*Warning: Some topics may not be appropriate for younger readers.
The flood continued for forty days on the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. The waters swelled and increased greatly on the earth; and the ark floated on the face of the waters.
~Genesis 7:17-18 (NRSV)~
Developer: Irrational Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date: March 26, 2013
ERSB Rating: M
Price: $29.99 (May Vary)
Floating above the clouds is the dystopian city of Columbia. Founded by the self-proclaimed “prophet” Zachary Comstock, the city of Columbia was intended to be the crown jewel that symbolized American exceptionalism to the world. However, Columbia proved to be a highly armed battle platform that eventually declared its freedom from American authority. Under Comstock’s reign, Columbia was transformed from a floating world’s fair to a terrifying theocratic police state. Institutional racism, social and economic elitism, and White supremacy are reinforced with pseudo-Christian and nationalistic ideologies. The player takes the perspective of Booker DeWitt, an ex-member of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, who is tasked with bringing back a girl named Elizabeth. Throughout his journey, DeWitt runs into many challenges and even gets caught up between the civil war taking place between the Vox Populi (Latin: The Voice of the People) and Comstock’s class of Founders. Bioshock Infinite contains many themes such as race, faith, and patriotism, to which one can examine from a theological perspective.
Patriotism & Nationalism
In the Gospel According to Matthew Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (6:24, NRSV) You might take this passage at face value, but if you think about it this passage also serves in Jesus’ many attempts to preach an anti-empire gospel. It is a gospel that reminds us that our faith, our trust, our loyalty, should not only be given to a human government, but to the Kingdom of God as well.
We see examples of this in the Gospel According to Mark when Jesus casts the spirits out of the Gerasene demoniac. (5:1-17) When Jesus asks the demon for a name the demon says to Jesus, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” Now not to discount the miracles that Jesus performed, but this event in Jesus’ ministry also carries another important component. The Romans had numerous soldiers that controlled its territories and tainted the overall health of the empire. To give you an example of how many troops the Romans had, just one legion comprised of over 5,000 men. So taking this into consideration Jesus was not only spiritually freeing the Gerasene but also physically freeing him from the bonds of living under the oppression of an authoritative empire. Maybe Jesus was reminding us and freeing the bonds of hyper-nationalism as well, reminding us that we belong to something that goes beyond human governments.
In Bioshock Infinite, the people revere and worship the “Founders” with a sense of divine fanaticism. National and religious identities had become enmeshed and indistinguishable from one another. And though it might seem strange and unrealistic, is it really? In the news, you almost hear the words Republican and Evangelical used synonymously. To be one you mostly likely are part of the other as well. The pervasive notion that this nation is still a Christian nation is one that has led to many dark moments in American history. It’s what led to the wrongful imprisonment of many during the McCarthy era and what continues to withhold aid to Syrian refugees.
As Christians, we know that Jesus provided many teachings. Some of these teachings interpreted in a way that reinforced submission to human governments (i.e. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”), and some of them were teachings against the oppression of empire and nationalistic identities (i.e. the Gerasene demoniac). Both are important to understanding who we are in relationship to the world we live in. But at the same time see how easy it is and how dangerous it is for us to relate a faith-based identity to a nationalistic identity. While Bioshock Infinite might display a dystopian world, it sure ushers in haunting memories of when elements such as this have negatively impacted people in our society and around the world. That patriotism can be a sin when taken too far.
One of the first scenes you come across while playing Bioshock Infinite is of an interracial couple being publicly shamed. Asians, Blacks, Hispanics, and Latinos are viewed as being inferior to Whites. A structure of violence, a structure of hate and oppression has been constructed to make sure that people of color are not able to go outside the bounds that have been set by the larger White culture. In a polarized America that is divided on #BlackLivesMatter and in an America where Brown and Black people are marginalized, how different is our reality from the world of structural racism that is portrayed in the world of Columbia?
It’s easy to spot the structural violence towards Brown and Black bodies in the world of Columbia. However, are we able to spot these same instances of violence in our own world, in our own country? How about the United States use of NAFTA to regulate trade in Central and South America? While farmers in Mexico struggled to make a livable wage, U.S. farmers (or farming corporations) received large government subsidies, which provided financial relief and a strong agricultural sector. However, this resulted in cheap U.S. produce flooding the Mexican markets, which caused many farms to go out of business because they were unable to compete with the giant corporations in the United States. Left with no sustainable way of living, people in Mexico tried, and continue to try, to make their way into the United States. Yet we force them to go into vast deserts, which often leads to death. And we say we will build a “wall” to keep the people out who are “stealing” our jobs, all the while we keep taking jobs from people in Mexico. While Donald Trump may be one of the most racist presidential candidates to date, Secretary Hillary Clinton is not without fault. Her continual support of neoliberal trade policies continues to put Brown and Black people in the U.S. and around the world under the oppressive weight of a White America’s regime.
Race is something that we often avoid talking about in the United States. We get uncomfortable when we talk about people who are Black and Brown and we are often hesitant to talk about the White privilege that is still prevalent in our culture today. It’s a difficult conversation to have, and one of the reasons it is difficult is because racism today has become intertwined with larger structural acts of violence against people of color. In the world of Columbia, it is clear and easy to identify racism in both people and the way that Columbia is organized and governed. Yet for us, race is a conversation that includes working with a nuanced understanding of how the world works. Racism is something that has permeated itself into the monster-like bureaucracy known as the United States government. But how do we navigate all of this? Race is a topic that cannot be approached until people are willing to come together to create a space of listening and genuine community. A space that is not dominated by the majority, but one that is shared equally, one where those in the minority are able to share their pains and joys in the hope that a better community will arise from the blood of those who came before.
Setting aside the main story of Bioshock Infinite, players have the option to search for personal recorders known as “voxophones,” which offer a deeper understanding of the world of Columbia. One of them contains a reflection by Zachary Comstock in which he says:
And the Lord saw the wickedness of man was great and he repented that he had made man on the earth. Rain, Forty-days and Fourty-nights of the stuff, and he left not a thing that walked alive. You see my friends, even God is entitled to a do-over, and what is Columbia if not another ark, for another time.
Originally intended to be a floating platform for a world’s fair, Columbia soon underwent a transformation into a militaristic, pseudo-Christian dystopia that was plagued by White supremacy and elitism. Yet to the people who lived in Columbia, the White people along with Zachary Comstock, everything seemed like a “new Eden.” It was an opportunity for a reshaping of society that placed the richest at the top and people of color towards the bottom of the social order. For the people who lived in Columbia, it was their “second chance” to create something that they thought was divinely inspired. And while one might argue that faith, a Christian faith (granted a distorted one), played a little role, I would argue that faith played an important part in the world of Columbia and in our own world today.
Back in July, Pew released a finding that 78% of White evangelicals would “support Donald Trump if the elections were held today.” If you think the portrayal of Christianity in Bioshock Infinite is distorted, how are we to explain and understand the severe distortion of Christianity in the real world? How are we to spread the love, grace, and compassion of Jesus Christ when 78% of a large Christian group would support a presidential candidate who has a history of racism and propagating hate? Faith is important. Faith is what provides the moral compass, the light to see in the darkness.
If anything, our Christian tradition reminds us of the delicate balance that is to be had between recognizing the authority of God and the authority of human beings. The Reformed theologian John Calvin reminds us that despite the seemingly delicate balance, the ultimate authority to which we always turn to is the authority of God. True, human beings may not always understand the authority or will of God, but Calvin mentions that there are things that are “the secrets that belong to God.” (Deut. 29:29)
Knowing that we fall under the authority of God we can turn to Scripture, Christian tradition, and our current cultural and social context to shed light on what God’s will is for us today. I think I’ll end with a quotation from the Belhar Confession that focuses on reconciliation and justice as a reminder of what we are called to do:
[We believe] that the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream; that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against the injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests thus control and harm others.
Special thanks to my friend Ed Smit who was willing to put in some time to read over and provide feedback on this first post.