The Importance of (Not) Being Wikus

 

I watched the new sci-fi film District 9 on Saturday and was pleasantly surprised by a movie that I expected would be another formulaic aliens vs. humans showdown. (If you doubt me, the film know-it-alls at IMDb currently peg it at 8.9/10 while Rotten Tomatoes calls it 88% fresh.) I’d really recommend that you watch this film and so if you haven’t be warned that spoilers be here.

The film is set up as a sort of mockumentary that imagines that some two decades ago an alien ship came to rest over the city of Johannesburg, South Africa. Upon finally opening the ship, we find that the aliens are starving on board and they are subsequently resettled into a sort of shanty town (the eponymous District 9). The slum is run by a private company which is now tasked to move the aliens and resettle them some 200kms outside of Johannesburg since they are seen as a drain on society and the source of all kinds of crime.

There are of course obvious reasons why a South African director would think of telling this kind of story and there are of course timely analogies to places like the West Bank and Gaza Strip and to the controversy around a military contractor like Blackwater. What I want to focus on though is the central character, a mid-level functionary at MNU, the corporation that maintains order in District 9. Wikus has been given a promotion by his father-in-law and is now to take on the responsibility of serving eviction notices to the inhabitants of District 9.

What is striking about Wikus when we meet him is how average he is. He is the (anti)hero for our times: a semi-incompetent middle-manager who merrily prattles on about his wife and is pleased to have been promoted to an important new role by his employer. I remember as I watched the film thinking, “This is like Michael Scott versus the aliens.” The cheerful, vapid, slightly timid Wikus though is more than just a fool, there’s a darker side to Wikus. To wit: When a shed full of alien eggs is found he almost gleefully orders them killed and laughs at the popping sounds as the eggs go off. He is doing a job that, if he stopped to consider it, he would surely realize oppresses the aliens terribly. Conversely, he makes light of it in order to avoid considering what he is really doing. Throughout the film Wikus will have to confront the obscene underside of his job in a very personal and painful way (I don’t want to say more, seriously, you should see this film).

If he was forced to justify why he does his job, I’m sure that Wikus would say that he’s actually providing a service to the aliens, or that he needs the money or that if didn’t do it, someone else would. Sounds familiar. How many of us end up taking jobs where we are cogs in an immoral machine? How are we, as Christians to consider this? I thought about this a while ago and I tried to think of jobs that a contemporary church would actually ask members to quit and all I could come up with was stripper, and abortion doctor. For anyone else, hey, it’s a living.

West Christianity seems to have smuggled on board Milton Friedman’s idea that businesses should care about the bottom line at the expense of all other considerations. To make this work we have to sort of allow that our work lives are set apart from everything else that we do. Oh sure, you should consider your Christian duty to be honest or kind to your coworkers, but beyond that what is your responsibility? Some people say that the test is whether or not you can face yourself in the morning, but that strikes me as the extreme of moral relativism. When should you consider walking away from a promising career?

As an aside: I’m sure that there are stock liberal answers to this question (when your company is involved with arms sales or pollution) and stock conservative ones (when your company is involved with Planned Parenthood or Hugo Chavez) and of course anarchists would say that you should drop out of the corporate race altogether. Since these are stock answers they do little to get us closer to the truth.