The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews by way of his first answer to the declaration of such hostilities. But if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant.Mohandes K. Gandhi, 1938. “A Non-Violent Look at Conflict and Violence”
We’ll come back to that fine-sounding quote and its moral bankruptcy later.
It is a bit dangerous to put forward a work of fiction as representing reality, for the author has control over the events and can make them demonstrate whatever reality he desires. Phillip Yancey makes a big deal in What’s So Amazing About Grace about the bishop’s act of forgiveness and protection of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. Yancey believes that this demonstrates how individual acts of grace can and do transform people. I was mumbling angrily at the page during that section: It’s a work of fiction, dammit. There’s no guarantee that this happens in real life. It might happen, of course. Hugo may have captured accurately something about human nature, or at least, the nature of some humans. Yancey may be onto an important truth here. But a work of fiction simply isn’t evidence. The author can make the characters and events do what he wants. If we believe that an author has got it right, it may only be that the author has told us what we wish to hear.
But I will rush in where angels might fear to tread, because of an irony. In “Slumdog Millionaire,” it isn’t the hero who really rescues the girl – ever. The gentle and persevering Jamaal is made to look like the person who saves the lovely Latika through his love and devotion. But it is actually his greedy, selfish, violent brother Salim who saves her every time. Worse, Salim saves her through violence, not by forgoing it. He throws acid in one bad guy’s face. Shoots two others. These are the events of rescue. They are, in the context of the plot, good acts, or at least justifiable.
Jamaal has his part to play; he is not a passive bystander. But it is Salim’s actions which ultimately do the job. Within the ethos of the movie, one might argue that Salim’s actions are mere vehicles to the foreordained end. It is written, and the rest is just detail. Had Salim not done these things fate, or destiny, or God would have accomplished them some other way. It has echoes of God’s promise to Satan in Paradise Lost: whatever evil you do, I will bring good out of it. Those who see violence as unjustified would certainly try and portray it this way. Jamaal is good and innocent and pure; Salim is violent, deceptive, and cruel. Jamaal must be going to heaven, Salim to hell. Therefore, it must be Jamaal’s goodness that ultimately saves Latika, right?
But there is no way to justify that formulation, either in the movie or in real life, without resorting to some mystical mechanism, some just-trust-me-goodness-always-works faith in, in something. Faith that goodness is secretly more powerful and will always win. It’s a nice way to leave God out of the picture, except at a distance, this idea that just being a swell guy ultimately conquers all. It is not even a milk-and-water theism, let alone anything to do with the God of the Bible (or Milton). The Gospel of Nice.
This hits me with particular force because I am reading Elie Wiesel’s Memoirs at the moment, and he, like most Holocaust survivors, is obsessed with the question of where God is in the face of great evil, why His children did not intervene with violence. When 10,000 souls a day were being processed at Auschwitz, how could the Allies not bomb the train tracks? Every day’s delay is ten thousand souls rescued. It was not violence that was the sin, but the lack of violence. There was not enough violence from the Allies.
Gandhi, in the essay quoted and linked above, counseled that the Jews should respond to the Nazis only with civil disobedience, not violence. My reading of Wiesel suggests that many Jews could not have been more innocent, could not have prayed with greater fervor or perseverance, could not have brought more holiness of life and good example to their martyrdom. But it didn’t work. Violence worked.
“Slumdog Millionaire” gives us Gandhi and the independence of India in miniature. Gandhi gets the credit with his innocence and non-violence. But it was the half-billion people behind him, unacknowledged, who had erupted in violence throughout the past decade, which earned independence. It’s a much more fun world where we can give Jamaal and Gandhi credit. It makes us feel all warm inside to think that the world works that way. But it was the few good acts of the violent Salim, directing his violence for a time to something other than his own fortune, that rescued them all.