There’s a scene about a third of the way through the newest Batman film (The Dark Knight Rises), where Batman makes his return after an eight year hiatus. He joins the pursuit of the criminal force in Gotham, bad guys who have hostages on the back of their motorbikes (who also are in the process of stealing a lot of money). However, the police force, the very group Batman is coming alongside of and trying to help, turns their attentions to the Batman, wanting to take down the killer of their beloved Harvey Dent.
While this is by no means a perfect analogy, the thought I had while watching the film was “this is so much like pastoral ministry/leadership.” There are obvious dangers in drawing comparisons between Batman and pastors, and yet I couldn’t help see the connection: too often it is easier to shoot Batman (or the pastor, or the leader, or whoever is trying to do something heroic) than go after the real mission (bad guys with hostages on motorbikes, or people trying to find their way back to God, or organizations with aspirations of changing the world).
When we take hits like this it becomes easy to hold back, or stop caring, or to do what Batman does and go off by ourselves and get into all kinds of trouble. In fact, Bruce Wayne does all three of those things throughout the film.
Batman’s solo operation does not end well. He ends up in “hell”, which is the worst, most unescapable prison in the world. Only one person has ever escaped and that person was a child who was born in this hell. Wayne is informed that he is a man of privilege and therefore does not have what it takes to get out.
My favorite part of the movie was the process Bruce Wayne goes through to eventually escape this prison. As a pastor I do ask myself, fairly often actually, why I put myself through this. Pastoral ministry is unnatural to me for so many reasons: I am an introvert, I enjoy privacy, I don’t love being in front of people, I am not fond of being examined, etc. But I do it, and I do my best to throw myself completely into this work because I love Jesus and he changed my life and there’s nothing else in the world I have done or could dream of doing that makes as much sense to me.
And yet, it takes chunks out of me. It breaks me. It can be painful.
Bruce Wayne is in this prison because his nemesis, aptly named Bane, has broken him (literally). Instead of killing him he’d rather let him suffer in hell. In this broken state, Wayne, with some help, begins to rehabilitate himself. And this is where it gets really good.
When a prisoner tries to escape everyone gathers around and sings a song called “rise”. The prisoner ties a rope around his waist and tries to climb up and out of the hole. At a key stage a big leap must be made, this is the point where everyone inevitably fails.
Wayne fails several times. Despite his passion, despite his new strength, despite his desire he cannot get out.
This leads to a conversation with two old prisoners. I’m paraphrasing but the conversation essentially goes like this:
Old guy: “Are you afraid to die?”
Wayne: “No, I’m not afraid to die.”
Old guy: “That’s the problem. You need to get that fear back.”
Fascinating! Here’s my translation: fighting bad guys is hard, it requires total commitment, and even though the juices are flowing and the strength is returning, death still seems easier than throwing himself fully back into the game. Wayne’s lack of fear belies an underlying sense of fatalistic defeat. He’s lost hope. Nothing really matters, it’s just a game.
To get the fear back, Wayne attempts the escape without the help of the rope. I love this twist. You would think the guy who doesn’t fear dying would be fine going off without the safety of the rope, but, paradoxically, it is this very ropelessness state that brings the fear back. And it is that fear that allows him to successfully make the leap and escape from the prison. To rise.
All of this to say: when we take on hits, when we give of ourselves and when people don’t like it or reject it or use it against us, death (literal or, more often, metaphorical) becomes the appealing option. We grow numb and apathetic and we don’t give our best and we don’t throw ourselves fully in to our work. We hold back.
I’ve always thought that it was fear that holds us back, and there are certainly ways in which it does. But fear, the right kind of fear, actually propels us forward. It reminds that there is a lot on the line. It lets us know this is not just a game, this matters, and we have to participate in it.
Near the end of the film Batman tries to talk another key character into joining him in the fight. The character says, in so many words, “get of here while you can, you don’t owe these people any more, you’ve given them everything.”
And Batman says, “Not everything, not yet.”