Thursday, September 16, 2010 | By: Zachary Bartels

Jesus and The Punisher

In the unspeakably brilliant Gut Check Rocky IV white paper, I made passing reference to my annoyance with how carelessly literature professors will assign the Christ Figure title to any character that could possibly wear it. In a strange paradox, the pomo/reader-hermeneutic crowd loves using their literary revisionism to retroactively make every character either gay or Jesus. Or gay Jesus. Seriously, if you can convincingly identify a classic literary character as a gay Christ Figure, you have mad post-everything skillz.

However, there is one literary character to whom I have never heard either of these labels applied: Frank Castle. For my non-nerd readers, that’s The Punisher of really-awesome-comic and really-horrible-movie fame. If you’re not familiar with Frank, he is a superhero (in the loosest sense of the term), a one-time seminarian, a Vietnam vet, and (since the senseless slaugther of his family in Central Park—wrong place, wrong time) a one-man war on orgainized crime, disorganized crime, and semi-organized crime. The Punisher wears a skull emblem on his chest and takes no prisoners. He really ought to be called “The Executioner,” but that name was already claimed by Don Pendleton.

Okay, I need to throw out a disclaimer here: pastors probably shouldn’t be fans of the Punisher. And I’m not really a fan anymore. The stories took a horrible turn—from Rambo-style, shoot-em-up action to gore, more gore, profanity, and sex— sometime in the early noughties (that would be the decade between ’00 and ’09), at which time I jumped ship. I still have most of the classic issues, but I got rid of the few “Marvel Max” era issues I had. (I don’t even want to know about the current “Frankenstein” version of the character. Sigh...)

Anyway, I’m certainly not writing to endorse the comics or the character (or three of the worst movies ever made). No, I want to do something much worse: to suggest that there is a connection between Frank Castle and Jesus. Yes, this is a gimmick; the proposed connection is not in their characters per se, but in the way they’ve been represented.

By nature, publisher-owned comic book characters are drawn, inked, colored, and written by hundreds of different people over their lifetimes. As a result, they often differ significantly from one incarnation to another. But I would argue that Frank Castle, more than any other comic character, has been re-defined, re-oriented, and re-directed based on the worldview of his current writer.

To me, this is kind of funny. Why would you want a character who is essentially a mass-murdering vigilante to share your political/social opinions? I would be tempted to attribute my opponents’ views to The Punisher and portray him as the logical end of thinking like they do. This has been done to some degree, but more often than not, Frank Castle thinks like the writer of the current issue.

For example, in the early ’90s, The Punisher comics were largely penned (not to be confused with “inked”) by conservatives, particularly Chuck Dixon and Mike Baron. This Punisher fought against environmentalist extremists and animal rights groups. In one particularly goofy issue, he protected a right-wing radio host (who was obviously supposed to be Rush Limbaugh) by killing the radical feminsts and others who attacked him outside his studio. Frank thinks (or writes in his War Journal; it’s hard to tell the difference) that, after listening to this particular host for a while, a lot of what he says “makes sense.”

Now contrast that with Garth Ennis’s version of the character (circa 2001-2006). The Irish Ennis is a militant atheist and strident leftist. His version of the Punisher is quite vocal about his pro-homosexual stance, ridicules a Fundamentalist preacher, and declares himself “anything but” pro-life. Oh, and he once broke into the oval office and threatened to kill President Bush. No, I’m not making that up; it was published two months after September 11. Apart from his obvious affinity for capital punishment, this Castle is basically a buffed-up version of Al Franken.

At this point, I hope you’re thinking that to suggest a connection between Jesus and the Punisher is kind of crass. And I would agree that it is, but it’s legit all the same. What Mike Baron and Garth Ennis have both done to the Punisher (taking his back story, general motivation and mission in life, supporting cast, etc. and filling them in with their own views, values, and passions), we all tend to do with the person of Jesus Christ. But here’s the problem: Jesus isn’t a fictional comic book character to be re-invented every few years. He’s the Alpha and Omega, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, through whom everything that exists was created.

Jesus hung out with sinners. He did miracles. He defied the religious leaders of his day. He died on a cross. He rose again. We humans have found it really easy over the last 2,000 years to fill in all the Jesus details with our own desires, values, goals, and passions. And it’s not hard to find two “versions” of Jesus that differ as much as the two versions of the Punisher described above. For example, compare the pro-capitalism, God-and-Country version of Jesus trumpeted by James Dobson or Gary Bauer with the Jesus of liberation theology or Jim Wallis and Brian McLaren’s disaffected hippy Jesus. It’s incredibly easy to re-make Jesus in our own image, even when we all accept the same origin, back-story, supporting cast, etc. (although the Jesus Seminar crowd wants to remove certain back issues from continuity and I think McLaren, et. al may be going for a full retcon).

Of course, the difficulty is that we can easily spot everyone else doing this, but most of us assume that we’re not. We’re just taking the Jesus of the Bible at face value. We’re not importing any of our own ideas, motives, or baggage. Are we?

I want your thoughts on this. (Let me be clear: this comment thread is for discussing the issue at hand, not to question whether Jesus really lived or attack the doctrines of the Christian religion. All off-topic posts or attempts to start unrelated arguments will be zapped). How can we guard against re-defining Jesus in our own image? How can we remain true to the real Christ—not the one you find inside yourself, but the one outside of us who died on a cross for the sins of the world? We can all write the standard general answer in our sleep. I want to hear your specifics.

Here’s my two cents to start us off: one way to ensure that we will re-define Christ as we wish he was is to stop believing in authorial intent and absolute Truth. If the Truth is really inside you, then you will bend it (and Christ) to whatever you want them to be.

Are you reading Jesus like you want him to be? One indicator might be if you find that Jesus thinks just like you most of the time. You are never scandalized by what he taught or how he lived. If we’re following Christ as he is, we should expect that we will have to change (read: be changed) in order to think like him (having the same mind in us that is in Christ Jesus). Otherwise, we’re likely modifying him to have the same mind that is in us.

I fear that excessive length + nerdy excusus = no one reading to the end and, hence, no one commenting.

Prove me wrong.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010 | By: Zachary Bartels


Two days ago, I overheard two Christians arguing about the concept of homophobia. I felt like I was watching one of those cable “crossfire”-type shows, in that they were both committed to opposite extreme views and were clearly both committed to talking, but not hearing.

It went something like this:

Righty: Homophobia is a made-up word, used to steal our right to free speech and silence people who disagree. Just because I disagree with someone’s lifestyle choices doesn’t mean I’m afraid of them. Nothing irks me more than hearing someone play the “homophobia” card! It doesn’t scare me that people are gay. It sickens me! Just like it sickens God!

Lefty: The fact that you are so angry about this tells me that you yourself are homophobic. You are afraid that the lives and views of other people will threaten your own narrow view of the world and so you just condemn them. You’re “othering” when you do that, creating a group of outsiders just like the Nazis did to the Jews and Southern sheriffs did to people of color during the ’50s.

Okay, that’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but not much. Seriously.

I have to say that both of those views seem like cartoonish nonsense to me. I do believe that homophobia is real, and that there is plenty of it out there. And I do believe it’s a bad thing for our society at large when one group of people is singled out and demonized by another group. And I do believe that it’s a bad thing for the church when one group of sinners is demonized by all the rest of the sinners. If you think like Lefty (above), you may be angrily preparing your own counter-post after reading that last sentence. Slow down and read it again. I said that we’re all sinners.

Righty was right in calling homophobia a made-up word. Granted, all words are made-up words, but this one is of recent enough invention that everyone seems to kind of detrmine for themselves what does and doesn’t constitute homophobia. So let me do that now...

Homophobia is not:

  • Believing that homosexual behavior is sinful, or that it is not the best way to live.
  • Believing that marriage should only be between a man and a woman.
  • Voting against a plank of the homosexual lobby’s platform.
  • A church or denomination barring non-celebate homosexuals from spiritual leadership positions on biblical grounds.
  • Christians calling people to repent of homosexuality based on biblical texts.
  • Asking someone you just met, “Are you married?”

Homophobia is:

  • Treating a homosexual like he or she has less value as a person than heterosexual people.
  • Pushing legislation that would make life almost impossible for homosexuals (i.e. no gay marriage or civil unions of any kind, no medical benefits, etc.)
  • Being unkind or rude to someone simply because they are a homosexual.
  • Refusing to acknowledge the existence of a co-worker’s partner because you don’t approve of their lifestyle.
  • Any business (including a church) refusing to hire homosexuals for jobs that do not directly by their nature involve adherance to a particular theological and ethical system.
  • Refusing to rent a room to a couple of men or women because of their sexual orientation. (The last two are also illegal, by the way.)
  • Disowning a child because they are gay. (How, how could anyone do this?)
  • Calling a gay person by a derogatory term.
  • Believing that you are somehow less sinful in the flesh than homosexuals.
  • Calling homosexuals to repent in a condescending way that implies that their sin is filthier than your own.
I will undoubtedly get angry comments from both sides on this one. Feel free to insult me and say all sorts of false things aganist me, since great is my reward in heaven when you do. (Matt 5:11)

But here’s the thing: I do believe that homosexual behavior is a sin. This means that I actually do believe that my ethical and religious view is right and someone else’s is wrong. But wait; that person believes that my view (being narrow and exclusive,) is wrong and theirs is right! In this, they are being narrow and exclusive. We both think the other one is wrong, so why am I the only one being called names here? (There was a time when I would unrepentantly call a homosexual by a rotten slur, but no longer. And yet, “homophobe” is still thrown at me by default.)

The issue as I see it is not, “Can we get to a place where we completely agree and accept each other’s views?” Of course we can’t—our views are incompatible. No, the question is, can we accept each other? Can we love each other, help each other, comfort each other, and live together in harmony even though we disagree on this issue. Even though we both think the other’s theological and ethical view is, in some sense, wrong.

If you think about it, this is the same question faced by the Jew and the Muslim. Or the Christian and the atheist. Or the Democrat and the Republican. Most people don’t feel a pressing need to convince someone else of all their beliefs before they can be civil, before they can be friends, before they can live and let live. So why is this one issue the exception?

The Orthodox Jewish woman may believe that eating pig meat is an affront to God, while the Christian Reformed guy next door likely believes that mowing your lawn on a Sunday is the cardinal sin. And yet, nine times out of ten, if she’s mowing on Sunday, while he’s sitting on his front porch chowing down a ham sandwich, nothing is going to stop the exchange of pleasantries and general sense of good will from prevailing. They aren’t both thinking, “I’m so horribly offended by the fact that my neighbor disapproves of my ethical and theological beliefs that I must now invent a term to describe their intolerance.” We just accept the differences and move on. Welcome to America, the melting pot.

So, what makes this issue different? Homophobia. The real thing, not the blanket accusation that the media throws at anyone who resembles a conservative Christian. What makes this issue different is that, in certain areas, gay couples do still have a hard time finding a landlord who will rent them a place to live. They still do find it hard to walk down the street without someone shouting a slur (or threat) at them. They often are disowned by family and condemned by former friends. And the church, despite Scripture’s repeated insistence to the contrary, often acts like the sin of homosexuals is filthier than the sin of heterosexuals.

So, yeah, it’s a made-up word. But it describes a real thing. It describes a phenomenon wherein I can point at someone else, call them queer, and feel like I’ve got it all together morally, spiritually, family-wise, etc. because hey—at least I’m not like them.

And shame on us if we ever give in to that temptation.

Just love the sinner. You don’t need to worry about hating their sin for them. You’ve got enough of your own sin to hate.

Soli Deo Gloria,
      Pastor Zach