In preparation for the debut of “X-Men ‘97,” a reboot of the 1990s animated show, I rewatched some cherished old episodes. 

In a futile attempt to interest my wife in joining in, I found an episode with a character who always stuck with me: Apocalypse. The 90s show made Apocalypse into a uniquely terrifying villain. This was partly due to John Calicos’s voice acting— his deep baritone modified by chilling mechanical distortion. 

Apocalypse is an ultra-powerful character, exceedingly more powerful than the already super-powered regulars, with a terrifying vision for the world. He seeks to create a new world predicated solely on power, where the weak (humans) are exterminated along with anyone else opposing his new order. 

If this sounds unsubtle, it’s because it is. The episode even begins with a plot to reprogram other super-powered characters through fraudulent medical procedures performed by a doctor with a thick German accent. Yes, indeed, the superheroes of this cartoon of my childhood faced off against a villain spouting a barely altered version of Adolf Hitler’s genocidal vision for global racial superiority. 

In my rewatch, I was struck by one scene in particular. In response to news footage of Apocalypse and his henchmen laying Paris to waste (another unsubtle reference), Professor Xavier, the leader of the X-Men and the paragon of goodness and peace, states, “This isn’t like [typical X-Men villains]. They could be appealed to, reasoned with. We have to stop Apocalypse now, or there will be no future for anyone.”

With this succinct statement, Professor X cuts through the “paradox of tolerance.” This is the idea that a commitment to “toleration,” a fundamental principle of modern democracies that allows for personal and religious freedom, will fail due to its tolerance of intolerance. If people in a tolerant society are free to support ideas of intolerance—if intolerance is tolerated—then the intolerant will inevitably undermine the tolerant society. 

My work on Emmanuel Levinas and Karl Barth concerns “encounter with the Other” as a way of orienting us to care for the Stranger. With respect to politics, I work to confront a particular type of intolerance stemming from “ethnonationalism.” 

In brief, ethnonationalism determines a racially or ethnically defined “nation” that must be defended from its enemies who somehow threaten its purity and power. Levinas and Barth directly confronted a particular form of ethnonationalism in Hitler’s Nazism. 

One of the fascinating commonalities between Levinas and Barth that drew me to them was that both spoke out against Nazism in the early 1930s – before the outbreak of state-sponsored violence against German Jewry. In the coming years, all of Levinas’s extended family in Eastern Europe were exterminated in the Holocaust. Levinas survived the war as a French POW, and his immediate family was protected by his colleague Maurice Blanchot. 

Barth helped lead the Kirchenkampf (“church struggle”) against the Nazification of German Protestant churches. He refused to sign a statement of allegiance to Hitler and was deported to his homeland in Switzerland. In the following years, many of his German comrades, including Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, suffered punishment in concentration camps. 

Bonhoeffer was executed in 1945 for his participation in a plot to assassinate Hitler, and Niemöller narrowly survived his time at Dachau. After the war, Niemöller toured the war-torn country, delivering versions of the famous “First they came for the…” speech. 

Shaped by these experiences, Levinas and Barth’s complex thought makes a practical contribution to modern democratic societies: It helps form people who will confront ethnonationalist movements before they gain the power to implement their violent vision. 

If our theology and ethics call us to care for the Stranger, then we have a clear task when we face ethnonationalist political movements.  

This is the call to reject, confront, and protest ethnonationalism for the sake of the Stranger. 

There remains plenty of room for typical disagreement. 

Like Professor X, we can distinguish between our regular opponents, against whom we can vigorously agitate. We can appeal to and reason with them – calling them to care and accept rather than merely tolerate – but we also have to recognize when there is a real threat that must be stopped. 

You don’t have to agree with someone—their beliefs, lifestyle, or anything else—to protect them against political violence. 

We can do this at the voting booth, in our communities, and in our closest relationships. We can and should do it with care and compassion, but we must do it. 

As Professor X said, if we don’t stop it now, there will be no future for anyone. 

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