Theologian and Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer believed that the arts (music, paintings, drama, movies, etc.) reflected the true inner philosophy and beliefs of a society. This being the case, it was not uncommon to find him lecturing in his Swiss L’Abri community not only on the teachings of Christ but on topics such as the metaphysics of the rock group Led Zeppelin.
There’s little doubt that Schaeffer was right. The arts move through our eye and ear gate and oftentimes engage us visually to consider philosophical, moral and spiritual questions in ways that other mediums can’t.
The recently released movie “The Purge” was widely panned by theater critics, but nevertheless rose to be the top movie the week it opened. The film is set at a time in American history when employment is at its lowest level ever. Ditto for crime. On the surface, things couldn’t be better.
Because for one 12-hour period per year, all laws are suspended and humanity is allowed to carry out every act that it desires without consequence. “Tonight allows people a release for all the hatred and violence that they keep up inside them,” says the key protagonist in the movie, who is a man with a wife and two children. When questioned by his kids about why such a thing is allowed, the mother responds, “Just remember all the good that the purge does.”
When one of the children admits a man being pursued by a group of killers into their home during the 12-hour purge, the family faces the moral dilemma of whether to protect or eject him when their house is surrounded by the murderous mob who asks the family to sacrifice their visitor to the gang outside or die.
It’s natural for us to dismiss such situations as pure fiction and believe that human beings wouldn’t kill innocent people simply because the laws prohibiting murder were lifted. Certain crazed and lawless individuals, sure, but whole communities of people? Well, that just wouldn’t happen.
Or would it?
Fear Thy Neighbor
The book is now twelve years old, but the shock value it delivers is every bit as fresh today for those who haven’t heard the story. On July 10, 1941 half of the Polish town of Jebwabne murdered the other half who was Jewish. Of the 1,600 Jews that lived in the town, only about a dozen or so survived to tell the story that’s chronicled in Jan Gross’ book Neighbors.
Today, we’ve become somewhat desensitized to stories of the Holocaust. We try to tell ourselves that the persistent Nazi indoctrination of hatred resulted in brainwashed German military individuals who carried out atrocities that otherwise ‘normal’ people wouldn’t. Gross’ book shatters that kind of thinking.
Poles and Jews had been living peacefully side by side for many years in Jedwabne until the Nazis arrived in the town. Just after the German occupation, the question was raised of it was now permitted to kill the Jews. Upon receiving an affirmative answer, half of the town turned on the other with the same type of murderous violence depicted in “The Purge”.
Some Jews were decapitated and their heads kicked around for fun. To escape their killers, Jewish mothers fled to a nearby pond and drown their own children, but most were caught and burned alive in a large barn. Although the killings were coordinated by the town mayor, Gross says that townspeople were “free to improvise”.
Writing in a Newsweek article about the atrocity, George Will says it was not the German army who murdered half the town of Jedwabne, but rather “the last faces seen by Jedwabne's Jews were the familiar faces of neighbors.” But why did they do it?
Will’s answer is a disturbing one: “Why in Jedwabne did neighbors murder their neighbors? Because it was permitted. Because they could.”
For the Good of Thy Neighbor (hood)
The moral philosophy espoused at the outset of “The Purge” is one of consequentialism: the moral rightness or wrongness of an action is determined solely by its end consequences. That type of utilitarian thinking (whatever delivers maximum happiness and minimal suffering to a society is good) is beyond disturbing when one actually thinks of it being universally imposed. This mindset says that, for example, torturing an innocent child is morally acceptable if it brings about an overarching good for society, and further, not only is it morally permissible, but you are actually morally obligated to carry out the act.
“The Purge” isn’t the only movie to showcase this moral philosophy. Other films such as “The Watchmen” end promoting the same thing.
I think most would agree that consequentialism, when examined, proves to be morally bankrupt, but this raises the question of what moral framework people should use when interacting with their ‘neighbors’ and where such ethical standards originate. Are the actions depicted in “The Purge” and what happened in Jedwabne wrong? Is so, why?
Although atheism has tried to provide moral groundings apart from a transcendent Creator, some atheists admit that it requires too much heavy lifting and that it can’t be done. One is atheist Kai Nielsen who wrote, “We have been unable to show that reason requires the moral point of view or that really rational persons need not be egotists or classical amoralists. Reason doesn’t decide here. The picture I have painted for you here is not a pleasant one for me and reflection on this actually depresses me. Pure, practical reason even with the good knowledge of the facts will not take you to morality.”
Why Love Thy Neighbor?
So what will take you to morality? Why should someone objectively love their neighbor vs. kill him/her if they can?
Understand that under a purely naturalistic worldview there are no such things as human equality or objective moral values and duties. Survival of the fittest and elimination of inferiors plus emotive mob rule for the determination of ever changing moral laws is all that you truly have at your disposal. This doesn’t mean an atheist can’t live a moral life, but it does mean there is no objective grounding for right and wrong.
By contrast, the Christian worldview brings to the table the facts of an omnibenevolent Creator who created intrinsically valuable beings in His moral image so that they instinctively know His moral Law. From the Creator’s very nature flows an immutable moral framework that grounds objective moral values and duties and sets the never changing standard for the oughtness in life.
Rather than condoning a “purge” that carries out violence and evil without consequence, God offers a new life to those who ask Him; one that alters the selfish and sinful longings of the heart to a singular desire that genuinely wants to live by God’s Law.
And just what is it that God asks of us?
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”(Matt. 22:37–40).
There’s no doubt in my mind that adhering to such a standard eliminates the possibilities of future Jedwabne’s and assigns actions such as those depicted in “The Purge” to their rightful place of fiction.
 Kai Nielsen, "Why Should I Be Moral?" American Philosophical Quarterly 21 (1984): 90.