In a recent re-reading of the classic graphic novel Watchmen (a reading spurred by the not-too-distant theatrical release), it was noticed that despite being written nearly thirty years ago near the climax of the Cold War, Watchmen holds its force still. The classic work written by Alan Moore with art by Dave Gibbons, recounts a world in decay and on the edge of destruction. Superheroes, often viewed as saviors, are impotent since they were outlawed almost a decade before the story takes place. But here near the end of the world a few heroes step forward again to stop the power urging the world ever closer to its end. Multiple stories run together until the end when they come together, providing the forceful point. Ethics is impossible.
More appropriately, ethics is sin, at least as commonly conceived. If the task of ethics is seen as discerning the right from the wrong, ethics is impossible. Competing visions of the right or the good abound in Watchmen. Some appalling voices might contain some element of truth. Some honorable voices are willing to commit unspeakable atrocities to further their good. In the end, ethics in this vein is impossible. Everything becomes nothing other than subjectivism.
By the end of Watchmen, the force of ethics’ bondage to sin resonated with Karl Barth,
We cannot act as if we had to ask and decide of ourselves what the good is and how we can achieve it; as if we were free to make this or that answer as the one that appears to us to be right. Certainly the existence of that general conception of ethics as an answer to the question of the good is an exceedingly instructive fact. It confirms the truth of the grace of God which as it is addressed to man puts the question of the good with such priority over all others that man cannot hide or replace it. But in so far as this general conception of ethics seems to speak of an answer to the question of the good which is to be worked out by man himself, it confirms also that man tries to escape the grace of God by which the question of the good is put, but by which it is also answered in advance. Strange as it may seem, that general conception of ethics coincides exactly with the conception of sin.
-Barth, Church Dogmatics, II.2, p. 518
Watchmen might in fact be read as a graphic novel written to prove Barth’s point. No human conception of right and wrong will satisfy. Even in the end of Watchmen the reader sees nothing has fundamentally changed about the world. It simply received a stay of execution.
To some, this might mean that Christians withdraw from the world so as not to rail against futility. But the problem is not the engagement with the world, but with the general conception of ethics. Again a return to Barth when contemplating the question of the good.
The man Jesus, who fulfills the commandment of God, does not give the answer, but by God’s grace He is the answer to the ethical question put by God’s grace.
-Barth, p. 517
The center of ethics is God’s grace in Jesus Christ. The impossibility of ethics is nothing less than the second use of the Law, to be a mirror of our existence and the impossibility that we might not save ourselves. Properly conceived ethics, however centers on Christ and the ultimate good, the Reign of God. The answer to Watchmen is to pray “thy kingdom come” that it might come in and among us.