Culture

Parenting and Resistance

SOME PEOPLE (I was one) will initially read this book to learn what it was like for the author to grow up in Jonah House, a faith-based community of peacemakers in Baltimore, with internationally known activist parents Phil Berrigan and Liz McAlister providing strong ballast when not spending time in prison for nonviolent civil disobedience. I wanted to know what formed the vibrant Frida Berrigan, with whom I work on the National Committee of the War Resisters League. I learned about Frida’s birth in a basement, about Jonah House folks reading the Bible before days of work as house painters or being arrested at protests, about Frida and her sibs watching television on the sly, about the nitty-gritty of dumpster-diving at Jessup Wholesale Market.

But I learned much more from It Runs in the Family, and the “more” is at the heart of this fascinating book, which blends memoir, parenting advice, and connections between the questions parents ask about their children and the questions we should ask about the world. Phil Berrigan and Liz McAlister taught their children about the woes and warfare of the world; in this book, Frida also gently teaches us, while describing both her life as a child and her life as a mother to Seamus, Madeline, and stepdaughter Rosena.

For example, when Frida talks about the visits she and Seamus make to their “Uncle Dan” (Phil Berrigan’s brother Daniel Berrigan, a priest, poet, and activist) and the special bond between the nonagenarian and his lively great-nephew, she also tells us of ONEgeneration daycare in California, where toddlers garden, read, and play with seniors. Then she comments on the increasing number of grandparents who have primary responsibility for their grandchildren and the economic structures that contribute to this phenomenon.

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Dissecting the 'House of Cards' Church Scene

Kevin Spacey in Season 3 of Netflix’s “House of Cards.” Photo by David Giesbrech

Kevin Spacey in Season 3 of Netflix’s “House of Cards.” Photo by David Giesbrecht, courtesy of Netflix

All presidents beseech God to bless the United States of America. Many pray for divine aid for themselves or their policies. Some can only wonder at the inscrutable ways of the Almighty.

Then there’s Frank Underwood, who spits in God’s face.

Underwood is fictional, of course, the power-grabbing president and central character in the hit Netflix series House of Cards. And Underwood is a notoriously amoral — criminal, actually — practitioner of a realpolitik so brutal that nothing he does should be surprising.

Indeed, in the show’s first season, a frustrated Underwood stopped by a church and looked heavenward to speak to God, then down to address Satan. Finding no satisfying answer from either, he concluded:

“There is no solace above or below. Only us, small, solitary, striving, battling one another. I pray to myself, for myself.”

Still, it is almost jarring when, in the third and most recent season of the political thriller, Underwood — again stymied in his schemes — meets with a bishop late at night in a darkened sanctuary and engages in an extended debate on divine justice, power and love.

Cuba, North Korea, and Freedom

THOUGH SOME HAVE accepted “axis of evil” characterizations of Cuba and North Korea, my experiences of the two countries—nine visits to Cuba and one week in North Korea—have led me to far different conclusions: There are very few similarities between the two nations, and neither is inherently “evil.”

Music infuses the air in Cuba as in no other of the 60 countries to which I’ve traveled. The streets are alive. Children play baseball and soccer in the streets. Cafes, parks, and other public places are crowded and noisy. Nearly everyone I’ve met has treated me like a long-lost friend, even more so when they learn I’m American. There is a natural affinity between Cubans and Americans. More than 100 flights a week ferry people between Havana and Miami.

In North Korea, the streets are eerily quiet. There is virtually no visible human interaction. North Koreans are forbidden to make eye contact with Westerners. There appear to be no public gathering places except the massive government plazas where military parades and government rallies are staged. I was never allowed to go anywhere without a “minder.” I traveled with a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) official who was born in North Korea and returns there frequently. His counsel: “Assume that everywhere you go you are followed and that every conversation you have, no matter where, is bugged.” His relatives received permission to travel from their home village to Pyongyang to visit him. In our hotel room, he turned the television volume up to full blast before they began talking quietly. On one early morning walk near our hotel (the only time I was unescorted), I took a few photographs. By the time I returned to the hotel, government representatives were waiting in the lobby, demanding to see all my photos and instructing me on which ones to delete.

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New and Noteworthy

Soulful Protest
R&B singer D’Angelo ends a 14-year hiatus with the album Black Messiah, on which he sings of prayer, love lost, climate change, race, and violence. He asks, “In a world where we all circle the fiery sun / with a need for love / what have we become?” RCA

Belief and Unbelief Explored
In Faith: Essays From Believers, Agnostics, and Atheists, edited by Victoria Zackheim, 22 renowned, religiously diverse authors explain their beliefs. Authors use true stories about tarot cards, romance, insomnia, robots, loss, and mystical experiences to answer the question, “What do I believe?” Atria Books

No Release
A short documentary from the Center for Constitutional Rights, “Waiting for Fahd,” tells the story of CCR client Fahd Ghazy, a Yemeni national unlawfully detained at Guantánamo since he was 17 (he is now 30). Despite being twice cleared for release, he continues to be held because of his nationality. ccrjustice.org/fahd

The Jesus We Didn’t Know
Historian and novelist James Carroll’s latest nonfiction work, Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age, explores how separating Jesus from his Jewish identity (and the resultant anti-Semitism) has distorted Christianity. Who might Jesus be for Christians going forward? Viking

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Like Giant Marshmallows on a String

Illustration by Ken Davis

IF YOU’RE TRAVELING by air to Washington, D.C., this winter, be sure to look out your window. You don’t want to miss the lovely patchwork of monuments that covers the city, or the scenic curves of the Potomac River, or the giant dolphin-shaped balloons within arms-reach of your seat in coach. But don’t try to pet them. Setting aside the problem of rapid decompression if you open a window, the balloons are property of the U.S. Army, and they don’t like people touching their stuff.

The balloons—I call them balloons, although they’re actually reconnaissance blimps designed to warn against hostile missiles—float about 10,000 feet above the ground, tethered by inch-wide cables, presumably not held on the other end by children at, say, the zoo. Each blimp looks like a huge white dolphin with an unfortunate—and apparently undiagnosed—abdominal growth protruding from its belly. Clearly, it’s something a qualified medical professional should look at. Of course, if it’s just a navel, there’s no problem. But it’s definitely an outie.

There are two of these blimps, each 243 feet long and weighing, well, nothing, because they’re filled with helium, the gas that would have been used in the Hindenburg had the construction crews been smokers. (Smokers may not be smart, but they’re fast learners.) The blimps float above the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, just outside D.C., in some of the busiest airspace on the East Coast, and trail about two miles of cable connected to the ground. What could possibly go wrong?

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Moved, or Moved to Act?

FOR TWO YEARS in a row we have seen significant films about oppression and struggle nurture public consciousness. Selma and 12 Years a Slave invite us to reimagine iconic moments closer than we usually think, their protagonists more like us. Slavery had not been portrayed in such visceral fashion in a mainstream film before 12 Years. Before Selma, images of Martin Luther King Jr. had never quite transcended the almost superhuman projections that accrue from his martyrdom and decades of being co-opted by cultural mavens from Apple to Glenn Beck.

These films create new benchmarks for the mainstream depiction of black history, black struggle, and wider perceptions. But entertaining portrayals of inspiration contain a powerfully dangerous substance that needs to be handled with care. The cathartic tears shed at a film about other people’s suffering and heroism can also be a narcotic, implying that the work has been done. Think of all the talk about freedom struggles after Braveheart, or challenging the principalities and powers after The Matrix. The problem was, most of it was just that. Talk.

Countercultural critic Armond White suggests that the danger of such films is that viewers “are encouraged to profess an inheritance they do not earn”—watching Selma is not the same thing as participation in social struggle. This is a problem, not just for the personal integrity of audiences, but for the world, because feeling something is not the same thing as doing something. Schindler’s List swept the Oscars in 1994, where speeches invoked the plea that “never again” should genocide be permitted. It was only days before the Rwandan genocide began.

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Time for a Cyberweapons Treaty?

MANY QUESTIONS remain about the alleged North Korean hacking of Sony Pictures and the U.S. response. But the Christmas controversy, apparently triggered by the Seth Rogen-James Franco satire film The Interview, has made one thing perfectly clear: A lot has changed on the internet since Al Gore didn’t invent it.

Back in the days of Gore, the net was an attempt to provide a secure and resilient military communications network during our Cold War with the Soviet Union. But by the turn of this century, it had become an unrivaled public forum for democratic activism and an absolute paradise for shoppers and porn addicts. Now the internet is getting back to its military roots. It is both the weapon and the battleground for United States’ simmering low-level wars with not only North Korea, but China, Iran, Russia, and anyone else who gets in the way.

For several years there has been a steady trickle of back-page news stories about cyberwarfare. The Chinese military seemed to be hacking U.S. government and business sites for military and industrial espionage. Two years ago the Chinese were said to have hacked The New York Times in revenge for that paper’s reporting on the financial corruption of China’s leadership. North Korea has allegedly attacked banking networks in South Korea. Attacks said to originate in Russia have hit U.S. and European energy companies. In 2009, the ante was upped when the U.S. and Israel unleashed the Stuxnet virus to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program. The virus destroyed Iranian centrifuges, but it also escaped to the broader internet and sabotaged computers at the U.S.-based Chevron oil company.

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How to 'Defy the World:' An Interview with 'Wanted' Author Chris Hoke

'Wanted' cover art via ChrisHoke.com

'Wanted' cover art via ChrisHoke.com

Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders is non-fiction, but I read it like it was one of the latest blockbuster novels, this time with gorgeous writing. I couldn’t put it down, and I didn’t want the journey to end, following Chris Hoke through jails and streams and farms of Washington’s Skagit Valley as he grew from a young man interested in faith outside the walls of the church to a pastor to the “homies” of the area, as they called themselves—men whose criminal past or undocumented status have caused them to be among the most marginalized in our society. This book is imbued with dignity, prayer, and an understanding that relationships require forgiveness, on both sides. Wanted is a beautiful reflection on what the life of faith looks like in action.

Hoke grew up in southern California but was drawn to the dimmer corners of the Christian faith. He made his way to northwest Washington state to work with Tierra Nueva, a ministry that “seeks to share the good news of God’s freedom in Jesus Christ with people on the margins (immigrant, inmates, ex-offenders, the homeless).” We recently chatted about his work with Tierra Nueva, the value of a good metaphor, and how reading the Scriptures in prison can make them new.

Saints and Nomads

MARILYNNE ROBINSON’S Lila is the love story we thought we already knew, but  didn’t. Lila takes us back to Gilead, Iowa, the same setting as Robinson’s novels Gilead and Home, describing the backstory and courtship of old Rev. Ames and the much younger Lila from a completely new point of view.

In Gilead, Ames describes his immediate, unlikely love for Lila, the hard-working wanderer. But Ames’ description of the feeling of love is more vivid than his description of the woman he loves.

The reverse is true in Lila. We learn Lila’s story through thick third-person prose. Robinson’s narration often reflects Lila’s stream of consciousness—a scattered, questioning pattern of thought, apt for a woman digesting the idea of small-town permanency after an exciting, scary, shame-filled life on the road. In the novel’s opening scene, Lila is just a small child, neglected and dying on the front steps of her house. Doll, a loving and hardened itinerant, kidnaps her just in time. It’s unclear if Doll stole or saved Lila. We can’t ever be sure. Either way, her love for Lila is fierce, and Lila comes to depend on it as they travel around the country, living off of door-to-door labor and inside jokes.

Doll is out of the picture by the time Lila arrives in Gilead, but her memory and influence remain in the forefront of Lila’s mind, in the form of mantras and rules for living: Can’t trust nobody. Don’t stay nowhere too long. Churches just want your money. Might as well take pleasure where you can. These are the commandments and proverbs that provide a semblance of structure and guidance for this unchurched nomad.

Suddenly Lila is no longer just the stoic godsend we met in Gilead. She is a loyal gardener, skilled drifter, lousy prostitute, and, eventually, ambivalent wife.

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Fueled By Faith, Not Fear

THE LAST THING that Ben Lowe could be accused of is “slacktivism,” which, as he describes in his latest book, Doing Good Without Giving Up, happens when we complain and point fingers about justice issues while being slow to take constructive action to address the situation.

From running for Congress at age 25 to helping to ignite a grassroots student environmental movement, Lowe’s track record for tackling complex and thorny problems where others would throw up their hands is remarkable. Even more remarkable is that after nearly a decade of such work, Lowe retains a gracious hope and steadfast sense of calling, despite being told by other Christians that he was being deceived by the devil, weathering bouts of burnout and depression, and continually facing entrenched systemic problems. This is why I trust him when he writes to encourage those of us whose hearts are heavy for the injustices in the world but often find ourselves stuck in the initial “slacktivist” inertia or dragged down later by opposition, burnout, and cynicism.

In Doing Good, Lowe outlines a sustainable impetus for social action and offers practices to sustain ongoing activism. We cannot be motivated by the desire to see dramatic change, he says, because this only “points people to ourselves and idolizes the change we seek.” It also ultimately lacks staying power. Instead, Lowe calls us to pursue faithfulness in our social action, which “points people to Christ ... and is ultimately the best—if not only—way to bring about the change God seeks.” Staying faithful, which the second half of the book covers, requires a continual reorientation to Christ as center through such practices as repentance, Sabbath, contemplation, and community.

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