Jesus Vs. The Punisher
So I just watched the preview for Daredevil Season 2 for about the twentieth time.
I’m ecstatic that it looks just as good as the first season and even more ecstatic that there will finally be a worthy portrayal of my all-time favorite comic book character, The Punisher. At least, he was my favorite, back when I was buying comic sleeves and boxes as fast as I could burn through them.
I always found The Punisher to be really compelling for some reason, despite his fairly vanilla backstory and less-than-nuanced approach to justice. Maybe the simplicity of his origin made it easy to project more complex struggles and identities onto him. Remember how, as the early-mid-90s postmodern-mania was spreading like wildfire, literature teachers and profs declared every character everywhere from every book to be either gay or a Christ figure (or, if you’re really edgy, a gay Christ figure)? Yeah, me too.
However, there is one literary character to whom I have never heard either of these labels applied: Frank Castle1 — The Punisher of really-awesome-comic (and heretofore-really-horrible-movie) fame.
If you’re not familiar with Frank, he is a superhero (in the loosest sense of the term), a one-time seminarian, a Vietnam vet, and (since the senseless slaughter of his family in Central Park—wrong place, wrong time) a one-man war on organized crime, disorganized crime, and semi-organized crime. The Punisher wears a skull emblem on his chest2 and takes no prisoners. He really ought to be called “The Executioner,” but that name was already claimed by Don Pendleton.
Okay, I need to throw out a disclaimer here: pastors probably shouldn’t be fans of the Punisher. And I’m not really an active fan anymore. The stories took a horrible turn—from Rambo-style, shoot-em-up action to gore, more gore, profanity, and sex— sometime in the early naughty aughties, at which time I jumped ship. I still have most of the classic issues, but I got rid of the few “Marvel Max” era comics I had. (I don’t even want to know about the subsequent “Frankenstein” version of the character. Sigh…)
Anyway, I’m certainly not writing to endorse the comics or the character (or three of the worst movies ever made). Or even the upcoming brilliant casting of Daredevil Season 2. No, I want to do something much worse: to suggest that there is a connection between Frank Castle and Jesus. Yes, this is a gimmick; the proposed connection is not in their characters per se, but in the way they’ve been represented.
By nature, publisher-owned comic book characters are drawn, inked, colored, and written by hundreds of different people over their lifetimes. As a result, they often differ significantly from one incarnation to another. But I would argue that Frank Castle, more than any other comic character, has been re-defined, re-oriented, and re-directed based on the worldview of his current writer, resulting in one schizophrenic judge, jury, and executioner.
To me, this is kind of funny. Why would you want a character who is essentially a mass-murdering vigilante to share your political/social opinions? I would be tempted to attribute my opponents’ views to The Punisher and portray him as the logical end of thinking like they do. This has been done to some degree, but more often than not, Frank Castle thinks like the writer of the current issue and becomes a mouthpiece-slash-fantasy vehicle.
For example, in the early ’90s, The Punisher comics were largely penned (not to be confused with “inked”) by conservatives, particularly Chuck Dixon and Mike Baron. This Punisher fought against environmentalist extremists and animal rights groups. In one particularly goofy issue, he protected a right-wing radio host (who was obviously supposed to be Rush Limbaugh) by killing the radical feminists and others who attacked him outside his studio. Frank thinks (or writes in his War Journal; it’s hard to tell the difference) that, after listening to this particular host for a while, “a lot of what he says makes sense.”
Now contrast that with Garth Ennis’s initial re-launching of the character (circa 2001-2006). The Irish Ennis is a militant atheist and strident leftist. His version of the Punisher is quite vocal about his pro-homosexual stance, ridicules a Fundamentalist preacher, and declares himself “anything but” pro-life. Oh, and he once broke into the oval office and threatened to kill President Bush. No, I’m not making that up; it was published two months after September 11. Apart from his obvious affinity for capital punishment, this Castle is basically a buffed-up version of Al Franken.
At this point, I hope you’re thinking that to suggest a connection between Jesus and the Punisher is kind of crass. And I would agree that it is, but it’s legit all the same. What Mike Baron and Garth Ennis have both done to the Punisher (taking his back story, general motivation and mission in life, supporting cast, etc. and filling them in with their own views, values, and passions), we all tend to do with the person of Jesus Christ. But here’s the problem: Jesus isn’t a fictional comic book character to be re-invented every few years. He’s the Alpha and Omega, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, through whom everything that exists was created.
Jesus hung out with sinners. He did miracles. He defied the religious leaders of his day. He died on a cross. He rose again. We humans have found it really easy over the last 2,000 years to fill in all the Jesus details with our own desires, values, goals, and passions. And it’s not hard to find two “versions” of Jesus that differ as much as the two versions of the Punisher described above. For example, compare the pro-capitalism, God-and-Country version of Jesus trumpeted by James Dobson or Gary Bauer with the Jesus of liberation theology or Jim Wallis and Brian McLaren’s disaffected hippie Jesus. It’s incredibly easy to re-make Jesus in our own image, even when we all accept the same origin, back-story, supporting cast, etc. (although the Jesus Seminar crowd wants to remove certain back issues from continuity and I think McLaren, et. al may be going for a full retcon).
Of course, the difficulty is that we can easily spot everyone else doing this, but most of us assume that we’re not. We’re just taking the Jesus of the Bible at face value. We’re not importing any of our own ideas, motives, or baggage. Are we?
So here’s the question: how can we guard against re-defining Jesus in our own image? How can you remain true to the real Christ—not the one you find inside yourself, but the one outside of us who died on a cross for the sins of the world? We can all write the standard general answer in our sleep. But what specific safeguards can we put in place? Here’s my two cents to start us off: one way to ensure that we will re-define Christ as we wish he was is to stop believing in authorial intent and absolute Truth. If the Truth is really inside you, then you will bend it (and Christ) to whatever you want them to be.
Are you reading Jesus like you want him to be? One indicator might be if you find that Jesus thinks just like you most of the time. You are never scandalized by what he taught or how he lived. If we’re following Christ as he is, we should expect that we will have to change (read: be changed) in order to think like him (having the same mind in us that is in Christ Jesus). Otherwise, we’re likely modifying him to have the same mind that is in us.
I’m very curious to see what this new version of The Punisher will look like as his character and motivations are expertly teased out over the course of DD S2. But I’m truly hungry to continually discover the mind, nature, and character of my Lord Jesus as he is and was, and ever will be—not as I wish he were.
I love this post. I think it’s very apt to show how we want Jesus to be like us instead of the Lord of lives where His will is sovereign. We want a non-offensive Jesus, the one that listens to us like a good ole friend.
Then there are times where we want Jesus to BE like the Punisher, based on our sense of right and wrong. Sometimes we want Him to be rash like the sons of the Thunder when they said, and I paraphrase in 21st century vernacular, ‘Take dez folks out.’ I know for me, I think of this when I see victims of some horrible crime are hurt from a not guilty verdict, or lack of evidence, or something like that. We want judgment and swift punishment them.
It’s some very good points you made and they’re intriguing. Thank you.
Sometimes there are posts going around online that say ‘canon Jesus is better than fanon Jesus;” while they tend to be accurate as far one issue goes, they don’t also see the whole picture.
Very true. One of the verses in the Bible I like a lot is when the angel talks to Joshua. When Joshua asks if the angel is for the Israelites or their enemies, the angel says ‘Neither.’ That’s really striking when I think about it, and probably applies to just about every divine or spiritual being. God might be for us in the sense that he cares and will do what is best for us, but we silly humans think that means he believes exactly as we do and that he will further our desires and political agenda in the exact manner we prefer.
As far as the Punisher, I haven’t seen much of him yet, but he kinda sounds like Light from Death Note. Interesting, maybe even smart, but also very arrogant since he thinks that he should be the one to decide who should live and die–never mind that most people on a rampage like his aren’t going to assess whether or not he is truly killing someone who deserves it. Either that or he will kill kind and innocent people if they get in his way.