Inglourious Basterds, Esther, and the Silence of God

One might argue that conflict and suffering is the thing that most binds us all together. Heartache is our great shared experience. Tragedy is our common tale. We all sing, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,” and the irony is, we all sing it. In distress, we cry out in anguish, and we hear the cries of everyone else, and, indeed, all of creation, crying in mournful minor key harmony with us.

Turmoil draws us out of our own selfish worlds and awakens us to what is beyond ourselves. We cry out to God. We beg aid, because faced with worlds outside our own, we need someone outside ourselves to order things. We need someone bigger than and beyond the brokenness to set things right. Affronted with a bent world, we appeal to one unbent outside the broken to enter in and straighten all things.

Why is it then in those moments of deep desperation that God so often appears absent? Why, when we most want answers, is God silent?

Faced with God’s apparent absence, our other problems dissipate. The question, “Why is this happening to me?” pales before, “Where are you, God?” If God is absent or ambivalent or non-existent, what hope do we have? If all that exists is this mess, that fact is much more troubling than the mess.

Faced with the absence of God, how is one to react?

The psalmists wait. “Wait for YHWH,” Psalm 27:14 reads. “Be still before YHWH, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices,” writes the psalmist in 37:7. Psalm 131 reads, “O YHWH, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me. Oh, Israel, hope in YHWH from this time forth and forevermore.”

However, there is another option presented in the Old Testament for how to respond to evil besides waiting on God – one can fight back.

If God will not act and wipe away the injustice in the world, perhaps we should. If God will not raise a hand against evil, we can. In the absence of God’s justice, we can enact our own, or at least this is one possible answer, and it’s an answer contemplated by many in our world and, arguably, by the book of Esther.

In Esther, God is silent. The Jewish people have been displaced. Their homeland has been overrun. They are aliens and outcasts in a hostile land. Hadassah is forced to hide her identity to survive. She calls herself Esther, gains the grace of the most powerful man in the land, and is made a queen.

Soon however, her secret people are in grave danger, but using her wiles, she saves them. Faced with genocide, Hadassah turns the tables on her people’s enemies, and the Jews slaughter seventy-five thousand people in a single day, a day that was supposed to be a day of triumph for their enemies, and bring an end to their oppression. Through all of this, God is silent. YHWH’s name is never even mentioned.

With his own characteristic cinematic flourish, Quentin Tarantino gave audiences a modern version of the same tale in his 2009 film Inglourious Basterds. The film is a re-imagining of the end of World War II. It is two and half hours of Jews brutally killing Nazis.

Even Hitler himself isn’t immune to Tarantino’s fictitious circumcised vengeance. In the film’s main plot line, a young Jewish woman hides her identity, ingratiates herself with the Nazi glitterati, and uses her power to annihilate her people’s enemies during what is supposed to be a celebration of Nazi prominence. This ends World War II. Inglourious Basterds is more than WWII remixed; it is Esther retold as only Tarantino can tell it.

Inglourious Basterds isn’t so much “about” World War II. It’s more about the problem of evil in a world seemingly devoid of God. The Holocaust was an atrocity unlike any other, and God let it happen. Where was YHWH in the midst of that? Was God absent? For many Jews, I would imagine the answer is, “Yes. God was absent.”

And if God was absent, if God refused to save them, perhaps they could save themselves. Perhaps they could enact their own justice and destroy their enemies. They weren’t able to do that then during the Holocaust, but Quentin Tarantino has given them their justice in his film much like the book of Esther gives narrative victory to the displaced and trod upon Jewish people in a land and time when God seems silent.

Essential to this reading of Esther (and to our understanding of Inglourious Basterds) is the that we take the story as a fictitious narrative and not a true story. As a true story, there is little excuse for the slaughter of seventy-five thousand people at the end of the book. Mass murder is never “right” in the era world. But, if we read the story as fiction, as a story crafted for a specific purpose, to espouse certain ideas, Esther and Inglourious Basterds’ deep desire for justice, pure and simple, becomes evident. (Also, as with Inglourious Basterds, reading Esther as fiction opens up the humor, dramatic irony, and exaggerations peppered throughout the story.)

However, Quentin Tarantino isn’t as brave as the writer of Esther. Inglourious Basterds does indeed revel in the violence of killing Nazis, but the film is ultimately ambiguous as to the worth of that violence. Yes, the great Nazi evil is eradicated, but justice comes through strange channels and means. The film does not celebrate the eradication of evil via violence. It simply presents it to the audience to judge for themselves whether good was done. Tarantino’s WWII world is morally ambiguous.

The violent acts portrayed most gruesomely are acted by the “good guys.” We expect to cheer for them, but their style of vengeance is revolting. This creates a disconnect in the audience. In Inglourious Basterds, as in most movies, it’s “good” that the bad guys lose. Unlike most other films though, how the good guys win is repulsive. Inglourious Basterds simply gives audiences what they think they want – dead Nazis – and then lets the audience decide whether they really want dead Nazis by such violent means.

Esther makes a claim. Esther calls the violence that brought about victory “good.” The book closes with a celebration of the Jewish victory over their oppressors and commends the greatness of the Jews. Inglourious Basterds does not provide that release. The film refuses to make that claim. The book of Esther hates evil enough to call its eradication “good” even when it comes by shockingly violent means. The book of Esther has a deeper hatred of evil than does Inglourious Basterds.

Because Esther is one of God’s stories, and God hates evil. God hates injustice. And God loves people. Unflinchingly. Unfailingly. Even when God seems absent, God’s love never fails.

Here is where Inglourious Basterds falls short of Esther. Tarantino’s film cannot rejoice in the demise of evil, because it cannot call the evil wholly bad. Inglourious Basterds‘ most indelible character, Hans Landa, is a bad guy after all, and he is so unforgettable, because he is so interesting. Evil is interesting in Tarantino’s world, and that makes it somewhat compelling. In Esther, evil is evil and can be destroyed with unconflicted glee.

The writings of the Old Testament are built on the foundation of YHWH’s unfailing love. The psalmists wait on the Lord because they know the Lord will come. The Jews in Esther can institute a festival commemorating their victory because they know God also rejoices to see justice done.

And they are all proved true. Time and time again, God answers the psalmists’ cries and delivers them. The transplanted Jews thrive under the auspices of Queen Esther and her benevolent cousin Mordecai, God’s proxies in a foreign land.

Yes, sometimes God is silent. Sometimes, God seems absent. Everything we know can be falling apart, and when we look to the One who is supposed to be holding it all together, our Help is nowhere to be seen. I don’t know why that is.

But I believe that God is good, and God’s love never fails. So while it may be true that tragedy is the tale common to all humankind, that is only a temporary truth. One day a greater truth will take its place: God is making everything new. And the absence of God will become a smaller and smaller space as the distance is closed between us and God.

And the silence will become peace.