Alan Ritchson, the Christian actor who plays Jack Reacher in Amazon’s hit TV show, has defended his decision to play the vigilante. James Cary says the Bible is full of moral ambiguity. If Christians don’t like it, they’ll need to take it up with Jesus when they see him

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Source: Amazon

Tens of billions of dollars have been made by writing stories that show a good guy shoot the bad guys.

It could be Indiana Jones shooting Nazis, Rambo shooting Russians or John McClane shooting criminals posing as terrorists. In the writing business, they say: “nobody knows anything”. But this one thing seems to work.

It’s working for Amazon right now, who have found a hit with Reacher, a drama based on a series of books written by Lee Child. Many of us are watching the eponymous mass of muscles despatch wave after wave of henchmen for arms dealers. For a TV show, the body count is a little on the high side, but we’re rarely in any doubt that the baddies deserve it. They rarely speak to put their side of the story across, which makes it all much simpler.

Moral ambiguity

We know, of course, that real life is not so cartoonishly simple. Jack Reacher is taking the law into his own hands, although he’s not a rogue cop serving up summary justice like Dirty Harry. Reacher has been the victim of injustice himself, having done the right thing by fighting corruption and then paying a heavy price, so he feels justified in killing bad guys. He even talks about it in those terms - but does he have to kill quite so many? And why doesn’t he shed a tear? The simplicity of his modus operandi can make us a little uncomfortable with the moral ambiguity of his actions.

You could say that Samson’s an ancient Jack Reacher

What makes things even more complicated is the revelation that this self-appointed wrecking-ball of justice is played by a Christian actor, Alan Ritchson. He has come under a fair amount of criticism from Christians who think that his faith should preclude him playing such a character – so he made this five-minute video for his YouTube channel in response.

Presumably, the problem is that a Christian shouldn’t be enacting such levels of violence and operating outside of the law. I’ve not been able to find any specifics of the criticism that he received online, but we don’t get to see private messages and verbal comments. This attack may be something the actor feels – and has experienced - personally.

I can relate to that. I wrote a comedy called Bluestone 42 for BBC3 about a bomb-disposal team in Afghanistan which was shot through with military-grade swearing as well as the death of members of the Taliban and jokes made in poor taste. I felt it was all artistically and morally justified but it made me a little self-conscious in Christian circles, concerned that fellow Christians might be judging me.

A complicated story

My defence was the same as Ritchson’s. He points out that, in the Bible, we find “stories of paganism, of war and bloodshed and ghost stories, mysticism,” along with “miracles and magic”. He goes on to explain that: “God is completely unafraid to tell the story of who he is through less-than-morally ambiguous characters; through pure evil sometimes.”

The stories that Jesus tells are very strange

He has a point. Take Samson, a very troubling biblical figure. He is in elevated company, along with characters including Samuel and Isaac, being born of a woman unable to have children. He is blessed with colossal strength and is the destroyer of Philistine armies, using comically small and inappropriate weapons. You could say that he’s an ancient Jack Reacher.

Samson wields his power in questionable ways, is rash and often foolish. Yet he is mentioned as a hero of faith in Hebrews 11. His is name listed alongside King David, the philandering murderer called a “man after [God’s] own heart” (Acts 13:22) and cited as Israel’s greatest king, despite his rap sheet disqualifying him from any kind of Christian leadership today. Moses murdered an Egyptian. Noah got drunk and naked. Peter denied Jesus three times. And these are the good guys.

Wrestling with the truth

Jesus’s personal example is much more consistent. No-one is calling him a hypocrite, liar or drunkard, but the stories he tells are very strange. Luke 16 contains a parable that we often say is about a “shrewd manager”. But it would be more accurate to call him dishonest, as he cuts deals with his master’s creditors for his own sake. Jesus praises that behaviour. What? If you don’t like morally ambiguous stories or characters, feel free to give Jesus notes when you see him face-to-face.

The point is that we’re grappling with that parable 2,000 years later. I think we are meant to wrestle with these stories, as Jacob wrestled with an angel (Genesis 32:22-31). Few things in scripture are stranger than that story. Jacob deserved a punch on the nose for being a trickster and a cheat. And yet he’s not treated as his sins deserve.

That bothers us. But we should be glad he is not, since we’re all tricksters and cheats. We’ve all emulated the sins of the heroes of our faith, and we all deserve a date with Reacher. Fortunately, God brings about happy endings even for those who don’t deserve them.

If that isn’t morally ambiguous, I don’t know what is.