When I was growing up my dad loved to say this phrase:
“If two people always agree on everything, one of you isn’t necessary.”
As someone who enjoys watching movies with an eye toward character development and plot structure, I’ve noticed a phenomenon that reminds me of that truism.
When two teammates are passionate about their mission, conflict is inevitable. But unless their conflict is intentionally aired and resolved, one of them will make a reckless choice that could ruin their partnership.
We saw this in the original Avengers film. Jeremy Renner’s “Hawkeye” character, thanks to some mind-control mojo courtesy of Loki’s nefarious glowing blue scepter, was temporarily evil and had to be given a mental reboot before he could go back to his benevolent archer persona.
This time around, the dynamic is more subtle, but no less real.
In The Avengers: Age of Ultron, teammates Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans), are in conflict about how to best use the powers they’ve been given – not only their specific superpowers, but more broadly, how their organization S.H.I.E.L.D. should deploy the futuristic technology to which they’ve been granted access.
This theme has stretched across several films in the Marvel cinematic universe, most recently in Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It echoes the national debate we’ve been having in the United States about how transparent and accountable our armed forces should be, especially regarding the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in combat.
Because of spoilers, I won’t reveal what the choice was and how it played out, but it was clear by the conclusion of The Avengers: Age of Ultron that Cap and Tony’s interactions had begun to fracture not only their friendship, but the Avengers’ tenuous alliance overall.
The thing is, if Tony Stark would’ve studied The New Testament even half as much as he studied robotics, engineering or neuroscience, he might’ve avoided the whole mess from the beginning. That’s because Age of Ultron mirrors a much older conflict – that of early church apostles Peter and Paul.
Their beef, which culminated in an incident at Antioch, is what Paul mentions in his letter to the church in Galatia. Peter and Paul were both Jews who had come to believe Jesus is the son of God, but Peter was more sympathetic to a group later referred to as “Judaizers” – those who believed in Christ but who insisted in adhering to the myriad Old Testament laws that formed the basis of Jewish worship.
What it came down to was that Paul thought that Peter was being a hypocrite. Peter claimed to believe in Jesus, who repeatedly offered salvation to Gentiles (a.k.a. non-Jews) without requiring them to go through the same rituals and sacrifices required by Jewish customs – yet Peter was actively disassociating himself from Gentiles by refusing to eat with them, instead hanging out exclusively with other Jews who did follow those customs.
So like Captain America did with Iron Man, Paul called out what he thought was bad behavior from Peter, and did it in front of the group.
Now, lest we be too hard on Peter, it’s important to remember that Jesus himself, even though he offered salvation to Gentiles, he was still quick to mention that salvation came first through the Jews, and that the children of Israel still occupied a special place in God’s heart, for they were the ones to whom God first revealed himself. This is why, when a Gentile woman came to him for healing, he first told her that he was sent “to the lost sheep of Israel.” It’s not that Peter was completely wrong in wanting to give honor to the Jews, but his inclination was incomplete; the honor of salvation flowed from the Jews to everyone else.
Peter’s problem here was not just that he was impulsive and a little prone to flip-flopping on what he believed (“I’ll never disown you, Lord!” … then later: “One of the disciples? Not me!”), but that like Tony Stark after meeting The Scarlet Witch, he was motivated by fear. Instead of being afraid of killer robots or evil warlords running amok, Peter was afraid of what other Jews would think of him for eating with Gentiles. Ironically, even though he believed in Jesus, he cared more about what other supposed Jesus followers thought than about what Jesus actually modeled in his life, which while including honor for the Jews, also fiercely included Gentiles and other outsiders.
Peter’s problem here was not just that he was impulsive and a little prone to flip-flopping on what he believed, but that he was motivated by fear.
The lesson for us today is not simply to care more about following Jesus’ example than about earning the praise of His followers – though that’s a fine lesson indeed! – but it’s to make sure that we practice intentional communication habits with each other so that our conflicts don’t boil over into huge, extinction-level events.
Because even the non-superhero among us can get into trouble if we pretend that collaboration never leads to conflict, especially if we avoid having hard conversations because we don’t want to hear people tell us hard truths. That’s what Tony Stark did, and look how it turned out for him.
Go see the movie, and see how it turned out. Because writing and talking about it without giving away spoilers is exhausting.