Frank Underwood, Pacifist at Heart?

By Daniel Cosacchi

(Plot spoilers to follow)

Frank Underwood 2I might as well admit it right upfront: I am hooked on House of Cards, the Netflix sensation that premiered in 2013. I was late to the game, since I only started watching the series a few months ago. But no worries, thanks to Netflix streaming the entire series—and a looming dissertation—I found plenty of time to catch up quickly. And then, before I knew it, I had watched 26 episodes in a matter of days and found myself searching for more. I needed more House of Cards the same way that Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) needs more power. Steve Okey has already written on this blog about the dynamic between Underwood and his wife Claire, but in what follows I want to focus on only one chilling episode from the recently-released third season.

In episode four of season three, written by the talented Laura Eason, we find a surprisingly theological look at the Underwood White House. Underwood is faced with the reality that as President, one of the many moral questions he must confront is whether or not to target known terrorist agents with drone attacks knowing that civilian casualties will likely ensue. This scenario is first introduced in the case of Kaseem Mahmoud (Kaseem Mahmoud), a civilian maimed by a drone attack actually ordered by Underwood’s predecessor. Mahmoud considers the government, and more precisely the Office of the President, responsible for his injuries.

In one of the most chilling scenes of the series, Underwood meets with Mahmoud in the White House. During this meeting, Underwood makes a half-hearted attempt at apologizing for Mahmoud’s misfortune. After defending the drone program, noting that civilian casualties are “lower than they’ve ever been,” Underwood is taken aback by Mahmoud’s sudden convulsion from a phantom pain. Then, we are treated to Underwood’s rather honest assessment of the presidential dilemma: “You may hate me…but here’s the reality: I must make decisions everyday that are just. I don’t know right from wrong all the time, but I wish I did. But what I can’t be is indecisive.” How many times, we are left wondering, has Barack Obama had a similar thought? How many times did George W. Bush?

The voice of moral reason in the episode is Mahmoud, who admonishes Underwood after the president claims, “I have a duty.” Mahmoud’s reply is one that should resonate with citizens of the United States in the wake of endless wars over recent decades: “There’s a fine line between duty and murder. Only you have the power to stop what happened to me. The next time you wield it, I hope you’ll think twice.” Clearly, Underwood is moved by these words. What person (even one with as many skeletons in his closet as Underwood) wouldn’t be second-guessing himself?

Now enters a character who appeared briefly at the beginning of the episode: Bishop Charles Eddis (John Doman). When he first appears in the episode’s opening, he is presiding (in a fiddleback chasuble, no less!) over the burials of three deceased Navy SEALs at Arlington Cemetery. He declares that these men now “in heaven will have eternal life.” So, it should come as no surprise that when Underwood schedules a meeting with the bishop in an undisclosed church building, Bishop Eddis will make a poor attempt to justify warfare. Underwood makes it clear that he wants to learn what justice is. I hope that I was not the only viewer who was more than a little uncomfortable at the idea that a president wouldn’t have some notion of this virtue before taking the oath of office. What followed was the blind leading the blind.

To Underwood’s inelegant query, Bishop Eddis responds, “There’s our justice, the kind men create. We base it on things like the Ten Commandments, but those can be read a million different ways.” In a rare moment of moral clarity, Underwood responds the way any one of us might: “Thou shalt not kill seems pretty clear.” The bishop’s tragic response reminded me so many of the responses given over the last 1700 years: “Who’s to say? If we didn’t kill, others would kill instead of us. There’s a lot of killing in the Bible. King David was a warrior.” When Underwood protests that Jesus’ law of love for neighbor is problematic when you are killing them, the bishop pontificates that “you sure as hell can [love someone you kill].”

It is this tired refrain coming from pulpits and around dinner tables—and in films that make hundreds of millions of dollars in the theaters—that continues to drive war deeper and deeper into our national soul. We believe that soldiers are enjoying eternal life because their sacrifice so closely resembled that of the Lord Jesus. We believe that our nation is always right and always pursuing authentic justice. Somehow we believe that it is possible to still love the ones we kill.

As I continue to watch House of Cards, I lament the result of episode four. That result, of course, is that we are driven further into an abyss of violence that seems to be never-ending. We are convinced that war is necessary. Unfortunately, we have all but lost the original understanding of the just war, according to Ambrose and Augustine: not a necessity, but a tragic necessity. We are continuing to move further and further away from the genuine just war tenets, which have always been meant to limit war, not excuse it. Instead, we continue to write a “blank check” for whatever wars our governmental leaders tell us is best. As John Howard Yoder lamented, this is a very dangerous fate for us as a nation, and even worse for us as the church.

Pointing to the crucifix, Underwood asks one more question of his episcopal interlocutor: “But why didn’t he fight? Why did he allow himself to be sacrificed?” Staying true to his character, the bishop utters these inexplicable words: “It’s not your job to determine what’s just…You serve the Lord and through him you serve others.” Let me close by mentioning only three problems with this statement that should guide the lives of all Christians:

  • Whose job is it, exactly, to determine what is just in this life?
  • Are we really serving the Lord when we shirk our responsibility to determine what is just and what is unjust?
  • How do we serve others by shooting, raping, hitting, verbally abusing, choking, or aiming drones at them?

In the remainder of this Lenten season, in which we are all preparing ourselves to renew our baptismal promises at Easter, I hope to purge myself of all violent temptations. Even though House of Cards may remain a guilty pleasure of mine, I pray that reflecting on its moral failings may aid in this journey of purification.

Daniel Cosacchi is a Doctoral Student in Christian Ethics at Loyola University, Chicago. He is writing his dissertation on the environmental effects of warfare in Catholic social thought.