Religion & Liberty Online

Bruce Wayne and the Tragedy of Ineffective Compassion

A few weeks ago in connection with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I looked at Lex Luthor as the would-be crony capitalist über Alles, and pointed to Bruce Wayne along with Senator Finch as the economic and political counterpoints to such corruption, respectively.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, Daniel Menjivar looks more closely at Bruce Wayne as representative of aristocratic virtue, the capitalist hero to Luthor’s crony capitalist villain. And while, as Menjivar concludes, “In cape and cowl he is a true hero, the Dark Knight. But in suit and tie, Bruce Wayne is the quintessential capitalist superhero, a shining example of corporate nobility,” Menjivar also notes that Wayne is an imperfect hero.

Threat Bruce Wayne“One clear fault is Bruce’s assumption that by simply fulfilling the material needs of the survivors he has done his part. This is most clearly evidenced in the character of Wallace Keefe, the very man that Bruce Wayne pulled from the rubble of the Wayne building in Metropolis. Wallace loses his legs in the aftermath of the battle, however, he refuses and returns all of Bruce Wayne’s checks,” writes Menjivar.

Bruce Wayne doesn’t find out about Keefe’s growing enmity until too late. At a critical point, Wayne turns to an employee in frustration to ask why he wasn’t informed that Keefe wasn’t cashing the checks from the victims fund and was returning them with increasingly threatening notes. This is a failure on a number of levels. As Menjivar notes, “Bruce had perhaps improperly delegated responsibility for keeping personal contacts with those in need. At least in the case of Wallace Keefe, money was not the assistance that he needed most.” Whoever was supposed to be responsible for running the victims fund had failed to keep in contact with Keefe as well as to keep Wayne properly informed. This could be understood as a failure at the formal level of subsidiarity.

This failing is also closely connected to another problem, though, which is that Bruce apparently thinks that such delegation and material assistance is sufficient. Bruce had personally entered the conflict zone between Superman and Zod to try and do what he could to save his employees. Keefe was one of the people that Wayne saved himself. Another was a girl, who apparently lost her mother in the Wayne Enterprises tower. We don’t find out how Bruce kept his promise to her that he would protect her, but he very clearly did not keep in personal contact with Keefe, the man he had pulled from the rubble and who had lost his legs.

So in addition to the communication failures in corporate administration of the victims fund, in this film Bruce Wayne buys in to an impersonal and materialistic model of charity, as if monthly checks were all that such people who had suffered needed. As the film develops, Wayne’s ineffective compassion has tragic results.

This depiction of Wayne’s approach to charity and compassion is at odds with other versions of the Bruce Wayne character. For instance, in the TV series Gotham a young Bruce Wayne grapples with the challenges of effective compassion. In the second episode of the first season, street youths are mysteriously disappearing in Gotham. Detective Gordon helps unravel a trafficking syndicate, and visits the newly orphaned Bruce to discuss the case.

Bruce expresses sympathy for the children, and offers to provide money to help them. To this kind gesture, Gordon responds presciently: “I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way.” Money isn’t really what these abandoned children need, after all. “Those children need someone who cares for them, like you have, right here,” says Gordon, and connects this insight to Alfred, Bruce’s guardian after the death of his parents. “Money won’t buy that,” concludes Gordon.

Still, there is something to material assistance, and Bruce resolves to get the kids some better clothing. And a common theme of Bruce Wayne’s philanthropy in the comics is the opening of a home for orphans.

In these two depictions of Wayne’s compassion we can see the contours of what makes compassion and charitable giving effective or not. Personal relationships and attention to spiritual as well as material realities are key to effective compassion. And we likewise get a sense of the real tragedies that can arise from ineffective exercises of compassion.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.