Christopher Nolan’s third installment in his Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises (2012), is the movie that we all need to watch and embrace right now. Although it premiered a decade ago now at this point, it has a timely message for us in our culture. The movie opens with Batman in “retirement” because the streets of Gotham have been cleaned up due to the passing of legislation, granting the authorities much more power to prosecute organized crime. Even though crime has plummeted in Gotham, the city is still plagued with sever inequality between the rich and the poor. Remnants of corruption is infuse key institutions in the city.
It is against the backdrop of inequality that the mercenary Bane executes a plan to over Gotham and return it to the people. After Bane takes over, many rich and powerful people in the city are executed without trial or due process. Bane also threatens to blow up the city with a stolen nuclear reactor that Bruce Wayne’s company had produced. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne is in exile half-way across the world, having lost to Bane already. Yet Bruce summons the willpower to escape from his exile and “rises” to meet the challenge of taking back the city.
The message of the movie is clear: despite the its flaws, injustices, and inequalities Gotham is worth saving. Gotham is especially worth saving because what came next—Bane’s reign of terror–was worse. Batman still believed that the system that had been built was worth preserving.
The message for our time is clear as well: America is worth working on. And the church in America is worth working on too. Reform is better than destruction. So many voices seem to say, “Burn it all down. Start over!” Whether talking about our country or the church, these chorus of voices calling for drastic action do have important criticisms to learn from. But there’s a difference between attempting reform and encouraging razing (burning it down).
The reason why we should be much more prone to reform than scrapping things and starting over is simple: building durable institutions is extremely difficult. Furthermore, what we build after we started over may be worse than what we presently have! The human condition is one where our sinfulness leads us to exploit others and construct things for our own advantage, rather than seeking the advantage of others. Therefore, we need to be mighty careful about what we’re building. What may look like an impressive structure, may just be another vanity project like the Tower of Babel.
The other reason why you should invest in reform rather than starting over is because starting over can be a subtle guise for the easy way out. Not getting what you want? Just leave and start over. Not being “fed” in church? Move on to another place that’s more palatable. But think about it this way: where would LBC be if most people just wanted to start over? Our history as a church is filled with immeasurable pain and dysfunction at times. But the church still exists precisely because many people refused to abandon the institution and instead chose reform. Instead of letting the church dwindle and die, key members sought to bring reform to the leadership structure, moving from the senior pastor model to the plurality of elders model.