Recognizing the humanness of everyday villains

The Pharisee and the Publican by James Tissot (French, 1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum

By Brian M. Junkes SVD

In a movie or book that you like, have you ever identified with the villain or antagonist? Have you ever seen yourself in the shoes of a villain or antagonist? It may be shocking to some that I ask these questions, but there really is nothing wrong to think and reflect on them.

In pop culture, villains have become identifiable to people who sit in the theater. They can relate to movie villains like the Joker from “Batman” or Killmonger from “Black Panther.” Even the Wicked Witch of the West in the “The Wizard of Oz” has become more identifiable with the publishing of the book “Wicked” that became popular almost 20 years ago.

“Wicked” told the story of how the witch became the infamous villain. These characters are not meant to be admired, but we can relate to them because of their motives, the psychology behind their actions, and how they became who they are. It shows that not all villains or antagonists are absolute evil as they are portrayed in some classic stories.

The same can be said about antagonists in the Bible, especially the Pharisees. Very often, the Pharisees are the antagonists or rivals of Jesus.

Typically, they are seen in a negative light, except for on a few occasions. I know it can be easy to assume that they are bad people, but the truth runs deeper than simple good versus evil.

The Pharisees were devoted to their faith and the people they served. They were trying to keep their cultural and religious traditions flourishing under the occupation of the Roman Empire.

Last Spring, I took a New Testament course with Dr. Malka Simkovich, Crown-Ryan Chair of Jewish Studies and director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies Program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Dr. Simkovich led a Zoom session with my class and explained that the Pharisees were known for their understanding and interpretation of the Scriptures and for the development of the oral tradition of Judaism.

Also, they are known to be the predecessors of the rabbinic community after the Fall of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. The Pharisees were very important in the community and in history. They played a key role in the development of Judaism.

Recognizing their collective goodness does not mean that there were not Pharisees who lost track of what is important and were doing bad things. Why else would Jesus be saying the things he does about the Pharisees in the Gospels? What Jesus tells us is a warning to the readers and to us.

It is a warning to us because we can become blind to our own shortcomings and wrongdoings as followers of Jesus. If we are not careful, we can hurt others who are discerning and trying to grow in their faith. We can become like the Pharisees of whom Jesus is critical.

A few months ago, I read an essay by Erna Kim Hackett called “Why I Stopped Talking About Racial Reconciliation and Started Talking About White Supremacy.” In it, Ms. Hackett criticizes white Christians for how they see themselves in their understanding of Scripture and racism.

I do not want to detract from the original intent of the essay, but she offers insightful ideas that can challenge us to see ourselves in a new light. She writes, “White Christianity suffers from a bad case of Disney Princess theology. As each individual reads Scripture, they see themselves as the princess in every story. They are Esther, never Xerxes or Haman. They are Peter, but never Judas. They are the woman anointing Jesus, never the Pharisees. They are the Jews escaping slavery, never Egypt.”

We, too, can suffer from a bad case of Disney Princess theology. We, too, can become like the Pharisees. We, too, can become like whitewashed tombs, beautiful on the outside but hypocritical and selfish within.

We can adore and honor the prophets, saints and righteous while our actions say otherwise to those in the community trying to become saints and prophets. We can adore fictional heroes while acting more like villains.

I encourage you in your own personal reflection to examine yourself. When we reflect on how we may be like antagonists in the Bible—perhaps even the Pharisees—we acknowledge those times when we have fallen short and have hurt others in their faith journey.

Thoroughly examining our conscience and actions, recognizing our own wrongdoings, and identifying with the antagonists can help us grow in our faith and better serve others.

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