I was reminded of this while watching X-Men: Days of Future Past. (Warning: spoilers ahead!) On the surface, this is a film about saving the future by altering the past. But there is a deeper narrative here, and one that connects to a Greater Story that has been told again and again since the beginning of time. I am referring to the ancient struggle between two kingdoms – a kingdom built on power, and another built on love. It’s Satan vs Jesus, Anakin vs Obi-Wan, Gollum vs Frodo, and in the X-Men film, it’s Erik vs Charles.
Erik, a.k.a. Magneto, is a powerful mutant who is determined to do whatever it takes to secure the future of his race. His friend, Charles, a.k.a. Professor Xavier, is a fellow mutant who dreams of a future characterized by peace between mutants and humans.
Erik/Magneto represents the kingdom of power. He’s Herod, Caiaphas, and Caesar, all rolled into one.
Charles represents the kingdom of love. He’s Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Jesus, all rolled into one.
While Erik treads the path of power, Charles prefers the way of grace. Erik is a warrior; Charles is a healer. If Erik’s goal is to make things right, Charles’ goal is to make things beautiful.
The dramatic tension between Erik and Charles makes for a great story because it evokes two universal questions.
1. Do the ends justify the means?
In the X-Men movie, Erik is fighting for a cause and will do whatever it takes to accomplish his goal. Initially, we have some sympathy for his heavy-handed methods. After all, he’s just trying to protect his mutant family. But when Erik shoots Raven and starts killing mutants, we realize something has gone terribly wrong.
Erik’s goal is not evil – he just wants his kind to live – but his methods are so brutal that other mutants describe him a survivor and a monster. In this and other X-Men films, Erik’s strategies pit mutant against mutant, and brother against brother. This is a recurring theme in the kingdom of power. Cain kills Abel, Sméagol kills Déagol, Scar kills Mufasa, Michael Corleone kills Fredo, and Magneto’s actions ultimately lead to the deaths of virtually every mutant, including himself.
What can we learn from this?
We repeat Magneto’s mistake whenever we put a cause – a vision, a ministry, a career – ahead of people. Zeal for a goal can cause us to treat people as tools or soldiers: We value them by how much they help us and shoot those who get in our way. We may tell ourselves that the outcome justifies the means – “I’m building the kingdom of God” – but we are really building the kingdom of Satan. Like Saul, who thought he was serving God, we are persecuting Jesus (Acts 9:5).
In his book Grace Works, Dudley Hall writes:
A person who dies for a cause only, no matter how great the cause, has paid too great a price. To put it another way, a person who gives his or her life for the cause has misjudged the value of his life and the cause. There is only one thing worth giving your life for, and that is a relationship motivated by love. Love does not look for causes; it looks for persons. (p.74)
Erik’s methods are selfish and ugly and consequently any good he seeks to do becomes rotten. He’s Anakin Skywalker sliding towards the dark side and he’s Boromir of Gondor lusting for the ring of power. But ultimately he’s Adam sewing fig leaves in a futile attempt to make things right.
Charles shows us a different path. For Charles, it is not enough that the dream is beautiful, the means must be beautiful as well. While Erik draws lines dividing Us (those who are with me) from Them (those who are against me), Charles reaches out and turns enemies into friends. He sees the good in others, even those who have lost their way, and prophetically calls them towards their destiny.
2. Walk by faith or sight?
A seminal moment in the film occurs when Charles has a conversation with his older self. Young Charles is beginning to lose sight of his dream of peace. Humanity seems unredeemable and the future looks bleak. But Old Charles intervenes with words of grace and forgiveness:
Just because someone stumbles and loses their path, doesn’t mean they can’t be saved.
How does salvation come? How is a wrong put right? Not with power enforced by violence but with love. Justice isn’t found down the barrel of a gun. It’s made by peace-makers who embrace their enemies and resist those things which are opposed to love.
The success of the film is this: although Charles is more powerful than Erik, he does not win by engaging in a contest of strength. In the critical moment Charles lies crippled and weak under a steel beam, as helpless as a Savior on a cross. Yet even in the face of death, Charles refuses to wield his power. He doesn’t call down twelve legions of angels. Instead, he yields control, effectively laying down his life, by putting his faith in another.
Into the cataclysmic battle between power and love comes a broken and hurting woman. Raven represents fallen humanity. In an earlier film she ran from Charles to Erik only to be betrayed by the latter in this film. Now she has become Cain, a restless wanderer, with murder on her heart.
In the climactic scene Raven is about to assassinate a man who is a key player in the conflict between humanity and the mutants. But before she can pull the trigger, grace intervenes:
Charles: Raven, please don’t do this!
Raven: Get out of the way, Charles!
Charles: This is going to make us an enemy!
Raven: Look around you, we already are!
Charles: I have faith in you, Raven. I believe you are not the kind of person humanity sees you to be. I’ve been trying to control you from the beginning … everything that happens now is in your hands.
Charles’ faith in Raven turns the tide and breaks the cycle of violence and retribution. His act of love leads to a stunning reversal of all the harm done amounting to a resurrection, not only of those who died in this film, but also those who died in previous films. It is a jaw-dropping restoration.
What can we learn from the X-Men?
The X-Men movie shows us that power – whether defined as technology (represented by the military-scientist Trask), politics (President Nixon), or superhuman abilities (Magneto) – becomes abusive when love is absent. Even when our goals are noble, an obsession with outcomes can blind us to the ugliness of our actions. And when we trust in our own strength and abilities, we limit our options and may even curse what we do (Jer. 17:5).
Charles, who represents a type of Jesus, shows us a better way. His faith in Raven reflects God’s faith in us. God does not want to control you, he wants to love you, and he does! He wants the best for you and he is continually calling you towards your destiny.
Raven’s choice is our choice. We can pull the trigger of power and try to make things happen in our own strength or we can respond to the grace that calls us. We can try and take the world by force or we can inherit it with meekness and trust.
The greatest achievement of the X-Men: Days of Future Past is in showing the ultimate victory of the kingdom of love over the principalities and powers of this world. It’s a good story because it’s really a Great Story.