Friday, May 06, 2005

Kingdom of Heaven

Ridley Scott's beautifully filmed anti-war war movie is now out in the theaters, and it is thought provoking in so many ways. The story is grounded reasonably well in history telling the story of the hiatus between the 2nd and 3rd Crusades when Saladin's forces surrounded the Holy Land and there was an uneasy peace with a leper king Baldwin, a Christian ruler in Jerusalem. The peace was preserved through tolerance and allowing persons of all monotheistic faiths who have a stake in Jerusalem to have free access to the city to live, and work and pray.

The film is laden with ironies of various sorts not the least of which is the portray of both Moslems and Christians fervently shouting and believing that it was God's will that they murder the infidels on the other side, only to discover that in fact God thwarted both sides' efforts from time to time.

The film is called Kingdom of Heaven and Jerusalem is seen as it's epicenter, which is the ultimate irony since it is the site of so much unheavenly plotting, treachery, immorality, and murder, but then such is the very nature of war.

Scott intends to force the audience to realize the inherent contradictions involves in fighting for the Kingdom of Heaven, a Kingdom Jesus said would be established by love, even love of enemies, by turning the other check, and by refusing to retaliate when harmed. It is a Kingdom worth living and dying for, but its very nature is violated by killing for it.

It is not a surprise that Orlando Bloom, who plays the role of Balian the central character in the movie (a blacksmith become knight on crusade), becomes agnostic in the face of the machinations that go on in the name of God, both on the Christian and Moslem side of the ledger. Yet the leper King Baldwin is a wise King and there are reminders along the way in his life and in the lives of others of real Christian values such as goodness and kindness, even to one's enemies, and holiness, and always being prepared to tell the truth. In the end Balian resolves to defend the people of Jerusalem but not the bricks and mortar.

This is a wonderfully thought provoking movie for people of all faiths and no faith, and it raises the question once more whether Christian crusades can be holy wars any more than Moslem jihads. Or is it in fact the case that there are no just wars, only wars that seem more and less justifiable to us, more and less injust to human beings who have an infinite capacity for self-justification and protecting their own turf? Scott's movie throws down the gauntlet in a way his earlier effort in Gladiator does not, forcing us to realize both the limitations and the great cost of violating one of the fundamental Biblical commandments recognized and accepted by all three monotheistic religions--- Thou shalt not murder.


J. Michael Matkin said...

Hmmm, if that's what Sir Ridley is up to then it's certainly timely. I've seen recent reporting indicating that some Muslim groups have been pleased with the way that they are represented, but that some Christians aren't. I wonder if this has something to do with the fundamental ideals of both faiths. Islam doesn't seem to have the same squeamishness about theocracy backed by the sword that Christianity does, which means that in any conflict between the two faiths the Christians necessarily come across as the greater hypocrites: the moment it comes to blows, it becomes clear that the Christians are straying from their founder's example while Muslims are following theirs.

J. Michael Matkin said...

By the way, great to see you blogging, Doc.

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks for this comment Michael. I think you may well be write. For Christians it also comes down to whether one thinks that the new covenant is just a renewal of the old ones, in which case one will appeal to Joshua over and against the sermon on the mount to justify a 'just war' theory.

Sven said...

Would I be right in saying that the New Covenant replaces the old one, and that being in covenant with God is (and always has been?) by faith?

I think I'm just not understanding your comment properly...what I mean is, is it at all possible to use the Old Covenant to justify war at all? My only problem with this approach would be that it would be necessary to believe that the Old Covenant is still to be observed.

Great to have you blogging by the way :)

Ben Witherington said...


The way covenantal theology works is that the latest covenant does indeed succeed the previous ones, even though there may be some overlap in their requirements. I agree with you that Joshua can't be used to norm or guide Christian behavior in war. Ben

Ed Brenegar said...

Kingdom of Heaven is a thorougly enjoyable film. When Balin choses people over bricks and mortar, my immediate thought was of Homer. How would Homer have written the ending of this story? My next thought was of disappointment. That the conclusion is too simple, too modern, too predictable. That modernates are noble and extremists corrupt. That these average citizens of Jerusalem who stood to defend their city would be so ready to surrender and leave the city just seemed too easy a conclusion. Lastly, Scott's assumption that religious faith is essentially extremist and warmongering is reading contemporary secular ideology into a medieval world very different than ours.

Sharad Yadav said...

Thanks for this post, Dr. Witherington - I'm going to be recieving this movie in the mail soon (thanks Blockbuster!). Some questions that spring to mind with the idea that the NT promotes a pacifist (and therefore anti-just war) ethic over against an OT ethic that is more sympathetic to war are: 1) What is the proper function of the state according to Ro. 13, and how should Christians encourage the use of the sword in that context? 2) How does one balance the enduring legitimate God-given authority of "the powers" with their obvious rebellion which Christ judged on the cross? 3) Can acts of judgment, including war, ever be the more loving act (though we're asked to turn our own cheek, we're not asked to turn that of another's)?

Of course there are some questions for just war advocates as well -- but I feel somewhat uncomfortable playing a NT ethic off a "baser" OT standard. If the subject of war and Christian ethics is something you've done work in, I'd be very grateful for a reference to follow up with! I'd also be grateful for any comments you might have for the questions (mentioned above) I posted to my website. Thanks again!