Power, Post-structuralism, and Zombies: How a Canadian Zombie Film Helped Me Understand Violence in My Hometown

If you are into smart zombie movies (yes, there is such a thing!), I’ve got a recommendation for you: a Canadian independent film called Pontypool, complete with creepy zombies and lots of poststructuralist implication. The gist of this movie is as such: a virus turns humble Canadians into violent, bloody zombie-like villains, and it takes a good three quarters of the movie for our hero and heroine to figure out how the virus travels. The real intelligence of this film is in the method of communication of this disease, which, incidentally, is by…well, communication. That is, when a certain word is spoken, those who hear it become “infected” by the virus; thus, there are “infected words” that trigger psychosis, rage, and imminent death in those who not only hear the words but understand what they mean. The antidote to the infection is to “misunderstand” the words if you hear them. A common word like “kill,” if understood to mean, in fact, “kill” by the listeners, could trigger the virus. However, if one were to hear this word “kill” but reinterpret it to mean “kiss”, then the listener will not contract the disease. Is that postmodern enough for you?

So what does this have to do with religion or current events? Today, it might have everything to do with these topics. As a resident of Dallas, Texas, my community was recently shaken by the shootings of police officers protecting a Black Lives Matter event and the collateral damage done to innocent protesters marching peacefully to raise awareness about police brutality and racism in our country. I commented to my husband that I cannot help but feel that every day when I turn on the radio, there is yet another crushing act of racial or sexual or gendered or xenophobic violence. My husband said something interesting. He said, “It feels almost as if this has become the trend, the popular response to strong and uncomfortable feelings like pain or anger or disgust.”

This certainly is not new; it is a trend that has lasted millennia and is perhaps one of the longest-lasting trends of human history: we are a violent species, not innately but certainly historically. But what my husband said made me think of Pontypool. One of the dynamics that sparks our violence is a “trend,” if you will, by which some of us hear and understand the concept of “power” to mean “domination.” When we are infected by this trend – this virus, really – we turn into creatures not dissimilar from those zombie Canadians in Pontypool. We have been taught that power is won by and looks like domination. We dominate the field, dominate our classmates, dominate the opponents, dominate the competition, dominate the marketplace, dominate the global scene, dominate the battle, dominate our spouses, dominate the other races and classes and religions and Others. We are taught that the means to power, our highest value in our society, is through domination. And we are taught that power, once achieved, looks like continued domination. The means to the end is in fact also the end itself that we win.

The Christian Church and other faith traditions are certainly not the sanctuary from the infection that they ought to be. As someone who hails from the Christian tradition, I have grown weary of late with the rampant use of war metaphor in church. We are told to dominate the flesh, to dominate our tongues, to defeat the enemy (whomever or whatever this is), to defeat temptation, to triumph over sin. We are taught that God is all-powerful, and this power is often spoken of as defeating the Devil, conquering sin, triumphing over death, and dominating the darkness, all those who “live in the dark”, and anyone who could be construed as an enemy. I even went to a youth conference last summer at which one of the keynote speakers, to much cheering and applause, said he pictures Jesus triumphantly driving a chariot and dragging Satan and all enemies of Christ through the dusty streets behind him. No wonder our idea of power is bound up with domination of and violence against others!

The great Algerian postcolonial scholar and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon had a similar idea. In his text The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon appears to urge Algerian liberationists to take up arms against former colonizers, to utilize violence and force to make their voices heard and gain power in their own land. However, what Fanon is communicating is not rebellious militancy but rather a passionate lament for the language that we have come to speak and understand – a language of violence as the means to power and as domination of the Other as the form that power takes. Because this is what is understand when the word “power” was whispered in the ears of the Algerians, this is what they believed their only course of action was. It was the language they had been taught to speak by the culture of violence and domination enforced by colonialism.

But is this the only conception of power that exists? Absolutely not! It just so happens that this is the one that has taken root in our society, so that when we hear the word “power” or we attempt to access power, we understand it to mean domination. And thus we are infected. What we need is to reinterpret power, to understand it differently – as differently and drastically as the difference between “kill” and “kiss” that we see in Pontypool. This is the only antidote, the only cure. Until we can understand our God or Gods, our highest values, and our goals to be a form of power that looks nothing like this domination, until we can more creatively reinterpret what power means, we will keep passing the infection. However, I have hope. I have hope because I find in my own faith tradition, and in the faith traditions of so many others, an alternative power – a power of self-giving love, of unity and solidarity, of mercy and mutuality and egalitarianism and agency that looks so antithetical to power that many may mistake it as not being power at all. Perhaps they may even believe it to be power’s opposite. But do not be deceived. Look closely and you will see a power that runs deep with healing properties, with promises of a better way, and with the hope of harmony and joy, a power that takes the form of equality and humility and sharing compassionately. May that be what we envision when we think of and strive for power.

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