Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is out in theaters, and it dutifully fills all the boxes in the spy thriller checklist. Lifelike masks? Death-defying stunts? Car chases? Gunplay and physical combat? Glamorous locales? Check, check, checkity-pop-zoom-bam-BOOM.
One thing that stuck with me was the title; an interesting development, because action movie titles are often pretty irrelevant. They’re designed to sound intriguing-and-dangerous-but-vague, and too often come across instead as techno-gibberish. (Does anyone remember what “Ghost Protocol” referred to in the fourth M:I installment? Don’t look it up on Wikipedia, that’s cheating.)
On the contrary, a whole nation going rogue? That’s much easier to understand. The phrase picked up steam in the broader consciousness after Sarah Palin entitled her 2009 political memoir Going Rogue, reclaiming a definition of a rogue not simply as “someone who lacks judgment or principle,” but “someone who deviates from the expected norm of behavior.”
(Say what you want about Sarah Palin, but she’s amazing at deviating from expected norms.)
In Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, the rogues in question take the form of a nefarious collective of foreign agents called The Syndicate, all united in the pursuit of a terrorist agenda.
So with the Impossible Missions Force (IMF) shut down by Congress, super spy Ethan Hunt (Cruise) must rely on his friends, comic relief Simon Pegg as Benji, the steely-eyed Jeremy Renner as chief analyst Brant, Ving Rhames’ muscly perma-smirk as the homie Luther, and Rebecca Ferguson as mysterious femme fatale Ilsa Faust – all working together to defeat The Syndicate, and to a lesser extent, justify the IMF’s existence.
As the film progresses, the audience learns that the Syndicate (MILD SPOILER ALERT), like many evil organizations, was initially founded for a good purpose, but eventually spun out of control into terrorist infamy. That is, they’re rogues not because they’re all evil people, but because at some point during its coalescence, its leaders began cutting corners and doing evil things for what they thought was a good purpose. They began caring less about the principles involved and more about dominating the competition.
In that, The Syndicate leadership reminded me a lot of King Saul in the first book of Samuel.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Saul was the first king of the nation of Israel – a nation that, despite bearing God’s favor as being His chosen vessel, developed a history of going rogue by ignoring His prophets and disregarding His teachings. Initially, Israel wasn’t even supposed to have a king, because at that time they were ruled by a series of judges who mediated disputes but didn’t maintain continuous martial law. Nevertheless, they begged for a king anyway (mostly because they were dissatisfied with the leadership from the prophet Samuel’s crooked sons as judges), and God relented, instructing Samuel to anoint Saul as king.
Now Israel had developed a fearsome reputation throughout the nations because The LORD God often facilitated miraculous military victories by His divine hand, and all He really asked the Israelite leaders to do in return was to obey His commands and follow His leading. But somewhere along the way, Saul either forgot or chose to disregard what the Lord said, and violated a particular directive about how to treat another warring tribe. They were instructed to kill everyone and destroy everything, but Saul and his team thought it’d be fine to spare their king and keep some of their animals for themselves.
Because of this and other poor choices, the Lord tells his servant Samuel that He regrets making Saul king, which ends up paving the way for Saul’s successor, a young warrior poet named David who was great with a guitar but even better with a slingshot.
Watching Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, it occurred to me that all of the destruction and loss of life onscreen was essentially the result of one or two good guys who, just like King Saul, took their eyes off the ball and began to justify their bad decisions because of the power and control those decisions afforded them.
When you think only about winning and not about how or why you play the game, cheating feels less like a moral failing and more like a competitive requirement.
This is why, as the IMF team and their allies try to stop the Syndicate, a tension develops as they grapple over what sacrifices are worth making in service to the greater good. When Ethan and his crew stare deep into the terrorist Syndicate abyss, they end up seeing a reflection of themselves and their unorthodox tactics.
During Samuel’s rebuke of Saul, those two have an exchange that concludes with a very famous quote (emphasis mine):
17 Samuel said, “Although you were once small in your own eyes, did you not become the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel. 18 And he sent you on a mission, saying, ‘Go and completely destroy those wicked people, the Amalekites; wage war against them until you have wiped them out.’ 19 Why did you not obey the Lord? Why did you pounce on the plunder and do evil in the eyes of the Lord?”
20 “But I did obey the Lord,” Saul said. “I went on the mission the Lord assigned me. I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king. 21 The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, in order to sacrifice them to the Lord your God at Gilgal.”
22 But Samuel replied:
“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as in obeying the Lord?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
In any mission worth pursuing, you must maintain a grip on both the why as well as the what. And if the why is at all unclear, then make sure you have an iron grip on the what.
In Rogue Nation, The Syndicate emerged because power-hungry public servants lost sight of their overall mission, and decided to take things in their own hands.
That phenomenon isn’t limited to fictional characters; that description could just as easily fit the killings of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, or most recently, Samuel DuBose by U of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing. As this black ex-cop attests, only a small percentage of police officers regularly abuse their authority, but those bad officers corrupt the departments they work for, and contribute to a climate wherein officers tend to care a LOT more about self-preservation than they do about actually serving the population they’re sworn to protect. This is how racial disparities in police brutality develop.
And just like with Saul, what makes the abuse even more galling is that the abuses are wrapped in the veneer of religious self-righteousness. See, when people quote that passage to say that “obedience is better than sacrifice,” it’s important to remember that the sacrifice is not personal sacrifice, but religious sacrifice – that’s why the next line is there about heeding being better than the fat of rams, because religious sacrifices then often involved the killing of animals.
So if you try to mask your disobedience in the cloak of religious sacrifice that makes the disobedience much worse.
Much has been written and said about how evangelical Christianity is too often conflated with political conservatism, but this is not just a problem with elected officials. It also contaminates the way we as Christians tend to respond to abuses by police. Conservatives and centrist liberals (like Bill Clinton circa 1994) will often, in a need to appear “tough on crime,” make political deals that criminalize African-American behaviors or forms of expression, weaken or ignore citizen review boards and create unnecessary hurdles to prosecuting police misconduct. These moves encourage the public to unilaterally back the police narrative of universal heroism, even in situations when their conduct is anything but heroic.
Even in the most recent example of the murder of Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati, there are those who are reluctant to speak negatively about officer Ray Tensing, the shooter. When the Cincinnati district attorney Joseph Deters, a law-and-order Republican, made a series of outspoken remarks denouncing the shooting as “an absolute tragedy,” and “the most asinine act I’ve ever seen a police officer make,” Jay McDonald, president of the Ohio Fraternal Order of Police, the organization that is footing the bill for Tensing’s legal defense, called his remarks, “way out of line.”
This would already be a huge problem by itself, but the problem is worse because there are pastors and other public figures who are supposed to represent the church of Jesus Christ, who automatically make statements supporting the police anytime there’s a high-profile police shooting. In March, Franklin Graham made a Facebook statement dismissing the idea that race plays a role in policing. “It comes down to respect for authority and obedience,” he said.
(Apparently Franklin Graham never heard about Tamir Rice or John Crawford III, two young men who were gunned down by police before they even had a chance to comply with their orders.)
Graham continued his remarks by quoting Romans 13, which states that all authorities are appointed by God. Though that statement is true, it’s in the context of Paul’s admonition to the church in Rome to generally do their best to live in community with each other, and not exist in general outward rebellion toward the authorities.
What Franklin Graham and others of his ilk are missing is this:
None of the #BlackLivesMatter protestors are asking police to do anything other than what they’ve sworn to do – to serve and protect, instead of harass, intimidate, assault and kill.
People who are demonstrating for justice regarding police brutality are not the ones in rebellion – rather, it’s the police who are rebelling against the very principles they say they stand for.
So when Franklin Graham or anyone else stands up for the police instead of on behalf of those whom the police have abused, they too are rebelling against the principles they say they believe in, especially if the principle is freedom from tyranny.
But not only that, they’re forsaking the mission of Christ, and are in rebellion against God.
Don’t believe me? Take it from John M. Perkins, legendary civil rights leader, pastor, and theologian:
Or hey, maybe you’d feel comfortable hearing it from a white dude. I can understand that. Here’s Daniel Hill, church planting pastor out of Chicago, from a post he entitled “Dear White People” (and no it’s not connected to the movie… at least not directly):
I wish you could see that there is a history of systemic racism that ruthlessly promotes a vicious narrative: that White life is most valuable, and that everyone else finds their value in relation to that gold standard.
I wish you could see that nobody grows up in our country without being infected by this narrative, including yourself.
I wish you could see that it’s incredibly unhelpful to try and prove that you are not individually a racist, and therefore should be able to remove yourself from the struggle.
I wish you could see that it’s an exercise in futility to point your anger at the bearers of the troubling news. I wish you could learn to point your outrage instead towards the system of oppression.
I wish you could see that nobody is more outraged at this system of oppression than the God of the Bible.
I wish you could see that this outrage is not something outside of the Christian discipleship you care so much – it isfront and center to the transformational process God intends for you.
Speaking of transformation and discipleship… remember that bit about religious sacrifice?
Biblical prophets have spoken against religious sacrifices that have no meaning without the pursuit and application of justice.
For example, in Isaiah 58, the prophet, speaking as the mouthpiece of The LORD, denounces people who engage in fasting, another prominent form of religious sacrifice, without being concerned about the plight of the outcast, the foreigner, or the powerless. Instead, in verse 6, he lays out the kind of religious activity He (The LORD) wants to see:
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Then later he offers a solution to help them out of their disconnected state:
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.
And it’s not just one obscure text, either. It’s all over the Old Testament. Here’s Amos 5:8-15, throwing some serious shade on our Christian festivals (emphasis mine):
He who made the Pleiades and Orion,
who turns midnight into dawn
and darkens day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea
and pours them out over the face of the land—
the Lord is his name.
9 With a blinding flash he destroys the stronghold
and brings the fortified city to ruin.
10 There are those who hate the one who upholds justice in court
and detest the one who tells the truth.
11 You levy a straw tax on the poor
and impose a tax on their grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
you will not drink their wine.
12 For I know how many are your offenses
and how great your sins.
There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes
and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.
13 Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times,
for the times are evil.
14 Seek good, not evil,
that you may live.
Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you,
just as you say he is.
15 Hate evil, love good;
maintain justice in the courts.
Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy
on the remnant of Joseph.
And then the prophet concludes with this mic-drop passage:
21 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
23 Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
24 But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
Is it any surprise that this is the passage quoted by Dr. King and civil rights activists?
God’s heart beats for the plight of the powerless, the foreigner, the exploited, and the abused. So when people abuse their power, and religious people give them cover to do so, it makes God furious.
We’ve covered a lot of ground since this article started, and you might be wondering, how the heck did we get here from talking about a movie?
So it’s time for a little recap. And if you agree with the things I’ve said here, feel free to share these points with others:
- Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is a pretty fun action flick.
- “Going rogue” is what happens when people deviate from what’s expected or conventional
- Evil happens when public servants lose the vision of how and why they are called to serve
- This is the motivation for a lot of destruction and bloodshed in the movie
- It’s also why there’s so much police brutality against African-Americans
- People make the problem worse by cloaking said abuse in the language of religious sacrifice
But here’s the good news!
Just like in the movie, good people can still triumph over evil.
You and I do not need to be Tom Cruise, strapped to the side of an actual Airbus A400M, in order to overcome evil. We just need to engage in God’s word, listen to the Holy Spirit, remember why we’re called to do whatever it is we’re called to do, and trust God for the outcome.
But every time we look for a shortcut, every time we make an unsavory political alliance for the sake of expedience, every time we overlook a moral or ethical failing because it’s coming from someone who’s “on our side,” every time we look away from officers who abuse their authority because it’s not happening to “our people” and we don’t want to get involved… those are the telltale signs of an agent going rogue.
And rogue agents always threaten God’s mission for justice.