One of the most striking visual images in the recent war with Iraq was the spectacle of President Bush arriving in a fighter jet to greet the crew of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln.
The jet roared in and landed dramatically on the carrier. Mr. Bush emerged, dressed in pilot gear, carrying his flight helmet under his arm. He proceeded to greet pilots and sailors, shaking hands and exuding the confidence and swagger of a triumphant warrior.
Laying aside the troubling images of a civilian president donning the garb of a military officer, the carrier incident serves as a vivid illustration of what two scholars have dubbed “the Captain America complex.”
Robert Jewett, guest professor of New Testament at the University of Heidelberg, and John Shelton Lawrence, professor emeritus of philosophy at Morningside College, Sioux City, Iowa, have written a provocative and convincing analysis of this “complex” as it manifests itself in American culture.
In Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil: The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism, Jewett and Lawrence argue that America has harbored a sense of “messianic” destiny almost from the moment of its founding. From the images of our country as a “light on the hill,” to the exercise of “manifest destiny,” Americans have viewed themselves as a righteous remnant called to save the world.
The exact character of that role in saving the world has changed, however, from its earliest conception. With considerable biblical influence, many Americans have thought of the nation as a new chosen people. But this elect status was in the past tempered by what Jewett and Lawrence have termed “prophetic realism.” As prophetic realists, we understood that there is evil in the world that must be confronted. However, we are not so self-righteous as to believe there is no evil in us.
A prime example of prophetic realism is President Abraham Lincoln’s conduct during the War Between the States. Lincoln was clearly trying to “save the Union,” and was convinced that he was pursuing the right course. However, his sense of being right did not mean that he thought the Union would necessarily prevail. There was no claim of moral perfection or divine prerogative in Lincoln’s view of the conflict. This sense of humility may be the essence of prophetic realism.
Since the Civil War, and in part because of it, “prophetic realism” has given way to “zealous nationalism.” America is still a chosen nation, a light on the hill. Americans still harbor a sense of calling to save the world—from communism, from terrorists, and so on. But we are no longer aware of our own complicity in the world’s evil. America is in the grip of a self-righteous zeal that views us in the right, and anyone who opposes us as in the wrong.
For the last several decades this righteous zeal has been embodied in what Jewett and Lawrence call the “myth of the superhero.” Captain America, as a typical superhero character, has only one desire—defeat evil in the world. His motives are pure, his viewpoint is the correct one, and in every conflict he prevails.
Recent events provide considerable evidence that the superhero myth is powerfully at work in our culture. For instance, the violent acts of our enemies are “evil,” while our own acts of violence are “liberating.” Certain “evil” nations cannot be trusted with weapons of mass destruction, but America can be trusted with them because we would never use them inappropriately.
Jewett and Lawrence conclude that America is right to have a sense of mission—to seek a world where all people may participate fully in the world’s resources. This, after all, is the prophetic hope. However, America will not be able to contribute to this prophetic hope without a recovery of prophetic realism.
Until we are able to relinquish our sense of self-righteous zeal, and break free from the myth that we are a super hero that can do no wrong, we will constantly be at risk of being swallowed by the evil we cannot see in ourselves.
This is an important book and needs to read and discussed not only among people of faith, but in the wider political community as well.
James L. Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.
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