Billy Jack Versus Francis: Therapy for Overcoming Metaphysics

The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters. Pope Francis, Encyclical on the Environment

As a teenager, my theology was a crude affair, either because of my own unteachableness or because I lacked any specific guidance (or both).  As a result, pop culture had a huge, if not always coherent, influence.  Two films came out at about the same time, when I was around 18, which left me theologically confused.  Franko Zefferelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon depicts the early life and development of Saint Francis of Assisi.  His rejection of violence, wealth, and the norms of society is most starkly displayed after he has thrown all of his wealthy father’s cloth merchandise out the window and he strides naked out of town.

A group of us saw the film together and it was part of what inspired us to attempt communal life together.  Five of us rented a house, we looked to buy a farm, and we began a very flawed version of doing life together.  Unfortunately, our theological understanding was largely dependent on the film industry and the next movie we saw was Billy Jack. Billy (a.k.a. Tom Laughlin) uses martial arts, Jungian psychology, and what Roger Ebert called “fascist politics” to save the Freedom School – a Montessori like program with a sort of hippie interracial student body (Laughlin, in real life, owned and operated a Montessori school).  Our own demise as a group was a sad mixture of Billy whoops up on St. Francis – the film equivalent would be the Freedom School children all turning on one another as Billy and St. Francis are hauled away by the FBI for reckless theological endangerment.  (What I am leaving out of the story (purely to protect the guilty) is that I was the sorriest of followers of St. Francis.)

Our experiment in communal living revealed either that Billy Jack was a better Sunday School teacher than St. Francis or that violence is the natural expression of the human heart. The lesson of Pope Francis recent encyclical is one that Tom Laughlin missed, in spite of his education at Marquette University.  Francis maintains, “We have forgotten that “man is not only a freedom which he creates for himself.”  The Pope’s pronouncement goes to the heart of the modern predicament – or the human predicament.  It is precisely the coercive attempt to extract a bit of freedom for ourselves that ends in our enslavement (to save the Freedom School Billy goes to jail).  Bad fascism versus good fascism (Ebert’s description of the Billy Jack films) or gaining freedom and peace through violence is not simply a cheesy movie plot, it is a description of international politics and of the contradictory forces which reign in the human heart. The contradictions so blaringly obvious in Billy Jack are pervasive.

The violence in our hearts expresses itself in all of our relationships, with ourselves, with others, with creation, and with the divine.  Salvation would be deliverance from this torment which we bring upon ourselves and others and which we would inflict upon the natural environment. The problem is that our language and mode of thought is itself saturated in antagonism and agonistic struggle.  The postmodern “discovery” is that language itself seems to be embedded with metaphysical structures which inculcate antagonism and violence. Modern thought, from the postmodern perspective, is simply a recurrent rebellion against metaphysics: Kant would defeat Leibnizian metaphysics; Nietzsche would overcome Kantian metaphysics; Heidegger maintains that he is the one that escapes Nietzschean metaphysics; Derrida would count himself as the one who spies and overcomes Heideggerian metaphysics; Caputo . . . well you get the point.[1] The attempt to get rid of our Billy Jack somehow turns out to be an assault on our St. Francis.  We cannot throw off this form of thought in and through this form of thought – a reality Hegel seemed willing to accept and which his modern disciple, Slavoj Žižek, positively embraces.

Žižek concludes that dialectic and dualism not only constitute our engagement with the world but it constitutes human subjectivity.  The Cartesian split between thought and the thinking thing is not a problem to be resolved but the condition under which we have ourselves.  He would maintain, contrary to Pope Francis, that man is precisely a freedom he creates for himself.  In this sense, Žižek is one true end of the struggle to get beyond metaphysics.  The struggle is recognized as the reality under which thought arises.  Man is a self-positing being who may be deceived as to his own ground but he has no choice but to accept this primordial lie as the ground of the “truth.”  As every good psychoanalyst knows, the truth inheres in a lie.

Žižek, I am convinced, has taken both philosophy and psychology to their natural conclusion: metaphysics has proven inescapable and the task is not to escape it but to manipulate it.  Our ideas about reality are in fact constitutive of this reality.  Certainly, this is totalizing, calculating, and instrumentalizing, but let’s learn to do this in the best way possible.  Violence (death drive) is itself the engine pumping out our reality and the best we can do is direct its force.

What Žižek does not admit to, as he ultimately discounts a separate phenomenological reality, is the sense of distance Heidegger noted was characteristic of metaphysics. Reality, perceived through metaphysics, is reduced to a set of appearances from which we are always removed. As Kevin Hector notes, the metaphysicians are untroubled by this distancing of reality as “each claimed for humans an experience-transcending faculty by means of which to bridge it.”[2]  Thought, posited as the essence of ultimate reality, transcends the distance this posits from reality (phenomenal reality is left “out there” while being downgraded to a lesser reality).  We are back, in other words, to the contradictions of Billy Jack and the human predicament.

The danger in claiming that an authentic Christianity accomplishes the move beyond a violent metaphysics, is to simply picture Christ as the bridge.  That is, the easy solution to metaphysics is to leave it in place – with its inherent dualisms and its positing of a distance between interior and exterior (or between heaven/earth, spirit/body etc.) and then just put Christ where human thought previously went. This is the equivalent of acknowledging that Gnostic dualisms are the case (between spirit and matter etc.) and that Christ is our secret knowledge which bridges the gap. Agonistic struggle and the violence that goes with it are not denied, but loaded onto the death of Christ.  Jesus does the work of Billy Jack, extracting peace through violence (his own death) and gaining freedom through struggle.

Christ is defeating the principalities and powers, not in playing by their rules, but by exposing the lie in which these rules are founded.  The supposed dualisms of light/darkness, life/death, etc. are undone by exposing the groundless unreality of one half of the pair.  The New Testament, especially in the writings of John and Hebrews, systemically sets forth the broadest of dualisms, not to affirm them, but to empty the antagonism they entail; to show how Christ has confronted and defeated alienation (the true nature of the supposed dualisms) by offering an identity (through his body, a new community) that does not define itself through difference (differences propagated on the basis of the law or the principles of this world) but through identifying with Christ.

The ultimate and final act of Christ, his bodily ascension, can serve as a test of whether we have escaped the metaphysical principles which killed him.  The bodily ascension of Christ, thematic to Hebrews, is the basis on which he is declared great high priest. This notion contains the ultimate contradiction for the conceptual possibilities of metaphysics.  Christ embodied forever, as the qualifying factor for being declared greater than the angels or Moses, goes against the grain of dualism.  On the basis of embodiment Christ is declared greater than the angels – mere ministering spirits.  Hebrews is not arguing from the preexistence of Christ or the deity of Christ to his superiority.  Just the opposite, Christ is greater because of his incarnation and suffering and finally his bodily ascension. This is the ultimate disruption and deconstruction of a system which would posit separation and distance between embodied phenomena and ultimate reality.

As David Moffitt has described it, the dualism between heaven and earth is not resolved by erasing the ontological distinctions between humans and angels but by the extension of God’s glory to the human body. “Human ontology is transformed/glorified, it is not erased or destroyed.” [3]  Moffitt concludes that this, then, corresponds with the transformation of the world so that it can be an eternal inheritance. “The earth is transformed into a dwelling place fit for God, just as the mortal body is transformed into something fit to enter heaven.”[4]  Heaven and earth, along with a variety of corresponding dualisms, are not bridged but brought into proper relationship.  Creation’s purpose is as a Temple of communion between God and mankind.  As the writer of Hebrews states it, “we are his house” (3:6). The earth is in travail due to sin and violence and the earth itself awaits redemption (Rom 8:22) and the revealing of the sons of God.

Earth was made to intersect with heaven, just as human embodiment was meant to bear and house the glory of God.  The violence in our hearts is expunged only in embracing and being embraced in this glory.  As Pope Francis concludes, “The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely.”  Only human sin creates the separation which exposes earth and ourselves to the violence of His absence.


[1] See Hector, Kevin W. Theology without Metaphysics (Current Issues in Theology) (p. 2). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Hector, p. 12.

[3] David M. Moffitt, Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews, (Brill, 2011), p. 179.

[4] Ibid

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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