This country (America) has always had a soft spot for rebels, which by definition are law-breakers. As I love pointing out, this nation started out by telling the Mother Country “You can’t tell US what to do!!!” Our founding document is the Declaration of Independence. When each of the signers of the Declaration pledged their “lives, [their] fortunes, and [their] sacred honor,” they weren’t kidding around. They knew quite well that they were openly committing high treason against the Crown, and they also knew that if they were captured they had a date with the hangman’s noose. They called themselves “Patriots,” but to the British, we were “rebels.”
So when someone is an outlaw on the run from legal authority, we have an instinctive sympathy towards them. It’s in our blood. We also have an instinctive distrust of government, which is pretty rare in other societies and cultures. When a government authority tells someone to do something, often our first instinct is to side with the “little guy” over the authority.
There’s certainly precedent for siding against legal authority in Scripture. The Apostles were specifically ordered by the religious authorities to stop preaching and teaching in the name of Jesus, and their response was “We must obey God rather than human beings!” David, whom I consider to be the greatest king of the O.T., was a fugitive from King Saul, an egregious example of authority gone bad. Moses was breaking Egyptian law by confronting Pharaoh and relaying God’s order to let the Hebrews go. Often the O.T. prophets defied government authority by publicly proclaiming what the Lord had told them to proclaim.
But of course in each of these instances, the rebellious and outlaw hero was disobeying human authority because he was obeying a higher Authority. He wasn’t disobeying the law for his own personal gain; in fact, often he would’ve been better off if he’d just meekly submitted (with the obvious exception of David). He was disobeying human law only because God’s law claimed a higher loyalty.
We can debate whether or not the American Revolution was biblically justified or not in proclaiming independence from the British Empire. Romans 13:1-7 on its face seems to be pretty damning, but I’ve heard some justification for it which I won’t go into right now. The point is that even they claimed, rightly or wrongly, that they were being loyal to the Highest Authority by being disloyal to the British government. That’s why the first sentence of the Declaration says “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” and the last sentence proclaims that they’re doing this “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.”
Why am I getting into all this? Well, believe it or not, I do have a point. I think that the American instinctual sympathy for lawbreakers has gone off the rails at times, as seen in our popular culture. People who openly flout the 8th Commandment are routinely glorified in our popular culture, and they’re certainly not breaking the law in obedience to any higher law except maybe the principle of “I really want what that guy has.”
Think about some of our national icons: Billy the Kid, Bonnie and Clyde, Jesse James, John Dillinger, D.B. Cooper, and similar figures. What do all these people have in common? They were all outlaws who made their living stealing stuff that didn’t belong to them, and they were considered heroes and captured the popular imagination in books, TV shows, and movies.
For this next point I really have to give credit to Jonah Goldberg. At a time when the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie came out, he mentioned in passing in one of his columns that he’s not a big fan of pirate movies. Basically his main criticism is that they tend to whitewash piracy and pirates. Well, duh: It’s a pirate movie, so naturally pirates are going to probably be the protagonists.
But his offhand comment got me thinking about this. What do pirates do? Well, by definition, they steal stuff that doesn’t belong to them. In real life, they tend not to be dashing and noble-hearted like Jack Sparrow. They tend to be murderous thugs. They prey on ships and boats which aren’t well-defended, board them, and then usually murder all the men outright. Depending on your point of view, the women on board who survive are either more lucky or less lucky, since they’re likely to be raped and shipped off to sexual slavery. The pirates steal the cargo which they want and sink the boat, or they haul the boat somewhere else to sell it.
That’s what they do. They don’t contribute to an economy. The Free Market System, remember, is defined as people voluntarily making exchanges for mutual benefit without force, fraud, or theft. Pirates make themselves wealthy by contributing nothing but misery and death to the public at large.
Yes, I’m aware that historically nations have sometimes used pirates in warfare against other countries. But that was a special case of warfare conducted by governments, which was either justified or not. That’s very different from a gang of thugs who’ve taken it upon themselves to steal and frequently murder innocent people on the oceans. One might (or might not) be justified under certain circumstances because it's a method of warfare agaisnt another nation, while the other is definitely not.
And how about burglars and car thieves? How many movies are made in which the protagonist is—when it’s all said and done—a thief? They tend to be professional thieves; in other words, they make a living by stealing stuff that doesn’t belong to them. Now, I’m well aware that the biblical viewpoint is that people are infinitely more valuable than things. Every individual person is made in God’s image, and murder is the worst crime you can commit against another human being. It’s the only crime for which there’s a death penalty in each of the five books of the Torah. I don’t believe that every sin is equally heinous, and murder is much worse than any kind of theft. However. . . as I pointed out before, the prohibition against stealing is listed in God’s Top Ten List, right after adultery, so obviously the Lord considers this pretty important.
But according to a lot of TV shows and movies, we’re supposed to be really impressed by a burglar’s morals if he only steals stuff and never kills anyone.
I remember watching The Thomas Crown Affair with Pierce Brosnan. He’s a professional art thief, supposedly the best he is at what he does. We’re supposed to respect his cunning, superb planning, and witty banter. And it’s absolutely true that he’s extremely charming (because, duh, Pierce Brosman). But one thing I distinctly remember from the film is a scene at the end when the police officer in charge of protecting the targeted painting and catching Crown gives up in his assigned duty. He expresses that he’d much rather be catching “real” criminals instead of having to care about catching thieves who’re stealing expensive artwork from rich guys. The point of the movie is to get you feeling sympathetic for a guy who makes a living stealing stuff that doesn’t belong to him.
Here are just a few other examples:
Ocean’s 11 (and all its sequels)
The Italian Job
The Usual Suspects
The Bank Job
A Fish Called Wanda
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
and that favorite of a lot of people : Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
And those are just the ones I found after searching on Wikipedia for "heist film."
Look, am I saying you can’t appreciate the cinematic expertise of a movie that glorifies burglars, pirates, and other thieves? I guess not. But we need to keep in mind that there is a worldview behind these productions, and it’s not in line with what the Bible teaches. When it comes to other types of movies, I can at least recognize when a sympathetic character is doing something the Bible condemns, like foul language or sex outside of marriage. But I think the pro-theft message in much of American popular culture is a lot sneakier. We can debate whether or not it’s appropriate for a Christian to see movies or TV shows in which sin is glorified, but at the very very very least, we can agree that we need to train ourselves to recognize an anti-biblical worldview when we see it.
And if I’ve ruined the eighteenth sequel of Pirates of the Caribbean for you, well I’m really really sorry about that (not really).