One of the recurring themes in Ender’s Game is the dynamic surrounding Ender Wiggin’s apparent uniqueness: he was, it seems, quite literally born for the purpose of ending the conflict with the Formics. The source material as well as the film released last week raise moral questions surrounding what we might call “bloody callings” quite pointedly.
A popular quote from Frederick Beuchner sets a helpful framework for discussing the question of whether there can be legitimate callings to offices that require violence. “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet,” says Beuchner. Alissa Wilkinson has helpfully pointed out something that Beuchner’s quote omits: our skills. The world may need something that we enjoy attempting to provide, but we may be no good at providing it. Wilkinson consider the case of the aspiring writer, but her observations apply to any pursuit.
Ender’s skills, if we might call them that, are apparently uniquely suited for competitive achievement. As his name suggests, he ends things. Ender embodies total victory. So how does Ender fit within this threefold requirement for discerning vocation?
It might not be too much to say that Ender has “deep gladness” in winning; it is clear that he savors victory. In the climactic battle scene, the normally reserved Ender cannot contain his exuberance as victory is assured. There is ambivalence that humanizes Ender, however, as he feels guilt and responsibility for those who are inevitably left broken and defeated in the wake of his winning. But Ender clearly is fulfilled in large part by ending competition through victorious achievement.
That the world needs Ender sets the background for the entire plot. This is, in fact, the primary driving force of the narrative arc: the world needs someone to end the Formic wars, to the extent that the government will do whatever is necessary to fashion someone to do so.
And, as noted above, Ender does in fact have the skill set to meet this need. He is the last, best hope of humanity faced by the threat of eradication by the Formics. There’s something to the reality that someone, a genius of one kind or another, is so good at something that it seems like they were created for that purpose.
But there is ambiguity about all of this lurking just below the surface. Ender is really good at killing. We find that out in Ender’s Game. As Mazer Rackham puts it in the book (some of these words are uttered by General Graff in the film), “Any decent person who knows what warfare is can never go into battle with a whole heart. But you didn’t know. We made sure you didn’t know. You were reckless and brilliant and young. It’s what you were born for.”
But he’s also really good at other things, as the later novels explore in more depth. Perhaps there may have been another way to end conflict with the Formics other than allowed for in an “us against them” dichotomy, something other than the victory gained in total war.
A helpful way of understanding a vocation is as a place of responsibility before God and for others. Places of responsibility inevitably becomes places of guilt, as sinful, broken, and corrupt human beings fall short of their created purposes. This is the case in every calling, but this guilt takes on another dimension in those callings that require violence of some kind, bloody callings. Ender in this way becomes a kind of scapegoat, fulfilling the bloody calling, “like a gun” as Rackham puts it, taking on the guilt for the crimes committed in the pursuit of self-preservation.
The fallen world has a need for an ordering power, governments that will protect citizens from enemies both domestic and foreign. And so we have need for bloody callings and people to fulfill those callings. As Deadwood‘s General Crook puts it in another context, “We all have bloody thoughts.” But the person legitimately called to law enforcement and military service has a disposition and skill set that places their “bloody thoughts” in service of the common good. And the bloody calling can all too often become an excuse for rather than a justified occasion for violence.
A real challenge arising from discerning the morality of Ender’s bloody calling comes in identifying the common good served, and the nature of our responsibility to love not only our neighbors, but even our enemies, as ourselves. As the film version opens with Ender’s words:
In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them…I destroy them.
Robert Joustra’s review puts it well: “Twisted love is a deep evil. It is a weapon of mass destruction.” This, perhaps, is the central moral lesson of Ender’s bloody calling.