"Some men just want to watch the world burn."
So Alfred told Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight—a phrase that came to mind a time or two this weekend as I watched smoke billow from the foothills behind my house.
I live in Colorado Springs and, this weekend, a fire broke out a few miles west of town. It started in Waldo Canyon, a nearby trail that I've hiked probably a dozen times. It has torched somewhere near 4,000 acres now, forcing the evacuation of several small towns and neighborhoods around here—including, for a short while, mine.
Most everyone around here is warily watching the smoke and the flames, checking wind patterns and fretting about the desert-dry conditions. But now and then—on the news or on Facebook or in just quiet conversations with each other—you hear people begin to wonder what might've started the blaze. Thunderstorms have been pretty sparse here as of late. Waldo's more of a day-hike trail, so not a lot of people would probably start a campfire. Could someone have set it on purpose?
Just a couple of weeks ago, an arsonist, or arsonists, tried to start 20 fires in nearby Teller County (all of which were extinguished before too much harm was done). The day after the Waldo Canyon Fire began west of Colorado Springs, another small fire started out east of town. It's now about 80 percent contained, I gather, while the bigger fire rages on.
I doubt we'll know for a while how the Waldo Canyon Fire started. But I think most of us affected suspect it could be arson—one of the most senseless acts of destruction I can imagine. Even the most heinous crimes we can think of have some sort of motive: Passion or rage or revenge. But arson, most often, seems to have one: Some people just want to watch the world burn.
People, when they watch The Dark Knight, might wonder whether anyone could be as truly evil and awful as the Joker seems to be—a guy who kills and destroys and obliterates just for the fun of it. Frankly, even I have a time wrapping my head around the concept: In my book, God on the Streets of Gotham, I dedicate a chapter to Batman's bad guys, and I could see a bit of myself—a bit of humanity twisted and twined out of position—in almost every one of them: Catwoman's pragmatic amorality, R'as al Ghul's misguided zealotry, Two-Face's despair. But the Joker … he's a tough guy for me to understand, just as he was for Batman.
“ I like dynamite and gunpowder and gasoline,” Joker says in The Dark Knight. “Do you know what all these things have in common? They're cheap.” Fire is cheap. Destruction is cheap. It’s piecing things back together that’s expensive.
But that’s what heroes do. Batman does it, and it’s what loads of people are doing around here, too. I’m hearing how charity organizations have been overwhelmed with food and donations. Complete strangers offer to house the displaced for a night or two. Firefighters work hours upon hours in horrific conditions, to beat back the flames—sometimes risking their lives.
In The Dark Knight, Batman tells Joker that people are better than he imagines. And while that’s not a purely biblical take—Christians believe that folks are prone to fail more often than not—sometimes we can prove folks like Batman right. We can be better than the world around us. We can mirror the grace of Jesus.
It’s true, unfortunately, that some people do want to watch the world burn. But that’s not the whole story. It never is. There are people out there whose job it is to put out the flames—and people who rebuild once the damage is done. Those folks are true heroes, no matter what Joker might say.