The Common Good

God's Politics Blog

Jon Stewart's 'Rosewater' a Needed Depiction of Torture

When Jon Stewart took a hiatus from The Daily Show a little over a year ago to film Rosewater, I’ll admit, I, along with other loyal viewers, was intrigued but skeptical. I was already aware of the story of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-born journalist for Newsweek who’d been imprisoned and tortured by Iranian officials for nearly four months, detained in part because he’d sat for an interview with The Daily Show’s Jason Jones. But the rumors circulating that the film (based on Bahari’s memoir) would be partly comedic seemed … risky. Far be it from me to question Stewart’s satirical prowess, but films about political prisoners rarely leave room for laughter.

But of course, nobody needed to worry. Stewart’s penchant for pointing out the absurd is what makes Rosewater unique among films of its kind. Where movies like Hunger focus on the brutality of imprisonment (and rightly so), Rosewater’s goal is different. It sets out to explore the personality of people like Bahari’s jailers, the Kafkaesque nature of life in Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the creativity it takes to survive in such a setting.

In the film, Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) leaves London, and his pregnant wife, to cover Iran’s controversial 2009 presidential election. He meets and interviews Iranians working for Ahmadinejad’s campaign, as well as those subverting the system and working for change — one scene has Bahari led up to an apartment roof covered with contraband satellite dishes. When there are accusations of fraud after the elections, followed by widespread protests, Bahari is arrested as a foreign spy. He’s held in solitary confinement, and interrogated and tortured by a man known only as Rosewater (so named for the smell of his perfume).

While there are scenes of physical torture onscreen, the film doesn’t show them in graphic detail — to the point where it almost feels that Stewart isn’t going as deep with the subject matter as he could have. But it does something instead that feels far more important.

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Lila Pays It Forward: Helping LGBT Refugees Find a New Home, Life

Currently, 78 nations worldwide criminalize same-sex relations; of those, seven may impose the death penalty for consensual same-sex conduct, according to ORAM. In Uganda, for instance, where there has been capital punishment for homosexual activity in the past, homosexuality currently is considered a criminal act punishable by a 14-year prison sentence.

At a recent JFCS-East Bay staff meeting, Weiss, director of refugee and immigrant services, recounted the story of a recent LGBT refugee arrival that brought many staff members to tears.

"One person who I had the honor to pick up at the airport and witness his experience and his mind was blown," Weiss began. "He went from having nothing — nobody to help him, in fear for his life, 23 years old (my daughter’s age) — having to flee barefoot, climb over a fence, escape prison, run for his life, police find him at his cousin’s house, re-arrest him … the story is just incredible. Multiple times fleeing on foot with no money, no water. Being in a refugee camp. Being beat up by a group of Somali men in the refugee camp that was supposed to be his refuge.

"Being physically and of course emotionally traumatized. And then getting on a plane — not knowing where he was going until he’s about to travel and then finding out he’s going to San Francisco," she continued. "On the way to the airport, we had this wonderful Iraqi LGBT volunteer who came five years ago as a refugee himself and he says to me, five minutes before the [new] guy arrives, ‘I’m five years old; I was born when I came down that escalator five years ago and this guy is about to be born.

"And down the escalator comes this jet black African guy who is obviously very gay — in the way you can tell by his escalator ride," she said, drawing knowing laughter from the staff, some of whom are LGBT themselves. "He couldn’t hide it. That’s why his life was in danger. On the way back from the airport, our volunteer says that after we drop him off, he’s going to The Castro, and [the new guy] says, ‘Can I come with you?!’

"It’s really just remarkable to witness his journey from hell to heaven," Weiss said.

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Why A Movement To Disinvest from Fossil Fuels?

If Quaker antislavery activist John Woolman were alive today, he would probably be doing everything in his power to resist the fossil fuel industries destabilizing our climate.

Woolman, who in the mid-1700s refused to cooperate with any aspect of the slave trade, would probably divest any ownership interest he had in big oil, gas, and coal companies. To profit financially from corporations that are destroying the planet would be unconscionable.

The divestment movement received a tremendous boost the day after 400,000 people took to the streets of New York City for the People’s Climate March. In advance of the United Nations Climate Summit on Sept. 22, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund — an $860 million foundation built on the oil fortune of John D. Rockefeller — announced its commitment to divest its holdings of fossil fuels.

This was the latest wave in a series of Divest-Invest announcements including the launch of Divest-Invest Individual, which facilitates a meaningful role for individuals in the divestment and reinvestment movements. More than 700 inaugural investors – with investments totaling $2.6 billion – announced their intention to divest from fossil fuel industries and reinvest in clean, renewable energy. Hundreds of individuals have since taken the pledge to stop new investments in fossil fuels and divest from the top 200 carbon-holding companies within five years.

“The destruction of the earth’s environment is the human rights challenge of our time,” said South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu in a video-taped message to the UN Climate Summit. He called on world leaders to freeze further exploration for new fossil fuel sources. “Divest from fossil fuels and invest in a clean energy future. Move your money out of the problem and into solutions.”

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'You Are a Human Being'

I believe in love. I don’t subscribe to any particular religion.

Feroz, a Hazara who is a Shia Muslim, lived with me in a community in Kabul with 13 other Afghan Peace Volunteers, including Tajiks and Pashtuns, who are Sunnis.

This is a community established with the intention of learning about and practicing nonviolence, a little like an Afghan version of Gandhi’s ashram.

One day, there were black faces and a curt exchange of words.

“What meaning does praying with the little piece of stone have anyway?” Bashir, a Tajik, who is a Sunni Muslim, snapped at Feroz, a Hazara, who is a Shia Muslim.

“Why should that bother you? It’s important to us. Your way of praying isn’t particularly good either, praying with your hands ‘closed,’” Feroz retorted. Shia Muslims like Feroz pray with their hands and arms in an ‘open’ posture, and till today, some Shia and Sunni religious leaders make an issue of it.

The ways we reach out to God should be happy endeavors, but these ways can become bones of contention, especially if they’re deemed to be special or exclusive paths to God.

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The Grand Jury and the Rorschach Test

What do you see when you look at this picture?

In essence, that is the question St. Louis Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch asked the grand jury to determine in his case against Officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown on Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo.

According to an early report in TIME, McCulloch made an unusual move: He did not specify a specific charge for Wilson. 

In a recent phone interview, Denise Lieberman, co-chair of the Don’t Shoot Coalition and senior attorney for the Advancement Project, explained to me: “Grand jury proceedings occur in private, so we don’t know exactly what’s been said … However, we’ve been told that the prosecutor is not making a recommendation to the jury about whether to indict and what charges … That is fairly unusual, if in fact that is true.”

Rather than specifying charges, two senior attorneys in his office are presenting all the evidence as it becomes available and letting the grand jury decide what charge(s), if any, that evidence warrants. McCulloch’s office claimed this process is fair because the grand jury, which is representative of the community of St. Louis, is able to see all of the evidence and then offer its decision.

According to Ed Magee, a spokesperson from McCulloch’s office, grand juries usually only review a few pieces of evidence. “Normally they hear from a detective or a main witness or two. That’s it,” Magee said in an early September interview with the Washington Post.

By presenting all the evidence to laypeople, reportedly without legal interpretation, McCulloch is basically raising a proverbial Rorschach to the grand jury and saying, “see what you see.” That is not a passive act in a society where 75 percent of people tested display some measure of unconscious racial bias.

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The Underside of Thanksgiving

I love Thanksgiving.

I love the food, the fellowship, the friends and family, the football, and did I mention that I love the food.  Unashamedly it might very well be my favorite holiday.  Yet, despite all my warm feelings about Thanksgiving, I am not blind to its historical shortcomings. 

As Jane Kamensky says, “…holidays say much less about who we really were in some specific Then, than about who we want to be in an ever changing Now.” I think she’s right about this.  In so many cases, our national celebrations and observances are mere expressions of our collective aspirations and not our actuality.  One clear example of this is the history and practice of the Thanksgiving holiday.

As it goes, every year people throughout this nation gather for a commemorative feast of sorts where we give praises to God for the individual and collective blessings bestowed upon us.  This tradition goes back to the 17th century when the New England colonists, also known as pilgrims, celebrated their first harvest in the New World. 

On the surface, this seems harmless enough but a closer reading of history tells a more dubious story. 

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Weekly Wrap 11.14.14: The 10 Best Stories You Missed This Week

1. Interstellar Isn't About Religion (and Also It Is Totally About Religion)
"While the film has a marked admiration for science—it is science, in the end, that helps humanity to rescue itself—it has just as much respect for wonder and awe and what you might call, in the broadest and perhaps even the narrowest sense, faith."

2. Drones Now Patrol Half of U.S.-Mexico Border
In an era of increased security but finite resources, the U.S. government has dispatched Predator Bs to sweep remote areas and detect people (or cows, it seems) entering the country.

3. Why John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight Is Better Than The Daily Show and Colbert 
Where Stewart and Colbert simply reaffirm shared values, "Oliver’s brand of journalism (which is, of course, couched as cheerful Sunday-night entertainment) often has an actual, demonstrable impact on public consciousness.”

4. The Most Heartbreaking Place in America Is Called ‘Friendship Park’
ThinkProgress’ Jack Jenkins and Esther Boyd traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border to chronicle the struggles of immigrant life. In this first piece, they tell the story of immigrants whose only glimpse of family is through an 18-foot steel fence between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. 

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Justice … not ‘Just Us’

I am a professor of religion at a small liberal arts college in Decorah, Iowa. For the last two weeks in my Religion 239: Clamoring for Change course, students and I have been reading the book Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude. We have been discussing the issue of “justice,” and we have been playing with an image of God as one who works from the bottom-up on behalf of many rather than one who works from the top-down on behalf of a few.

A fundamental principle within this “bottom-up” theology is the idea of God taking sides (a view quite common in most of the “liberative” theologies). Many people, however, are often uncomfortable with the idea of God taking sides. They often assert that such an image contradicts the idea of an impartial and all-loving God who cares equally for all people.

A bottom-up theology of God asserts that God is a God who exists in relationship with all of creation at the same time every created thing is in relationship with every other created thing. While the relationships that involve human beings may be governed by several principles, I believe one principle that governs all human relationships is the principle of “justice.”

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A New Hymn-Prayer for Donor Sabbath

From the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:

The Need Is Real: You can literally be a lifesaver by being an organ donor. Here are some important facts about donation:

• Someone is added to the waiting list every 10 minutes. Over 120,000 people are waiting for organ donations.

• Each day, an average of 79 people receive organ transplants. However, an average of 18 people die each day waiting for transplants that can't take place because of the shortage of donated organs.

• People of every age give and receive organ donations.

Hymn writer Carolyn Winfrey Gillette has been a chaplain for a hospital and several hospices. She is grateful for suggestions for this hymn from her husband Bruce Gillette (he has served on a hospital ethics committee), hospital Chaplains Tim Rodden and Sister Julian Wilson and ethicist Christian Iosso. This hymn is dedicated to the memory of Roy Timmer, a faithful Christian, a wonderful friend and an organ donor who helped many people.

God, Each Day You Give is Precious

A Hymn for Donor Sabbath

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The Oracle of Certainty: From Ancient Athens to ISIS

Thank the gods we don’t believe in the utterances of oracles anymore. We don’t search for omens in the entrails of sacrificed animals or believe that women in drug-induced trances can foretell our destiny. Because the ancient Greeks fell for this superstitious mumbo jumbo, they were led into two disastrous wars that had devastating consequences. The great anti-war playwright Euripides offers his critique of wars and oracles in his play, Iphigenia at Aulis, now playing at the Court Theater in Chicago. My talented friend Jeanne T. Arrigo is in the chorus of this production and I have her and the Court Theater to thank for bringing this ancient gem to my attention.

Two Oracles, Two Devastating Wars

Iphigenia at Aulis was first performed a year after Euripides’ death in 406 B.C.E. He wrote it in response to Athens’ nearly 30-year war against Sparta. Known as the Peloponnesian War, it ended in 404 B.C.E. with Athens’ surrender, her fleet destroyed, and the city starving after a four-month siege. Euripides felt that part of the reason Athens went to war in the first place was that the Oracle at Delphi had predicted victory “if they did their best.” Not only did this encourage the outbreak of the war, but it probably made a negotiated settlement impossible. Because why would anyone cease the pursuit of victory if victory has been assured? The Oracle’s prophecy lent an aura of inevitability to the outcome of the war, which in effect robbed the Athenians of their agency. They marched to war like automatons in service of the gods.

To convince Athenians that they were on a path of self-destruction, Euripides dramatized a scene from the beginning of a previous bad military adventure, the Trojan War. As the Homeric story is retold by Euripides, the Greek armies are assembled in the port city of Aulis. Agamemnon is their general, ready to lead a thousand ships to attack Troy to recover Helen, who has run off with young Paris of Troy. The nation has mobilized to avenge this insult to Helen’s husband, Menelaus (Agamemnon’s brother) and all of Greece.

Unfortunately for Agamemnon, there is no wind. The soldiers soon tire of waiting and, despite their war lust, they are threatening to go home. But an Oracle has foretold that Artemis will raise the winds and bring certain victory on one condition: that Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to her. Under pressure from the troops and his own lust for glory, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter and the thousand ships are launched. The war is on, and the play ends with the fleet sailing eagerly across the sea.

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