Generous Orthodoxy  

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Thoughts about the Jasmine Revolution

It’s way too early to know what the uprising in Tunisia will mean in the long run, but it is already being compared to the Velvet Revolution that helped bring on the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. Few popular revolts have leaders as noble as Václav Havel of the Czech Republic and Adam Michnik of Poland, nor are many truly nonviolent, but the flight of Tunisian dictator Ben Ali from his lavish digs on the Mediterranean on Martin Luther King’s weekend awakened many thoughts about the mighty acts of God in human history.

An article in The New York Times quoted a 53-year-old woman, Sonia Ben Sultan, who said she had coughed through clouds of tear gas for hours in the demonstrations. “It was the best day of my life,” she said. “No political party, only God. Not terrorism. I want freedom, I want equality, I want righteousness. That is Islam. I cover my hair, but I don’t cover my brain.” For the first time in a while, I though that we were seeing a face of Islam that Christians might recognize in the Day of the Lord.

The number of evangelical Christians who have a world-historical outlook remains very small in the global North, in spite of numerous powerful voices from the 20th century that are revered more than they are heeded. Many biblical theologians in our time have understood the link between personal faith and the movements of God on the world stage (they are named in my post However, it has been extremely difficult to get evangelical Christians in the United States to lift their sights beyond the personal to the geopolitical. This remains a great weakness in white American Protestantism. In the Episcopal Church it sometimes seems that we have to choose between “liberal” theology that reduces the sacrament of baptism to the promise that we will “strive for justice and peace for all people, and respect the dignity of every person”—even the pedestrian phrasing gives the impression of setting the living God aside—or the teaching that focuses almost exclusively on a personal relationship with an undemanding, anodyne Jesus. I exaggerate, of course, but it is disheartening to see that evangelistic programs continue to trade in personal need rather than the call of the Kingdom of God.

The work of the theologian and ethicist Paul L. Lehmann, one of my most important teachers, is being freshly appropriated twenty years after his death. His most audacious book is The Transfiguration of Politics (1975). It has been called dated, but a new generation is mining it for insights into the way that revolutionary undertakings and nonviolent resistance can be the locus of God’s activity in the world. It remains to be seen how nonviolent the Jasmine Revolution actually is, and how consistent its goals, but I can’t help thinking of a story I heard in 2000 from an American man who was present in Belgrade for the fall of Milosevic. He was grabbed by a citizen who said joyously in halting English, “Freedom must to be!”

(See also my sermon “Between the Two Thirteens” in my book Not Ashamed of the Gospel.)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"Generously angry"

Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker has just alerted me to Andrew Sullivan's latest blog entry:

Rick Hertzberg apparently thinks my "generous orthodoxy" blog is "generously angry." Maybe it is! I will continue to strive for the "generous" part, indeed.

I used to read Sullivan's blog regularly but gave it up because it just took up too much time. However, this post is really worth the trip. In particular, his discussion of Sarah Palin manages to say everything, generously, with only the slightest touch of disdain.

Normally I would put this blog entry into "Tips," because it involves another (virtual) publication, but since Sullivan's blog is definitely "ruminative," it goes into "Ruminations" today.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Revelatory movie

Precious , a film about an obese black Harlem teenager who is pregnant with her second child by her rapist father, is now available for rental or purchase on DVD. It deserves the highest rating, but it's nevertheless important to note that it is deeply disturbing, certainly not suitable for sheltered young people (if there is such a thing these days) without a high dose of guidance.

Three words to describe it:

Revelatory. Most privileged white people know nothing of this world. It is as vivid and emotionally honest a look inside as we are likely to see.

Wrenching. The plight of "Precious" (never was there a more ironic nickname) is more taxing to absorb than almost any movie I have ever seen. Anyone with half a heart or half a soul is going to be somewhat torn up after watching it. It's the price we need to pay to gain some empathy and understanding.

Motivating. Rarely are "message" movies truly motivating. Either they are pious, sentimental, feel-good stories (much as I enjoyed The Blind Side, I'm afraid it fits that category) or they are tendentious, didactic, and self-congratulatory. This one is different. It could be described as "redemptive," but it is too brutal and open-ended for that, leaving us in doubt as to the future outcome for Precious and her two children. It isn't asking us to shed a tear or two. Even less is it calling upon us to "do something!" or "get involved!' Instead, it asks us for understanding and for resilience. Understanding, because it really takes an effort to understand unattractive, unpleasant people with whom we have no real contact. Resilience, because it takes even more effort to carry understanding and empathy into the real world where mere good intentions are useless.

In addition, admirers of acting will have a feast day. Mo'nique deserved her Oscar and more. It's not her portrayal of Precious' monstrous mother per se that shatters, for that was relatively easy--it's her breakdown at the end, an astonishing depiction of psychological truth requiring every resource that an actor has to call upon. An almost unrecognizable Mariah Carey also deserves great credit for her willingness to do without makeup or hairdressing (the other social worker is a bit too glamorous to be believable). And Gabby Sidibe, a complete neophyte, gives a very courageous performance as well in the role of Precious.

There is also a very strong scene illustrating the haplessness of unskilled caseworkers who, as we know from the news reports of so many tragic children's deaths from abuse, fail to pick up the telltale signs of an abusive home. This, too, we need to understand.

And understanding is the first step in real usefulness.