Thanos and the Social Justice Gospel?
(Spoiler Warning – This post contains spoilers from Avengers Infinity War)
Choosing Love Can be Defying God
Man can justify just about anything in the name of love. This is the ultimate takeaway from the story of Thanos, the arch villain from the blockbuster Avengers Infinity War. Anything goes when we are trying to do good. Thanos is the baddest of bad guys. He is fictionally responsible for the death of trillions. His death toll makes even Darth Vader look like an amateur. His goal from the start of the movie is to kill half the population of the universe. He does terrible and ghastly things to reach it. Yet, his motivation is not that of a typical casting call villain. He is not trying to steal, gain power or destroy enemies. Thanos is trying to help people. He thinks he is loving people while murdering without remorse. It is a shocking picture of madness and arrogance, but it can be an extremely instructive one. In the confusing climate of our post modernistic culture, it can be really hard to understand why absolute truth is so important. Thanos is a wonderful illustration of the answer. Doing good without regard to the absolute truths that God has laid down for life is never actually good. No matter how compelling the end goal, evil methods to get there are just…evil. The story is also an example of the perils that are present for the church in the often misunderstood “Social Justice” movement. We can never keep both of Jesus’ Greatest Commandments by doing bad things.
Social Justice is Good
Jesus is the ultimate social justice warrior. The second half of His Greatest Commandment is to love others. Loving people is a defining characteristic of who God is – God is Love. 21 Wonderful Bible Verses on God’s Love. When Jesus arrives on the scene in Israel, the people have taken the Law of God and turned it into a weapon of discrimination, anger, and division. The religious leaders hate everyone who is not on their team. The Pharisees just hate everyone. The Jews generally thank God every day that they are not dogs, gentiles or women. Things have gotten way out of sorts and Jesus is there to set things straight. He extends love to the poor and the outcast. He welcomes strangers, foreigners and enemy soldiers. There are no longer Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free, male or female under Jesus. The ground is level at the foot of the Cross.
When a concern is raised about the Social Justice movement, it therefore does not refer to the desire to help others. We are called to love like Jesus loved. This requires action on our part. Feeding the poor, loving the marginalized, tending the wounded and calling everyone to Jesus will always be the call of the church. We love because we were loved by Jesus first, not because we judge anyone as worthy or unworthy.
We are all unworthy.
Social Justice is Not Good without God
Yet, when asked to list the Greatest Commandment, Jesus did not say love others only. He deliberately listed the first Commandment, well…first. This means something! We must love the Lord God with all our hearts, minds and souls. As Christians called to love others, doing good MUST go hand in hand with loving God. We must follow the Lord Jesus while doing His work.
When asked what the greatest commandment was by an expert in the Law, Jesus boiled down the entire Law of Moses into 2: Love God, Love our neighbor – the entire law hinges on these. It is when we ignore either of these Commandments that the church runs into problems with Social Justice. We cannot love others as directed by Jesus if we are not loving and obeying God. In response to Jesus, look what the scribe says:
So the scribe said to Him, “Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth, for there is one God, and there is no other but He. 33 And to love Him with all the heart, with all the understanding, with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Mark 12:32-33
He is an expert in the Law and its practices standing face to face with God in the flesh. His focus is on the same Commandments that God places first in order. Love God with everything we have AND love your neighbor. They are interconnected and greater than anything we can do in what we call religion.
Thanos and the Greatest Commandment
(serious spoiler warning here)
Infinity War opens up with the villain, Thanos, on a quest to obtain power stones. He is a terrible guy who spends his time going around to planets killing half of the populations to curb overcrowding. He wants to prevent resources scarcity and help people live better lives. Thanos has no particular desire to hurt people so he decides to get the power stones, the infinity stones from the title, so he can kill half of the population of the universe quickly and painlessly. At the end of the movie, despite the best efforts of the heroes, Thanos completes his mission, kills trillions and then is able to rest from his quest. It is a kind of reverse hero quest. He lives happy and content after completing gigantic acts of evil. He even believes that he is being merciful.
Despite the apparent barbarity, Thanos’ backstory and justifications make him a sympathetic villain. He lives through the death of his planet from overcrowding and starvation. He sees his world torn apart by people not willing to make hard decisions. His experience molds him to be willing to do anything to prevent another such enormous tragedy. It is not because he hates people that he wants to do monstrous things but because he loves them. Only he has the strength and will to save people by doing the horrible. Thanos is a terrible but benevolent hero in his own mind. He cares so much for people that he will not allow anything to get in the way of helping them…even murder and torture. The makers of the movie do a wonderful job of presenting this conflict between good intentions and bad methods. As a result, Thanos is a confusing picture.
We Don’t Trade Lives
Captain America is not confusing. He is clearly the hero. Even in this boundary-less world we live in, we all know the difference between him and Thanos. Thanos is the bad guy because he is willing to do bad to obtain good. “We don’t trade lives” is Captain America’s response with certainty. Good only does good to love people. Killing for the greater good is the tactic of the terrible dictators of the past like Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Pol Pot. They were evil because they killed millions to benefit their people. The idea of forcibly trading one life for another is abhorrent to mankind even when there are good intentions. Doing evil to get good is a nonsensical equation. Thanos killing trillions is an extreme example, obviously, but it highlights the trap that chasing good for people according to our own standards. Man can justify all kinds of evil in the name of good.
What is Thanos Missing?
The whole law hangs on THESE Jesus says. It depends on both of the Commandments, not just one of them by themselves. Discarding one Commandment in favor of the other is the error of Thanos. It is also where the church gets confused in the Social Justice world. We must love our God with all of our hearts, minds, and strength while also loving our neighbor. We must love our neighbor while also loving our God with all our hearts, minds and strengths. We cannot separate the two and still be doing like Jesus did.
Jesus serves people because He loves those people AND because He loves His Father. Following His father means serving people. They are never separate ideas. They are intertwined and cannot survive on their own. Without loving the Father, we can never serve like Jesus. Disregarding the Father in order to serve others is neither loving the Father nor loving others. Loving the Father without loving others is equally nonsensical. God is love. Christianity without Love is not Christianity. Jesus without love is not Jesus. But what we call love without the love of God behind it is not Christian love. It is rebellion.
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 1 John 4:7-11
We see this played out very clearly on the screen with Thanos. He believes that he is loving others. His hopes for people are in some ways good and noble. They are also based in reality. Thanos experienced great pain and loss. Like a good parent, he wants to save others from the horrors of life. These are good intentions on the surface. It seems loving. How can it be wrong to love people? Because it is not loving to people to try to love them in a way that goes against God.
Without God, men can justify anything in the name of love. One cannot love God and murder His creations. God despises murder. Thou shall not murder is one of the 10 Commandments that everyone knows. God is the creator and the giver of life. Only He is in charge of who lives and dies. We cannot actively disregard the clear direction of the Lord and claim to be loving Him. Jesus says, if you love me you will keep my commandment. No matter how much Thanos seeks to justify himself with his care for others, he fails miserably. Doing evil in the name of good is still evil. Captain America knows it and we know it.
Social Justice Gone Wrong
It is the same error thinking leads the church into all sorts of trouble in the claimed name of love. Social Justice without God is just another form of rebellion against God. Christians who openly advocate for things that the Bible specifically prohibits are making the same mistake as Thanos. It is on a much smaller scale, yes, but it is the same error. They try to love others according to a definition of love that does not involve loving God first. Sure, they are not murdering trillions, but putting our judgment of what is loving can lead to all types of evil. When we are the arbiters of what is loving and what is good without God, anything is justifiable.
We see this occur often in the Old Testament with the Kings of Israel. Saul loses his place as King when he gets impatient with God’s direction and offers a sacrifice in the hopes of winning an upcoming battle. Saul’s goal is good but he committed a great wrong to try to get there. His actions are evil as a result and he loses everything. “If it gets the results that are loving according to me, how could it be wrong?”, the question is asked. The answer is because there are two commandments, Love God and Love your neighbor. If you are not keeping both then you are violating both.
We can never know love unless we love God. Love God with everything you have AND love your neighbor. If you love me you will keep my commandments. Jesus never loved someone so much that He jeopardized His love for His father. He did not disregard His Father in order to love.
Jesus loves all people well. He is the ultimate Social Justice warrior and the church should always follow His example. We should fight injustice, love all people and not discriminate. Yet, when we understand Thanos is a villain despite a good motive because he does absolute evil in the name of a good, the traps of the Social Justice movement become more obvious. We Christians can never credibly claim to be following Jesus’ example if we disregard either of the Greatest Commandments in an effort to do good. Loving our neighbor while loving God and loving God while loving our neighbor is our call as a church. One Commandment can never be seperated from the other…or we risk the error of Thanos.
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