Empire of the Watchmen

[on two types of “rewards” – goals or consequences of one’s actions? – and the implications for human interactions]

“If there is no God, everything is permitted…”

This is basically the challenging idea of Ivan Karamazov, one of the main characters in The Brothers Karamazov, the famous novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881). Could this be true in any way?

At the beginning of a new year, I always ask my students the following questions:

Suppose there is no principal’s office, suppose you could never be punished for any of your actions – would you still respect your fellow students and your teacher?

Suppose there are no grades to win, and you didn’t receive any reward for studying your courses and reading your books – would you still listen to your teachers and study?

What would you do if you are not watched, if you live outside “the empire of the watchmen”?

Consider Matthew 6:1-2 & 6:5: Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. […] So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. […] And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.

To put things slightly differently:

Suppose there is no hell, no punishment in any way, would you still respect your fellow man?

Suppose there is no heaven, no reward in any way, would you still respect your fellow man?

Actually, this is the kind of challenge Christianity puts us to. Christ teaches us that there isn’t something like a heaven as an established “world” for which we should bring all kinds of sacrifices in order to obtain it. As if heaven would be the ultimate goal and justification of our existence. That’s exactly like the reasoning of a student who is prepared to work hard at his courses and to obey his teachers, not because he’s intrinsically interested in his courses or respectful of his teachers, but because he considers getting good grades as his ticket to success, power and happiness – “paradise”.

Christ subverts this sacrificial logic. Rather than being an ultimate goal that justifies, explains and gives meaning to our life, “heaven” is the potential consequence of our actions. By taking up responsibility for ourselves and one another, by loving our neighbor (which is “the righteousness of God’s Kingdom”), we co-create “heaven”. To use the student-analogy again: the student who learns to be genuinely interested in his courses will get good grades as a logical consequence of his love for studying. And he will have learned something!

Consider Matthew 6:25-34: Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

On the other hand, those students who are focused only on getting good grades and who fear failure will tend to forget what they have learned from the moment they have their grades and no longer “need” the information from their courses. Or they will stop being friendly to their former teachers once they have graduated.

In short, Christ doesn’t want us to respect our neighbor because we fear hellish punishment or long for some heavenly reward. He wants us to respect our neighbor because of our neighbor. He liberates us from a system of fear and anxiety based on punishments and rewards, creates the possibility of responsibility (because only a free man can be responsible) and genuine love – without ulterior motives -, and transforms the nature of sacrifice. In Christ’s view, sacrifice is not a gift to receive something from someone you need, nor is it a necessary obligation to protect some kind of “honor gone mad” (see the tragedy of Japanese kamikaze pilots during the Second World War),  but it is a gift from people who are thankful for what they already received by living up to the possibilities of their freedom.

Consider Matthew 5:23-24: So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Of course, there’s a dark side as well to this liberation. Let’s go to the classroom once more. If a teacher tells his students that he will not punish them or, on the other hand, reward them with good grades, there are two possibilities: there will either be an atmosphere of cooperation guided by a genuine motivation to study, or… total mayhem – “hell”!

In Battling to the End, a book in which René Girard reconsiders the treatise On War by Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), the apocalyptic dimensions of Christ’s teachings are related to Christ’s deconstruction of “the god(s) of sacrifice” and of sacrificial systems in general. Girard makes clear that the biblical revelation indeed has two possible outcomes: either a world of ever more rivalry and violence, or a world of ever more Love.

Reading Battling to the End a while ago, I couldn’t stop thinking about two stories in the shadow of a potential apocalypse: Empire of the Sun and Watchmen. In both these stories further mayhem and violence is avoided – at least for the time being – by the restoration of a sacrificial system of fear. Empire of the Sun reminds us how the Second World War came to an end in Japan: by sacrificing tens of thousands of innocent people, victims of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Watchmen also displays this kind of sacrificial logic. In the fictional story of this graphic novel, the tensions between the US and the USSR during the Cold War are released after an alleged nuclear attack from outer space. Once again the death of millions of civilians provides a “peaceful world”, some sort of “paradise” – however precarious.

In Empire of the Sun, the way the Second World War unfolds in the Far East creates the setting for a boy’s coming of age story. Empire of the Sun actually is an autobiographical novel by J.G. Ballard, and tells the story of an aristocratic British boy, James (“Jim”) Graham. In 1987, Steven Spielberg made a film based on Ballard’s novel, with a young and astonishing Christian Bale taking the lead role. In the film, Jim’s privileged life is upturned by the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, December 8, 1941. Separated from his parents, he is eventually captured, and taken to Soo Chow confinement camp, next to a former Chinese airfield. Amidst the sickness and food shortages in the camp, Jim manages to survive and becomes a token of spirit and dignity to those around him, all the while hoping to get back “home” again. Jim eventually finds comfort in the arms of his mother, after losing his Japanese kamikaze-friend among many others… The scene of Jim reunited with his mother sheds a little light of hope in a world which seems condemned to the sacrificial peace of the atomic bomb – and a seemingly never ending story of fear and worries, with no peace of mind…

I made a compilation using scenes from both Empire of the Sun and Zack Snyder’s 2009 movie adaptation of the graphic novel Watchmen. The two stories raise powerful questions regarding humanity’s possibility to cope with freedom and responsibility. I think they’re opening up a lot of issues that are also discussed at the COV&R Conference in Tokyo, Japan (July 5-8, 2012). As Jim learns towards the end of the film: there are no clear-cut, magical solutions to overcome the devastations of a world at war… But to follow Christ’s footsteps, one step at a time, might take us to unexpected and new dimensions. Watch out!


(this essay already appeared at The Raven Foundation and the Dutch Girard Society)




  1. Adam Ericksen · July 9, 2012

    Really appreciate your thoughts on freedom and responsibility, Erik. Your ability to relate Watchmen, Empire of the Sun, and Battling to the End astounds me. Excellent work!


    • erik buys · July 10, 2012

      Thanks Adam! Keep up the inspiring work at the Raven Foundation!


  2. skylar · July 15, 2012

    I was just thinking of this verse:

    5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

    Psychopaths do good deeds. In public. They wallow in the admiration of others. It isn’t just because they crave glory and honor, it’s because they need a mask and the best mask is 180 degrees of the truth of who they really are.

    I don’t know if you followed the Penn State University scandal.
    It is now public knowledge that Joe Paterno and his minions did everything they could to protect the pedophile instead of the child victims.

    So many of Paterno’s admirer’s want people to remember all the good he did at Penn State, all the football games he won. But it’s coming to light that those were self-serving, hypocritical, good deeds done in public. In reality all that Paterno cared about was winning and being a big fish in a small pond. Just like in reality, all that Sandusky was after when he set up the Second Mile Charity for disadvantaged children, was an endless supply of rape victims. This is the 180 rule and all psychopaths follow it. It’s the perfect mask: evil in the last place you’d look for it.

    You’ve brought up a key point, doing the right thing when you’re being watched is nothing. Even psychopaths do that.


    • erik buys · July 17, 2012

      Well I’ve heard about Joe Paterno, but I don’t know too much about the details concerning his case.

      If I may ask, Skylar, where does your interest in studying psychopaths come from?


      • skylar · July 25, 2012

        Hi Erik,
        I waited to respond because I wanted to finish a blog article that explains more clearly… but, I’ve had writer’s block, big time.

        The answer to your question is: I lived with a psychopath for 25 years, unknowingly. Not your garden variety psychopath, but one that murders and rapes and nobody knows. Everyone who knows him is in awe of his abilities. We all know he is “special”. Imagine my surprise to learn that these qualities came from being psychopathic. He doesn’t even have a startle response. It’s like he’s already dead.

        When I learned what he was, I had to learn more. René Girard’s book, “Violence and the Sacred”, is the most instructive on the subject. I wonder if René knows this. I think he does, but he doesn’t discuss it because the subject is “uncomfortable”.

        In Girard’s “A Theater of Envy” he begins by saying that if he had used the word “envy” from the beginning, he would have been shunned by the literary community. True. So he used “mimetic desire” and the philosophers flocked to his books. It’s a sanitized version of “envy”.

        Now that he has made his reputation, he has used the word in his title: “A theater of ENVY”. The man is a genius. Beyond anyone I’ve ever read.

        I stumbled on his work as I realized that the psychopath wanted me dead because he hated his mother. All psychopaths do. But nobody else, except Girard, talks about substitute victims. Everything Girard describes is about psychopaths.

        It’s very difficult for a person who hasn’t experienced the unveiled shame of the psychopath to understand. They are a throwback to a primitive brain and they are the key to understanding human evil.

        Anyway, I got past my writer’s block long enough to describe some of this.

        You might need to know more about the reaction to Joe Paterno to understand the article. There are lots of news articles on it, you can Google it. It’s what Girard calls: Scandalous, that thing that keeps you tripping on it over and over.


      • erik buys · July 25, 2012

        I don’t think that “everything Girard describes is about psychopaths”, but I certainly agree with you that psychopaths are an important – if not “the” – key to understanding human evil. Especially the third part of Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World is enlightening concerning this topic. Girard develops “interdividual psychology” there, together with Oughourlian and Defort. You’ve read it, probably. Anyways, it’s highly recommended.

        Your personal story is quite scary, Skylar. I hope you’ve managed to move away from the psychopath(s) defining your life one way or the other. Take care!


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