When I was growing up in the 1990s, it seemed like nearly every Marvel character had a television cartoon. I remember watching Spider-Man, Silver Surfer, and Iron-Man on Saturdays. Similarly, the DC superhero shows, including the venerable Batman: The Animated Series and Super Friends caught my attention.
Since I was very young, there has been no question in my mind that the X-Men are the greatest comic book superheroes of all. Everything about those uncanny mutants seemed entirely bizarre but also very cool. And when the live-action film was released in 2000, I rushed to see it. X-Men completely eclipsed the—in my opinion—dull and repetitive Batman films of the 80s and 90s and gave us an entirely fresh group of big-screen heroes.
Unlike other comic book stories, X-Men comics transcended the typical “good vs. evil” mantra. The themes of their storylines often mirrored the ills in our society. In the world of the X-Men, the growing frustration of what the antagonists called the “mutant problem”—intensified by villains like Senator Robert Kelly—was used to illustrate serious real-life problems: bigotry, racism, and discrimination.
In the comics, Senator Kelly and a large part of the population view mutants and those who carry the “X-gene” as threats that must be dealt with. The characters who support his policies embrace a eugenics-style philosophy that sees mutants as undesirable and unfit for society, and believe the mutants must be eradicated.
When I discovered several years ago that the renowned Marvel writer Chris Claremont had authored a graphic novel in 1982 channeling some of these societal concerns, I was compelled to buy it. X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills is one of the most intriguing comic books in my collection. (As a side note, the second X-Men film, 2003’s X2: X-Men United, is loosely based on its plot.) Along with several other X-Men storylines, including Days of Future Past and Dark Phoenix Saga, this is one of the most well-regarded narratives in the comic series, due to its implications for us today.
Background of the Graphic Novel
God Loves features fundamentalist Christian pastor, Reverend William Stryker, who leads media crusades to influence public opinion about the threat of mankind coexisting with mutants. Also, Stryker has a task force designed that has one goal: wipe the country of mutants.
As a result, William Stryker kidnaps three of the X-Men (Professor Charles Xavier, Storm, and Cyclops), and hopes to use Xavier’s telepathic mutant ability to kill all mutants. Thankfully, the X-Men eventually triumph over his task force and expose the powerful preacher and his ideology during a large-scale televised crusade.
The inspiration for William Stryker is drawn from many celebrity preachers that were popular in the 1970s and 1980s, including Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell. Even the “crusades” that Stryker leads are reminiscent of Billy Graham’s crusades that began in the 1940s and were highly influential, attracting stadium-sized audiences across the globe.
Furthermore, Stryker’s obsession with espousing an “us vs. them” approach to the Bible is analogous to the growing fundamentalist mindset of the past century that views people and ideas that don’t align with a narrow interpretation of the Bible as abominable in the eyes of God.
William Stryker’s eugenics-based approach to obliterating the mutant race is, of course, reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s vitriolic hatred of Jews.
It’s not only mutants who recognize Stryker’s marginalizing rhetoric, many non-mutants see it as well. However, some—including those in the “Stryker Task Force”—have become numb to his intolerance and go along with it, much like how many Germans and Nazi soldiers remained silent as Hitler swept through Europe, gathering Jews and forcing them into death camps.
“Culture of Hatred”
Commenting on the noticeable increase in hatred and intolerance around the globe, Pope Francis spoke to the International Association of Penal Law last November and touched on this issue of bigotry and those who embrace a “culture of hatred”:
It is no coincidence that actions that are sometimes emblematic and typical of Nazism are reappearing. I admit that when I hear some speeches, by someone in charge of those who keep order in society or of the government, I am reminded of Hitler’s speeches in 1934 and 1936. Today they are actions typical of Nazism which, with its persecution of Jews, gypsies, persons with a homosexual orientation, represents the negative model par excellence of the throwaway culture and the culture of hatred. This is what was done at that time and today these things are being done again.
One does not have to look far in global politics to see world leaders who vilify others. In Brazil, for example, Prime Minister Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019 and has become a figure of much dissension in his country due to his background and rhetoric about Indigenous people.
In January, during one of his weekly Facebook addresses, Jair stated, “Indians are undoubtedly changing. They are increasingly becoming human beings just like us.” Consequently, Indigenous civil rights groups blasted his comments and the Brazilian Indigenous People’s Association announced that they would file a suit on the basis of his racism.
Of course, no true list of contemporary examples of hate speech would be complete without blanket malignant statements against migrants! For this, I turn to Hungary’s President, Viktor Orbán. Speaking to German publication Bild, on the topic of Europe’s role in accepting migrants and the refugee quota requirements of the European Union (EU), Orbán stated, “We don’t see these people as Muslim refugees. We consider them Muslim invaders.”
This sort of speech equates welcoming migrants to being socially and culturally overtaken by a foreign power by force. This was not a solitary incident. Orbán has railed against multiculturalism in the past.
Moreover, one would be remiss to not include President Donald Trump and his verbal assaults on immigrants, Mexicans, and the Muslim community. To enumerate the countless other offensive and dehumanizing statements made during his candidacy and presidency would be impossible.
All of the aforementioned leaders have been associated with an international rise in right-wing populism that is rooted in ideas such as nationalism, common religious identity, and isolationism. Although I’ve highlighted American and European examples, many other countries have influential right-wing presences. If their leaders are anything like Jair or Viktor, we have a crisis on our hands. For this reason, a renewed sense of civil responsibility and unwavering commitment toward justice is needed.
Pope Francis has noticed and warned about this disturbing trend. Earlier this year, he expressed his concerns to a group of representatives from the Simon Wiesenthal Center:
“It is troubling to see, in many parts of the world, an increase in selfishness and indifference, lack of concern for others and the attitude that says life is good as long as it is good for me, and when things go wrong, anger and malice are unleashed. This creates a fertile ground for the forms of factionalism and populism we see around us, where hatred quickly springs up. Hatred and the sowing of evil. Even recently, we have witnessed a barbaric resurgence of cases of antisemitism.”
An “Undefiled Religion”
Thankfully, Christian intellectual figures of the 20th century such as Martin Luther King Jr., Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, and Pope Saint John Paul II understood that overcoming deeply embedded systematic hate and injustices can only be resolved through the power of Christ. These men demonstrated an unwavering acknowledgment of human dignity, equity, and love with the Gospel of Jesus Christ against the opposition that demonstrated antagonism and hate.
This is pure religion.
Saint James told us, “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. A religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (Jas 1:26-27).
Pure religion is linked to care, concern, and advocacy for others. Doing so is the epitome of following the two greatest commandments (Mt 22:37-40). Jesus Christ gave his life as a sign to be a servant and we must be representatives of Christ infused love toward others, especially the marginalized and forgotten. For this reason, the days of being silent while speech that encourages violence or disproportionately targets certain humans created in God’s Image must end.
Pope Francis, the first pontiff from the Americas, has expressed his great concerns about the divisions that he has been observing here, and has called upon leaders to counter the systemic evils that have been harming our culture:
“Generally speaking, the conflicts of the American region, despite their different roots, are linked by profound forms of inequality, injustice and endemic corruption, as well as by various kinds of poverty that offend the dignity of persons. Consequently, there is a need for political leaders to work diligently to reestablish a culture of dialogue for the sake of the common good, to reinforce democratic institutions and promote respect for the rule of law, as a means of countering anti-democratic, populist and extremist tendencies.”
We must also rise up against unrestrained, loveless religiosity that mimics William Stryker, a hateful soapbox of malice toward our neighbor.
From Stryker’s perspective, mutants were excluded from God’s plan for the human race, and therefore did not belong. This is precisely the same type of rhetoric that was used to justify American chattel slavery, the Holocaust, and many abominable incidents in contemporary global history.
Jesus was right when he said evil comes from the heart (Mt 15:19). Therefore, we need a heart transplant! True religion liberates our sinful nature that thrives on enmity for our neighbor into one that embraces charity.
True religion opens our heart to a life-changing experience with the Creator to help us become ambassadors of His benevolent love. No one, including William Stryker, is excluded from this invitation. X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, with its powerful plot and realistic approach to societal issues, illustrates how authentic religion must triumph over false self-righteousness and extremism. True religion encompasses the greatest virtue of all, love.
Image: Adobe Stock.