we may not have it within our means to save us from our violence. Let us meditate upon the lyrics for “Mercy” by The Brilliance, as our own cry. Amen.
When I think of God’s great love
I think of Noah’s time.
When love was not enough
and man was forced to die.
This God He sent the flood
to kill the race despised.
The children swept away.
I hear a mother’s cry.
Mercy, Lord have mercy.
Mercy on me.
Every soul is searching for you.
Won’t you save us?
Grant us peace.
O distant God above,
why do you make us blind?
With eyes that cannot see
we seek but do not find.
And if you are so near
why are you standing by
when peace has been long lost?
Please hear your children cry.
Mercy, Lord have mercy.
Mercy on me.
Every soul is searching for you.
Won’t you save us?
Grant us peace.
Κύριε, ἐλέησον (Lord, have mercy)…
Afterword: It may be wondered, ‘if God was not able to save us from our violence in Noah’s time, why cry to him now?’ And ‘should you not, as a Christian, suggest that Jesus’ teachings about pacifism and non-violent resistance are the solution to our problems? Why are you stuck with activism or soft interventionism?’ As for the first, the New Testament, in one of its strangest passages, does offer hope for those who passed in the flood, as Jesus himself goes down to the depths to preach and save (?) them that perished (1 Peter 3:18-21, ESV). More to the point however, it seems from the Biblical narrative not so much that God was not able to save the people from the flood, so much as he was not able to save them from themselves. They needed to repent and they did not want to. Only by the rejection of the people themselves, their unwillingness to be saved, can it be said then that God was not able to save them. If one is uncomfortable with the notion that human response to God is necessary for God’s deliverance, then the forceful harrowing of Hell by Jesus should serve as a reminder that God is willing and able to save, even beyond the confines of our afterlife placement. Now for the second, why to be stuck with activism, or soft-interventionism? It was important first to show that there is no simple practical answer, no program of ethics, even from the Sermon on the Mount, which if ‘just followed’ would be able to save us from our plight of violence. We are in need of salvation from our plight, and we do not have it within our means to save ourselves, we need the Lord Jesus to be a saviour, and it is that call that was necessary to issue forth first, before we could talk about the Christian task in following this saviour by peace-making and reconciliation, for which there is no doubt a place.