Last night I watched The Brave One, Jodie Foster’s most recent movie. It provides an interesting opportunity to reflect on the meaning of the Bible in a modern American setting.
In the Biblical epoch, there was little other than vigilante justice. Murders were not resolved by impersonal criminal investigations by professional police, and tried by professional judges or impartial juries of the accused’s peers. In the Biblical era, and in particular that of the Hebrew Bible, justice was in the hands of the local community, and of the family. If a member of your family was murdered, you were responsible to exact justice and carry out vengeance. The statement that vengeance is the LORD’s was a reassurance that, even when there was no human being to carry out justice, God would not leave the guilty unpunished. But such cases were hoped to be the exception.
This puts the modern reader of the Bible, viewing The Brave One, in something of a predicament. Is the Bible’s vision of how justice is to be carried out better, simply because it is in the Bible? Or is it appropriate to acknowledge that this was simply the way things were done then, and our way is legitimately different? Can we go even further, perhaps, and suggest that our society has improved upon the Bible?
How do we decide which is “better”? Do we even have a clear concept of what “justice” is and why it is important, and what it is supposed to accomplish? Erica Bain didn’t want to be on a vigilante killing spree, hoping ultimately to repay those who killed her beloved fiancee (played by the actor better known to many as Said on LOST). She didn’t want to be the person she had become. But violence and evil had made her fearful, and she could remain afraid or become a different person, one that took self-defense (and ultimately capital punishment) into her own hands.
Is our system of justice too impersonal? Do those who seek justice in our time through the legal system we have in place feel satisfaction and closure, or frustration? If our system is better, then why do we as viewers take the side of Erica Bain?
Perhaps the answer is that our system is better, but it is far from perfect, and that is why, even when we know who the “good guys” are, to quote the movie, “it doesn’t feel that way” at times.
But it is our modern setting that spreads fear even as it also changes our perspective on matters such as justice. It is harder to murder someone in a cultural context where everyone knows one another in a village or small town, and where the family of the victim will take the matter personally and seek you out. Yet statistically, it may well be that we are far safer from harm than people ever were in the Biblical era. But whenever something does happen, it is on the news and in the headlines. We can easily be safer, and not feel safer. How else can it be explained that we may have moments of fear getting in a plane, when we were far more likely to meet our demise in the car on the way to the airport?
The desire to live in safety seems to be a human universal. So too does the concept of justice, that some penalty must be imposed by someone on those who harm us. Yet in the New Testament, there is also a call to let go of vengeance, and to let go of fear.
As Erica’s neighbor in the movie says at one point, there are plenty of ways to die. It is finding a way to live that is the challenge. And those spiritual teachings from the Christian and other traditions that empower us to live free from the stranglehold of fear and an unsatiable desire for revenge can be a great help in doing just that. Perhaps with respect to some things, the old is good.