Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Other Inconvenient Truth

Below is the final draft of my class editorial. My intention with it is to ask the question where our violent habits, traditions and condoned public practices ulimately lead us, further away from God's Kingdom or closer to it?

Am I the only one to see it? This gaping window of opportunity situated in the brush and eucalyptus of the Hollywood Hills. Unprecedented globalization is the chance for Hollywood’s royalty to take a stand against human on human violence while proselytizing for the environment. The catch is I’m not talking about the violence we hear about in Iraq, Darfur or Burma, but in their blockbusters and bombs. This is not a call for censorship nor is it a hollow scolding but a real plea to each and every actor to take responsibility for and genuinely reflect on the messages they send out into the world through their work.

I admit, as a child I had a voracious appetite for cult horror flicks like Friday 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street. The bloodier they were the better. The more chopping of human parts the more thrilling it was for me. Then I grew up. As a young adult (and certainly now) each time I watched an ultra-violent or excessively psychologically traumatic film I felt sickened and sad and knew that it was changing a part of me. It is time Hollywood grows up too.
What got me thinking about this is all the big talk about the environment coming out of Hollywood. Not to mention all the talk about genocide, AIDS, Katrina, the Iraq war and animal rights. There is no question that the world (the industrial world predominately) watches Hollywood so buying the Toyota Prius, now as fashionable as a nymph-like Stella McCartney dress or Versace handbag, is a good start to helping spread the word about the importance of being green. However, there is one very large component an avid environmentalist like Leonardo DiCaprio is missing. He fails to see that the very work he produces in his movies, predominately with ultra-violent themes, (like The Departed or Romeo and Juliet) severely compromises his environmental efforts and sends contradictory messages to the public. By shooting another human in the head with potential (at best) pretend consequences of contrition, DiCaprio loses power and authority to share with us his passion for the environment. The nexus between environmentalism and nonviolence is the sanctity of human life and dignity.

As the saying goes we are what we eat. Bare with me. We are also parts of passages of books we’ve read, lines of poetry rest somewhere deep within us, art we have seen in museums or handed to us created by our children become a part of who we are. The same can be said for what we witness in our homes, on our streets and on the big screen, make believe or not. The more violence we consume the more violent and immune to it we become. We don’t need scientists to prove this, to chart it for us and quantify the results. There are some things we know to be true, whether or not we see them. That is called faith.

The way we treat one another is inextricably linked to how we view and treat the environment. The most elemental fact about our lives as humans is that we live in community within an astoundingly complex and interactive ecosystem. As one eco-theologist put it, “humans receive from this system, impact on it, dwell inside of it, depend upon it; we are not in any sense of the word apart from the natural order, but bound to it for our very survival.”
The same can be said for our human community. Dr. Susan Thistlethwaite, President of Chicago Theological Seminary, argues that we must acknowledge “the inseparable unity of the human community that either brings healthy humanity into being, or warps, distorts and ultimately destroys healthy human beings, their communities, and the planet.” We are bound to each other for our survival, thus we must view the handprint of the Divine in one another, as well as in creation, if we are to survive. As Christians we are commanded to love one another. If we are not deliberate in our loving one another our environment ultimately suffers, as can be evidenced in our poorest communities like New Orleans where environmental degradation threatens human existence. Human justice issues are involved in every aspect of environmental destruction. There is no way to separate the way we live and think from the health of the environment.

We, as humans, cannot expect to elevate our compassion for the environment until we practice and are committed in our actions, by choice of occupation and life-style, (on screen and off) to elevate our compassion for our fellow humans. It is a convoluted and erroneous notion that the more we display and showcase violence in film and television to “explain” or scrutinize it the more we’ll understand it and expose it. In reality, we only perpetuate the violence in our society and world and we move no further from it to get a better perspective. Instead we fall more in love with it and allow for it to take deeper root in our hearts. That is its power. Furthermore, any attempt by Hollywood to convey a message of morality laced in the bloodshed is trumped by the gore and the devaluing of human life.

This is not an argument positing moral absolutes. It is simply common sense. Perhaps it is the other inconvenient truth. That if we do not start speaking out against human violence in movies, on television, in video games, and in our homes, we will continue heading down the wrong path in regards to saving the environment. Hollywood is wasting its leverage with the part of the world that is paying attention by not having an equally aggressive stance against human violence in its movies as it does on violence against the environment.
Certainly we are all scared to make the radical re-ordering of our world views but our intellectual support for environmental causes is insufficient. We cannot save the planet without considering human relations, the impact on the most vulnerable, the global dynamics of poverty and underdevelopment, and neo-colonial exploitation of peoples and the earth. To succeed, we all must adopt a new set of values and standards that might be considered countercultural today but will be the norm tomorrow. Perhaps the stars can lead the way.

Where Does Our Violence Take Us?

I believe society must first determine if its endorsement of violence begets violence, and if violence undermines our commitment to the sanctity of life. To these questions, I answer, "Yes."

- Governor Jon S. Corzine, announcing the abolition of the death penalty in New Jersey. Corzine also stated, “Other good people will describe today’s actions in quite different terms — in terms of injustice — particularly those who carry heavy hearts, broken hearts from their tragic losses. This bill does not forgive or in any way condone the unfathomable acts carried out by the eight men now on New Jersey’s death row. They will spend the rest of their lives in jail.” (Source: The New York Times)

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Despair Everywhere

My mother just shared with me that recently on a number of occasions she has found my father kneeling at his bedside in the middle of the night. She assumes he is praying but I have never even heard my father say the word "pray" or the word "God" for that matter. Only half jokingly he used to say to us "God doesn't bother me and I don't bother God". This was to relay a message to his four children that he was not in need of God to survive, to make it through the day or his life. Then he found himself later in life in an ugly lawsuit that aged him, that drained him and made him consider God. He began to attend church for a couple of years and I know that it gave him great comfort. His life brought him face to face with despair and he reached for God's hand.

I don't think this is uncommon. I think for many, if not most, of us we go along about our business too busy to consider God, our lives, our own despair until one day it comes knocking so hard on our door that we have to answer. I too am guilty of seeking God not in a moment of great joy or celebration but during a time when I doubted Love and any reason for being. I wanted order to the chaos I was spiritually experiencing. As I was not raised in a church I began my search for some moral absolutes by reading various religious texts. I know of, in some small sense, the despair that author Chris Hedges discusses in his chapter Culture of Despair, that leads people to Christian fundamentalism. The weight of our suffering and unanswered "Whys?" is too much to bear alone.

If our fear and isolation drive us toward God and perhaps even to religious utopianism there is danger, as Hedges points out, of abolition of critical thinking distinct of an open society. Totalitarianism rises from the mountains of despair experienced by the impoverished and disconnected. Fundamentalism often represents destruction of "the ability to think for oneself, to draw independent conclusions, to express dissent when judgment and common sense tell you something is wrong, to be self-critical, to challenge authority, to advocate for change and accept that there are other views, different ways of being, that are morally and socially acceptable." In our search for God and for finding comfort for our despair we must celebrate life and difference and not find strength in our fears or remain embedded in our suffering by building walls around our hearts and communities.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Bringing Torture to Life

One of the questions posed during the YouTube/CNN Republican debates last week asked whether or not waterboarding is torture. Senator McCain definitively stated it is torture and the US should choose to take the "higher ground" and not participate in the practice of any form of torture. Romney, on the other hand, made the embarrassing remark that it was to the disadvantage of the US to even discuss interrogation techniques thereby sidestepping the question all together. I wonder how his prayers to his God can lead him to give such a non-committal and harmful statement. Harmful because in his non answer he more or less said to the world that this is not a moral issue, a human rights issue of value to be met head on. By not discussing it it does not exist. By not giving waterboarding shape or sound Romney fails to bring it to life and it remains a hypothetical method of interrogation and not a formalized technique currently used to deliberately induce human trauma.

If anyone questions whether or not waterboarding is torture then maybe we should look at it another way. I don't like to check the news on CNN but every now and then I do despite the sorrow it brings me. It seems that almost every time I do I find a story about a child who was beaten to death. Just the other day I read about a little girl whose head was repeatedly dunked in a bathroom tub for not saying "thank you". I would guess that most Americans would agree that deliberately submerging a child's head in a tub of water to elicit a particular response from her would be deemed torture and not just an unusually austere method of discipline. If it is considered a form of inhumane treatment (torture) for the toddler then it must certainly be deemed torture for any man or woman held in captivity. We should be horrified by the treatment of this child and equally as outraged for any human subjected to such intentional cruelty.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

We Said Nothing

I should have written a before and an after post. One before I watched The Passion and one after just to see where it has taken me. For our Public Theology class we were instructed to watch Mel Gibson's movie The Passion and I very reluctantly found it in our video store and brought it home. I find violent movies to be damaging to my spirit and I choose not to damage my spirit as much as I have choice in it. So, where did this movie take me? There is too much to say in this one post.

I have to admit, I don't know the story of Christ's Passion. I didn't sit in a single Sunday school class as a child and I am just beginning to recognize the power in the Bible. I have so much to learn! I didn't know that Judas got money for turning in Jesus to the authorities or that he hung himself in sorrow due to his betrayal. I didn't know that no one who was expected to come to Christ's aid did not. To me, this was the most heartbreaking part of the story. I wept when his friends kept quiet while he was beaten and called blasphemer. He was alone in his suffering as the crowd watched, perhaps some cheering, some in awe, some frozen with terror. Gibson had Satan walking through the crowds of onlookers. This immediately reminded me of Professor Thistlethwaite's recent op-ed where she wrote Gibson's portrayal in this scenario was sadly and disturbingly accurate in that "the Devil is always in the crowd that stands by and in so doing abets horrific mass torture and death."

Why do we say nothing? This is the first place this movie took me. I wept for the fact that we watch suffering and betrayal in one form or another on a daily basis and often do nothing. Maybe is this one of the greatest lessons we are taught in the Bible. Loyalty to humanity and God means speaking up when you don't want to, when you fear for your safety, reputation or status. Am I to take from this that we failed to speak up for God? Is this sin to be repeated again and again?

Sometimes it is the stranger, the one we fear or have ignored in the past who comes, even begrudgingly, to our assistance, carries our cross with us, holds our broken heart and hands and gives us comfort. That is why we love the stranger for just when the world gets dark there is light that can come from unexpected places. This is a testimony to the power of God's love for us all. He is everywhere.


Saturday, November 24, 2007

1. Believe More

I don’t think it’s too soon to make my New Year’s Resolutions. I can start with the usual like eat less, exercise more, keep in better contact with family and friends, learn how to mediate, start practicing yoga – baby steps…. This is a good start I think. It is missing something though. I just read an op-ed in the New York Times called Taking Science on Faith by Paul Davies. It is about the inevitable and ironic intersection of science and religion in faith. He remarks that as a student he was told the job of the scientist “is to discover the laws and apply them, not inquire into their provenance.” This did not stop him from wondering about “why the laws of physics are what they are.” In other words, what is the source of these laws? Davies asserts that scientists, for good reason, are generally not too comfortable with this type of questioning. If reason desserts us at this point, “then nature is a fiendishly clever bit of trickery: meaninglessness and absurdity somehow masquerading as ingenious order and rationality.” Ultimately, like religion, science must rely on faith, “namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too.” We must believe in those things unseen, not “based on testable hypotheses.”

What my list is missing is believing more. Faith needs to be at the top of my list in red ink and underlined in bubble letters. Critical analysis and skepticism are healthy, productive and necessary but they are at some point useless. I can question the laws of the universe and the evils of humanity and will likely never know the truth of origin, of reason, of purpose and despondent give up the church, the Book, living life in its fullest but I don’t want to do this for where else would I go? Barbara Brown Taylor writes that it is with Jesus and within the church community “where we have heard the words of eternal life.” Here is “where we have come to believe and know the Holy One of God.” So, nurturing my belief, my faith in human goodness, in Christ, and in the good news gives me life and energy for the rest of my endeavors.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Bottomless Blessings

On the eve of Thanksgiving I will take a moment to count my blessings. I can tell you that last week, at peak fall color, I got to sit on my couch in my living room around noon and watch the gold fall from the trees and pool at their bases. I know that God cushioned the blow for them when they came to rest. I am blessed every time I get to witness, unhurried, earth’s cycle and glory.

I am blessed. I can’t be afraid to say it in fear that it will go away. Alternatively, I read in an article by a 9/11 widow that she believed that by voicing the blessings she and her husband shared in love and life they were insuring themselves against tragedy. Perhaps nothing can protect us from harm. The only thing we do know is that we must get back up after tragedy, after failing, after hitting bottom.

The blessing of abundance is due every human. So while I list my joys I need to keep in mind my brothers and sisters who are not partaking in the feast today or tomorrow. Yes, I love my family. My children are love in flesh. The amazing gift they give is they show me that the human heart’s capacity for love is bottomless. I am grateful for friendship, excellent health and my church community. I love my books and my Seminary and the silly things that make me smile and take my mind off of the hungry world for just a minute.

What about this hungry world? Mark Winne recently wrote an article in the Washington Post about canned compassion. This is a wonderful term aptly describing our holiday overindulgence of both cake and compassion. Today we would like the hungry fed but as Winne states, this “cycle of need -- always present, rarely sated, never resolved -- will continue.” It will continue past Thursday and into shopping frenzy Friday. I don’t mean to judge. I like to shop too. I like the things wrapped in pretty papers that don’t change any systems or people for the better. I understand that trying to fix poverty is much more difficult than dropping cans of corn and boxes of pasta into a plastic bin. However, we must understand, and care once we understand, that these offerings are maintenance. Winne asserts that the donors and those relying on them are “trapped in an ever-expanding web of immediate gratification that offered the recipients no long-term hope of eventually achieving independence and self-reliance.” Most people are too tired or too disinterested in the “task of harnessing the political will needed to end hunger in the United States.”

Food insecurity is one symptom of the larger problem of poverty and if we continue down the endless road of creating more and more food banks for the ever increasing hungry population then we are merely helping to dig a deeper hole for us all.

I believe that the abundance in our lives is meant to be shared. It is not meant to shrink our hearts out of fear or inspire tighter fists around our coins. Our abundance is tied up to the abundance of our neighbor and stranger. This Thanksgiving I pray that the blessing of compassion does not stop with a can of soup for compassion born of love is bottomless, creative and hopeful for those in need of more than just a sandwich and a prayer. Let us, let me, have the courage today and tomorrow and after the philanthropy party has ended to stare hunger and its begetter in the face. If even a few of us named it and demanded change the lines would shorten and all of our blessings would grow.