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‘Leverage’-ing justice fantasies

I miss Hustle, the BBC drama chronicling the escapades of a crew of grifters who cleverly take down and rip off only those who deserve it. Somehow, the series got off our radar; either it disappeared off our local cable channels or we somehow missed it in our transfer in cable providers. Anyway, we haven’t seen it in a long time, and that probably contributed to my draw towards TNT’s Leverage, a kind of Americanized version of Hustle about former insurance investigator Nate Ford who assembles a crew of experts in the criminal arts and turns their expertise into the righting of wrongs.

Why am I drawn to shows like these? As I watched Leverage’s second episode, it dawned on me that these kinds of shows are like “justice fantasies”—the stories we play out in our heads born out of the longing we have for the righting of a wrong, which could be anything from a personal slight we received to the defeat of injustices and sufferings of others. I must admit, I definitely have them every now and then. (Okay, maybe more than that, heh.) Shows like this give me a sense of satisfaction in watching folks come along side the powerless, suffering and wronged and set things right. In some ways, I find them an echo and misty reflection of God’s words through Isaiah to seek justice and defend the weak or the words at the end of Proverbs urging us to speak up for those who can’t and defend the rights of the poor and needy.

One could say that Jesus told a few justice fantasies of his own. There’s the story of the servant whose king forgave him an enormous debt but who then turned around and threw into prison a man who owed him but a pittance; that servant ends up getting his comeuppance. There’s also the story of the tenants who maimed or killed every messenger the land owner sent—even his own son—and ended up coming to a “wretched end.”

Interestingly, however, these stories aren’t told to simply satisfy our need for justice. Jesus is talking about how it works in the kingdom—and instead of having his listeners identify with the wronged in the stories, Jesus invites them to identify with those who perpetrate injustice. The kingdom works by love, right-ness, just-ness and grace. If we are unmerciful, unforgiving or dismiss God, we will end up with our own comeuppance. In many ways, Jesus’ stories broaden and deepen justice fantasies, prodding us to not only long for justice for ourselves and others but constantly examine ourselves to make sure we are not the ones acting unjustly—be it by withholding love, forgiveness, respect, justice and rightness or actually pursuing wrong.

And this brings me to another reason that Leverage works for me. Nate’s decision to form this group is born out of his own experience of injustice. His son died because an insurance company refused to pay for a treatment that could have saved him. This experience originally sends him into a personal downward spiral, but ultimately it creates a sense of empathy for those who feel as powerless as he did. It also gives him a sense of purpose, a way to use his gifts not for profit (he gives away most of his cut of the money he makes) but to “change the world” (as he puts it at the end of the second episode)—to make it more right.

And that’s a reflection of how it works for us too. Often it is our own suffering and struggles with darkness that awaken an empathy and awareness for the suffering of others. When we encounter suffering and injustice (and even escape or suffer the consequences we deserve), we should allow God to use those experiences to transform and engage our hearts with his longings for and work towards right-ness and just-ness in a broken world.

Granted, the methods Nate and his crew use are often questionable or simply wrong. And the plotlines in shows like these often border on revenge rather than justice. But more often than not, I find the stories themselves invitations to consider who we are called to be as those who live in the kingdom within a broken world that still suffers and struggles with darkness.

(Image: TNT) leveragectgy