I find it amazing that movies can tell us stories which touch us deeply, causing us to reflect on our own lives and the people around us. Sometimes a movie is just a form of entertainment, but even so we can often take away important lessons about life and faith.
Recently I watched the final movie in the newest Planet of the Apes trilogy. I was amazed by the special effects, the intensity, and of course, one of my favourite voice and CGI actors, Andy Serkis. There are many lessons and parallels to the Christian story, but the biggest one for me came in the second movie, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014).
By the second movie, the world is in turmoil. The apes have become smart and strong and have started their own community in the woods. Caesar (the main ape played by Serkis) becomes their leader and seeks to unite the apes and bring peace between them and humans. One of the other influential apes, named Koba, has had very negative and abusive experiences with humans and no longer wants to co-exist with them.
Humans are freaked out by this point. They are scared of the apes and feel the need to eliminate them. They send their armies into the wood and the apes naturally defend themselves. Caesar wants to negotiate for peace, while Koba’s negotiating style is to kill all the humans before they kill the apes.
As the movie continues, Caesar and Koba’s feud grows. While Caesar is still the leader, there are some apes that are choosing to follow Koba. But there is a code among apes that is repeated throughout the movies. Realizing they need to stick together, honourable apes, like Caesar, live by the rule that “ape not kill ape.”
The struggle between humans, apes, Caesar, and Koba escalates into an epic battle. By the end, Caesar and Koba are fighting on top of a large structure and Koba falls. Koba is hanging on for his life with Caesar standing over him. As Koba clings on, he looks at Caesar and says, “Ape not kill ape.” Caesar is caught by his own saying. He reaches down to lift Koba up, holds onto him for a second, looks at the destruction that Koba had caused, and then says, “You are not ape,” as he releases Koba, letting him fall to his death.
I was fascinated by this scene. Caesar is the protagonist, the hero of the story. He is honourable and unselfish. He upholds the code, and up to the moment when he lets go of Koba, he seems to live by it. Koba had gone against everything Caesar thought a good ape should stand for. He caused a lot of pain and death. There were not many in the crowd who would think Koba didn’t deserve what he got.
But Caesar’s statement simply isn’t true. Koba was an ape. He may not have had the qualities of an ape that Caesar looked for, but he was certainly still an ape. Instead of changing his mantra to, “Sometimes it’s okay to kill an ape for good reason,” he simply redefined who Koba was. Even though I strongly disliked Koba, I couldn’t respect Caesar’s justification for doing the one thing he said apes shouldn’t do (we see in the third movie that this decision haunts Caesar).
This scene gave me a window into why we see so much death and violence in our world. I don’t know many people who would say that it’s good for humans to oppress, do harm to, or kill other humans. In fact we often see ourselves and our countries as being the honourable and respectable ones in this world. So what do we do, when for the sake of power, wealth, or defence, we feel the need to harm another human? Well, we don’t put the blame on ourselves, but we redefine the other in order to justify our actions.
We see this kind of justification all throughout history. We didn’t commit mass genocide in this country and set up systematic racism, we took care of “savages.” We didn’t kidnap people and sell them into the slave trade, we just exchanged “property.” The Nazis didn’t just kill millions of Jews, they cleansed Germany of the “unclean race.” We don’t bomb fathers, mothers and children, we protect our lands from “terrorists and insurgents.”
The extent to which we justify this mass-redefining of “human” is only ever to ourselves. We tell ourselves these messages so that we can feel comfortable with what we or our rulers have done. But it doesn’t take long for someone else to point this out to us.
I see this attitude within myself too. I don’t even have to go to the big stuff, but only to my attitude when I drive. I sometimes get frustrated with how other people drive, especially when I’m in a rush and stuck in traffic. I am quick to criticize, demean and think of myself as better. I realize when I do this, and call the people driving beside me “jerks,” I’m minimizing the value they have as created in the image of God. A redefinition of “bad driver” is already enough for me to see them as second class. Now consider this and imagine that someone broke into my house, or hurt my wife. It would not be far off to see them not as human, but as monsters.
Jesus shows us another way. Don’t redefine humans as no longer being human. Instead, redefine the level of your love. Sure we can love those who are like us, our own brothers and sisters and those we like. But Jesus challenges us on this.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” - Matthew 5:43-47
May we have the patience, love and grace to look at all people and see them as created in the image of God.