V for Vendetta: Governments, Comfort, and Justice

In my first post about V for Vendetta, I looked the central concept of the idea and the man and I asked whether we see Jesus as one, the other, or both. In this post I’ll proceed to discuss what the particular idea is that V was representing and how this lines up with the central ideas taught and lived by Jesus. It will be a lot more scattered than the last post since I’m going to hit on a few related but different concepts. As I said in the last post, it does us little good to be fully behind the idea if we don’t also embrace the man, so hold anything I say here within the context of a relationship with the God/man who brings these ideas to us.

The Church and State Alliance

An obvious starting point in discussing the themes of V for Vendetta is how this dystopian state claims to be acting the way it is in the name of God. The slogan of this future vision of England is “strength through unity; unity through faith” and at a few other points in the movie it makes clear that there is a strong but vague sense of “God” behind every action of the government. A speech early in the movie also helps set the scene by establishing that the fall of America is because of its godlessness (that sounds familiar).

We could be skeptical and say that it is typically the non-religious who paint these dystopian futures and blame them on the religious. Or we could be realistic and say that a lot of the times that Christians (or other religions) have had power we have not created particularly free societies. In fact, as I thought about it throughout this most recent viewing of the movie, I didn’t think that this vision of the future was actually as bad as a lot of our past. You could argue that Christians being in power do a lot of good, too – I don’t think there’s any doubt that Christians have used politics for many good purposes – but there’s also no doubt that we’ve similarly done a lot of things contrary to the teachings of the God we claim to follow.

The Problem: Comfort

Throughout the movie you get to see bits and pieces of how England got to this situation of an extreme-conservative faith-based government. It speaks a lot to the human nature. In V’s first hijacking of the TV station, he explains that those who are to blame are really the average citizen. Why did they do it? In a time of turmoil, they turned to comfort from a man they barely knew, the man who would become the authoritarian leader of their country. They allowed him to enforce many things which V succinctly calls “the crimes of this government.” Many of these crimes we find out boil down to elimination of many minority groups that are labelled as godless, including LGBT persons and Muslims. In the flashbacks you see that some stand up against these injustices but the majority take the approach of “it’s not me they’re after; life may not be perfect but it is comfortable enough to not be worth challenging what’s happening to other people.” Even more than the government, the enemy at play here is really the complacency and comfort of the masses.

The Change Agent: Sacrifice

V for Vendetta - Evey in the RainIn contrast to the previous point, the real change doesn’t happen until people are willing to sacrifice. Early on in the movie, Evey says to V that she wants to be free of her fear. Not long later, Evey escapes V’s house only to supposedly be captured by the government. Repeatedly  the supposed captors offer her freedom in exchange for giving up information about V. She consistently refuses, ultimately saying that she would rather die. It is then that V reveals it was really him behind the capture but that she is now free because she has overcome her fear. From then on for the rest of the movie, Evey is a completely different person. She isn’t the only one to go through changes either. You also see the lead investigator get more and more willing to challenge the assumption that the government is really working for the good of the people and you see many average citizens step up with ways of challenging the government even though at least one is seen shot for her efforts (this martyrdom seems to motivate her entire community to action).

But on the other hand…

At the same time, even though suffering has to happen for change to really occur, you still can’t escape the concept that violent retributive justice is really how you solve things. One scene really stands out to me. All of the other men who V tracks down to kill show no sign of repentance, but the one woman who was on his list has been wracked by guilt for years. She says that she thought about killing herself. She explains that she didn’t want to hurt him or anyone else and he responds by saying that he’s come for what she did, not what she hoped to do. At the end of the conversation, she asks if it is meaningless to apologize and he says never… but then he still kills her.

To me this demonstrates something about the idea of retributive justice. If you really want to claim retributive justice, you have to think like V did in this situation. First of all, it is about what someone has done, not what they wanted to do. A mistake motivated by good reasons is on the same level as deliberate evil. Secondly, forgiveness isn’t really possible because the law of penalty fitting the crime must be carried out. Retributive justice does not allow for grace, which is why some theologies emphasizing this version of justice end up sounding as if justice and mercy are competing interests within God’s character.

This is primarily where the message of the movie still disappoints me. It settles for solving the problems of the world by carrying out a similar mode of thinking that got them there in the first place: punish the trouble-makers. The conservative government was able to blame “the godless” and punish them. Then the masses retaliate by blaming the government and punishing them. Politically and theologically speaking, I do think that the latter has more truth to their motivation, but I’m not convinced that it is the best way of actually solving things for the long-term. Unfortunately, a realistic sequel would probably be the masses left with no idea what to do next and a power struggle emerging. I’m not saying it couldn’t have made the country a better place, but it definitely did not challenge the underlying assumptions about how we operate.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.