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08 May 2018

Heroes and villains

In the 2008 Batman movie, “The Dark Knight”, the character Harvey Dent, the District Attorney of Gotham City, uttered a prophetic sentence.

He said, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” As it happens [spoiler alert], he did become the villain, Two-Face.

Interestingly, that line has lingered in the consciousness of popular culture. It has evolved to be more than a plot device, easily forgotten from a 10-year-old movie, and for good reason. It speaks to the aspirations and fears that we all share.

We love to see people rise. We love to see people succeed. We adore a good hero. They carry the torch of our own ambition and our own sense of pride. Our heroes become surrogates or avatars for what we hope our own lives might deliver. That is, until the mighty fall.

When the hero become the villain, or a mighty one falls from grace, a switcheroo occurs. The emergency stop button is pressed on the vicarious-success-elevator as our own fears of failure and disgrace are angrily projected onto the hero turned villain.

But our elevator doesn’t move downwards at this point. Our rage and bile keep us on the moral plain that we’ve risen to by associating ourselves with the once-adhered-to values of our fallen hero. Our elevator remains on the moral high ground while we shake our heads in disgust and send the now villain descending to the basement.

We all play this game. Unconsciously, most of the time. But while it’s certainly unhelpful to the fallen hero, it also leaves us in a stalled elevator, paralysed by fear and anxiety. It renders us incapable of finding the inspiration to rise to true goodness – a goodness that shows moral-high-ground-claiming to be what it is – pure self-righteousness.

From my perspective, as a Christian minister, there is only one way for us to journey onward and upward in life, and that’s together. Our fears and desires far too often lead us to define ourselves by comparison to the status of others.

But instead of seeking to climb to the heights that are seemingly enjoyed by others, or conspiring to flick off the perch those who we see as undeserving, we can find peace through a reimagining of the elevator.

The fact is, we are all two-faced. All of us, even if we are pretty good at concealing it, have a touch of the villain in us. So, when a hero does fall, rather than wag a finger and send them down our mental garbage chute, we’d be doing ourselves and the whole community a favour if we realised that we all ride in the same elevator – that we’re all on this ride together!

The Christian tradition can help us to challenge the instincts that have us lopping off tall poppies or kicking people when they’re down. Its central philosophy revolves around an understanding of every human as being simultaneously both hero and villain – being both mighty and fallen at the same time. Seeing things this way can help us acknowledge that we all live on the same floor of the life-building.

That in itself can leave a fairly empty feeling, though. But in the person of Jesus, the Christian sees the whole-of-humanity-elevator being fired up again – being jumpstarted to upward motion. This time we don’t rise or fall on our own merits.

Our rising is a gift that doesn’t depend on our success or our avoidance of failure. We rise to the top because we know that whether we die a hero or live long enough to see ourselves become the villain, we’re loved by God. And when we know we’re loved unconditionally, this can, and does, and must change the way we treat our elevator mates.

Tom Hoffmann - Pastor

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