Man of Steel: Pete Ross

“If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying down under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it; you shall rescue it with him.

Exodus 23:4-5

The character of Pete Ross, played as a teenager by Jack Foley in Man of Steel, has been featured in Superboy comics since 1961 and has become a constant member of the pantheon of Superman’s supporting characters. His standout characteristic is that he is a stalwart friend of the young Clark Kent because he is the only person other than Clark’s adoptive parents Jonathan and Martha Kent who knows his secret identity as a superhero.

Pete appears in some critical scenes in Man of Steel, with these scenes also centered around his having at least some vague idea that Clark is just not a normal kid. A unique contribution of Man of Steel’s take on Pete Ross, however, is that he starts out as a bully and enemy of the young Clark Kent. Just before the half-hour mark in the movie, during a flashback scene, we get our first glimpse of Pete interacting with the young Clark on a school bus, and with the first words we have of Pete talking to Clark, he is calling the teenaged superhero an ass-wipe! In this rendition of the character, Pete starts off harassing Clark the misfit. In that scene, the bus has a blowout on a bridge and plunges into the depths of a river below. Jonathan has told Clark not to reveal his abilities to anyone, but he can’t let the kids die, so the young Superman rescues the bus and everyone in it from the waters. Just after bringing the bus to shore, however, Clark dives back into the water to rescue one last schoolkid: Pete Ross, the guy who was just making fun of him a few minutes before. Clark saved his enemy.

With that scene, Man of Steel establishes Superman as evincing the highest form of morality someone can possibly possess: love for one’s enemy. This scene gives us an opportunity to talk about a subject that can be scary for many to consider. We can now talk about morality.

Morality is usually a difficult subject for many to grapple with specifically because it is often associated with divine judgment and an honest evaluation of individual merit, which can be uncomfortable to think about. In the West, the Abrahamic religions dominate in society, particularly Christianity and Islam, which at face value after minimal contemplation can give a strong impression of “join us or go to hell” that we connect to a perceived moral deficit within ourselves. However, even in Hinduism and Buddhism, karma determines whether someone is reincarnated as a slug or as a king or queen, so the idea of judgment and morality is present in nearly every form of religion, and all of them can involve a certain amount of discomfort.

We aren’t going to discuss divine judgment so much here, only that we want to say that very profound ideas are involved with it, and there is much less to be afraid of than we can sometimes be tempted to think. Remember General Zod’s resemblance to the Devil, the prosecutor and accuser, telling us that only the perfect bloodlines will be allowed to live. Whether we think of the Devil as a personal spirit or as an opposing principle saddling us with guilt to trick us into thinking that we are unloved by God, we should walk away thinking there is more to judgment than just being good enough to be allowed to live.

But leaving aside thoughts about judgment, we should approach the field of morality by knowing what morality actually is. It’s the subject of determining what is correct. Because the correct thoughts, words, or actions are going to vary according to situation, many have been tempted to think that there is no morality and that all thought of morality should be abandoned. No, there is not one set of actions or behaviors that apply as correct to every situation, but in every situation there are actions that accomplish good outcomes, so that we can say that while we can’t give you a list of things to do, say, and think in every situation, there is nevertheless a morality. Morality should be thought more of in terms of doing the right thing at the right time in the right situation to create a good effect in that situation.

While the Bible is often pilloried as a source of universally applicable good behaviors, it does acknowledge that even the understanding of the existence of objective morality does require application to context.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

So we see that even while maintaining that there is this thing called morality, objective morality even, we don’t shy away from the fact that the correct thing to do depends on the specific situation. This thinking does not mean that there is no morality, or that morality is relative, but rather that morality requires attention to context and situation.

Another facet of morality that people often overlook when thoughts of guilt, imperfection, and judgment come into their minds, is that the idea of a correct action is decidedly broader and less characterological than we might think. The overarching field of being correct is not just a matter of being a good person, and it is not just a matter of guilt or culpability. That is, if you intend to drive from Phoenix, Arizona to Los Angeles, California, and to do so you must drive west, but you drive east toward New Mexico, you’ve done something incorrect, and are in a sense immoral. Yet when we think of this, we call it a wrong turn. We call it a mistake. We tend not to think about hell fire. The idea of honest mistakes, regret for wrongs committed, and the inability to accomplish a correct action is a complex and rich area in the field of ethics. Here we only want to state that the idea of moral behavior does not need to be instantly flooded with fears of infernal oblivion or animosity with God for being some kind of dirt bag of a person, and that morality and immorality are not simply matters about being lovable or approved of.

With this knowledge, as we think about this scene of a young Superman saving his enemy, we should turn our attention to the understanding of love. To save his enemy, Superman had to love his enemy, and love is a word that is often poorly understood. Hebrew has two words commonly translated as love. The first, ahavah, is rather general, and includes all of the senses that we tend to associate with love in the modern English. For most, anymore, love is simply the derivation of pleasure from something or someone. We love someone because we enjoy them. We love ice cream because it tastes good. Ahavah includes this concept of loving something because it brings you pleasure, though it also refers to a more true understanding of love that we will talk about henceforth.

Yet when we discuss this other notion of love, we are going to concentrate on another Hebrew word. This other word captures the essence of what love actually is very well. In Hebrew the word is chesed, and it is generally used to describe the love of God for humanity. In Kabbalah, chesed is one of the spheres of the tree of life, a blueprint for divine attributes that are found in the creation. Many translate this word as “kindness” in order to distinguish it from sensual love and love related to personal pleasure and enjoyment. Chesed, or kindness, or true love, is simply an absolute devotion of one to another that never under any circumstances wavers, lessens, or changes. It requires no reward. There is nothing transactional about it. There is no give and take associated with it. And, most importantly, it doesn’t depend on anyone being good enough to earn it. God just loves us. That’s it. That’s all there is to it.

An interesting thing about this, though, and something that we learn from Superman in Man of Steel, is that we can do this too. We can express this kind of divine love. Further, the way that we recognize this kind of divine, immutable, and unassailable love, is in the proximity of the lover to the loved. That is to say, if we love our friends, we can’t quite be sure if we love them because they are making us happy. We know them. We have confidence that they will help us when we contemplate helping them. Things change a bit when we talk about loving some unknown stranger, however, and this ideal is also present in the Bible.

You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.

Exodus 22:21

Back in the days before massive government regulation of life, family and tribe were the fundamental units of society, and travelers were those without family or tribe, strangers to their new location. They had no social security, no retirement plans, no credit cards, and no smartphones connecting them to family and friends far away. They also had nothing to allow them to live independently, and were completely dependent on the mercy of those in their new surroundings. Showing devotion to the welfare of the stranger is more difficult to peg as a mere transaction that gives the lover enjoyment, however, as strangers can indeed be dangerous, and one rarely knows if the stranger will reciprocate the love shown them.

But the highest ideal of love is that contained in the verses at the top about the stuck ox and the exhausted donkey that belong to one’s known enemy. Even higher than caring for an unknown stranger who may have nothing to offer in return and who may in fact be harmful, we have the idea of caring for a known enemy, someone who very likely will offer nothing in return, and who has been and probably will be harmful.

This is the kind of love that we see in Superman, a child Superman even, who already in his youth possesses staggering personal power that he is still learning to control, when he dives back into the water to save his enemy.

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.

Abraham Lincoln

Later in the movie, the young Clark is once again bullied by some kids from town, and Clark, true to form, allows them to push him around, not using his power to protect himself. Among those kids, though, was another member of the group who did nothing to harm Clark and who helped him up after they’d pushed him down. This other kid was our Pete Ross. The love for him that Clark showed by saving his life immediately after being called an ass-wipe had an effect. Yes, Pete knew Clark had supernatural strength and really should not be trifled with, but even more impactful was that Pete knew Clark’s character, that not only would he allow himself to be pushed around by these kids, but that he would save their lives if it came down to it. That’s how Pete came to understand that Clark was a superhero.

This type of love is powerful when you have the chance to show it. To my knowledge at this time, finding reference to the love for one’s enemy is not common in religion. The commandment of Moses above, from the middle of the second millennium BCE, is not only the oldest reference to the love for one’s enemy that humanity has available, but that it is unique to the Jewish tradition. Of course, almost two thousand years later, this principle was repeated in a poignant way by another Jew whose words were transported around the world for billions to read in the New Testament:

You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,

Matthew 5:43-44

The consistency of the New Testament with the remaining Jewish literature has long been a matter of debate, but we can see quite clearly that in this instance, the quote from Jesus captures the essence of the commandment of Moses. However, unless anyone reading this draft can point to the principle in other religions, I am going to say that in my experience I have not seen it in other primary scriptures outside of the Torah and the New Testament. I welcome any input that may modify this understanding.

In closing, I’ll summarize that the scenes involving Pete Ross serve to connect Superman to the highest level of love that mankind has talked about, and this establishes Superman within the context of morality in general as an iconic hero exhibiting divine characteristics.

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