While cross-company promotional policies may have shifted the X-Men to the sidelines in Marvel’s comic catalogue of late (as Fox, not Disney, owns the rights to make X-Men movies), I’d argue the X-Men are as relevant now as they’ve ever been. “Mutants in the Marvel Universe,” as master X-Men writer Chris Claremont says in his introduction to X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, “have always stood as a metaphor for the underclass, the outsiders, they represent the ultimate minority.” The X-Men then are both those who we reject and those who stand up to give a voice to those rejected. As such, their stories and their message are desperately needed right now.
Created in 1963 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the X-Men reflected the growing tensions in the Civil Rights Movement and, through their long publication history, have always served as a metaphorical stand-in for the oppressed minority. In the Marvel Universe, mutants are homo superior. Evolutionarily they are different from normal human beings, gaining fantastic powers at puberty. Because of this difference, a great many “normal” humans hate and fear them. In reaction to this hatred and fear, Professor Xavier (often symbolizing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) seeks peaceful cohabitation with the world at large. This is contrasted with Magneto (often representing the fight-fire-with-fire approach of Malcolm X) who believes humanity will never peacefully accept them and must be made to. Through the decades they have represented Black Americans, religious minorities, the LGBTQ community, women, the poor, and any other persecuted and oppressed minority.
What can be more relevant now? Despite it being 2016, in America we not only need a Black Lives Matter movement but there are people who deny it’s necessity. Last week peaceful Sioux protestors were shot with beanbag rounds and pepper spray by police officers wearing riot gear and armed with a sound canon and armored police trucks at Standing Rock, arresting over 140…for peaceful protest. Conversely, seven white, anti-government militia men were acquitted after their armed takeover of a federal wildlife refuge. And let’s not forget that Tuesday is election day and a very vocal segment of the country is excitedly, enthusiastically, and at times violently championing the idea of closing the country’s borders, forcing Muslims to leave/refusing to let them in, and in some cases assaulting those with contrary opinions. There are even concerns of an armed race war coming should Trump lose. I pray that this is simply the wild ramblings of some angry, hateful people. But the fact that the conversation is even in the air around us is frightening.
America sits on a very scary threshold and the acceptance by so many of hateful and even violent actions towards a wide variety of minority groups in our country is horrifying. And this is why I find myself thinking of and reading about the X-Men. These are the people the X-Men represent and this is exactly why we need them as much now as we ever have. In addition to the regular stream of super villains they protect the earth from, the X-Men also deal with mob violence and hate groups hunting and harassing them. From stories about a “mutant cure” (exploring abortion through the discussion of what a mutant has the right to do with their own body) to things like mutant registration (mirroring the Holocaust, ghettos, and the camps), the X-Men are often used to explore deep, social issues. They face oppression and teach us that any sort of oppression isn’t okay. The X-Men continue to represent Black America and presently symbolize the Sioux, Muslims, and immigrants as well. Some in our country refuse to see these problems or understand their gravity but that’s a perspective born of a comfortable position in the majority and/or a refusal to see the truth. And we need the X-Men to help remind us of that as well.
I think it was my unease about the future that led me to re-read Chris Claremont and Brent Anderson’s seminal work X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills this weekend. Released in 1982 as part of Marvel’s then new line of graphic novels, published without the Comics Code Seal of Approval, the comic was able to deal with more “mature” themes. Far from using it as an excuse to write a profanity-laden narrative or fill the comic with graphic sexuality, Claremont and Anderson wrote an emotionally heavy and disturbingly honest story dealing with persecution and prejudice. The narrative follows the Reverend William Stryker, a Fundamentalist Christian preacher, on a crusade against mutants in America. Despite Jesus’ love-driven ministry being one of inclusion and mercy, Stryker invokes Jesus’ name to demonize the mutant community and fan the flames of hatred amongst those who share his prejudices. It is left to Professor X and his X-Men to stand against this growing tide of angry discrimination.
The book’s author Chris Claremont’s sixteen year stint (1975-1991) writing Uncanny X-Men is considered by many the Golden Age of the comic, giving readers such classic stories as “The Dark Phoenix Saga” and “Days Of Future Past.” He was with the book longer than any other writer in its history. With such a rich relationship to the X-Men, it’s significant that Claremont considers X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills to be his favorite X-Men story. The afterward to the volume states it was, “as high-concept as they come, purposely designed to be unbound by rules and also to make a statement. It was, as [Claremont] says, their attempt at a big, blockbuster X-Men story to stand above all that had come before and influence all that would come after.” During his tenure he incorporated real, complex literary themes into his comic book writing as well as developing a strong cast with real diversity in his books. The result of his work was the transformation of Uncanny X-Men from a middling comic into one of Marvel’s most popular series.
X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills is filled with as many theological themes as it is social ones. In fact, I wrote once before of my search for a graphic novel to use in my Christianity and Popular Culture course a few years ago. That search led me to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns…and it didn’t make the cut for the class. I ended up using X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills with great results. Perhaps, for the same reasons I found myself returning to it this weekend, my students experienced the power of its relevance. Claremont, again in the book’s introduction, writes, “The irony of God Loves is that it was very much of its own time and place, and yet almost twenty years later, the sentiments – and the inspirations that brought it into being – retain their relevance. People are still judged more by the color of their skin, and the nation of their origin, and the faith they espouse, than their character. And I still find myself dreaming of a time when all of that is behind us and saying why not?”
The book opens in fear and violence. Two young children, Mark and Jill, are callously and enthusiastically executed and hung from a swing set with “mutie” tied to their bodies evoking everything from Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” to the brutal and tragic slaying of Matthew Shepard just after midnight on 7 October 1998. In my own town, just the other day, a dummy with Hillary Clinton mask on was hung dangling from a bridge over a road. From a theological standpoint, all of these horrid examples naturally take my mind to Jesus – another innocent unjustly killed and hung for a message of love, nonviolence, no ownership, and total giving that the world wouldn’t accept. When will we learn?
Stryker’s militia call themselves “Purifiers” implying that they are making the word “pure” or “holy” again. They tell Jill that they are killing her, “Because you have no right to live.” That is a dangerous and slippery slope to embark on, deciding you know who has the right to live and die. Yet, as a culture, it’s a right we all too often take for ourselves (ignoring poverty, supporting war, endorsing capital punishment, etc. and so on). From a theological/scriptural standpoint, God alone has the authority to end a life, no one else. But we, as a culture, have a nasty habit of making God say what we want and not what God wants. This allows us to give divine endorsement to our hatred.
We first meet Stryker as he’s reading his Bible and tying a passage about stoning sinners (Deuteronomy 17:2-5) to Jesus praying, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This is a classic example of proof texting. With proof texting you take a line or two from the Bible and read it in isolation so you can make it say whatever you want it to say. Robbed of context and understanding, we can make the Bible say anything. Here Stryker is taking a verse about pagan worship and connecting it to Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God – which is entirely based on love, nonviolence, non-judgment, and acceptance. There is nothing even remotely accurate about what Stryker is doing. Nothing he is saying or implying is actually anchored in scripture. But he believes it is…he can sell it. This is why it’s so important to know and understand scripture – to see through this.
As Stryker’s anti-mutant crusade heats up, Charles Xavier goes on national television to debate him. As they watch, the men in the TV control room make a sobering point. The first man asks, “You think Xavier’s making a convincing case?” The second replies, “Yeah, but who’s listening? Stryker knows television – and he’s playing to the audience. He comes across as such a nice, personable guy…too bad – ’cause the man’s message is pretty damn scary.” After the television broadcast Scott worriedly tells Ororo, “Charles was speaking to people’s ideals, Stryker to their fears.” Yet Xavier tells his students they can’t fight Stryker as they can Magneto. Instead, “We can only counter them with saner, gentler words of our own.” So this is the struggle then – How do we battle ignorance and hatred? How do we make reason and sanity be heard over the cacophony of fear and intolerance?
The X-Men are rightly concerned about the implications here.
Sadly, this is not a farfetched fear in the least. This is what happened with the Holocaust as Jewish people, gypsies, those with mental disabilities, and those outside of Hitler’s Aryan ideal were rounded up and killed.
Magneto, himself a survivor of the Holocaust, sees the events in an all too familiar light. Upon hearing of the Purifiers plan he laments, “Once more, genocide in the name of God. A story as old as the race.” Given the very real, very personal nature of all this, Magneto and Scott clash over how best to solve this threat of intolerance and prejudice.
Magneto – “I am not your enemy, X-Men, nor do I consider you mine. True, my goal has ever been the conquest of earth – but solely to create a world where our race, Homo Superior, can live in peace. Look at yourselves, risking your lives for a humanity that would rather see you behind bars, or dead. Why do you persist?”
Scott – “Is your way any better? A mutant dictatorship?”
Magneto – “Do not take that tone with me boy. I have lived under a dictatorship and seen my family butchered by its servants. When I rule, it will be for the betterment of all. Contentment breeds tranquility – discontent, rebellion. Therefore, I shall ensure the one by eliminating the root causes of the other: hunger, poverty, disease, war. The freedoms lost will not be noticed, even in the most libertarian of states. And the material benefits should more than balance the scales.”
Yet Scott and the other X-Men can’t accept this. They arrive at Stryker’s rally at Madison Square Garden planning to rescue Xavier (who Stryker has taken hostage to power a machine to kill all mutants) and try to defuse the situation. As they do this, Scott realizes it isn’t the Purifiers or the machine that’s dangerous, but it’s Stryker’s ideas that are the real threat. It is his vision that’s dangerous. Scott challenges Stryker, “Are arbitrary labels more important than the way we live our lives, what we’re supposed to be more important than what we actually are?!” Stryker responds by looking at Kurt and asking, “Human?! You dare call that…thing – human?!”
This is a very important moment in the book. This is how we perpetuate our violence and judgment. We demonize the other, we rob them of their humanity. If we convince ourselves who we fight/judge isn’t human or is an aberration or is less than us in the eyes of God then we can justify our doing all manner of horrible things to them. This is no different than the problems that are plaguing us now. I honestly believe that those who spout such hateful rhetoric don’t wake up every day and say to themselves, “Hey, I want to be angry, intolerant, and wrong!” Rather, they’ve bought into a lie that justifies their perspective. This doesn’t make those oppressive views okay but it helps us see their genesis in something that can be changed through loving action.
Ultimately, Stryker is shot by a police officer at the Garden when he is prepares to shoot Kitty. One of Stryker’s followers say, astonished, “That cop – shot the Reverend!” He replies, “Yup – who was about to shoot an unarmed little girl. If that’s the word of God, it’s sure changed since Sunday school.” This is one of the book’s most important lessons. God never justifies or accepts violence, discrimination, or hatred in ANY situation. Those who say God does, are making God over in their image as opposed to allowing themselves to be transformed by God.
The book ends on a painfully and powerfully challenging point.
Ororo – “Would you like some company, Scott?”
Scott – “Never say no to a beautiful woman, especially when she’s a friend.”
Ororo – “I have never been more proud of you. You said what was in our hearts both here and at the Garden. I think for a moment you unnerved the Professor – you became the teacher and he, the pupil.
Scott – “Labels again. The hell with ’em. He was in need. I helped him. As he would me. That’s what it’s all about, really. Needing and helping. Caring for one another.”
Ororo – “And from that caring comes love. Which makes the world go round.”
Scott – “If only that were so.”
The book opens in violence and it closes in doubt and cynicism, painting a hauntingly true picture of our world today. Scott nails it. He captures the purpose and nature of life perfectly – needing and helping, caring for one another. Yet he rejects Ororo’s continuation that from that nexus grows love. Is he right? Does love not truly make the world go round? Is love not all there is? Is that a naive idea? For me…the answer has to be no. I tell my students all the time that I couldn’t teach theology if I didn’t believe in our ability to transform the world as God calls us to, to see the triumph of love over anger, intolerance, and hate. Even if the world in which I live has me struggling with how to take the first steps to do this, I still believe. And I still love because I believe.
And we end where we begin. At present, in the X-Men comics, much of the social justice themes are sidelined as they simply battle super villains like the Avengers. And their films (while entertaining) are a convoluted mess of continuity. But they can be so much more. This is why I believe I was subconsciously drawn to re-read this book this weekend. This is why the X-Men are as relevant now as they’ve ever been. In the face of all the hatred, intolerance, ignorance, and fear growing in my country right now, the X-Men remind us that we must stand against it. We have to follow their model. We must speak out. To do and say nothing is to be complicit in the oppression.