For whatever reason, I love monsters. Have for pretty much my entire life. Especially giant monsters—in particular, the kaiju of Japanese cinema.
Guillermo Del Toro, the noted filmmaker, when talking about his film Pacific Rim, noted that the aesthetics of “a guy in a rubber suit” is essential to these kinds of movies. As I think about this, I think the reason is that it underscores the “incarnational” aspect of these kinds of monsters. For instance, Godzilla—the most famous kaiju—is a metaphor for nuclear war. He’s a walking nuclear weapon, incarnating the horrors of what mankind hath wrought in the atomic age. And that notion is assisted, though unintended, by having a human being wearing a monster costume. It brings a human quality to the message, perhaps suggesting a wicked thing that exists inside us all.
That’s what Dana Loesch, NRA spokeswoman, called Nikolas Cruz at the CNN Town Hall discussion on guns last night (February 21, 2018). “I don’t believe that this insane monster should have ever been able to obtain a firearm, ever,” she said to Emma Gonzalez, a student at Stoneman Douglas High School and a vocal critic of guns in the days immediately following the massacre at her school.
At the risk of pedantry, I want to ask “why ‘monster’?” What purpose does that serve? To belittle the kid? To underscore his evil intent? We know, without a doubt, what he did was evil. I doubt anyone is questioning that.
No, employing a term like “monster” in these circumstances is intended to dehumanize, to somehow distance oneself from the actions taken. It’s a way of saying “I’m not like this person. They are worse than me.” Monsters are beings that are contrary to nature. Radically different. Extreme outliers. What we are saying, when we call Nikolas Cruz a monster, is that he is something other than human.
As Christians, this should give us pause. Jesus emphatically confronts this notion of monstrosity in His Sermon on the Mount:
“You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, ‘Don’t commit murder’, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell.” (Matthew 5:21-22 CEB)
Jesus just straight up told us that being angry at someone is akin to murder. Now, to be fair, the Greek word used here is probably better translated as “enraged” rather than “angry.” But the point still stands. All of us are guilty of murder, according to Jesus.
This is because Jesus wants us to understand a couple of important truths. One of these truths is that we need to recognize that the impulse that leads to murder is something we need to acknowledge.
In later verses of this section, Jesus will do a similar thing about lust. It’s not just the act of adultery that’s the problem, it’s the will behind it. Just because someone doesn’t act on the impulse is beside the point. We are cultivating something dangerous and harmful to our hearts and souls on the inside by lusting after people or by fostering rage toward them.
Among the other truths in these teachings is this: we are all equally capable of doing evil. We have the capacity for this.
In other words, we are all Nikolas Cruz. He may have acted on the impulse. But we’ve all harbored a similar rage toward our fellow humans at one time or another.
Let’s get back to movie monsters for a moment. Last year’s independent film Colossal is, perhaps, one of the best depictions of all of what I’m saying here.
A brief plot summary: Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is what we might call a “hot mess.” She parties hard, living her life in a drunken state—a broken human being. Her mess of a life brings her back to her childhood town in Maine where she reconnects with Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), a childhood friend. Gloria, while walking home with a hangover at 8 am one day, manages to manifest a kaiju (a giant monster) in Seoul, Korea—but only when she’s walking in a local playground. In time, she learns that Oscar also manifests a kaiju when he enters the playground at the exact same time of day. The monsters mimic their movements and, initially, the discovery is a source of entertainment for the two and their circle of friends. However, things quickly take a significantly dark turn fast, leading to much classic giant monster destruction with very human consequences.
The two monsters are manifestations of something that lives within each person. It turns out that, for both, it’s a buried rage. Gloria had been trying to bury her rage and insecurities through alcohol, the result being that the kaiju she manifests destroys cities inadvertently, victims of her own struggles with the bottle. Oscar has anger at his own shortcomings, borne from a feeling of emasculation. His kaiju is a manifestation of the power over others he wishes he had.
Without (hopefully) giving too much away, Colossal deals with Gloria learning to acknowledge the thing that is inside of her—the anger that gave birth to this literal monster—and channel it, rather than bury it. To take ownership of the monster living inside and recognize that she can deal with it, rather than let it control her life.
The message is pretty clear: there are no monsters. There are only monstrous actions.
Saint Paul will put it this way: “Those who think they are standing need to watch out or else they may fall. No temptation has seized you that isn’t common for people” (I Corinthians 10:12-13 CEB).
What’s my point?
We would do well to acknowledge that, inside us all, is Nikolas Cruz. If he’s a monster, then so are the rest of us.
Politicians and NRA spokespeople can try and distance themselves from this young man all they want. But true change begins when we recognize that there is not distance, no substantial difference. The only difference is that he acted on things that we’ve all felt. Does that make us better than him?
Jesus would say that it does not.
We killed Jesus. Our systems and propensity for self-idolatry. These led us to a place where we could not recognize God standing in our midst and so we killed Him. And our killing of Jesus was both legal and politically sanctioned. Think about that for a moment.
“A good guy with a gun is the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun,” they say.
“Why do you call me good? Only God is good,” says Jesus.
This begs the question, is anyone truly good enough? At what point does the good guy become the bad guy?
Nikolas Cruz is not a monster. He’s a human. Like me.
He did a monstrous thing. Inside of me lives that same monstrous capacity. I need to own that. We all need to own that.
I’ve been struggling with my own complicity in the systems of the world that have led to where we are right now. I think of violent movies and video games. Did they cause this violence? Have they caused any of this? No.
But we need to acknowledge that these things are symptoms. The top-selling video games are first-person shooters. The highest-grossing movies right now are superhero movies, which celebrate violence. Then there’s the all-too-American action film, movies like John Wick, in which guns are front and center.
Why is violence and death so entertaining? What itch is it scratching?
As odd as it sounds, at times like these I often think of these lyrics from Tupac’s “Changes:”
“Let’s change the way we eat, let’s change the way we live, and let’s change the way we treat each other. You see the old way wasn’t working so it’s on us to do what we gotta do to survive.”
Tupac is talking to the American black community, but the message is applicable to a wider audience. Perhaps we do need to take stock of everything around us and make substantial changes?
Banning assault weapons is important. But it’s only a start. To truly address the violence in the world we need to first acknowledge that we are no different from the young men who shoot their schools. And that we have a tendency to indulge the monstrous thing that is inside us all.
But the monster can’t control us. Not if we repent. Not if we remember that The Victim, who suffered our monstrous actions, emphatically declared: “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.”
Because that’s the other truth that Jesus wants us to know in His sermon. That, yes, we are all murderers. But even that is not beyond His forgiveness.
Now, the question stands, how do we live like monsters forgiven?