I probably don’t even have to tell you what The Hero’s Code is, since it’s been used so often, but here it is anyway: Heroes don’t kill; that’s what separates us from the bad guys.
With the new Marvel series The Punisher premiering on Netflix anytime now, it’s obvious for mature superhero connoisseurs like myself this isn’t always the case. There are a few prominent costumed characters who don’t follow The Hero’s Code, and since this is my favorite arena for the evaluation and application of ethics, it seems like as good a time as any to take a closer look at this facet of the superhero experience.
The problem with The Hero’s Code is it doesn’t apply to all heroes, especially in real life. Before he became The Punisher, the man called Frank Castle was actually a soldier. Arguably, soldiers and service people are those members of our society today who are most heralded as heroes – even though, generally speaking, their job is to kill (and/or die) to protect their country. When a soldier takes someone’s life on the battlefield, they are praised, rewarded, and decorated with medals for their service. Once they return home, however, they must follow a different set of laws.
I’m not saying our service people and veterans aren’t heroes – far from it. I’m also not going to debate the ethical intricacies of an issue like war; that’s a different situation altogether.
However, it is a key part of The Punisher’s character and a driving force behind his origin story and modus operandi. When Frank Castle returns to the home front and his wife and children are murdered, he is forced to realize he’s facing another kind of war, like the one he saw abroad – a war that must be won against the evil raging within his city. Relying on the training that has supported him through his career, he does the only thing he knows: Kill the guilty.
What makes this course of action morally questionable? After all, to him it’s all the same thing. To us, though, it’s the fact he is lacking the government sanction to do so that calls this into question. The law at home doesn’t grant him the authority to take on the gangs responsible for the deaths of his family in the way a soldier would take on other soldiers in some foreign land. That is the legal barrier for his work.
Morally, Frank Castle argues the people he kills are “just the ones that need killing.” The ones who have already so heartily embraced and committed such evils that they are beyond saving, and who, if given even the slightest second chance, will only cause more damage. Arguably, he is thereby saving lives in the future by ending the perpetrators’ reign of terror completely, irrevocably.
For comparison, let’s take Daredevil into consideration. Matt Murdock, blind lawyer by day and ninja-parkour-boxer vigilante by night, blatantly refuses to personally deliver a killing blow to any adversary. In fact, so do many of the biggest superheroes of today – Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and more. In Daredevil season 2, in an epic rooftop scene, Daredevil tries to defend The Hero’s Code to The Punisher himself – and although the writers at Marvel refused to take a close enough look at the Christian motivation behind The Hero’s Code, I think we can generalize what Mr. Murdock is basing his stance on.
I believe Daredevil’s desire to abstain from The Punisher’s way of doing things is actually threefold. First off, he doesn’t want to soil his soul by committing an obvious sin. Exodus 20:13 says, “Thou shall not kill,” so (obviously) we shouldn’t. The problem with this is one can argue it’s a historical Jewish reference that doesn’t necessarily apply to the modern Christian, and the rage that so often plagues Matt Murdock’s character is, at times, another sin itself. Plus, it still doesn’t address the problem of the soldier at war.
Secondly, Matt’s goal is to do good and eradicate the perpetuation of sin against another person. By protecting Hell’s Kitchen without killing criminals, he is actively trying not to perpetuate sin, even against the bad guys. The New Testament reference is vague, but can be seen as complementary to this: “Love one another” (John 13:34). My first instinct, and I believe Daredevil’s as well, is you can hardly love someone by killing them. His goal is to show the most love to the most people.
Thirdly, Matt does (eventually) believe in the legal system he is a part of – when he’s not beating up baddies by night. His ultimate goal is to put a stop to those corrupted souls who have somehow slipped through the cracks and return them into the system that should serve justice properly.
This is what really differentiates Daredevil from The Punisher, because while Daredevil investigates and operates outside the law, he doesn’t actually take the law into his own hands. He is merely a patch in a leaky system, and strives to return the loose ends to where they belong. The Punisher, on the other hand, operates under the moral compass of a soldier at wartime, completely tossing aside the law of his homeland in order to ensure immediate justice is delivered.
Now that we understand the shading of difference between two differing examples of The Hero’s Code in application in fiction, what does that mean for us?
I am blessed and insanely privileged to have experienced a “real life” as cushy as first-world living often gets, where I have never been called to be a soldier, never had to make harsh decisions for my survival, and never really even worried about my personal safety and expectation for justice to be served. Therefore, there are just a few things I believe I can dare to say on this subject.
I do not condone The Punisher’s terrorist-style way of “saving the day.” I don’t believe killing people can ever really serve the greatest good. Though I hope to never have to make a decision like that, I will strive hard to adhere to The Hero’s Code in every application.
The first reason for this is the concept of sanctification. I’m talking about the inside, personal effect of committing a sin as grievous as this. Yes, one can argue all sins are essentially equal and essentially moot because of Jesus – but can you really say a little white lie about where you’ve been is as chronically damaging to the soul as the taking of another life?
Once we have given our lives over to Christ, we have pledged ourselves to strive to live like Christ – not out of obligation to the law, but out of love and a desire to obediently show and reflect that love to others. Christians are still humans, of course, and we all fall short of the glory of God. Still, we strive to eliminate that sin from our lives. We refuse to commit actions that would separate us from the One we love. The process of continual sanctification, of growth in Christ, of refining ourselves and keeping God in our sights, is a lifelong process that would completely preclude murder. As a Christian, I refuse, as often as I can, to sin (even if that means admitting I was at the theater watching the My Little Pony movie). That also certainly means I will also try my best not to soil my soul with the sin of murder.
The second is faith and the unconditional patience that comes from God’s love. The whole purpose of living on this Earth is to come to an understanding of God and return to Him. 2 Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord does not delay His promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance.” I believe God gives us as much of an opportunity to do so as He possibly can. If we take another’s life, I believe it is equivalent of taking control out of God’s hands and sending our victim off to the Other Side without another chance. God loves us enough to give us such a chance for redemption – and I will not stand in the way of another person’s opportunity for salvation. Just as we would like that chance for ourselves, we should show that to other people.
Seek justice, but love mercy. Respect the journey of those who haven’t yet found truth – and, actually, those who have. Stick to The Hero’s Code whenever applicable. Love people supernaturally, the way Jesus did. And when others choose to walk away from that, pray for them and let God keep knocking on the doors of their hearts.