By Terence Chandra
Over the years, the character of the Joker has undergone a number of varied iterations, from the campy antagonist of the 1960s Batman television series to the cruel, calculating and utterly nihilistic sociopath of Alan Moore’s 1988 graphic novel, The Killing Joke. In the new film Joker, however, we see a different face of the Clown Prince of Crime. No longer is he that nightmarish imp, leering grotesquely at the world from some hellish vantage point, far beyond the fringes of both society and sanity. No, this particular Joker (brought to us by director Todd Phillips and actor Joaquin Phoenix) is an uncomfortably familiar character who, while inspiring a sense of horror, also invokes our sympathies.
When we first meet the Joker, we’re introduced to him as Arthur Fleck — a frustrated party clown who lives with his ailing mom, trying to survive in a world that, much like our own, can be both soul-crushingly drab and pitilessly hostile. To make matters worse, Arthur struggles with some form of mental illness — one whose physical symptoms include an involuntary laugh reflexively triggered by anxiety or fear. (He even carries around a small, laminated card, explaining the phenomenon to anyone perplexed by his behavior).
Despite these eccentricities, Arthur does not come across as a stranger to us. Indeed, there’s something very familiar about him. He’s the guy we all know from our first job: the one who ate lunch alone and whose few interactions with his coworkers felt strained and awkward. He’s the kid from high school who, when not being utterly ignored, was whispered about or sarcastically mocked. We feel the sting of his rejections as if they were our own. And, as the movie progresses, we may even share in his loneliness and slowly mounting rage.
But Arthur isn’t the only recognizable character in this film. Indeed, the world Arthur inhabits is a hauntingly familiar one. The Gotham City of this particular movie is in no way cartoonish — an exaggerated metropolis marked by impossibly proportioned skyscrapers and long, dark, crime-ridden alleyways. Rather, it is like any late 20th-century or early 21st-century urban setting — vast, impersonal, drab, mundane and terribly alienating. There’s even a city-wide garbage strike as the story unfolds. This is the world we all inhabit — a world where unwanted objects and, sadly, unwanted people pile up in mounting numbers. It is a world that is exceptionally good at churning out people much like Arthur— grinding away at their dead-end jobs (assuming they’re lucky enough to have one), trying but failing repeatedly to find love, and, in short, living out their lives of quiet desperation.
Some have referred to this phenomenon as “the loneliness epidemic” — the increasingly common experience of living one’s life devoid of rich, nurturing social relationships. One can see this Joker as an anti-hero of our age. He is the distillation of all of that loneliness, depression and anger — the incarnation of the pervasive social isolation that has come to be a marker of the times.
From a Christian perspective, one can see this so-called “loneliness epidemic” as part and parcel of the fall. After all, sin is a corrosive force — eating away at the God-willed interconnectedness of all things — alienating one element of creation from another. It alienates humanity from God; human beings from one another; and individual people from their very selves, fracturing their psyches into disparate, warring parts.
As a film, The Joker is exceptionally good at portraying this sin-ravaged world — a bleak, decadent civilization where the bonds of mutual care have come entirely undone. No one is his brother’s keeper and there are no good Samaritans are to be found. (Arthur even complains at one point that if he were to die, they would simply step over his body in the street). The only thing more fragmented than the social fabric of Gotham City is Arthur’s own steadily unravelling mind.
But, if the overall thrust of sin is to tear apart and alienate, then the overall thrust of salvation is to reconcile and mend. One can see this theme throughout the New Testament: In Christ, God reconciles all of humanity to himself. He reconciles us with one another — Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, men and women — knitting us together in one assembly, living under the gracious Lordship of the one Messiah. All of this, according to the Apostle Paul, is the beautiful outworking of God’s glorious master plan — a “plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10) so that “every knee should bend and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:10-11).
There do not appear to be any churches in the Gotham City of The Joker. There are no Christians of any kind, whether fundamentalist street preachers, calling hellfire down on the citizens of the city, or social gospel do-gooders, giving food and drink to the poor and needy. However, if Christians were present in this bleak, urban wasteland — haunted, as it is, by hungry ghosts like Arthur Fleck — then their calling would be this: both to proclaim and to live out the summing-up of all things in Christ. Their calling would be to identify the discarded ones, the lost ones, the forgotten ones, and invite them to sit at their table, sharing in the life-giving bonds of fellowship and love. In short, their mission would be to bear witness to the coming Kingdom of God — a Kingdom where no one merely falls through the cracks but everyone is invited into full fellowship with God and their fellow human beings.
If we — the Christians of the real world — do not do this, then we will be just as culpable as the broader society in neglecting people like Arthur Fleck. The vast majority of such people will not turn violent. They will, however, laugh scornfully and contemptuously at the twisted joke that is society’s hypocrisy — a living reminder of our inability to treat one another humanely.
The Rev. Terence Chandra is an Anglican priest who, together with his wife, founded Central Saint John Community Ministries (CSJCM)— a ministry active in the urban core of Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. Going by the title “Community Priests,” they work outside the walls of the church, serving those on the margins of society. You may follow their ministry at penniesandsparrows.org