Gareth Higgins on Peace, Politics, and Our Nation's 'Cinematic States'

Courtesy of Burnside Books

'Cinematic States' explores fifty films that help define something about each state. Courtesy of Burnside Books

Lots of people like movies; Gareth Higgins loves movies. But the founding director of the Wild Goose Festival and long-time peace activist engages popular culture with a different eye than most of us. And he’s used that keen eye for deeper meaning to create his latest book.

I asked Gareth about his new book on American film, his peace work, and what it’s like considering American culture both as an insider and as a non-native. Here’s what he had to say.

Why Racism Is (Almost) Omnipotent

mdgn / shutterstock

'We are living in the dark days before the Advent.' mdgn / shutterstock

I must use the adverb “almost” because there is a necessary distinction between all and some. It is the difference between mighty and almighty.

But we must never forget that whatever is mighty can harness the power to destroy lives, families, communities, institutions, and nations. This is what racism does on a daily basis.

We have, to some degree, lost the will and/or the capacity to identify and challenge this destructive and powerful force in our culture and institutions.

This Advent season presents the church with a great moment — an opportunity — to sharpen its discernment. It is an opportunity for the church and the world to experience a new birth in love, racial justice, and reconciliation.

'American Promise' Film Documents Two Black Families Navigating Education in America

American Promise spans 13 years as Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, middle-class African-American parents in Brooklyn, N.Y., turn their cameras on their son, Idris, and his best friend, Seun, who make their way through one of the most prestigious private schools in the country. Chronicling the boys’ divergent paths from kindergarten through high school graduation at Manhattan’s Dalton School, the documentary presents complicated truths about America’s struggle to come of age on issues of race, class, and opportunity. American Promise is aOfficial Selection of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

Surprising Stories of Climate Change Here in the U.S.

As the Creation Care campaign associate at Sojourners, my job is to get people thinking about God’s call for us to care about the creation. Usually, I do that from behind a desk in Washington, D.C., but recently I got to do it from a boat out on the bayou in Louisiana, in a tiny community that has been hit by eight disasters in eight years (seven hurricanes and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill). I took 100 people out to the town of Jean Lafitte, less than an hour from New Orleans, to hear from people who live on the front lines of climate change.

One of the obstacles to igniting a passion about climate change is that it feels so abstract; it feels like a future problem, a global problem. But it’s really a here and now problem. We took folks out on the Louisiana bayou to meet with those who are living in the midst of climate change – people who don’t think of themselves as environmentalists, but who can bear witness to the impact that climate change and our use of dirty energy have had on their lives, personally.

The town of Jean Lafitte is an old and diverse town, a close-knit community where faith is important to many people, including the mayor. It’s a town that sounds a lot like the early Christian church. We were told that homelessness is not a problem there – if your neighbor loses her home, why wouldn’t you take her in? We were told that when the state government showed up two weeks after Hurricane Katrina, the town had recovered so quickly that the government thought the hurricane hadn’t hit them. This community comes together, and because it knows how to survive, it often gets forgotten by government responders and by oil companies like BP.

Racism: America's Original Sin

IN SPIRITUAL AND BIBLICAL terms, racism is a perverse sin that cuts to the core of the gospel message. Put simply, racism negates the reason for which Christ died—the reconciling work of the cross. It denies the purpose of the church: to bring together, in Christ, those who have been divided from one another, particularly in the early church's case, Jew and Gentile—a division based on race.

There is only one remedy for such a sin and that is repentance, which, if genuine, will always bear fruit in concrete forms of conversion, changed behavior, and reparation. While the United States may have changed in regard to some of its racial attitudes and allowed some of its black citizens into the middle class, white America has yet to recognize the extent of its racism—that we are and have always been a racist society-—much less to repent of its racial sins.

President Obama: ‘Trayvon Martin Could Have Been Me 35 Years Ago’

President Obama addressed the nation today regarding the George Zimmerman trial, giving his thoughts on the nation's response to the verdict and the state of racism in our society.

Folks understand the challenges that exist for African-American boys, but they get frustrated, I think, if they feel that there’s no context for it or — and that context is being denied. And — and that all contributes, I think, to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.

You can read the full transcript of his speech here.

Trayvon and George: A Tale of Two Americas

donatas1205 / Shutterstock

Hand painted acrylic United States of America flag. donatas1205 / Shutterstock

The recent “not guilty” verdict out of Sanford, FL, reflects the principle of the American legal system that if there is reasonable doubt, courts will err on the side of innocence. I dispute neither the principle nor the decision by the jury. But that doesn't leave me satisfied about the outcome.

Jesus said that true justice exceeds that of “the scribes and Pharisees” — and the same could be said of the prosecution and defense. Legal justice seeks only to assign guilt or innocence. Holistic justice works for the life, liberty, and well-being of all. And it especially works for reconciliation between the two Americas that can be identified by their reaction to the case.

Re-Imagining Patriotism

Flag-painted hands in the shape of a heart, nito /

Flag-painted hands in the shape of a heart, nito /

I was five years old on Independence Day in 1976. The United States' bicentennial fever had overtaken the entire population. Everything was dressed in red, white, and blue. I remember decorating my tricycle in streamers and balloons for the neighborhood parade. It rained through the entire event, and although I crossed the finish line covered in red and blue dye, my award for "most colorful float" made it all worth it.

Also attended Willie Nelson's Fourth of July birthday party/concert that same year. We camped out under the stars and enjoyed music for days in a Woodstock-like environment. I remember seeing my first naked adult woman there. She and her family – or some group of friends – were taking a break to bathe in the nearby river. Hey, it was the 70s, remember?

But even there in that hotbed of post-hippie activity, everyone displayed affection for our country. Even those who likely had stood in protest against the Vietnam War only years before rose and placed their hands over their hearts when the national anthem was sung and the flag was unfurled every morning.

Somewhere along the way, the idea seeped into our national consciousness that patriotism and political criticism could no longer coexist. Those who questioned or challenged the agendas or motives of those in power were pegged as patently unpatriotic; in turn, those dissident voices increasingly rejected the commonly embraced symbols of patriotism as mere tokens of jingoist American exceptionalism.

Leading Toward Freedom

Freedom concept,  Pan Xunbin /

Freedom concept, Pan Xunbin /

Tomorrow, millions of people across this land, will be celebrating our nation’s freedom. Many will be marking Independence Day by going to see the fireworks, watching Fourth of July parades, or just having a barbecue and enjoying time together with their family or friends.

One of the things I began doing a few years ago on the Fourth of July was to call a very special person in my life and in the life of my family. His name is Paul Anderson. Had it not been for Paul and his family, my family and I would not have been able to emigrate in 1987 from Poland to the United States. So on every July 4, I call Paul and thank him for helping me and my family arrive safely and settle in this country.

I tell him that he’s had an important part to play in so many good things I’ve experienced over the past 26 years that I’ve been living here — including discerning a Franciscan vocation and becoming a friar.