Superman was the result of collaboration between Jerry Siegel (writer) and Joe Shuster (artist). Both were sons of Jewish immigrants working in an era of anti-Semitism. Through the medium of comic books and super-powered beings, Siegel and Shuster portrayed an exaggerated version of the Jewish experience in America. People of their heritage were shunned, discriminated against, harassed. Jewish Americans were treated with skepticism and disdain. Yet their ingenuity helped build much of American society; their influence built or revolutionized the film industry, banking, publishing, and the sciences. The Jews living in America felt like aliens in a strange land, despised yet wanting nothing more than to help. Superman was an alien in a strange land, misunderstood yet wanting nothing more than to save lives.
In a way, Siegle and Shuster created a fearsome creature that would be a guardian to the American people as a way of subtly convincing readers how that which they feared could save them. They were selling acceptance of Jewish peoples in the form of a man with unnatural strength and the power to fly. If such a powerful being came into our world, (Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound!) would it be revered or feared? Human nature tends to be scared of that which it does not understand. We are afraid of things that are abnormal and weird.
image courtesy of Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment
That is what happened during Jesus' time. John the Baptist was a strange man. He lived in isolation, wore strange clothes, and ate bugs. He criticized those in power and as a result was feared by Herod who though John might lead a rebellion. In the end, John the Baptist was beheaded. When Jesus began his ministry, he taught about love and a new heavenly kingdom and a radically different way of living. Much like John who preceded Jesus, the religious and political leaders of the day felt threatened. They were worried of a revolt lead by Jesus, the charismatic and popular teacher who spoke against power and corruption. They feared what they did not understand and could not control so they had Jesus executed, crucified like a common criminal.
It is sad how frequently how fear steers our culture. Whether it is ancient Judea, or the anti-Semitism of the 20th century, or today and this very moment, little has changed. John the Baptist and Jesus were feared because they were different. The Jews were hated because they were different. It makes me wonder who is different now.
The LBGT community?
Mexican immigrants and migrant workers?
African Americans and the Black Lives Matters movement?
Hillary Clinton supporters or Donald Trump fans?
Fear leads people into drastic and often irrational actions. In the last 48 hours, we have seen this played out in horrifying measure. For unexplainable reasons, fear led law enforcement to end the lives of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.
When my kids heard about these news stories, they want to know why. Why would someone do that? Why did this happen? Aren't the police supposed to help? Aren't they supposed to prevent stuff like this from happening? Why are people so angry?
I am left to explain hatred to my kids. I have to give a reason for racism, xenophobia, ableism, and homophobia. I have to describe discrimination and profiling and how it happens. In the process of this conversation, I feel like I am justifying the inexcusable. Because when my son asks me "Why would anyone hate someone because of the color of their skin?" the only appropriate answer is "They shouldn't."
These conversations break my heart. They are soul wounding discussions that should never have a need to exist. So I apologized. I told my oldest son that I was sorry how my generation has created such a mess of our culture. I told him that he deserves better. I told him his brother and sister deserve better. And I feel absolutely powerless to change anything.
My son told me it is OK. And with wisdom that should never belong to an eleven year old child, he said, "Maybe, when my generation is older, we'll see how cruddy the world is and do something about it."
This kid gives me hope. Our governments are gridlocked. Our police forces are reactionary. News media preaches misinformation. Everyone is scared and angry. But my son believes his generation has the power to fix it. I want to believe him and I hope that you do too.