Is lethal force ever justified? The argument over whether it’s ever okay for a representative of Jesus to take a life has a long and storied history. In the United States in particular, our Churches are still pretty divided over the issue. The biblical case against violence goes something like this: Jesus says to turn the other cheek. He says to love your enemy. And he died on the cross for his enemies. Before he died, he told Peter to put down the sword because “those who live by the sword die by the sword.” And in the early church, many Christians abstained from military service.
For these reasons, I land in the nonviolent camp. But in all of my arguments and biblical references, I’ve never convinced anybody. They always come back to me with, “What would you do if someone came after you, your wife, and your kids?”
The general assumption in the question is that it’s “either him or us,” so lethal force is “absolutely necessary.” The other assumption is that this is a common-enough occurrence to justify a protective violent imagination that says Jesus’ commandment to not live by the sword doesn’t apply in the home or when somebody comes after you and your kids.
In the US, we have laws that protect us if we use lethal force against intruders. We also have videogames that fill our imagination with what lengths we’d go to to keep a loved one alive.
This is never more true than in recent PS3 exclusive, The Last of Us. Throughout the game, the player character, Joel, keeps himself alive during the apocalypse by any means possible. His resolve tightens as he’s entrusted with protecting and guiding fourteen-year-old, Ellie the whole way from Boston to the other side of the country. Along the way, he kills the zombie-like infected, the totalitarian military’s soldiers, and the cannibalistic “hunter” survivors, all to keep Ellie safe.
One scene sticks out:
After being separated, Joel is in a desperate rush to catch up with Ellie in a hotel full of hunters. After taking down a room of evil men by any lethal means he could employ, Joel is blindsided by a strong man and shoved face-first into a puddle and held there to drown to death. He can’t get free. Just before going dark, a bullet goes through the strong hunter’s temple. Ellie just got her first kill.
Smoking gun in hand, Ellie says, “Man, I shot the hell out of that guy, huh?”
“Yeah, you sure did.” Joel says and gets up.
“I feel sick.” She sits down.
“Why didn’t you just hang back like I told you to?” He says.
“Well, you’re glad I didn’t, right?” She says.
“I’m glad I didn’t get my head blown off by a goddamn kid.”
“You know what? No. How about, ‘Hey Ellie, I know it wasn’t easy but it was either him or me.’ Thanks for saving my ass. You got anything like that for me, Joel?”
He shakes his head like he’s unsure. “We gotta get going.”
She looks at him with disbelief. “Lead the way.”
They get to an outside overlook and spot some more hunters.
“Come here, keep your head down. I’m gonna clear us a path.” Joel says.
“What about me?” She says.
“You stay here.” He says.
“This is so stupid. We have more of a fucking chance if you let me help.” She says.
“I am.” He says. “Now, you seem to know your way around a gun.” He says and hands her a rifle. “You reckon you can handle that?”
“Well, uh, I sorta shot a rifle before. But it was at rats.” She says.
“Rats?” He says.
“With BBs.” She says.
“Well, it’s the same basic concept. Lift it up. You’re gonna lean right into that stock ’cause it’s gonna kick a hell of alot more than a BB rifle.” He says.
“Okay.” She says.
“Go ahead and pull the bolt back. Grab it right there. Just tug it. There you go. Now as soon as you fire, you’re gonna want to get another round in there quick. Listen to me – if I get into trouble down there, you make every shot count. Yeah?” He says.
“I got this.” She says.
“Alright.” He says and starts off. Then he stops and turns around, “And just so we’re clear about back there… It was either him or me.” He gives her a knowing glance and drops down.
When he’s out of earshot, she says, “You’re welcome.”
I appreciate the subtlety and nuance used to support the “either him or me” perspective in this game (and this scene in particular) from the view of an empathetic onlooker (player). But I refuse to accept that this is the only possible outlook in desperate situations.
I want to trust Jesus at his word about loving one’s enemies. As such, I don’t find this narrative honoring to my imagination. Yes, I still play games where I’m crafting tools for murder and taking “evil men” to the grave, but I would rather play games that honor a nonviolent imagination; and not just a non-lethal one. Sure, Mirror’s Edge encourages you to disarm your pursuers, kick them to the ground, and offers an achievement for never firing a gun. Deus Ex 3 offers five times the experience points for knocking a foe out instead of killing them. And Dishonored’s final mission is completely different if you rarely kill your foes. But don’t you think it would be more interesting if you used shame as a tool to get your foes to have to deal with their decisions instead of using a gun or a fist?
Peaceful problem solving is much more difficult than forcefully silencing one’s foes. But it respects the inherent worth found in every human being. And illustrating it in our media fills us with an imagination that says everybody has value, even if they antagonize us.
Jesus’ instruction to turn the other cheek was not about being passive and “taking it like a man.” In the ancient Jewish culture, a second slap would require a back-handed strike, thus exposing the back-handed nature of the attack. This would expose the attacker to any witnesses as an unjust aggressor. Jesus’ taught his disciples to stand up to aggression with unexpected nonviolent retaliation.
Shane Claiborne, a nonviolent Christian activist, takes this concept in mind when people question him with “What would you do if someone came after you, your wife, and your kids?” His response? Strip down naked and start clucking like a chicken. He figures that’s the least-expected thing to do. And when somebody is coming after you with violence, they’re expecting a fearful response. Acting crazy unsettles aggressors and throws them off their game.
What if acting crazy was a component to gameplay? Or what if shaming your enemies and exposing their malice became a standard in game design? It might make action games more cerebral. I like to think it might make you feel like Captain Mal of the Firefly class ship, Serenity: crafting a plan with misdirection and savvy to reveal the evils of the Alliance. These may seem like silly examples, but they’re more imaginative than guns and baseball bats.
I’m not sure that acting crazy or seeking a way to shame your enemies would be possible in the world of The Last of Us. Naughty Dog crafted the world and setting specifically to tell a story of compromise for the sake of survival. And obviously the game understands its market. But it has me wondering what’s possible as the company moves forward.
Naughty Dog shows us that they’ve matured with their use of narrative restraint and penchant for believable world-building in The Last of Us. With those signs of growth, maybe it’s not unreasonable to hope a more meaningful future; one that honors a nonviolent imagination and suggests that every human being has value, even those who hate us.