Joaquin Phoenix hit the nail on the head this week when he said it’s not “the responsibility of a filmmaker to teach the audience morality or the difference between right or wrong.”
Phoenix made the comment during an interview with IGN, when the actor was asked about critics up in arms about “Joker” premiering next month, many of whom have argued the Warner Bros. movie is too dangerous and could spark violence in this horrific era of mass shootings.
In fact, the theater in Aurora, Colorado, where a gunman who reportedly referred to himself as “the Joker” opened fire in 2012 during a screening of “The Dark Knight Rises,” is not even playing the new film.
But how much of the violence plaguing our society — if any — can be tied to violence portrayed in Hollywood? It seems pretty unlikely someone would watch a movie with violent depictions, and then feel the urge for the first time to suddenly go out and be violent. That’s not how it works, though there has been some research suggesting it might enhance the tendencies of those who are already inclined toward violence. So while the dark corners of our culture aren’t entirely without blame, it’s important to know it’s not the genesis of our brokenness.
And contrary to what some might suggest, the Bible doesn’t command Christians to become pacifists, so violence in films is not necessarily always wrong, so long as justice is ultimately present. There are many times throughout Scripture when violence is righteous. The book of Revelation tells us Jesus will return to the earth with a “sharp sword to strike down the nations.” And in Romans 13:4, the apostle Paul wrote that governmental authorities “do not bear the sword for no reason,” but are intended “to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”
Whether you see the movie or not, though, Phoenix is right. It isn’t Hollywood’s job to teach us morality. We’ve allowed that to happen for too long, and nothing good has come from it. Our morality should be rooted in our faith, our families, and our communities. The convictions that flow out of those three spaces should then lead us to make a decision: stay home from the theater and skip the movie because it could be triggering for any number of valid reasons, including the nagging feeling that consuming such depraved behavior just isn’t healthy, or watch it with a discerning eye, realizing the film is for entertainment, artfully depicting the complexities of the human experience, shedding a light on moral darkness and the wreckage it leaves behind.
We should already know not to turn to Hollywood for moral guidance. Just take a look at the movies that have come out in recent memory, and you’ll see a long list of films boisterously celebrating the hedonism and hyper-sexuality that define our decadent culture — a depiction that is, in some cases, far more difficult to defend than violence and with just as much potential, if not more, to be damaging.
Our wrongdoing, no matter how tame or tragic, is not the result of the entertainment we consume, though shows, movies, books, and music can — and do — feed our sinful tendencies. Our wickedness is the result of our inborn depravity. In Romans 3:10, Paul quoted the Old Testament when he wrote, “No one is righteous — not even one.” And in 1 John 1:8, it’s written, “If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth.”
Rather than suggesting Hollywood is the arbiter of morality, since that’s very clearly not the case, we should be far more discerning consumers who take our moral cues from the words of Jesus, the teachings of the Bible, the wisdom of our elders, and the accountability of our church communities.
If you want to see “Joker,” fine. If you want to skip it, that’s fine, too. I can’t tell you whether it’s right or wrong for you to see the villain’s origin story. What I can tell you, though, is this: don’t be upset when people of this world don’t live up to the standards of those God called only to be in this world.