When it comes to visual storytelling, I love a good twist.
As video games have become more cinematic in their presentation, the writers behind the stories have gotten better at structuring the plot with misdirection so that at a critical moment—BOOM—something big is revealed that takes everything you thought you knew about the story and turns it upside down.
The latest iteration of this Big Reveal moment happened as I played through the single player campaign in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare on the Xbox 360.
SPOILER. ALERT. Read no farther if you don’t want the COD:AW campaign story spoiled!!
Seriously, you’ve been warned.
Much of the hype surrounding this game was the performance-captured acting by Hollywood luminary Kevin Spacey, known most prominently for his role as scheming politician Frank Underwood in the Netflix original series House of Cards. In COD:AW, Spacey plays Jonathan Irons, CEO of the fictional Atlas corporation, a massive private military corporation (PMC) with business connections across the globe. Much like his Frank Underwood character, Spacey plays Irons with the necessary warmth and charm to mask the machinations of his cold-blooded cunning and ruthless efficiency.
Which is why, as twists go, this one was a little on the predictable side, but memorable nonetheless.
Rather than continuing to merely profit from waging endless wars on behalf of nations in opposing factions, Irons decides to leverage the scale of his operation to bring the UN to its knees. In one memorable cutscene, Irons completes his transformation from a virtuous, patriarchal paladin of global justice to a warmongering maniac hell-bent on world domination. Instead of being the world’s biggest hero, he becomes the world’s biggest villain.
As shockers go, it pales next to The Usual Suspects, but it’s still a nice twist.
But as I thought about it more and more, I realized, Hey, I’ve seen this story before.
When the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus, in the final section of his letter he included a passage that focused on how to maintain harmonious relationships. Toward the end of Ephesians 5, he talks about how husbands and wives should be united in love and respect for one another. Then in the beginning of Ephesians 6, he addresses how parents and children should behave toward one another, and then he talks about masters and slaves, which, if we were to translate that into twenty-first century American vernacular, might read as “bosses and underlings.”
After all of that, he says this:
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
Did you notice how that third sentence started? “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood,” he says. In other words, the enemy is not who you think it is.
The plot of COD:AW involving the Atlas Corporation is speculative fiction, set at least forty years or so in the future. But from my vantage point, the premise seems awfully plausible. In the game’s story, it was greed, avarice, and hunger for power that made Atlas an attractive option for politicians who wanted to wage war without risking their own casualties. And it was the same greed, avarice, and power hunger that drove Irons to try to unite the world under his vision for peace, ironically by launching unprecedented strikes against unsuspecting allies.
In other words, the problem is not with other nations, other ethnic groups, or other leaders. The call toward sinful subjugation and supremacy is coming, like the horror movie cliché, from inside the house. The powers and authorities Paul referenced are not evil people but evil spirits that proliferate in the world. And when that evil roams unchecked in the hearts and minds of individuals, it doesn’t matter how many material evils are vanquished with weapons. The evil will still be there. The problem is inside.
As Walt Kelly famously wrote, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
As I watched Kevin Spacey glowering across my screen, it dawned on me—this isn’t just a lesson for military despots or politicians. It’s a lesson for everyone.
The reason why that passage in Ephesians happens after all that talk about relationship building and maintenance (husbands and wives, children and parents, bosses and employees) is because harmonious relationships require spiritual strength, and that strength gets thwarted when we end up focusing our attention on the wrong enemies.
This is why a lot of political discussion ends up being unfruitful, especially online. People are so quick to cut each other down to size that we forget our ideological opponents are not necessarily enemies. Paul’s metaphor of armor contains truth, righteousness, faith, and salvation, which suggests that perhaps our real enemies are pride, greed, avarice, jealousy, and so on. Just because someone has a different viewpoint on, say, racial disparities in criminal justice, or the role of government in society, or any other debatable issue doesn’t mean they are public enemy #1. It just means they have different ideas about how to interpret the Bible.
This doesn’t require you to reject the idea of absolute truth; it just means that you’re willing to admit that you may not be 100 percent right about everything.
I’m convinced that Christian communities across the United States would be a lot healthier if we stopped viewing the enemy of our souls as a mischievous imp with a pitchfork and instead saw him as something closer to Kevin Spacey’s Jonathan Irons—someone content to poke and prod us into fighting each other, while the real evil keeps flying under the radar.