He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.
Charlie Brown is a weird kid. He's odd. He's unpopular. He's insignificant. Consequently, when we see Charlie Brown suffer abuse or indignities we are amused. Even entertained. But over the course of the strip our feelings about Charlie Brown begin to change. This weird kid begins to appear heroic in the face of all he suffers. As David Michaelis writes, "Charlie Brown handles without self-pity insults that would push real children to the breaking point...Schulz's characters remind people of the never-ceasing struggle to confront one's vulnerabilities with dignity." (1)
Eventually, we begin to identify with this weird kid, to see ourselves in his sufferings: "Readers recognized themselves in 'poor, moon-faced, unloved, misunderstood' Charlie Brown--in his dignity in the face of whole seasons of doomed ball games, his endurance and stoicism in the face of insults--because he is willing to admit that just to keep on being Charlie Brown is an exhausting and painful process. Charlie Brown reminded people, as no other cartoon character had, of what it was to be vulnerable, to be small and alone in the universe, to be human--both little and big at the same time." (2)
We see ourselves in Charlie Brown. And by seeing ourselves in this weird kid we begin to stand with all the weird kids. In standing with Charlie Brown we stand with all those who suffer abuse, disappointment, and failure. We stand in solidarity with all those kids not picked for the playground kickball game.
One of the deepest theological themes of Peanuts is how it makes this weird kid, Charlie Brown, the hero. More precisely, Charlie Brown is an anti-hero. A victim is the protagonist of Peanuts. And in this odd move Peanuts draws us into solidarity with victims.
Obviously, this hero-victim-solidarity motif sits at the core of the Christian faith. In Christianity the victim is deified. God stands in solidarity with those who suffer. Jesus stands in the place of the weird, odd, and marginalized.
These themes are given voice by Jurgen Moltmann in his book The Crucified God:
"In Christ, God and our neighbor are a unity...The crucified Christ became the brother of the despised, abandoned and oppressed. And this is why brotherhood with the 'least of his brethren' is a necessary part of brotherhood with Christ and identification with him...Christian identification with the crucified necessarily brings them into solidarity with the alienated of this world, with the dehumanized and the inhuman." (3)
In sum, Moltmann argues that Christian love is, at root, love for the Charlie Brown's of the world:
"...the church of the crucified Christ cannot consist of an assembly of like persons who mutually affirm each other, but must be constituted of unlike persons...[F]or the crucified Christ, the principle of fellowship is fellowship with those who are different, and solidarity with those who have become alien and have been made different. Its power is not friendship, the love for what is similar and beautiful, but creative love for what is different, alien and ugly." (4)
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
But there is more than solidarity with the victim in Peanuts. As we watch Charlie Brown suffer, his innocent non-retalitory response begins to unmask the violence around him. The violence seems so much more violent when directed at Charlie Brown. As Michaelis notes, when Charlie Brown absorbs violence "no rage boils up, no self-pity spills over, no tears are shed, no punch line squeezed out--just silent endurance." (5)
This "silent endurance" begins to unmask, highlight, and indict the violence. As Umberto Eco noted, Charlie Brown "acts in all purity and without any guile", and, as a result, "society is prompt to reject him..."
In the Christian story, the innocence of the Lamb of God is critical to the unmasking of human violence. Because Jesus is innocent, as is Charlie Brown, the insanity of violence is made salient. The innocence of the Lamb makes it painfully obvious that the violence is unjustified. And this calls into question all forms of justification for violence. The Christian story asks: How do you know it isn't God you are killing? The cross of Jesus is always sitting there, a constant indictment of human violence. It speaks across the centuries: Look at what you did. How can humans be trusted to kill if this is what you did to innocence and goodness? As Mark Heim has written in his book Saved from Sacrifice: "In the Gospel of Luke, at the moment of Jesus' death the centurion at the cross exclaims, 'Surely this man was innocent.' This is not the voice of [voilence-justifying religious] myth. It is a profound counterconfession, a voice of dissent..." (6)
This "voice of dissent" indicts the self-interested rationalizations that humans use to justify their scapegoating violence. When the victim is clearly proclaimed to be innocent violence stands unmasked and a route to salvation is opened. As Heim continues:
A Golgotha the "scapegoating process is stripped of its sacred mystery, and the collective persecution and abandonment are painfully illustrated for what they are, so that no one, including the disciples, the proto-Christians, can honestly say afterward that they resisted the sacrificial tide. In myth no victims are visible as victims, and therefore neither are any persecutors. But in the New Testament the victim is unmistakably visible and the collective persecutors (including in the end virtually everyone) and their procedures are illustrated in sharp clarity.
...The free, loving 'necessity' that lead God to be willing to stand in the place of the scapegoat is that this is the way to unmask the sacrificial mechanism, to break its cycles of mythic reproduction, and to found human community on a nonsacrificial principle: solidarity with the victim, not unanimity against the victim." (7)
In short, I read Peanuts as a Christian text. I see the victim as the hero. I'm drawn into solidarity with the odd, weird, weak, and ugly. And I see in the quiet dignity of Charlie Brown a shadow the cross, a place where human violence is unmasked for the cruelty that it is.
Images from The Complete Peanuts by Fantagraphics Books
--End Chapter 7--
(1) p. 189 Schulz and Peanuts
(2) p. 247 Ibid
(3) p. 24, 25 The Crucified God
(4) p. 28 Ibid
(5) p. 269 Schulz and Peanuts
(6) p. 116 Saved from Sacrifice
(7) p. 114 Ibid