You Humans Love Your Symbolism, Chapter 6:

Doubts and Fears in House of X #3

Chapter 6: Doubts and Fears in House of X #3 – Once More unto the Breach

Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Artist: Pepe Larraz
Color Artist: Marte Gracia
Cover Art: Pepe Larraz and Marte Gracia

Cyclops asks two good questions at the beginning of House of X #3; questions that any believer in any religion has most likely asked at some point: “Is it wrong that I’m afraid? That I have doubts?” He has good reason to fear; the X-Men team he has assembled is being sent on a suicide mission (and the parallels to the X2 era from the previous two chapters don’t offer much hope of survival). Doubt is a natural part of a life of faith. Almost every believer will at some point go through a crisis of faith and wonder if what they believe, what they are living for, is right. In this scene, Cyclops probably doesn’t doubt completely whether his faith is in the right place or not – his deeper concerns are not revealed in detail. But, he definitely has reservations about the mission.

Prof. X and Magneto then offer words of encouragement. One is reminded of similar passages in the Bible, for example, when Jesus reassures his disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). However, as will be discussed in the second half of this essay, the pep-talk from these two mutant leaders involves a level of manipulation not found in the words of Jesus.

Remarkably, the rest of this issue gives the reader reasons to doubt the moral superiority of the X-Men’s cause. Hickman achieves this by turning the tables and blurring the line between the generally accepted “good guys” and “bad guys”.

Jean begins questioning the moral implications of the current mission by bringing up the topic of civilian casualties. While Cyclops assures her that they “want to keep casualties to as close to zero as possible,” he also stresses that “The mission is to stop the Mother Mold no matter what.” Wolverine makes an even better observation: “Innocent civilians don’t build machines to exterminate a species, Slim.” This conversation – while clearly characterizing the humans of Orchis as genocidal villains – brings up the first suggestion that the enemy may be more than just purely evil.

Hickman later emphasizes the similarities between the mutants and the humans. Erasmus, the head of Orchis security, uses the same phrases to describe the human’s ultimate goal that the mutants have been using in previous issues. He talks about the “fight for the survival of our species,” and doing “whatever it takes to build a better world.” Suddenly, the reader must question whether the humans’ motivation differs all that fundamentally from that of our heroes.

By the end of the issue, Hickman has completely turned the tables on the reader by seemingly making the humans the sympathetic protagonists of this conflict. It is Erasmus, and not one of the X-Men, who heroically sacrifices himself in order to defend his teammates and loved ones against an invading enemy. His final conversation with his lover, Dr. Gregor, who is left crying in despair, adds even more empathy; some of his final words are a regret that they never had children. Hickman and Larraz have emotionally manipulated the reader into relating with and feeling sorry for the characters originally introduced as the new villains. Still, this manipulation effectively forces the reader to question whether the X-Men are actually the good guys in this story.

While the main plot challenges the reader to doubt the generally accepted view of who is morally good and evil, the subplot involving Sabretooth directly paints the mutants as morally subversive. The creative team fills this scene both in writing and imagery with over-the-top extremes, played for humor. But, the actions of Emma and the Cuckoo Sisters, representing Krakoa, are seriously unethical. One unnamed Cuckoo Sister insults the humans in a clearly derogatory way, even using a racial slur. Then, they abusively manipulate the justice system, using their new found political power to set free an obviously guilty, completely unrepentant, and very dangerous Sabretooth. He even boasts that he isn’t done killing. Emma shows no regrets in arrogantly committing this unjust act. Although there is more to this subplot and the topics of moral law and justice that will be covered in Chapter 11: House of X #6, this scene ends leaving the reader little choice but to see the moral corruption in these actions.

The manipulations of Emma in freeing Sabretooth are political in nature, without any religious overtones. The words of encouragement given Cyclops by Prof. X and Magneto at the beginning of this issue, however, are a prime example of how religious (especially cult) leaders can twist biblical truths in order to manipulate their followers.

The Bible often encourages the followers of God to not fear; indirectly revealing that fear is a natural part of life, even for a believer. For example: “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise” (Psalm 56:3-4). Significant in many scriptural passages is the direct connection between the call to not be afraid and the presence of God: “Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9); or in Psalm 118:6: “The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?”

Unfortunately, religious leaders know all too well how to use scriptures such as these to manipulate their followers. The infractions of Christian leaders are well documented. Many claim a position of unquestionable righteousness, since God is on their side, advancing certain moral or political viewpoints. The greedy and selfish convince their parishioners to support their life of luxury, asserting that they are doing God’s work. But the worst offences are not exclusive to Christianity, as militant or cult leaders in many different religions use the unwavering devotion of their followers to drive them, sometimes against their own free will, into committing acts of despicable immorality or extreme violence. A fictional but all too realistic example of the manipulation of religious beliefs to fuel a hate-filled agenda is familiar to X-Men fans, found in the classic “God Loves, Man Kills” graphic novel by Chris Claremont and Brent Anderson.

But in this issue, it is Prof. X and Magneto who manipulate Cyclops. Although Prof. X reassures Cyclops that it is not wrong to be afraid or have doubts, he then says: “What matters is that you overcome itand you do so for your family.” Using the deep bond of family as the motivation to overcome fear is incredibly emotionally manipulative, especially for an orphan. Prof. X then continues the emotional manipulation, using his position as Cyclops’ father figure, by saying, “You make me so proud,” and calling Cyclops “my son.” In this scene, Prof. X – who continues to wear the face-covering Cerebro helmet – comes off as creepy and manipulative. In effect, he forces Cyclops to choose between his doubts and his family, rather than address the misgivings directly.

Next, Prof. X uses religious language to put Cyclops’ fears to rest, making a promise that cannot possibly be fulfilled. Prof. X assures him: “You’re not going to die. I won’t allow it.” This promise does take on a different meaning, both in the context of the story as well as it concerns the religious symbolism, after the revelations of Chapter 9: House of X #5. Still, it is worth noting that even Jesus never promises his followers that they will not die. Instead, he reassures them that he or the Holy Spirit will be with them through suffering and death (see John 14:25-27) and that those who follow him will be saved; that is receive eternal life after death (see Matthew 24:9-13).

Magneto twists this promise of eternal life in a speech worthy of any political leader who has unquestioned confidence in the moral superiority of his ways: “For the righteous can never truly die. They live on. Transformed into something immortal by their mighty works… For you to die, you would have to be forgotten…and no one forgets the founder of a nation”. He comes off as preachy and manipulative. He leaves no room to question whether the course of action is truly righteous and promotes martyrdom for the cause as a means to immortality.

In all of this, Prof. X and Magneto never actually address Cyclops’ fears and doubts with a contemplative response. Instead, they use emotional manipulation to force him to overcome them. Their words allow Cyclops no chance to freely choose for himself. They have taken his agency away. No longer is he the brave hero seen in Chapter 4: Powers of X #2, who of his own free will declares, “Then it will be done.” Here he is the victim of manipulation, forced to ignore his doubts and fears and go on with a mission, possibly against his better judgement.

For the sake of comparison, Jesus never reacts to doubts and fears with contempt or manipulation (even though many Christian leaders today do), but rather with understanding and mercy. In the famous story of “doubting” Thomas, the disciple who refused to believe that Jesus had been resurrected, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were…” (John 20:25), Jesus doesn’t condemn Thomas’ doubts, but approaches them and him, allowing Thomas to convince himself of the truth through personal experience. Often, when the disciples doubted or were afraid, Jesus would call them “you of little faith” (see for example Matthew 14:31); yet these doubters were his chosen followers and closest friends. Elsewhere, the doubting believer receives a catch-phrase of sorts in the words of a father, who brings his son to Jesus for healing, “I do believe; help me overcome by unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). Jesus has mercy and heals the son. In the short book of Jude, in verse 22, Christians are encouraged to act similarly with the simple phrase, “Be merciful to those who doubt.”

Furthermore, Jesus never manipulates others into following him or believing what he says. After giving a confusing and difficult sermon in John 6, it is reported, “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66). In another case, when a rich man comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to attain eternal life, Jesus eventually tells him: “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21). The man “went away sad, because he had great wealth” (Mark 10:22). In both occurrences, Jesus doesn’t attempt to manipulate those who have turned away into returning; he just lets them leave. Moreover, in Luke 14:25-33, Jesus basically warns those traveling with him to carefully consider what it will cost, before they decide to follow him. In all of these instances, Jesus never attempts to force anyone into certain beliefs, but continually allows each person to make the final decision free of manipulation.

To conclude this essay, in light of the manipulative words of Prof. X and Magneto, an appeal: if you have doubts about the religious beliefs or worldview that you profess, pursue your questions to the end. Be patient; do not unnecessarily give up on your faith completely as soon as worries arise. But, ask difficult questions and demand satisfying answers. Look into your belief systems and read the scriptures yourself. Seek counsel from multiple sources. But, be wary if you encounter a religious leader who holds absolute authority and requires unfaltering and unquestioning trust. Be especially wary if those who you seek advice from attempt to discipline or otherwise manipulate you into ignoring your doubts. The truth will stand up under scrutiny. Lies will unravel when challenged. Most importantly, come to your own conclusions and make your own choices. Your faith must be your own decision.

Note: All biblical quotes are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version NIV, Copyright 2011 by Biblica, Inc.

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David L Canham (@BBelafat) grew up in Arizona watching X-Men: the Animated Series and reading mostly X-Men and Spider-Man comics of the 90s. After a Bachelor’s Degree in Physics with Minors in Math and Religious Studies from the University of Arizona, he received a doctorate in Physics from the University of Bonn in Germany. He now teaches Physics and Math at the junior high and high school level in northern Germany, where he lives with his family. He still loves comics; especially the ones that make him ask deep questions.

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