Dune 2’s warning echoes the Barmen Declaration

Both "Dune: Part Two" and the Barmen Declaration call Christians to reject religious corruption, writes Brendan McLean.

Image courtesy of Warner Brothers.

Editor’s note: The following review contains spoilers for the plot of “Dune: Part Two.”

The Nazi party’s political ascent in Germany was mirrored by the growth of another group: German Christians. These Adolf Hitler supporters sought to manipulate the church so it would fall in line with the Third Reich and bolster its leader’s authority, strengthening his claim to power. This marriage of religion and political power ultimately led to the genocide of the Holocaust as well as the deadliest conflict in human history, both of which fundamentally and irrevocably changed the course of modern history.

The relationship between faith and power in 1930s Germany came to mind when watching “Dune: Part Two,” the second part of Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s foundational science fiction series. Epic and immersive, the film picks up immediately after 2021’s “Dune,” with Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), now living as refugees and fugitives among the Fremen, the native dwellers of the lucrative planet Arrakis.

A religious dimension simmers under this political plot. Paul is believed to be a messiah by many of the Fremen and his mother, a member of the powerful and secretive Bene Gesserit female religious order with a stronghold on galactic politics. Those who see Paul as the long-awaited savior attempt to move him towards foretold messianic destinies.

There is another, smaller contingent of Fremen skeptical of the messianic prophecy. Chani (Zendaya) is key among this group. Yet, she eventually falls in love with Paul as she sees him embrace the ways of the Fremen by learning their language, participating in their cultural practices, and fighting their oppressors. Paul promises to live among the Fremen, desiring to learn from them rather than gain power. He ultimately breaks this promise when he claims the emperor’s throne with the aid of the Fremen, beginning a holy war that encompasses the entire universe. The compelling final shot of “Dune: Part Two” shows Chani refusing to bow to Paul and departing in a lone act of resistance.

“This prophesy is how they enslave us.”

On the surface, it’s easy to see Chani represent secular resistance to religious beliefs. Along with other Fremen, she believes that the messianic prophesy was made to manipulate and oppress her people, stating at one point, “This prophesy is how they enslave us.”

However, Chani’s resistance to the great houses using the Fremen’s religion and culture as a political tool is not necessarily the simple binary of “religious vs. secular.” You do not have to be against religion to oppose a religious movement. Religious resistance contains nuance. Religion can open the door to hope, interconnectedness and self-discovery while also upholding the status quo that benefits those with power. The key is identifying where religion stops and where idolatry cloaked in religious belief begins.

Image courtesy of Warner Brothers.

In this way, Chani’s character resonates with the words of the Barmen Declaration, a document published by the Confessing Church resistance movement in Nazi Germany. Written primarily by the Swiss reformed theologian Karl Barth, the Barmen Declaration was published in Germany in May 1934 and condemns the rise of Hitler, the Nazi Party, and the German Christians. According to the confession, saying “yes” to the sovereign authority of God means that one must also say “no” to the powers of this world.

In other words, when we affirm the power of the Word of God, we reject false doctrines such as Hitler’s call for supremacy. The Confessing Church didn’t want to eliminate the institution of the church because it was being used as a political tool in Nazi Germany. They wanted to reclaim the church for what it stands for — the ultimate sovereignty of God and the rule of life in the Word that calls us to love one another, as we all bear the image of God in us.

For the PC(USA), these words continue to reverberate today as they are a part of our Book of Confessions, adopted first by the northern UPCUSA in 1967 and then in the merger of northern and southern Presbyterian sects in 1983. By classifying the Barmen Declaration as one of our confessions, we claim that Jesus Christ is the savior of the world, we believe in the sovereignty of God as maker of all, and we resolve to reject anything, anyone, or any institution that distracts from the spiritual, scriptural truths of grace, love and solidarity.

In the world of “Dune: Part Two,” the religion of the Fremen has been corrupted. It is an idolatry, a political tool to be used for gains in power. Author Frank Herbert wrote in “Dune Genesis” that he perceived the story of Dune as a warning: “Don’t give over all of your critical faculties to people in power, no matter how admirable those people may appear to be. Beneath the hero’s facade, you will find a human being who makes human mistakes. Enormous problems arise when human mistakes are made on the grand scale available to a superhero.”

Herbert’s words are heard and seen in “Dune: Part Two,” where we see the consequences of religion being corrupted, exploited and used to serve the powers of the world. Gorgeous in its images, sounds and scope, the film is terrifyingly ominous. It is a warning that religion can be used to manipulate the masses, and it hits close to home.

For those who claim the Barmen Declaration, I invite us to remember that we can reject corruption and exploitation in the name of religion.

For those who claim the Barmen Declaration, I invite us to remember that we can reject corruption and exploitation in the name of religion. We can hold fast to the loving gospel of Christ. When we encounter people and institutions that tell us otherwise, may we respond like Chani, refusing to bow to the idolatry of power even if we are the lone objector.

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