by Kierstin Rowell and Fr. David Exner
Zemo: Longing… Rusted… Seventeen… Daybreak… Furnace… Nine… Benign…
Zemo: … Homecoming… One… Freight car...
These are the words Zemo speaks to Bucky to activate him as the Winter Soldier. Bucky tries to resist, but the anger and emotion turn into rage and he breaks out of his cell.
Bucky: Ready to comply.
As I watched this for the 50,000th time (only a slight exaggeration) over 4th of July weekend, something felt familiar. St. Paul says, “I do not understand my own actions, for I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). But why? Why do we do this? Marvel actually nails the answer to this question. This felt so eerily familiar because Bucky is me, and quite possibly also you.
There are many lessons to learn from Bucky’s experience (and our own) as we consider this, but we will focus on three. The first point comes down to identity. The Winter Soldier is not Bucky’s true identity; in fact, the Winter Soldier is not even who Bucky wants to be. If you did a 23andMe test on him, it wouldn’t come back as, “the Winter Soldier,” it would say, “James Buchanan Barnes.” When Bucky is himself, he doesn’t want to think or talk about his past and what the Winter Soldier has done. Bucky’s past is full of wounds and heavy with the weight of shame for things that were done when he was not fully himself and were not true to his identity. Zemo knows that these wounds are his weakness, and he makes Bucky identify himself with what he has done rather than who he truly is.
From the moment of our baptism we are called sons and daughters (2 Samuel 7:14, Matthew 6:9, etc.). Our identity is not dependent on what we do, but who we are, and that is unchanging. Zemo refers to Bucky as “Soldier,” which is a title, not a name, and certainly not the primary basis of his identity. The enemy, Satan – whose name in Greek means, “the Accuser” – likes to refer to us as “sinner,” to remind us of what we have done. But while sin is something we are all definitely guilty of having done, we are not our sins.
Now pause with me and listen to the words of St. John Paul II: “We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures, we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son.”
The moment we begin to doubt our identity as a beloved son or daughter is the moment our grip on truth is weakened, and in that moment we become more susceptible to the very sin we hate identifying ourselves with.
Even Bucky’s response is not one of freedom, but one of slavery. “Ready to comply” is about as far as we can get from Steve Rogers’ patented (but always free and sacrificial), “I can do this all day.” And it is lightyears removed from the freedom found in Mary’s Fiat. As St. Paul says, from our baptism we are no longer “slaves to sin,” but that, “for freedom you have been set free” (Romans 6:6; Galatians 5:1). Sin is not freedom, sin is slavery. And as Jesus himself tells us, “if the Son has set you free, you are free indeed!” (John 8:36).
Second, consider what Zemo does to begin to break Bucky. He shows up as a supposed helper, and even starts by saying something true, but then he twists that truth into a weapon.
Zemo: Tell me, Bucky, you’ve seen a great deal, haven’t you?
Bucky: I don’t want to talk about it.
Zemo: You feel that if you open your mouth, the horrors might never stop.”
Zemo brings up his past, and he points him toward shame. Bucky is trapped, and once he is internally vulnerable from the overwhelming weight of shame, Zemo speaks the words that formed him into something to be used. Does this sound familiar?
The past itself is not the weapon, so we shouldn’t conclude that every time we think of the past, it is evil. But there are a few things we can recognize to see if this is the Lord bringing this up or the “voice of discouragement” which comes straight from the enemy and the pits of hell.
Sometimes the Lord walks with us in our wounds, and in those moments it is an intimate place to be. He goes there to heal us, and while it is difficult, he always does so gently, and he always waits and listens for us to say whether or not we are ready to go with him there. Jesus never, ever shames us about our wounds. He might convict us and challenge us to change, but he does not shame us. Is it a vulnerable place to be? Yes, like a patient in the hands of a surgeon, never like a prisoner in the hands of a captor. He does not trap us, he does not force us, and he never leaves us there alone or without hope. We would do well to think of what St. Augustine discovered, when he said, “I looked into my deepest wounds and was dazzled by your glory.” When we look at our wounds with Jesus, he will not let us be hopelessly overwhelmed. When we see our past the way Jesus sees it, we will see his glory, his grace that was always at work in us, and most of all, his love and mercy.
When we talk about salvation and redemption, we are discussing the concept of being “justified.” This is where the whole debate between Catholics and other Christians comes in, about whether we are justified by faith, works, grace, etc. The Catholic answer to this is… Yes! We are saved by grace, through faith, and our works respond to this (Ephesians 2:8-10). It’s a bit like applying the St. Thérèse, “I choose all” concept. But that’s a longer discussion for another day, so for our purposes right now, when we say “justified” we are talking about salvation and redemption.
I think what makes Bucky’s story so relatable is that he needs saving over and over again. I don’t know your full story, but even after encountering Christ I still needed (and still need, even now) to be healed. My wounds hurt, and I both was and still am weak. Like Bucky, there are still words and wounds that put me in a place where I am way more likely to settle for a counterfeit or do something that isn’t authentic to my true identity in Christ, or even what I want. In those moments it is easy to wonder if the whole “Jesus thing” has really worked for me. If I have met him, and if he has done so much for me, why am I still messing up all the time? Is this what he means as justification and redemption? We may feel helpless, but as a quick side note, here it is important for us to note that our analogy, like every analogy, only goes so far, because while Bucky has completely lost his free will, we never do. We are not powerless in the face of our sin, and we know that the Lord always gives us grace sufficient for the trial or temptation we face (Romans 5:20; 2 Corinthians 12:9).
But if I slip back into sin so quickly, what is the justification that Jesus made me for?
Look at the path of salvation in the Church and the sacraments she provides, especially the Eucharist and Reconciliation. Many parishes have multiple days when Reconciliation is offered; all of them offer it at a pre-scheduled time at least once. And nearly every parish has daily Mass where we can receive the Eucharist. Priests go to great lengths to make these healing sacraments available to anyone who wishes to receive this grace. I have heard priests say, “there is always time for confession,” and most of them will stop whatever they are doing, no matter how important it is, to hear your confession if you ask. And the healing that God offers us in the sacraments is real, not only in Reconciliation, but also in the Eucharist. While the priest is purifying the vessels after communion he prays, usually silently, “What has passed our lips as food, O Lord, may we receive in purity of heart, that what has been given to us in time may be our healing in eternity.” Receiving Christ in the Eucharist does not just make us part of something, it also heals us and makes us new.
But let’s go back to looking at the sin we fall back into so quickly. Sin is our response to a wound, the symptom of something deeper. Sometimes we think that God is just asking us to turn away from sins as actions, but the reality is that Jesus wants to heal the wounds that weaken us and make us prone to sin in the first place. If Bucky was real, what Jesus would offer him is not just a promise to never speak the activation words to him, but to heal him so completely that those words would never have the power to break him again. Jesus sees our wounds and our brokenness. He sees where we are hurting, and he doesn’t give up on us.
You know who never forgets who Bucky really is, no matter what terrible things he has done as the Winter Soldier? Steve Rogers. THE Steve Rogers. Their friendship is beautiful, powerful, and unyielding. But my favorite part of their friendship is the way Steve knows Bucky and reminds him of who he is. He calls him by name and he treats him with the dignity of his true identity, never hanging shame over his head, never weaponizing his past, and never giving up on the hope that his friend can be saved.
The next time you’re feeling the sting of old wounds or new ones, or the next time you want to ask, “Jesus, why haven’t you taken this away yet?!?”, realize that he doesn’t identify you with your wounds. He never sees you as the Winter Soldier. He sees you as Bucky, his friend. And he wants nothing less than for your wounds to be healed so that you can be set free and made whole again. Jesus is not content to just help you stop sinning; he wants you to stop hurting. As beautiful as our conversion story or first moment of encounter with Jesus might be, he isn’t done with us yet. Not by a long shot.
And like Steve Rogers, Jesus is willing to give his life so that we can remember who we truly are. Steve ultimately saves his best friend the same way that Jesus saves us: by becoming the willing victim of our woundedness. If Jesus were to ever quote a movie, I think he would look you and I in the eyes and speak the words of Steve Rogers as he lowers every defense and allows his broken and wounded friend to strike him with blow after mortal blow, sacrificing everything to bring back his lost friend.
“Your name is James Buchanan Barnes… I’m not going to fight you. You’re my friend… I’m with you till the end of the line.”