Is extreme violence or the threat of extreme violence actually a good way to control people? This isn’t exactly a new question – and if you look at recent history, it certainly isn’t a resolved question. Since the beginning of civilization, this has actually been a key leadership question. Does brutality work as an effective way to control the masses?
In the 1970’s, there was some interesting research done after a very public hostage crisis in Sweden where some bank robbers held hostages for six days. The fascinating part of this particular scenario was the fact that after six days, the hostages started to identify with and become emotionally attached to their captors. In some cases, they even tried to defend their captors. This was later called Stockholm Syndrome and has been noticed in many similar situations since. The subsequent research shows that many humans under threat of violence seem to react sympathetically to those who threaten them.
When you think about it, this isn’t too hard to believe. We see it on the news with prisoners of war, cult victims, and even domestic abuse victims. We see it in our history texts when leaders start to round up victims and load them into concentration camps. Victims have often turned on each other in order to try to serve their own captors. Even in our schools, we see this happen when bullies are allowed to terrorize students for long periods of time.
While I don’t think that the Walking Dead is trying to answer this question, it certainly dealt with these issues on tonight’s episode. For six months, America has been talking about who Negan was going to kill (we even had a contest here at The Gospel According to the Walking Dead to guess the cliffhanger, and many of you, myself included, guessed it right. SEE MORE ABOUT THE CONTEST WINNERS AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS POST). But a part of the discussion that was certainly missing was the motivation behind Negan’s actions. Sure, our group had killed a lot of Negan’s group and revenge was a huge part of it. But, after watching the episode tonight, I was convinced that Negan’s real motive for his extreme brutality was control. He needed to break down this group and get them to serve his interests, and he had a very brutal method for doing this.
The question is, will Negan’s method work? We won’t know until later on in the season. Maggie sure doesn’t seem like she is going to be a very loyal citizen of Negan’s group…ever! But Rick, on the other hand, seems like he is breaking. He was literally tortured for the whole episode in some of the most horrible ways imaginable, perhaps the worst being the scene when he was told to cut off his son Carl’s hand. All of the members of the team who survived Lucille, had guns pointed to their heads, and were told that unless Rick cut off Carl’s hand, they would all be killed right in front of Rick.
The scene was brutal.
Negan: Rick, pick up the axe. Not making a decision is a biiiigg decision. You really want to see all of these people die? You will. You will see every ugly thing.
(he pauses for a second)
Oh my… are you going to make me count? (another pause) Ok Rick, you win, I am counting. Three!
Rick: Please. Please. It can be me. Please!
Rick: Please don’t do..
Negan: This is it…
Rick: (weeping uncontrollably) Ahh!
Carl: Dad, just do it. Just do it.
Rick picks up the Axe to chop his son’s hand off, but Negan stops him and takes the axe away.
Negan: Rick. You answer to me. You provide for me. You belong to me.
Rick: (crying) Aaah!
Negan: Speak when you are spoken to! You answer to me. You provide for me.
Rick: Provide for you.
Negan: You belong to me, right?!
Negan: Right. That is the look I wanted to see.
Negan found what buttons to push on Rick, and for the first time on the show, we really see him break down in a way that we have never seen before. It may even be possible that Rick is having a deep psychological breakdown. Negan tested Rick in the worst way (by asking him to mutilate his own son), and if Negan hadn’t stopped him, I believe he would have done it. Rick seemed to pass his test… for now.
While watching the scene, many of you might have been reminded of a certain story in the Old Testament that seemed similar in several ways. The story is found in Genesis 22 where we find Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son Isaac. Don’t worry, I’m not trying to say God is like Negan. In fact, when you peek at this story, you’re going to notice a stark contrast between God and Negan, even though they both asked for a similar sacrifice… especially when we read the rest of the story and discover who really sacrificed his son (more on that in a minute).
At the beginning of the story, it says that this is a “test” that God is giving to Abraham, and he seems to just obey without too many questions. Like many, I find the story very difficult to read, especially since having children of my own. Many skeptics of Judaism and Christianity have also pointed out that this is a fairly brutal story that says something very disturbing about God. The lingering question? What kind of God would ask someone to do something like this? Is God just another brutal leader trying to control His subordinates? The TWD show certainly seems aware of the connections to the Bible story and may be using it to illustrate Negan’s god complex.
Let’s take a minute to look at the story in Genesis 22.
Some time later, God tested Abraham’s faith. “Abraham!” God called. “Yes,” he replied. “Here I am.” 2 “Take your son, your only son—yes, Isaac, whom you love so much—and go to the land of Moriah. Go and sacrifice him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains, which I will show you.” 3 The next morning Abraham got up early. He saddled his donkey and took two of his servants with him, along with his son, Isaac. Then he chopped wood for a fire for a burnt offering and set out for the place God had told him about. 4 On the third day of their journey, Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5 “Stay here with the donkey,” Abraham told the servants. “The boy and I will travel a little farther. We will worship there, and then we will come right back.” 6 So Abraham placed the wood for the burnt offering on Isaac’s shoulders, while he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them walked on together, 7 Isaac turned to Abraham and said, “Father?” “Yes, my son?” Abraham replied. “We have the fire and the wood,” the boy said, “but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” 8 “God will provide a sheep for the burnt offering, my son,” Abraham answered. And they both walked on together. 9 When they arrived at the place where God had told him to go, Abraham built an altar and arranged the wood on it. Then he tied his son, Isaac, and laid him on the altar on top of the wood. 10 And Abraham picked up the knife to kill his son as a sacrifice. 11 At that moment the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Yes,” Abraham replied. “Here I am!” 12 “Don’t lay a hand on the boy!” the angel said. “Do not hurt him in any way, for now I know that you truly fear God. You have not withheld from me even your son, your only son.” 13 Then Abraham looked up and saw a ram caught by its horns in a thicket. So he took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering in place of his son. 14 Abraham named the place Yahweh-Yireh (which means “the Lord will provide”). To this day, people still use that name as a proverb: “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.” –Genesis 22:1-14 (NLT)
Before we look at what this story means about God, let’s take some time to look at the context. Before this story, Abraham is promised by God that his son Isaac will be part of a legacy of descendants that will be more numerous than the stars in the sky or the sand on a beach. Abraham also had to wait twenty five years after God told him this promise before his wife Sarah would even give birth to Isaac. According to the text, Sarah was over 90 when she had Isaac, so any way you look at it, this baby was a miracle baby! Abraham had a lot of dreams surrounding this baby, and so God’s request is quite remarkable. Most of us would have wondered, “which is it? Is Isaac going to be the father of a great nation or is he going to die on this mountain?”
But Abraham seemed to have a different perspective. According Hebrews 11:17-19, the Bible gives us a little glimpse into what Abraham was thinking. It says,
“It was by faith that Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice when God was testing him. Abraham, who had received God’s promises, was ready to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, even though God had told him, “Isaac is the son through whom your descendants will be counted.” Abraham reasoned that if Isaac died, God was able to bring him back to life again. And in a sense, Abraham did receive his son back from the dead.” (NLT)
It says that it was faith that motivated Abraham. In contrast to Rick who trembled in fear of losing his friends and hurting his son, Abraham responds in faith to a similar request but for a much different reason. Abraham knew his God was good and was worthy of being followed. He believed that God knew what He was doing, and even if his son had been killed that God would be faithful to His promise, and possibly even bring the boy back from the dead. People’s “loyalty” to Negan is motivated from an entirely different place – fear. Negan is nothing more than a cruel and brutal overlord who does not deserve to be followed, but rather uses his force to get the outcome he wants – control and power through threat and murder.
One of the promises that God made to Abraham back in Genesis 12:3 was that “All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” (NLT) Paul, in Galatians chapter 3, argues that Jesus, a descendant of Abraham and Isaac, is the fulfillment of that promise. It was through Jesus’ death and resurrection that the whole world would be eventually saved. Clearly, Isaac needed to live in order to father children that would ultimately form the line leading to the birth of Jesus, the savior of the world.
So God stops Abraham from sacrificing his son, even though he was clearly willing to go through with it. He had faith that God could still keep His promises, even if that meant that God would have to raise Abraham’s son from the dead. Abraham’s faith was driven by the knowledge of the true and perfect God who was infinitely loving. Unlike Negan, God is a good leader.
So what does this story really tell us about God? God would indeed sacrifice His own son Jesus many years later, even though Abraham didn’t have to. What the story tells us about God, is the fact that God wasn’t asking Abraham to do anything that He wasn’t willing to do Himself. God ended up providing (notice the multiple uses of the word provide on tonight’s TWD) the suitable sacrifice for Abraham. Then many years later, He would provide the only sacrifice that could save us all, His son Jesus. The story in Genesis 22 is about God’s grace, provision and ultimate demonstration that He would do even more than he asked of Abraham. The story is not about a brutal God, but a merciful God who is worthy of the faith that Abraham gave Him.
SEASON 7, EPISODE 1 DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:
1) Why do you think that Negan chose Abraham first?
2) Why do you think that he chose Glenn?
3) Negan has clearly done this kind of brutal killing before, probably even to groups containing the armed people who were standing right behind him. What do you think his men were thinking as they watched Negan do this to another group?
4) How do you think that this method of trying to control people is going to work out ultimately for Negan?
5) Rick was asked by Negan to cut off his own son’s hand, or he would kill everybody. Why do you think he did this?
6) How do you think Rick’s group is ultimately going to respond to this incident?
7) Why do you think God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac?
8) What does it make you feel about God when you read this story?
9) In the Bible, who really ended up sacrificing his son? How does that make you feel about God, when you read “the rest of the story”?
10) Do you feel like God asks you to do difficult things? If so, what are they?
11) Do you feel like God asks you to do things that He wouldn’t be willing to do himself? Explain.
12) Hebrews 11 says that Abraham obeyed because of his faith. In what ways do you exercise faith in your life?
13) Do the decisions that you are making right now reflect how much faith you have? If so, what are they?
Thom McKee Jr. is a husband, father, pastor… and film geek (and brother of Jonathan McKee). Thom lives in Northern California with his wife and two kids.
CONTEST RESULTS: For those who look back at all the comments on the “Who is it” Contest post, you’ll see that we owe a big congratulations to Tracie Smith, who not only was the first person to guess over all, but the first Abraham guess! You win the grand prize. And congrats to David Logan for taking second place! Excellent. And to the rest of you who guessed Abraham as your one guess- each and every one of you won a copy of The Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide for Teenagers. I’ll contact each one of you this week to get your mailing addresses and mail you those prizes! Thanks for participating!