[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 3, Issue 13 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Enemies Among Us.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]
The original draft of the Halo 2 cinematic “Backseat Driver” was a hand-to-hand combat scene in which the player character known as Arbiter Thel ‘Vadam rescues a human from execution. However, due to the production schedule, the fight was scrapped and the scene shortened. The final cinematic instead placed the Arbiter at the mercy of the human, a Sergeant Avery Johnson, who had every reason to kill him.
This scene and the one following it were critical turning points in the Halo franchise. The first game and the three books released previous to Halo 2 revolved around the humans-versus-aliens dynamic. Halo 2 switched the perspective by making the protagonist an alien from the theocratic Covenant. It isn’t until the final act of the game that we see this protagonist, the Arbiter, side with humanity. This alliance, which has since shaped the future of the franchise, is ultimately formed through an act of mercy followed shortly by an act of grace—this very one with Johnson and the Arbiter.In Thel’s campaign for peace with humanity, he has been the target of mockery, accusations, distrust, multiple assassination attempts, a covert mission to destabilize his power, and failed attempts at peace summits. Yet like Paul, he still presses onward, and like Paul, it appears that he is motivated by the relationships he has developed.
Mercy and grace are core values in Christianity and other faiths across the globe. While no portion of the franchise overtly advocates for a specific religion or faith, Halo has always touched on many deeper questions that most faiths tackle. Mortality and sacrifice are massive threads in the Halo universe, as is the question of what it means to be human. Grace too is present, though its name is not outright stated, and it has become a major point of discussion in recent Halo fiction.
AAfter the first Human-Covenant War ended with Halo 3 back in 2007, novels, comics, and other media releases began exploring the political territory of human-alien relations. Could the aliens be trusted after their genocidal campaign? Could the humans be trusted with their rapid colonization? Did the gods of the Covenant still call for humanity’s eradication? What must happen to those who took extreme measures during the war?
Among those trying to answer these questions is Arbiter Thel ‘Vadam, whose dogged pursuit of peace between the different species and of unity within his own has earned him foes on all fronts. In fact, his stance sets him as one of the major focal points in the galaxy. He is the target to remove from power; he is the leader to support. One character even calls him the symbol of the galaxy’s potential, having prevented humanity and the alien races from descending immediately back into war.
Nothing could be further from the character we first meet during the Human-Covenant War, before Thel ‘Vadam became the Arbiter who faced Johnson in that compelling scene previously described. This war spanned nearly three decades, a genocidal campaign against humanity called for by Covenant’s religious leaders. At that time, the Arbiter was known as Thel ‘Vadamee and was one of the most effective military leaders within the Covenant. His campaign included the destruction of seven planets and over 1 billion human deaths. Arrogant and zealous, he thought very little of races that were different from his own. He took pride in the eradication of humans, believing he was doing his gods’ work.
“I will continue my campaign against the humans,” he declared vehemently during his introduction in Halo 2, as he was still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord (Acts 9:1 NKJV)…
Apologies. Wrong canon.
But actually, this dichotomy between the past Thel ‘Vadamee and the present Thel ‘Vadam is very similar to the dichotomy we see between Saul the Pharisee and Paul the Apostle in the New Testament. Thel even has a name change to accompany the transformation, dropping the military suffix from his surname upon leaving the Covenant. Like Thel, Saul was a zealot in his pursuit of genocide, believing he was doing right by God, until the moment he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus.
Thel’s own road to Damascus, so to speak, begins in that cinematic where Sergeant Avery Johnson aims a cannon at him and shows mercy. It ends a game level later, in which Johnson shows grace by allowing Thel to learn the truth about his actions and those of the Covenant.
To be clear, Johnson is not a Christ-figure in Halo 2. In fact, despite the franchise being so heavily coded in religious phrases and themes, there isn’t a single Christ-figure in the entire series. Rather, Johnson is more akin to Ananias, the disciple told by God to go and meet Saul with grace.
“Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem,” Ananias says, a more civil version of Johnson’s, “You don’t like me, and I sure as hell don’t like you.”
Like Ananias’s grace toward Saul, Johnson’s act of grace involved the opening of Thel’s eyes, though metaphorically in this case. Halo 2 is about Thel discovering the falsehood of his faith and, thus, of the Covenant. Johnson is there at the moment in which Thel accepts the truth, and Johnson actually provides the opportunity for that moment to take place.
There, Thel confronts an old ally, Tartarus, who holds captive an A.I. considered by the Covenant to be an oracle of their gods. Thel asks the A.I. to tell him the truth about their religion, only to have the conversation stopped violently by Tartarus. Johnson enters the scene and holds off Tartarus through threat of force, allowing Thel to both have his answer from A.I.and offer a chance of reconciliation to his old ally.
On the surface, it would appear that Thel discovering the falsehood behind his faith is the sole reason for his alliance with humanity. However, when we compare Thel with his contemporaries in the Halo universe, their actions paint a different picture.
After the events of Halo 2, Thel’s race splits from the Covenant and shatters into different factions across the galaxy. One such faction was created by a former Imperial Admiral of the Covenant, Xytan ‘Jar Wattinree, who sought to create a new society still focused on the worship of their gods. Having only encountered humans on the battlefield, he continued to consider and treat humanity as a militaristic threat.
Yet another faction was born from Jul ‘Mdama, who experienced the exact opposite of grace. Like Thel in his Covenant years, he had a low regard for humanity and believed zealously in their eradication. However, when he found himself at the mercy of humans, grace was never on the agenda. Instead, he became a prisoner of a team selected in part due to the lack of grace they were capable of showing to his kind. As a result, his bitterness grew until it at last turned into vengeance.
Even Thel’s close comrade Rtas ‘Vadum, who was absent from the moments of Johnson’s mercy and grace, appeared to treat the alliance with humanity as more of a necessity than a developing relationship. And therein lies the keyword. Relationship.
It is proper that a distinction is made between Johnson’s mercy and Johnson’s grace. Sparing Thel’s life was an act of mercy, and a necessary one to save the galaxy. Allowing him the opportunity for closure on his gnawing doubts was an act of grace. Author Max Lucado, in his book appropriately titled Grace, also makes this distinction: “Mercy gave the prodigal son a second chance. Grace threw him a party” (p. 72). Grace takes a step past mercy and becomes something relational.
Returning to Saul, now Paul, it is clear that his conversion to Christianity was not his story’s end. Throughout the book of Acts and his letters, we see him continually defined by the relationships between himself, God, and his fellow disciples. It is these relations that spur him onward even in the face of adversity.
“Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness—besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches.” (2 Corin. 11:25–28 NKJV, emphasis mine)
In Thel’s campaign for peace with humanity, he has been the target of mockery, accusations, distrust, multiple assassination attempts, a covert mission to destabilize his power, and failed attempts at peace summits. Yet like Paul, he still presses onward, and like Paul, it appears that he is motivated by the relationships he has developed.
Throughout his journey, Thel ‘Vadam has gone from knowing humanity in a militaristic sense to knowing individual humans on a personal level. There are those whose loss he grieves, and there are those whom he calls friend. These relationships are the ones he cites to both Earth and his own kind in the early days of the developing peace.
And all these follow a thread back to the moments in which Sergeant Avery Johnson showed his enemy both mercy and grace.
It was grace, and the relationships born out of that act of grace, that transformed Thel ‘Vadam from “the most dangerous Covenant military asset on the field” to “a symbol of what the galaxy could one day become.”