Tired of Same Old Movie Th[M]emes?

During the holidays, I saw a couple of newly released movies at the theater. The most recent one was Les Miserables. Now this is a classic story that I enjoyed seeing years ago as play. However, this time around I couldn’t help but think how tired I was of viewing the same old plot line that exists for too many movies. It goes like this: systemic injustice (for example vast wealth inequality in 19th century Les Mis and today too) creates horrific suffering which is then personally alleviated for a few characters by one over-privileged white male who saves – pick one – his family, the United States or planet earth.

Hollywood clearly knows about the underlying systemic abuses and injustice that causes so much of the suffering in the world. But then Hollywood too often misses the point: one person alone will never change systemic injustice. The “one person will save us fantasy” – is just that – a fantasy. It’s particularly a fantasy when that one person is a white male, since patriarchy (men having power over women, children and people of color) is the root cause of the wealth inequality, discrimination and abuse in the world.

Worse, believing this fantasy short circuits our motivation to do what is really necessary. Each of us is part of the human family and each of us has a responsibility to work for long term change. Real changes in the way we provide for basic needs, distribute resources and care for those who are vulnerable requires a community willing to use all its imagination, empathy and creativity.

Why can’t Hollywood use their abundant resources, ingenuity, creativity and imagination to highlight real and useful systemic solutions for the poverty and abuse that we see in our local communities, on our continent and around the world? Possibilities and opportunities for solutions exist. They are many and often easily accomplished. Examples abound. Why not build powerful stories around these ideas?

Cross and the Lynching Tree

In Jame H. Cone’s new book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, (Orbis, 2011) white, Christian theologians are taken to task for failing to make the connection between the cross and the lynching tree. Cone references Acts 10:39 – “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree” – then details the pervasive history of lynching in the U.S. which occurred in virtually every state. Lynching emerged immediately after the emancipation and was a way for the white population to terrorize and control the newly freed black population.

Cone takes on theological giant Reinhold Niebuhr (Chapter Two) for Niebuhr’s extensive reflections on the cross, white supremacy and racism – yet noting Niebuhr’s failure to link Christianity and the cross over against white supremacy and racism. Later Cone quotes Niebuhr, “‘People without imagination really have no right to write about ultimate things'” a condemnation of Niebuhr’s white, racist theology itself (94).

Cone writes, “Walter White, national secretary of the NAACP and the author of several novels and the important book Rope and Faggot, indicted Christianity for creating the fanaticism that encouraged lynching. ‘It is exceedingly doubtful if lynching could possibly exist under any other religion than Christianity,’ he [White] wrote. ‘Not only through tacit approval and acquiescence has the Christian Church indirectly given its approval to lynching law . . ., but the evangelical Christian denominations have done much towards creation of the particular fanaticism which finds its outlet in lynching'” (112).  Take, for example, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a white supremacy organization promoting racism and committing acts of terrorism that openly identifies as Christian. In fact, a cross burning occurred in April of this year – right here in Minnesota.

Lest we mistakenly think that lynching involved only black men, in Chapter Five Cone details similar violence against black women. “Although women constitute only 2 percent of blacks actually killed by lynching, it would be a mistake to assume that violence against women was not widespread and brutal. Black women were neither incidental objects of white vigilante violence nor marginal participants in the black resistance against it. Like black men, they were tortured, beaten and scarred, mutilated and hanged, burned and shot, tarred and feathered, stabbed and dragged, whipped and raped by angry white mobs” (122).

Quoting Ida B. Wells, “pioneer of the anti-lynching crusade” Cone writes ‘Why is mob murder permitted by a Christian nation?’ she asked. White Christianity was not genuine because it either openly supported slavery, segregation, and lynching as the will of God or it was silent about these evils” (131). “As far as she [Wells] was concerned, white Christianity was a counterfeit gospel – ‘as phony as a two-dollar bill,’ as blacks often said in Bearden” (133). “She therefore challenged white liberal Christians to speak out against lynching or be condemned by their silence” (131).

Cone charges white Christianity: “White conservative Christianity’s blatant endorsement of lynching as part of its religion, and white liberal Christians’ silence about lynching placed both of them outside of Christian identity. I could not find one sermon or theological essay, not to mention a book, opposing lynching by a prominent liberal white preacher” (132). Further, “White theologians in the past century have written thousands of books about Jesus’ cross without remarking on the analogy between the crucifixion of Jesus and the lynching of black people. One must suppose that in order to feel comfortable in the Christian faith, whites needed theologians to interpret the gospel in a way that would not require them to acknowledge white supremacy as America’s great sin.” (159).

Cone brings to our attention the sexual violence of slavery still evident in the ongoing genetic linkage of whites and blacks. “What happened to blacks also happened to whites. When whites lynched blacks, they were literally and symbolically lynching themselves – their sons, daughters, cousins, mothers and fathers, and a host of other relatives. Whites may be bad brothers and sisters, murderers of their own black kin, but they are still our sisters and brothers. (italics author’s 165). “We were made brothers and sisters by the blood of the lynching tree, the blood of sexual union, and the blood of the cross of Jesus” (166).

I believe Cone’s book can be summarized, in part, with this quote, “We were made brothers and sisters by the blood of the lynching tree, the blood of sexual union, and the blood of the cross of Jesus” (166). Cone is correct that white Christianity utterly fails as a religion in its refusal to oppose or even acknowledge chattel slavery, on-going systems of white supremacy and the restitution required to begin healing both.

You may also like “Minnesota Nice” & Cross Burning.

Davis Jr.’s “Enough” is Morally Too Little

Will Davis Jr.’s new book, Enough: Finding More by Living with Less looked like a possibility for next semester’s “Theology and Consumerism” class – so I ordered it. It’s newly published and the author has a Doctorate in Ministry so my hope was that it would offer some new insights and critical thinking into poverty and consumerism.

But I was sadly disappointed and wrote the same in a BN review:

Unfortunately Davis holds the over privileged point of view that some people are “blessed by God” with more and others just happen to be poor. Not so and not very Christian. This book staunchly refuses to examine the systemic nature of poverty. People are not poor – people are MADE POOR by others and by unjust economic systems. When some have too much it is because they have profited from a system that benefits some at the expense of others. There is enough to go around. God does not make unfair economic systems, discrimination and food policies – people do. We, who hold too much, are morally and ethically culpable if we do not ask the underlying question, “What are the causes of poverty?” The answer is complex, but we detest even asking the question – because then we would see how we have unfairly profited from the unearned and inherited benefits of over privilege. I expected more from an educated Christian pastor claiming to look critically at our culture of consumption and consumerism. Certainly there is plenty out there to read about the systemic nature of poverty. This book is another example of moral poverty. Enough!

This author had the opportunity, the education and the resources to go deeper in examining the complex nature of poverty and why we should work to eliminate the disparity by living with enough. He made not even the briefest attempt to do this. For example, in describing his visit to communities south of the border he fails to ask how the agricultural subsidies of the U.S. and our dumping of produce into Mexico and Central America create a situation where these farmers can’t compete. Why didn’t he ask those living there? When he was at the grocery store there, did he not see where most of the produce was coming from? Where does he think all the processed foods in their grocery stores (think Kraft, General Foods, Nabisco, etc.) made with $90 billion in U.S., annually subsidized corn ingredients come from? Did he ask and listen to their understanding of poverty? If he did, he didn’t write about it in this book. But isn’t this the task of a pastor and educator? Isn’t this the task of Christian mission – to open ourselves to others and listen to their understanding of reality?

Going deeper to see why we have too much when others have nothing requires that we look at economic and political realities. There is enough to go around. Both poverty and privilege are caused by people – not by God. Further, we must work to change what is unfair and inhumane. For example, U.S. corporations should be required to pay fair wages – even when they manufacture in other countries – if they want to sell their products to U.S. consumers. U.S. farming subsidies that put farmers in other countries out of business, forcing them to migrate north looking for work, should be ended. We can support U.S. agribusiness in other – less damaging – ways. We can advocate for fair trade instead of “free” trade. It isn’t really free, in any case. Others pay for it with their poverty.

In the end – many of us in the U.S. have too much because our economic policies allow us to take/steal more than our share – often from the resources of poor countries – resources that don’t belong to us. But when, as Davis notes, someone like himself is an elite of the 1% (actually .6% as he readily acknowledges on p. 58) – he profits from unearned benefits in every aspect of his life and is clearly more than uninterested in learning why. Easier to chalk these unearned benefits up to “blessings from God.”

Contrary to Davis, I believe when we have too much we have an ethical and  moral imperative to ask tough questions. Those who have too much will be hard pressed to make it into the Kingdom, like the camel through the eye of the needle, because we are morally culpable for refusing to look more deeply into reality and seeing things as they really are. Why don’t we take a close look? Because we like our unearned privileges and benefits!

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on not understanding it.” Upton Sinclair.

For those who are really interested in learning more about living with enough and the systemic nature of poverty caused by privilege, purchase one of these books: Mark Kramer’s Dispossessed, Mary Elsbernd’s When Love is Not EnoughThe World Without Us by Alan Weisman  or Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein. You won’t be disappointed. Learn more about how we create and sustain both poverty for most and too much for some.

You may also like What is White Privilege?The Empire of Tea and Are Women Human?

An Economist Gets Lunch

With wheat prices spiralling out of control and food costs going up – we decided to get more creative about eating, and eating well.

I thought that Tyler Cowen’s new book An Economist Gets Lunch: new Rules for Everyday Foodies (Dutton: 2012) might help with that. For example, he suggests using Asian groceries for a more inexpensive, wider selection of greens (Hmmm, there’s a Vietnamese grocery just around the corner . . .).

However, many of his suggestions were tired; when traveling we already know to ask the locals where they eat, for example. Likewise we know to check ethnic restaurants in neighborhood strip malls away from pricey downtown areas.

Nevertheless, his idea to turn any Chinese restaurant in this country into an excellent Chinese restaurant was a good one; ask to speak to the chef and requesting what he would make for himself with tofu.

But on other fronts, I wondered how much was he paid by big agribusiness and the genetically modified food industry to wax on about how wonderful these industries are? The reality that economists are funded in academia by big agribusiness seems especially obvious here. Plus he ends up refuting his own glossy account of agribusiness by explaining at length, later in the book, how much better Mexican beef is because it’s grass fed, or how much better the tortillas are, handmade using local corn, etc. So Tyler which is it? Is big agribusiness creating better food or not?

Toward the end of the book he lost me when his section on France failed to highlight the fabulous street food (can you say golden mushroom crepes anyone?) and fresh fruits/vegies available at any Parisienne neighborhood, morning market – not to mention the delicious and inexpensive table wines at even the local Monoprix. Made me wonder, was he actually in France?

This led me to question overall what he writes about hunger, food distribution and the food industry. He may be an economist, but he’s a privileged, American, white male who doesn’t know much about the complex problem of hunger, countries made poor (by rich ones) or multi-national corporate interests when it comes to food.

Grand Marais

Today we’re visiting Grand Marais. Even this far north – not too far from the Canadian border, it’s still HOT. But staying near the lake shore makes it bearable. Grand Marais has some interesting things happening.

We stopped at the Angry Trout for lunch. The Angry Trout sits in the middle of Grand Marais overlooking Lake Superior. Diners can sit inside or out and enjoy the great view. Today they were serving Menomene, a local fish that is delicate and light. We had it grilled and served with fresh greens and walnuts.

Walking around we watched the clipper ship pull into dock. There is a woodworking school here where students learn to make canoes from local wood. The wood shop is a great stop. We watched all of the work that goes into one beautiful canoe – inlaid wood, design, bending and creating a light, durable, custom canoe.

As for me, I love the bookstore in Grand Marais – Drury Lane Books. I like their selection of books. Today I found The World Without Us by Alan Weisman.  Mostly thought I just love how this book store is painted on the outside:

We did catch the clipper –

Tonight – another beautiful sunset.

Tomorrow I’ll share what we’re cooking – or not cooking – for meals, as we try to eat well yet avoid the heat.