Some spoilers for the HBO series Watchmen are discussed throughout this article.
Fictional or sensationalist? I thought the Watchmen HBO series had to be falling into one or the other as I watched its introduction set in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I watched a Black couple and their child escaping the streets of Black Wall Street as white men not only burned down and stole from stores and houses, but also gunned down Black men and women who owned them. After the disturbing sequence concluded, I took to Google and was shocked I had never heard of nor been taught about the Tulsa race massacre. Historians estimate that a few hundred Black people were killed and several thousand were left homeless. Reclamation of their property or any financial compensation for damages never really came through either, and most who died were put into unmarked graves. Tulsa is the site of another furtively hushed atrocity on the bloodied landscape of American history.
The history lesson was extremely timely. Watchmen has been doubly so, given that the Tulsa Massacre is integrated as a narrative touching point for addressing concerns over racial injustice and systemic racism that are tangled in American culture and institutions of law. Whereas the graphic novel poses the philosophical problem of pursuing justice as fallen human beings, the HBO series grounds its audience in the horrors of injustice as seen through the lens of Black America. Watchmen shows why serious reflection matters and how victims and seemingly outside observers of injustice should respond to it.William acted out of desperation with good intentions, but the moral and psychological blows of his growing and increasingly violent obsession with vigilantism had their impact.
Watchmen mainly follows Angela Aba: a Black woman who combines her roles as a police detective and state-sanctioned costumed vigilante. Her life turns upside down when her century-old grandfather, William Reeves, turns up decades after his disappearance and kills her police chief, who harbored his grandfather’s KKK outfit as a “keepsake.” William also kickstarts a series of revelations about her ancestry being tied to her own life trajectory. Like Angela, William joined the police force in his prime to succeed where the law failed at the Tulsa Massacre; he was the very child in the show’s introduction.
“They gave you a gun and a stick,” his wife June told him after he was inducted into the force. “That’s what I’m worried about—what you’re gonna do with ‘em. Because you are an angry, angry man, William Reeves.” But it wasn’t him doing anything that she needed to worry about. After arresting a white man who committed a hate crime, two sympathetic officers warned him to turn a blind eye for his own safety, but William persisted and was threatened by a white supremacist group within the police force. On the way home from being physically abused, William stumbles upon a couple being robbed and intervenes after putting on the hood the white supremacists had blinded him with. The first costumed hero was born in the Watchmen universe.
“You ain’t gonna get justice with a badge, Will Reeves,” June says. “You gonna get it with that hood.” At her encouragement, William becomes Hooded Justice to hunt down and uncover the white supremacist group. However, when he teams up with a group of heroes inspired by his example, their leader downplays and disbelieves the impetus of his mission. He seems to deeply respect William, yet his actions reveal his admiration to be shallow. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to solve Black unrest all on your own,” he tells William, implying not only that the injustices toward Black people are not a priority to address but also self-perpetuated. William takes his colleague’s advice and kills the white supremacists who caused him so much pain.
William acted out of desperation with good intentions, but the moral and psychological blows of his growing and increasingly violent obsession with vigilantism had their impact. “You need to hide under the hood ‘cause you can’t stand to see what you’ve become,” June shouts through her tears. “You never should’ve done this. I thought it would help you get rid of this thing you have, but it didn’t get rid of it. It just fed.” William lost his wife and son the night he caved to killing—the culmination of his obsession to end injustice. He continued in this crusade from the shadows for decades afterward, making more harmful compromises in his stubborn yet understandable crusade that eventually hurt Angela. “I betrayed her,” he says. “She’ll know what I’ve done, and she’ll hate me for it.”It is God’s right to execute justice, and it is His followers’ right to peacefully advocate that justice to their rulers based on the Bible’s founding assertion that all are equal in worth and dignity.
There’s only so much suffering that humans can take when no one supports or hears them in their cries. William felt forced to take matters into his own hands by becoming part of the law, then fighting outside of it, and then rebuking it. Angela deals with the same systemic racism in the present—albeit in a more sinister, subtle form—that William suffered in the past. She becomes a costumed hero for similar reasons as her grandfather, thereby inheriting and willingly bearing the same torch of trauma in the name of justice. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. warned of this very thing in a sermon:
“If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.”
Whether it’s the Israelite judges or Jesus’ disciples (Luke 9:54-55), the Bible shows how humans often redefine justice to suit their own ends, and attempting to do so indicates a lack of trust in His timing and means for justice. Believers must be patient (Ecclesiastes 3:16-17) yet passionate (Isaiah 1:17) about justice. It is God’s right to execute justice (Psalm 140:12), and it is His followers’ right to peacefully advocate that justice to their rulers based on the Bible’s founding assertion that all are equal in worth and dignity (Romans 2:11).
But what of the sensibility in fighting injustice like William or Angela? C. S. Lewis addresses this complicated reality in his study of the Imprecatory Psalms, which serves as a twofold lesson to not only the victims of oppression, but also to those outside of it:
“If [the Psalmists] had perceived, and felt as a man should feel, the diabolical wickedness which they believed our rulers to be committing, and then forgiven them, they would have been saints. But not to perceive it at all—not even to be tempted to resentment…argues a terrifying insensibility. […] Thus the absence of anger, especially that sort of anger which we call indignation, can…be a most alarming symptom. […] Even when that indignation passes into bitter personal vindictiveness, it may still be a good symptom, though bad in itself. […] For if we look at their railings we find they are usually angry not simply because these things have been done to them but because these things are manifestly wrong, are hateful to God as well as to the victim” (Reflections on the Psalms, 34-35).Believers [should] contribute to the conversations of what God’s justice is and how it can and should inform any culture or system of law. Injustice toward the oppressed is injustice against God, and if believers love God, this response should be second nature.
It is the ultimate injustice that the oppressed should feel pressed to sin in order to save themselves. There’s an amount of personal culpability involved when God’s followers see or hear of injustice and stick our heads in the sand to avoid the personal sacrifices of time, resources, or even reputation involved in taking up causes that call it out. As Lewis points out, discernment is required to make sure that evil is not used to gain justice for the oppressed. All the more reason for believers to contribute to the conversations of what God’s justice is and how it can and should inform any culture or system of law. Injustice toward the oppressed is injustice against God, and if believers love God, this response should be second nature.
Angela has a heart-to-heart with William at the end of Watchmen where he apologizes for the things he’s done. She tells him that she understands how it came from anger. “That’s what I thought too, but it wasn’t,” he corrects her. “It was fear, and hurt. You can’t heal under a mask, Angela. Wounds need air.”
In the aforementioned sermon, Dr. King also said, “In your struggle for justice, let your oppressor know that you are not attempting to defeat or humiliate him, or even to pay him back for injustices that he has heaped upon you. Let him know that you are merely seeking justice for him as well as yourself. Let him know that the festering sore of segregation debilitates the white man as well as the negro. With this attitude, you will be able to keep your struggle on high Christian standards.”
God will see to justice for Black Americans and all of history’s oppressed groups in time. Until then, Christians should be first in line to cultivate God’s principles for the oppressed and patiently endure alongside them because “In just a little while, the wicked will be no more; though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there. But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace” (Psalm 37:10-11).