[Week 8 of the Imagination in Action reflection series. Theme this week: Fellowship/Community]
I think it is highly significant that Avengers: Endgame (the epic sequel to Avengers: Infinity War) was released April 26, 2019. This was the weekend of Divine Mercy Sunday, and I see mercy as one of its major themes. Although I do not think this connection was intentional, I want to look at how the movie portrays two different approaches to mercy, and hence two different approaches to society. Warning: major spoilers if you still haven’t seen these movies!
The main villain of Infinity War/Endgame is Thanos, a powerful being that is seeking the Infinity Stones. With these he hopes to gain the power to destroy half of all life in the galaxy so that the other half can thrive. He is noble and articulate, and sees this as a sacrifice that he has to make for those that are not strong enough to do so. His approach resonated with some who saw this as a logical solution to overpopulation. Thanos expected to watch the sun rise on a grateful universe after he accomplished his goal. Wasn’t it a mercy to remove so much competition for resources?
I think this way of thinking illustrates what Pope John Paul II called the “culture of death” in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”). The culture of death is rooted in a vision of others as competitors/enemies, and leads to the destruction or exploitation of the weak by the strong. John Paul contrasts it with the “culture of life,” which is rooted in respecting the dignity of others and building up resources for those in need. Thanos’ name derives from the Greek word for “death,” and he embodies it well. For example, he never even addresses the possibility of using his great power to double the resources of the universe rather than destroy half of the life. He seems to have the same blind spot as Malthus – an 18th century English writer that predicted an upcoming famine due to lack of resources. Malthus could not see the possibilities of improved farming techniques and other changes that would be able to provide for the future needs of the people. What seemed logical to him in fact failed to account for the creative power present within society.
Mercy, then, has a positive meaning in a culture of life (rather than just “mercy killing”). Here it indicates the readiness to give of oneself to provide for those in need. We see this type of mercy in the Avengers, who do not “trade lives” of others for their own benefit, but are willing to give of themselves to protect others. In the end, it is their effort at restoring what Thanos had destroyed that creates the “grateful universe” he had hoped to create.
This positive sense of “mercy” is essential to building true community (what the New Testament calls “koinonia,” authentic fellowship). Without it, other people become threats. John Paul II saw the fruit of the culture of death in exploitation, abortion, euthanasia, and “structures of sin.” Divine mercy, however, encounters us with saving and transforming grace, and then impels us to bring this new life into the world. It challenges us to build up life rather than destroying it. We find here the logic of the Resurrection, in which life appears where death was expected. What we may see as an impossible situation in fact has avenues of hope that have not been imagined.
The early Christians are described as devoting themselves to this type of fellowship (Acts 2:42). They allowed grace to transform not just their individual life, but their family and “church” life as well. From there, they sought to extend this new life into the world through works of mercy. Embracing the culture of life is as challenging as changing the world, but as easy as thinking about the way we are living today. The Gospel invites us to turn away from the limited thinking of death and to embrace the possibilities of life. Here we will find that fellowship that makes us whole.