Who Wants to Know?
In the film, Men in Black, James Edwards has just witnessed the reality of aliens living among humans on earth. Kay, his recruiter to MIB, is explaining the situation as they sit on a bench in Battery Park. “Any given time, around fifteen hundred landed aliens are on the planet, the majority right here in Manhattan,” Kay lectures. “Most aliens are decent enough, just trying to make a living.”
“Cab drivers?” Edwards asks. “Not as many as you’d think,” Kay replies. He pauses thoughtfully and then resumes the lecture. “Humans, for the most part, don’t have a clue. Don’t want one, either. They’re happy. They think they’ve got a pretty good bead on things.”
Edwards is beginning to grasp the situation. “Why the big secret? People are smart,” he argues, “they can handle it.”
Kay shakes his head. “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it. Everything they’ve ever ‘known’ has been proven to be wrong. A thousand years ago everybody knew as a fact, that the earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, they knew it was flat. Fifteen minutes ago, you knew we humans were alone on it. Imagine,” Kay murmurs, “what you’ll know tomorrow.”
Men in Black is a clever meditation on the price of blissful ignorance versus the cost of knowing what’s really going on. It is, in fact, an “apocalypse” in an intentional fictional format. There are things going on under the surface of life that most people don’t know and don’t wish to know. But those things are matters of life and death, not only for the few who are in the know but for the whole world.
It is the job, in fact, of the MIB agents to make sure that as few are in the know as absolutely necessary for the safety of the planet. As they pursue a rogue alien through the streets of New York, Edwards fires his (alien) weapon, creating mayhem and chaos.
“We do not discharge our weapons,” Kay scolds, “in view of the public.” Edwards (now known only as “Jay”) is not impressed. “Can we drop the cover-up bullshit?! There’s an Alien Battle Cruiser,” he contends, “that’s gonna blow-up the world if we don’t…”
Now it’s Kay’s turn to be unimpressed. “There’s always an Alien Battle Cruiser…or a Korlian Death Ray, or…an intergalactic plague about to wipe out life on this planet,” he explains, “and the only thing that lets people get on with their hopeful little lives is that they don’t know about it.”
“And Jesus said to him, ‘Are you seeing these great buildings? Not even a stone upon a stone will be left here which has not been torn down’” (Mark 13:2, my translation). The anonymous disciple looks at the surface, but Jesus sees deeply. “’Say to us when this will be,” the Fallible Four later inquire in private, “and what will be the sign when all this is about to come to completion.” I wonder if they later wished they hadn’t asked for quite so much information.
I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty adept at avoiding information that makes me uncomfortable or forces me to change my thinking and behavior. When the stock market takes a dive, I’m far less likely to check on my retirement plan. When there’s bad news nationally or locally, I’m very good at finding ways to avoid reports and updates. When there’s a funny sound in the rear brakes of the car, I hope that I can drive it less (and that some sort of miraculous automotive self-healing might take place). If I don’t go to the doctor, I won’t know which biological bombs are ticking away in my aging body.
“Humans, for the most part, don’t have a clue. Don’t want one, either.” Far too often that’s the case for me. And I’m not exceptional, as far as I can tell. I want things to go well, to be stable, and to make me blissfully ignorant and self-assuredly happy.
That’s all well and good as long as things are well and good. When blissful ignorance serves my needs and interests, however, then it’s time to question that blissful ignorance. For example, one of the realities that undergirds White supremacy is the sense of “White innocence” created by willful White ignorance. As long as we White people do not “see race,” we don’t have to deal with it. And if we put ourselves in spaces that are exclusively White, then we can sustain our ignorant innocence. We can persuade ourselves that we “have a pretty good bead on things.”
But a significant part of the gospel method, at least in the Markan composition, is to pull back the curtain and reveal things as they really are. The first-century imperial system took land and wealth from the most vulnerable and transferred it to the most powerful. The cultural values of the time put those who were different in some way into a variety of unclean and excluded categories. At least some of those who were supposed to be the helpers abused and oppressed those who most desperately needed the help.
The Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is that these underlying systems are not what God creates. And they are not the way God intends the world to be. These forms of hierarchical value and systematic oppression are passing away – and that’s the good news. That’s the good news unless I am one of those who is benefitting from those systems. Then it is in my interest that the truth remains buried under layers of ignorant innocence and willful deception.
Truth tellers are not welcome by most of us most of the time. In fact, if they can’t keep their mouths shut, someone will shut their mouths for them. That’s as good a description of the crucifixion of Jesus as any I can propose.
I was part of a couple of conversations the other day that make this all the more pressing for me. Someone shared a difficult exchange during a church meeting. A vocal member was criticizing a church representative for the failings of a denomination. In particular, the member didn’t want to hear any more about diversity, equity, inclusion, peace, justice, and systemic change – not from the pulpit and not from the preacher.
“Leave my ideology alone,” the member demanded, “and stick to theology.” I thought immediately of the discussion of ideology and the Theology of the Cross in Douglas John Hall’s The Cross in Our Context. Hall offers a definition of “ideology.”
“By ideology I mean a theoretical statement or system of interpretation that functions for its adherents as a full and sufficient credo, a source of personal authority, and an intellectually and psychologically comforting insulation from the frightening and chaotic mishmash of daily existence” (page 25).
In other words, the purpose of ideology is the opposite of apocalyptic. Ideology hides reality in order to keep the privileged in power and the advantaged agnostic. Apocalyptic uncovers reality in order to dismantle the power of privilege. To use another science fiction film image, ideology is the blue pill of The Matrix – the one that allows the collaborator to enjoy imaginary steaks in blissful and willful ignorance.
“For the ideologue,” Hall continues, whether religious or political, it is not necessary to expose oneself constantly to the ongoingness of life; one knows in advance what one is going to find in the world….The ideological personality,” he observes, “(and in our time there are many such personalities) is constantly on guard against the intrusion of reality, of the unallowable question, of the data that does not ‘fit’ the system; therefore,” he concludes, “the repressive and suppressive dimension is never far beneath the surface of the ideological inclination” (page 25).
Hall argues, quite rightly, that the Theology of the Cross is anti-ideological at its core. It is “apocalyptic” in the deepest sense. The Theology of the Cross uncovers and makes known what is really going on under the covers of human ideologies. That’s why it is so dangerous to systems of power and privilege. That’s why Jesus’ ministry takes him to the Cross…and Jesus followers with him.
Ideology is always, Hall argues, the Theology of Glory. Theology of the Cross is a “great refusal,” he writes. “It refuses any system of belief that capitalizes on and exploits human need…the fallen human need to control and repress truth, to hold to comforting and comfortable partial truths or even downright falsehoods that can seem to assuage the soul’s thirst for certainty and ultimacy, and so avoid unprotected exposure to the abyss of meaning over which finite existence is suspended” (page 29).
It’s no wonder we don’t really want to know. But refusing to lift up the covers on what’s really happening requires the suffering and death of the people and the planet that subsidize our willful ignorance. Pick your -ism and see what it costs someone for the privileged (probably you and me) to remain in blissful ignorance. When I do that, I see that I am crucifying them so that I can avoid my own cross.
The Theology of Glory, Hall summarizes, “is invariably tempted to be a theology of sight, not faith; finality, not hope; and power, not love” (page 33). This is the “theology” (actually the ideology) that drives and underwrites the dominant but decaying culture of Christian Nationalism and White Supremacy. The truth is, as Hall notes, that the world is full of pain, and God loves the world. The Cross uncovers that Truth and calls us to announce it.
Fifteen minutes ago, I was able to ignore that truth. I wonder what I’ll ignore tomorrow.
References and Resources
Brobst-Renaud, Amanda. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-33-2/commentary-on-mark-131-8-5.
Dewey, Joanna. The Oral Ethos of the Early Church: Speaking, Writing, and the Gospel of Mark Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Dein, Simon. “Covid-19 and the Apocalypse: Religious and Secular Perspectives.” Journal of religion and health vol. 60,1 (2021): 5-15. doi:10.1007/s10943-020-01100-w.
Hall, Douglas John. The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World. Fortress Press, 2003.
Richard, Pablo. Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Orbis Books, 1995.
Shively, Elizabeth E. “What Type of Resistance? How Apocalyptic Discourse Functions as Social Discourse in Mark’s Gospel.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 37.4 381–406. Web.
Men in Black movie script: https://sfy.ru/?script=men_in_black.