Alright, Bat-fans, we’ve just about reached the end of Jeremiah Lawson’s fantastic journey through The Agony of Loss and the Madness of Desire. This installment deals with a lesser known character, but one whose story happens to be one of the most striking (and explicitly Christian) instances of grace and redemption in the Gotham canon. To catch-up on this chapter, go here. Or to check out the full–and let’s face it, incredibly impressive–Table of Contents for the entire project, go here.
PART SIX: CROSSING THRESHOLDS, or Stories of Apostasy and Salvation in Gotham City
During the life of any heart this line [dividing good and evil within the heart] keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn’t change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil.
“The Bluecaps”, The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
B. Arnold Stromwell: It’s Never Too Late
One person can be many things to many people. To many people in Gotham Arnold Stromwell was the most feared mobster in the city. To Rupert Thorne, he was an aging has-been of a bygone era of Gotham crime. In Stromwell’s own mind he was the owner of Gotham who was losing his grip on his empire and his family. What Batman sees is a man looking for an opportunity to repent of a life of crime. The crimes may pile up as high as the Gotham city skyline but while there is life there is the possibility of redemption.
In the appropriately titled early episode of Batman: The Animated Series, “It’s Never Too Late,” Thorne and Stromwell agree to meet to discuss Stromwell’s son Joey, who has disappeared and is presumed kidnapped. Stromwell is positive that Thorne is behind the kidnapping but Thorne protests that even he doesn’t touch family. He is, however, willing to kill his rival with a bomb if he can. When a crowd gathers in the wake of the explosion, rumors that Batman saved Stromwell make their way back to Thorne, who goes out in search of his rival to finish the job personally.
Stromwell, meanwhile, finds himself on a tour of the city with the Dark Knight in the stead of the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, urging the aging crime lord to repent, talk to Gordon and the district attorney (which at this point was still Harvey Dent). Batman shows Stromwell where his missing son is: a rehab center. Stromwell built his criminal empire on the trafficking and manufacture of drugs and has lost his son, not to mention his marriage, to drug addiction. Batman tells the mob boss, “All your power and money has bought you is an empire of misery.”
Stromwell disingenuously agrees to turn himself in. Stromwell is still not convinced he’s all that bad a guy. In his mind he’s not as malevolent a man as Rupert Thorne. Nor does he see himself as being as vicious as his nephew Tony Zucco, who arranged for the killing of Dick Grayson’s parents. All Stromwell has done is provide goods and services that people in Gotham want.
Stromwell plots to turn the tables on his rescuer, but before he can kill Batman Thorne and his men burst on to the scene with murder on their minds. They chase after Stromwell, and Batman leads the unsuspecting parties to the rail yards. It is there that Stromwell encounters a priest, his younger brother Michael; this is the very same rail yard where Father Michael Stromwell lost his leg saving his older brother Arnold from getting hit by a train. Struggling to keep it togeher, Arnold tells his brother, “I don’t need your help.”
“Is that a fact?” Michael asks sarcastically, “A crumbling empire, a shattered marriage, a son lost? Sure, you’re doing fine.”
As Batman fights off Thorne and his thugs the two brothers continue to talk. Arnold tells his younger brother, “You knew I was no good, Mike. Why did you save me?”
“Arnie, what else could I do? But now you’ve got a chance to save yourself. … Do the right thing for yourself, for your son, for me, your little brother.”
Arnold Stromwell may not have been willing to heed his ex-wife or the Caped Crusader, but when confronted with his own estranged younger brother, whose lost leg has haunted Arnold all his life, the aging crime lord relents. The scales fall from his eyes, and he realizes, as Batman put it, all his power and money has purchased him is an empire of misery. It takes the living, breathing reminder of his brother’s sacrifice on Stromwell’s behalf, of his undeserved love, to break through Stromwell’s hardened defenses. He can no longer hide from the fact that that he has sacrificed all of his family on the altar of a criminal empire. Will Arnold Stromwell do the right thing?
He does. He agrees to make a statement to Commissioner Gordon and cooperate with Dent. Stromwell has taken the opportunity to “save himself,” as his younger brother Michael put it. But this invitation wasn’t possible until he was shown the depth of his sin and the terrible consequences it has had for everyone he loved since childhood. The message of Stromwell’s story, obviously, is that it’s never too late to turn away from a life founded on crime and cruelty. But it is also an invitation, an altar call, an appeal to an otherwise sane and normal man whose moral compass is considered not entirely broken.
How is someone redeemed who is as lost in madness, someone literally as double-minded as Harvey Dent would become? As Batman understands, sometimes a reminder of the self-sacrifice of another is enough to inspire a change of heart. Others, however, can only be redeemed by someone kicking down the doors, leaping into the fire, and saving them from a burning building.
It is to this type of (monergistic) redemption that we turn next for our final installment.