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A Few Words about Evil

Dr. Greg Garrett, with whom I am currently taking  a class on theodicy, has just written an article on “Evil in Contemporary American Film” for the Society of Biblical Literature. It’s a good read, particularly as I hope to have something to say about evil in film myself in a few weeks. I particularly like his take on The Bourne Ultimatum near the end. Here’s an excerpt:

The Bourne Ultimatum, also released in 2007, was the third film in the series starring Matt Damon as repentant US government assassin Jason Bourne. Jason carried out kill missions on behalf of the American people; in the last film, we’re told that the program that began with Bourne has gone on to assassinate American citizens as well. In one of the movie’s final scenes, Jason Bourne, repentant man that he now is, pursues his past to the place where he became Jason Bourne, cold-blooded killer, and regains his memories: that he voluntarily submitted to the program of brain-washing and training that made him an unstoppable assassin, that he executed an unknown man as a demonstration of his willingness, and that although he had entered the program out of patriotic motives, he himself was to blame for the person he became.

In this film, we can see all three of the human forms of evil displayed vividly: the personal choice that Jason makes when he decides to become a killer, the wheedling and urging of extra-personal evil in the persons of his handlers. But in images reminiscent of the Abu Graib photos, in the clear visual references elsewhere in The Bourne Ultimatum to water boarding, and in the patriotic notion that sometimes the good guys have to do really bad things to defeat the bad guys, we can see the last few years of American history come to life and our societal sins laid bare for all to see. Jason chose, yes, but his individual choice is given its impetus by the resources and the training he is given by a society willing to do anything to maintain its power and security. His choice is magnified by his inability to see that he serves a corrupt and corrupting system.

I talked about The Bourne Ultimatum with audiences in Munich and Stuttgart in the summer of 2008, and while my largely agnostic audience didn’t always relate to the spiritual impulses I was describing, they certainly understood the idea of societal evil; Germany has seen how that looks. When a system rewards individuals for doing evil or punishes them for not doing evil, we are dealing with a society that is complicating the individual decision in ways almost beyond bearing. But, as we see dramatically at the end of The Bourne Ultimatum, one can still choose good over evil, even in a flawed system. When Damon’s character announces, “I’m not Jason Bourne any more,” we are witnessing another stirring example of metanoia, that rejection of evil and movement in the direction of something radically different.

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~ by Jared on April 16, 2009.

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