Captain America: Vigilante?
Besides being an entertaining movie, the new Captain America: Civil War brings with it a moral dilemma that leaves the audience picking sides. In the film, the Avengers are divided over whether or not they should sign a legal contract with the United Nations. Doing so would effectively put them under the body’s governing authority and would dictate their future exploits. Some heroes, such as Tony Stark (Iron Man), express a great deal of emotion and distress over the innocent lives that they have inadvertently killed in the past. They believe that signing on with the United Nations would restrain some of their excess violence and free their hands from future guilt. Others, led by Steve Rogers (Captain America), feel that contracting themselves to the United Nations would significantly hinder their operative powers and may ultimately lead to more deaths by the hands of evil villains. When Stark and company elect to sign the papers, Rogers is left without legal authority to bring about the justice that he so passionately holds to. Later, when he senses that the United Nations is wrongly pursuing justice, Rogers decides to get to the bottom of the predicament himself.
The result is a strong divide in the Avengers’ (and audience’s) loyalties, hence the title Civil War. Was it wrong for them to give up their powers to a slow-acting (and potentially corrupt) governing body? Was it wrong for Steve Rogers to take justice (or at least his view of justice) into his own hands? My friend Alex Boggs has suggested in a recent post that Rogers became a vigilante, hastily operating under his own conscience. This he says, has dangerous implications, such as those shown by Anti-German mob violence during World War I.
What is a Vigilante?
As Stephanie Juliano notes in her essay “Superheroes, Bandits, and Cyber-nerds: Exploring the History and Contemporary Development of the Vigilante,” the word “vigilante” is hard to define. Most contemporary definitions leave it open to synonymous usage with terms such as criminal, activist, terrorist, and revolutionary. Although Juliano goes to great lengths in distinguishing “vigilante” from these terms, she nonetheless admits that there are many similarities. A historical definition, given by the book Anti-Immigration in the United States: A Historical Encyclopedia lists vigilantism as involving “the infliction of violence or threat of violence, done in an illegal or criminal manner, that conveys an intent to sow seeds of intimidation, fear, and terror, among its targeted populations.” While this appears to be a sufficient definition, the most important component, as is noted in an an article by the Brooklyn Law Review, is that vigilantes are always convinced that they are on the correct side of the moral law.
Vigilantes in History: A Brief Overview
Stories of vigilantism find their roots in ancient antiquity. Paul Steinberg points out an instance in the Bible’s book of Numbers. In chapter 25, a man named Phinehas kills a sexually immoral couple with a spear, and is subsequently praised by God for being “as zealous as I am for my honor among them… (v.11, NIV)” Other cases of vigilantism can be found in the 15th century (and earlier) feudal systems, which were essentially private groups designed to settle disputes. Robin Hood has been made famous for his vigilante actions against the rich. However, Juliano makes the case that the current obsession with vigilantism has its origins in the United States of America. Here, unlike anywhere else, vigilantes have been both idolized and demonized.
Popular vigilante action in the U.S. can be seen during the American Revolution, with small local mobs that refused to submit to legal authority in the name of justice (such as the Boston Tea Party). Other cases are seen in slave rebellions such as that of Nat Turner in 1831 (an event that itself has been both praised and criticized throughout history). As Boggs writes, vigilante action continued with Anti-German mob violence in the WWI era as well as the resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan and their horrific lynchings of African Americans. In all of these instances, private groups of citizens took actions to enact their version of justice outside of the parameters of the law.
The nuances that exist within the term “vigilantism,” as well as its complex history, show that this is a topic which is not easily resolved. The important point to note, however, is that the presence of vigilantes, and their subsequent idolization or demonization, leads to a moral assertion. Vigilantism can sometimes be justified, if it is for a truly just cause. Those who privately rebelled and took drastic steps to help Jews in Nazi Germany, such as the Bielski brothers, are a good example. It is possible, after all, for the laws and actions of governing authorities to be wrong. This concept leaves us without the hazy borders of moral relativism. However, it also leaves us as individuals with the personal responsibility for knowing what is right. To do this, I believe we must look to a Moral Law Giver and the guidelines that are established within His Word (which are more often than not, to obey the governing authorities; see Romans 13).
Perhaps this also provides grounds for understanding the United States’ particular obsession with vigilantism. America itself was founded on “inalienable rights” and universal principles. Whether people recognize these concepts as God-given or “Bill of Rights-given” is muddy water and often varies from person to person. Nevertheless, these ideas appear to be rooted in the American conscience and provide the framework from which vigilantes can either be celebrated or vilified.
Where does all this leave Captain America? I am not quite sure. By nature, superhero movies are, well, fiction. In comic book and movie lore, Captain America is symbolic of liberty, freedom, and justice. He is, thus speaking, a literal manifestation of universal morality. In keeping with this symbolic nature, he is meant to be judged not as a human but as a super-human. His story is intended to be representative of the higher moral obligation within each of us. On the super-human level, this looks like defying world authorities to do what is right and good. Themes in these hero movies are always borne out physically and on the grandest scale. They are intended to be symbolic and not necessarily literal. In this sense, it is respectable to assert that Rogers’ actions, in general, were right. However, if we look at it from a human level, in more practical terms, there are certainly implications that should give us great concern. We are not, after all, Captain America.