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Iron Man: Conversion on the Road to… Afghanistan

On a wilderness road a powerful man is knocked to the ground in a blinding flash of light and after a dramatic change of heart he begins to live for the very thing he had formerly treated with disdain. Does this sound familiar? It should. This is not only the conversion experience of the “chiefest of sinners” who became the greatest of Apostles, it is also the opening plot twist of the highest grossing film of 2008 (so far) with the tenth-biggest movie opening weekend of all time, Iron Man.
While Saul the “Pharisee of Pharisees”, student of Gamaliel, and persecutor of Christians became Paul a joyfully suffering apostle of Jesus Christ, Iron Man is the story of Tony Stark a multi-billionaire playboy, engineering genius, and “merchant of death” who becomes Iron Man an impenetrable dealer of redemptive violence. Robert Downey Jr. delivers a knockout performance as the lead character in this modern tale of conversion which is similar to Paul’s story only on a good dose of Hollywood steroids and with the blood-bought and fleeting Pax Romana of the Roman empire mirrored in the war profiteering of our current military-industrial complex.
The writers and producer of Iron Man walk a fine line between social commentary on the violence inherent in the current system and glorification of the proper use of our current system of power. In the process, liberals cheer as Tony commits to stop making weapons after he faces the stark reality of how his weapons are being used to kill American soldiers and subjugate powerless Afghan villagers. While at the other end of the spectrum, conservatives nod approvingly at the larger theme of consolidating force into the hands of a responsible few who will dole out violence on the rest as needed to maintain an illusory peace.
As in so many movies, violence is glorified and the answer to violent injustice is… more violence. This allows for some incredible special effects and uber-cool moments such as when Iron Man confronts a handful of terrorists holding hostages and kills the bad guys all at once. So, in combating the perceived problem of corruption and misuse, Stark operates under the same assumptions he held before his conversion and yet he naively hopes to bring about a different end. In the process, he creates a weapon which he wields to crush the corrupt and shift the balance of power but his invention is also prone to be misused as his nemesis derisively points out – leading to ever greater harm. Instead, when Paul picked up the cross of Christ it wasn’t to bludgeon his Jewish opponents and crush his Roman oppressors. Rather, Paul preached Jesus Christ is Lord, a deceptively simple message that implied a complete restructuring of the power system of his day under which Caesar was widely proclaimed as Lord. Paul’s Christ centered message was anti-imperialist and bottom-up with love as the highest ideal and unity amidst diversity the goal. Stark’s response was more of the same shock-and-awe with top-down power as the highest ideal and homogeneous conformity the end result.
Shane Claiborne maintains in An Irresistable Revolution that it is vital to put a human face on the big issues of our day such as war, poverty, and injustice. In fact, the two stories we are comparing exemplify this concept. Saul repents only after he recognizes that his persecution is not only against the faceless hordes of a deluded break-away sect but against the very person of Jesus Christ himself. In the same way, it is only after seeing young American soldiers killed and experiencing first hand the terror of his own weapons that Tony Stark seeks to atone for his past.
I wonder what Iron Man would have looked like if Tony Stark’s philosophical change of heart had been as complete as was his reliance on the arc reactor which kept his physical heart beating. What if his eyes had been opened not only to the humanity of the persecuted but also to the value of the persecutors? Can you imagine a superhero taking a vow to protect life everywhere, flying around in impenetrable armor not only to free the persecuted from persecution, but also to liberate the persecutors from persecuting? Can you picture capturing weapons and using limitless wealth and engineering genius to convert the machines of war into medical equipment, food production tools, and sustainable energy sources? Do you ever wonder what our world would be like today if our national response to 9/11 had been less about shock-and-awe and more about love and compassion? Have you considered the transforming power of a person of peace confronting the coercive might of the principalities and powers with nothing but love, and thereby exposing the destructive force of the empire while simultaneously demonstrating a better way?
Brenton Reading writes from Birmingham, Alabama where he works as a radiologist. This review was originally published on his Sabbath School’s blog, Epicenter Conversations.

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