The remarkable film “District 9” is much more than an exciting, science-fiction adventure movie. It explores, with great perceptiveness, a problem that has preoccupied modern philosophers from Hegel to Levinas: how to relate to “the other.” And “District 9,” directed by Neill Blomkamp, poses the question in an extremely dramatic way.
Its plot centers on the relationship between human beings and aliens who have stumbled their way onto Earth. As the film begins, we learn that, in the 1980’s an interstellar spacecraft appeared and hovered over Johannesburg, South Africa. When the craft was boarded, hundreds of thousands of weak, malnourished aliens were discovered. Resembling a cross between insects and apes, these creatures were herded into a great concentration camp near the city where they were allowed to live in squalor for some 20 years. In time, the citizens of Johannesburg came to find the aliens annoying and dangerous. The central narrative commences with the attempt to shut down the camp and relocate the “prawns” to a site far removed from the city.
Placed in charge of the relocation operation is Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), an agreeable, harmless cog of the state. While searching for weapons in one of the aliens’ hovels, Wikus stumbles upon a mysterious cylinder. When he examines it, a black fluid sprays out onto his face, and in a matter of hours, he is desperately ill. He is taken to the hospital, and the doctors who examine him are flabbergasted to discover that his forearm has morphed into the appendage of an alien. Almost immediately, the state officials reduce the suffering man to an object, resolving to dissect him and experiment on him. Wikus manages a miraculous escape, but he is ruthlessly hunted down. I promise not to give away much more of the plot. I’ll add only this: as his transformation progresses, Wikus becomes an ally of the “prawns” and they come to respect him and to protect him from his persecutors.
With this sketch of the story in mind, I would like to return to the two worthies mentioned at the outset. The 19th-century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel taught that much of human history can be understood as the working out of what he called the “master/slave” relationship. Typically, people in power—politically, culturally, militarily—find a weaker, more vulnerable “other” whom they proceed to manipulate, dominate, exclude and scapegoat. Masters need slaves and slaves, Hegel saw, in their own way, need masters, with each group conditioning the other in a dysfunctional manner. Masters don’t try to understand slaves (think of antiquity, when the dominant Greeks who characterized any foreigners as barbarians, since all their speech was heard by the Greeks as “bar-bar”); instead, they use them. Furthermore, almost all of history is told from the standpoint of the masters, and mastery is the state to which all sane people aspire.
Emmanuel Levinas, a 20th-century Jewish philosopher whose family was killed in the Holocaust, reminded us how the Bible consistently undermines this master/slave dynamic, since it recounts history from the standpoint of the outsider, the oppressed. Levinas argued that Biblical ethics commences not with philosophical abstractions about the good life, but with the challenging face of the suffering “other.” The prophets of Israel consistently remind the people that since they too were once slaves in Egypt, they must act compassionately toward the stranger, the widow and the orphan. In the faces of those “others,” they find the ground for their own moral commitments. In short, they compelled the people not to adopt the attitude of the master but to move sensitively to the attitude of the slave.
This unique Israelite perspective came to embodied expression in Jesus, who “though he was in the form of God, did not deem equality with God a thing to be grasped” and who rather “emptied himself and took the form of a slave” (Phil. 2:7-8). In Christ, the God of Israel became a slave, the despised other, even to the point of enduring the rejection of the masters and dying the terrible death of the cross. In Jesus, the God of Israel looks out from the face of the other and draws forth compassion from those who gaze upon him.
In “District 9,” we see the master/slave dynamic on display: the characterization of the aliens by a derogatory nickname, their sequestration in a squalid ghetto and the violence—direct and indirect—that is visited upon them. These practices are evident from ancient times to the present day. But we see something else as well: an identification of the oppressor with the oppressed, the openness to interpreting the world from the underside, from the perspective of the victim.
This is the Biblical difference, though I doubt that most people today would recognize it as such. It is the view that comes from that strange spiritual tradition that culminates in a God who doesn’t make slaves but rather becomes one.