Cap: Civil War and Zacchaeus

DISCLAIMER: This is a part of a paper that I wrote for a class, THEO 6090: New Testament, at Seattle Pacific Seminary. I claim that I have written this completely and it is my own original work.

Captain America: Civil War is the newest addition to the Marvel Avengers cinematic universe. My brother, who studied communications with an emphasis on TV/film and who is also a very avid film junkie, posted on my Facebook wall the day following the release of the film. And he writes, “Have you seen the new Captain America? We have to talk about how this film is the best superhero film of all time.” And so I wondered to myself, what about this film could make my brother feel this way? I tried my best to go into the film with very little expectations. But this is Marvel. And Marvel is owned by Disney. There’s no such thing as walking in with little to no expectations with two of the most amazing, storytelling mega-corporations backing such a highly anticipated film. Today I will be talking about Captain America: Civil War and its relation to the story of Zacchaeus found in Luke 19:1-10.

Captain America: Civil War is the third and last installment of a film trilogy about the Marvel superhero Captain America. This film takes place after Avengers: Age of Ultron and follows the events that happen in that film. It’s important for those who are not familiar with the Marvel cinematic universe to take into account the events that happened in Age of Ultron before watching Civil War.

The story of Civil War follows Captain Steve Rogers who is currently the leader of the Avengers – a group of superheroes that fight against evil villains who want to take over the world. At the beginning of the film we see a small group of the Avengers on a mission to secure a bioweapon that could destroy all of humanity. As the Avengers pursue the bad guys, Captain America (Cap) confronts the leader who has a bomb strapped to his chest. The leader mentions that Cap’s childhood friend, Bucky, is still alive. This makes Cap hesitate and before he can react, the leader of the bad guys pulls the trigger for the bomb. Luckily one of the Avengers, Scarlet Witch, is nearby and contains the explosion with her mystical sorceress powers. However, she loses control and sends the bomb flying into a building, killing many civilians in the wake of the explosion. This notion of civilian casualties is one of the main ideas that makes Civil War possibly one of the best superhero films of all time. We’ll return to this idea in a bit.

Another major character in this film is Tony Stark, also known as Ironman, who is Cap’s nemesis for the film. Tony is confronted by a woman named Miriam Sharpe after he gives a presentation at a conference; this is following the explosion at the beginning of the film. Miriam tells Tony about her son who was living in Sokovia during the events that happened in Age of Ultron. Her son died because of the Avengers.

The conflict in this film between Cap and Ironman occurs because Tony is confronted by his own guilt of not appreciating his parents before their death. This gets magnified when Miriam confronts him about her son who died because of him. Because superheroes do not really care about the aftermath of their decisions.

In the story of Zacchaeus, we find Zacchaeus also living the life of a superhero tax-collector. He doesn’t know about the aftermath of his decisions. He’s just doing what he thinks is best. In fact, he’s shown in the story as high above everyone else in his tree – just like how the Avengers are high above in the Stark tower, living and towering above the entire city. Until one day, Jesus comes along and tells Zacchaeus to come down. When Zacchaeus comes down, he realizes something – that he’s been up in that tree and not realizing how he’s been affecting everyone with his decisions as a tax-collector. So in response, he says that he’s going to give away half of everything he owns and that he’s going to pay back four times as much as he stole from people.[1]

If we compare this to Civil War, the Avengers are like Zacchaeus. There are a lot of things happening that are showing them that they’re higher and above everyone else. The decisions they make to fight in a city can kill thousands of people if they’re not careful. These people, in light of the Avengers, are the little people—the marginalized, the other, the civilians—who do not matter for the Avengers because their goal is to save the world, right? What are a thousand lives if you can save a million?

But for Tony, Miriam[2] is his “Jesus figure.”[3] She confronted him after his presentation and told him to come down from that tree because what he was doing was affecting her. What he did in Sokovia changed her entire life – she lost her son. When Tony heard the call to come down from the tree, his response was like Zacchaeus’ response. He took the initiative to be the leader, to stand against Cap because Cap was not willing to take responsibility for the civilian lives that were being lost because of the Avengers.

But Cap is in a very sticky situation in Civil War because of his childhood friend Bucky, also known as the Winter Soldier. Bucky is guilty for killing people and has been wanted for a very long time. But Cap knows that this is due to the hypnosis and brainwashing that Bucky underwent when he was captured as a prisoner of war after the train incident in the first Cap film. Bucky is framed in Civil War for planting bombs at a United Nations meeting that was held to discuss the formalization of the Avengers into an official U.N. organization through the Superhuman Registration Act (SRA). This was a reaction to the explosion at the beginning of the film. Tony is for the formalizing of the Avengers but Cap is not.

Captain America’s stubbornness to not sign the SRA is due to his loyalty to his friend Bucky. Signing the SRA would mean that Bucky would have to go back into containment. As someone who has always been there for Cap before he received his superhero powers, Bucky is someone who Cap holds close to his heart.

In relation to the story of Zacchaeus this resonates with the story of the rich young ruler. Cap can be seen as analogous to the rich young ruler in that he does everything he needs to do in order to be a superhero. He does everything right – Cap is the ideal moral superhero who cares for his friends, loves his enemies, and is an ideal leader. However, when Jesus asks the rich young ruler to give up everything that he has, he leaves with a sad disposition. Cap is being asked to come down from his superhero tree. But what lies in the way is his loyalty to Bucky. Is his loyalty to Bucky superior to the lives of others? In this case yes, it is. And very much so. The question for us is what lies in the way for us to come down from our superhero tower? For the rich young ruler, it was his wealth. For Cap, it is his loyalty to his best friend Bucky. For me and you it could be anything.

At the end of the film, Cap tries to redeem himself. After Bucky and Cap’s fight against Tony, Cap decides to leave the Avengers. He writes Tony a letter and tells Tony that the Avengers are now in his hands. But if Tony ever needed help, Cap would be just a phone call away. Because of his loyalty to Bucky, Cap knew that he couldn’t have both the leadership of the Avengers and his best friend. He had to choose one and of course his loyalty to his friend overcame his call to the Avengers. This doesn’t really solve the problem of superhero privilege for Cap. I would even venture to say that Cap is running away from his superhero calling like how the rich young ruler walked away from Jesus that day.

I would also like to confess that for this movie I sided with Captain America. #TeamCap. Cap has always been my personal favorite superhero because of all of his leadership qualities. He always makes decisions that he knows would best benefit the entire team. And he always chooses loyalty to those who he loves the most. In this case, it was his best friend Bucky. The heroic sense of loyalty displayed in Cap is romanticized, for me especially, in the film Civil War where Captain America is the good guy and Tony is the bad guy.

My confession is that I want to be loyal to those who are close to me and I want them to be loyal to me too. I don’t want anything to come above my relationships with my best friends or my family and in all cases I want them to choose me. But when we compare Civil War and the story of Zacchaeus together we can see that loyalty is not always a good thing especially if we put it above Jesus’ call to discipleship – to care for the marginalized, the poor, the oppressed, and the other. Jesus calls us to abandon loyalty to everything else when it comes to loyalty to God. The question for us is, are we willing to abandon our loyalty? Are we willing to come down from our superhero towers (or trees) when Jesus asks us to step down? My prayer for all of us is that we would be challenged in our every day to see how we affect those who are silenced by our privilege and that we would ultimately choose to come down like Zacchaeus and Tony did. #TeamIronman

Oh, and the reason why this is the greatest superhero movie of all time? It’s because we, the non-superhero people, were finally recognized as a part of this universe.

[1] A lot of my summarizing here is a regurgitation of my TA paper on this passage in Luke but with a superhero twist to it. In the story of Zacchaeus, the privilege that Zacchaeus exerted over everyone else was his occupation as a tax-collector. Similarly, the Avengers have a superhero privilege as well. The Avengers can do whatever they want without any repercussions or consequences. This is analogous to Zacchaeus. He can do whatever he wants to because of the power he is given as someone who works as a tax-collector.
[2] In my research for this, I found an interesting article about the casting of Miriam as an African-American woman. See “http://www.comicbookresources.com/article/captain-america-civil-war-mother-lode-bonds-beyond-race”
[3] Not necessarily “Jesus” but an icon or a symbol that points to Jesus. Miriam acts as the catalyst in which Tony experienced compassion for the marginalized and those who he did not even consider before.
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Honor Your Father and Mother: Things I’ve Learned from the Hmong-American Church

I want to talk about honoring our parents. And that begins with reconciliation.

Reconciliation within the Hmong-American church* is something that we don’t talk about much. There is division but no one wants to talk about it – congregations split over generational, theological, and cultural differences. You name it and most likely we’ve experienced it. When Protestant denominations began, they started to split quickly and we see Hmong-American churches experiencing the same thing now.

Reconciling these differences will take more time and words than I have available here but I do want to begin the work of reconciliation between generations by pointing out two things that the first generation does that will help the generations who come after them. When we build upon these aspects we honor and preserve the work of our parents and claim the gospel as our own rather than having Western culture define Christianity for us.

1. Knowing and Engaging the Hmong Culture

Our parents know the culture and language so much better than we do.

I grew up in white suburbia on the border of Sacramento and Elk Grove in northern California. I had no Hmong-American classmates until 6th grade. My first Hmong-American classmate had a Hmong name, Seethong, and got teased for it. I was embarrassed because he was apparently different and I had to share that with him. I avoided him like the plague. But on his first day of class, he came and spoke to me in Hmong and I would reply in English. My Hmong was bad. The only time I would speak it was to communicate with my grandparents who lived with us.

My fear of being seen as Hmong stopped me from embracing my heritage. I wanted to fit in. The culture that I wanted to associate with told me that in order to do that, I needed to be as white as I could – an honorary white person.

As Seethong tried to relate with me, I shut him out.

My parents don’t do that.

They understand the struggles of being an immigrant and use that as a basis for relating to others. They willingly engage with Hmong people that they see at the store even if they don’t know them. They say “Nej tuaj thiab los?” which means “Oh, you’re here too?” This asserts that one is pleasantly surprised to see the other.

I have tried to abandon my Hmong heritage while growing up and now I am scrambling to undo all of that.

Embracing my Hmong heritage prepares me to meet people where they are – Hmong immigrants, Hmong-Americans, and others who fall into the ‘third consciousness’. If I’ve learned anything in ministry, it’s that ministry depends highly on this connection and my parents do this so much better than I do.

2. Funerals

When a funeral is planned at the church I grew up in, almost everyone at the church is present during at least one of the services and if not, they are working in the kitchen to prepare meals. At smaller Hmong-American churches, everyone is there. Everyone.

Hmong funerals are gatherings where friends and family come together. In the non-Christian Hmong funerals I’ve experienced, there is eating, gambling, smoking, and consumption of alcohol. This can go on for days depending on the rituals that happen during the funeral. The family, and/or in-laws, who have experienced the loss are responsible for everything – the finances for food and drinks, the costs of the funeral, and any help they may need.

In the church community, the church is responsible for providing help with the cost of the funeral and for providing services.

At a time as difficult as losing a loved one, I’ve seen no other culture reflect Christ more than the Hmong church. It’s difficult for me to understand because I hadn’t experienced what death means for the Hmong. There is a bigger fear of death. As I’ve learned what death means in Hmong culture, I’ve learned to appreciate the work of the care ministry at the church in which I grew up.

Understanding God’s work at funerals is based on understanding the Hmong culture. Honoring my parents and honoring God begins with this simple work. If we want to do ministry successfully in our context, we must consider reconciliation and honor the work of the generations who have gone before.

I’d love to hear your thoughts,
Jonathan

[*] I want to make it clear that I am speaking solely from my experience under the Hmong District of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. When I say the Hmong-American church this is what I am referring to. Even then my personal experience with Hmong-American churches is limited to the church that I grew up in and the very few churches that I had interactions with while in leadership.