Trials and Tribulations

THE EXTRAORDINARY film Leviathan takes place in a tiny coastal town on the other side of the world, but it relates to all our dreams and fears.

A man is tormented by bureaucracy, as the authorities try to take his house. He has an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, and a very unhealthy one with his partner. He works on people’s cars, does favors for people who ask him, and tries to raise his son as best he can. And he’s caught between the wheels of historic oppression and emerging forms.

Leviathan, this year’s Russian nominee for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, is a work of uncommon cinematic bravery, for the people who made it take on the corruption of their current political masters. Vladimir Putin appears briefly, as a portrait looming over the office of the mayor trying to take our hero’s house. But the graft, selfishness, and cruelty of Putin’s imperial reign are palpably present in the mayor, who has been fighting the householder for years to get his property, for reasons that owe more than a little to the legacy of Soviet-era patriotic ideology. Communism has been replaced by a heady mix of nationalistic pride and elitism religion, whose boundaries are enforced with no mercy. Pussy Riot’s punk prayer gets a mention in a priest’s litany of things that are undermining Mother Russia. It’s the same old story, there and everywhere—keep the nation pure, confuse spirit and law, and wreck your own life by denying the glories of human diversity.

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Michael Brown, Iraq, Putin, Gaza: How to Reconcile the Brokenness?

qvist / Shutterstock.com

qvist / Shutterstock.com

A soon-to-be college-bound Michael Brown is shot by Missouri police, reportedly while holding his hands above himself in surrender and while unarmed. The resulting protests turn violent, leading ultimately to police setting up barricades, complete with snipers, tear gas, and flash grenades. Local stores are decimated and scores are injured in the resulting tensions.

Not long ago, Eric Garner, another African-American man, died of suffocation while being submitted to a choke submission hold by a New York policeman.

Last year in North Carolina, a black man was shot 10 times by a policeman. And all of this is in the shadow the Trayvon Martin, whose tragic and unnecessary death, is still fresh in our minds and hearts.

As cited on the Economist website , it’s enough to elicit a grim question from Delores Jones-Brown, director of the John Jay College on Race, Crime and Justice. “People are asking,” she says, “Is it open season on us?”

Meanwhile, half a world away in Iraq, ISIS continues to wreak havoc, and the United States has resumed an airstrike campaign after a decade of military force trying to maintain a tentative peace in a fractured nation. Hardly a day goes by when we don’t have reports of more Israeli and Palestinian blood spilled over the historic Gaza conflict, and Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to — in the words of a recent TIME Magazine article — “create problems only he can solve.” All the while, he stokes resentments between east and west not seen since the Cold War, seeking, too, to weaken the cohesive strength of NATO and to drive a wedge between the United States and its allies in Europe.

What’s happening to us?

Exporting Democracy...

Illustration by Ken Davis

FOR MORE THAN two centuries, the United States has been the proudest example of democracy in the world. Maybe not the best, but definitely the proudest. Oh sure, we’ve hit some rough patches over the decades, mainly in dealing with our native peoples and other ethnic minorities. Also with women, the poor, the falsely accused, the unemployed, and people who aren’t bankers. But let’s just call those growing pains.

For the most part, America has been that shining city on a hill, and by America, of course, I don’t mean Canada or Mexico, or the other countries whose names I forget, most of which don’t have many good hills to shine from anyway.

But I’m not talking about geography, I’m talking about pride. The pride that comes from being number one in democracy, despite being number 55th in infant mortality and 35th in math. Okay, so we don’t test well. But we’re proud anyway. And we’re still number one in Bible science! [High five!]

But lately, because of continued dysfunction on Capitol Hill, people are starting to whisper that democracy in the United States may have lost some of its shine, like we’re “hiding it under a bushel,” as it says in the old Christian campfire song of my youth. (We also sang “With Jesus in My Boat I Can Ride Out the Current Economic Downturn,” and “Children, Go Where I Text Thee.”)

But if America’s “little light” is no longer shining, at least a few other nations are providing good examples of self-government.

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How We Halted Military Strikes in Syria — For the Moment

U.S. and Syrian flags, PromesaArtStudio / Shutterstock.com

U.S. and Syrian flags, PromesaArtStudio / Shutterstock.com

Two weeks ago, it seemed that any minute the United States would begin bombing Syria. On Aug. 27, NBC’s top headline ran: “Military Strikes on Syria ‘as Early as Thursday,’ U.S. officials say.”

So our Quaker lobby did what all of us peace and security groups do when our country’s decision makers decide to bomb another country and we have long odds and little hope of success from stopping them: we flooded our network — including many of the inboxes of readers of this blog — with pleas to join us in writing, calling, and lobbying members of Congress and the Obama administration to stop this new war. 

The pressure worked to postpone U.S. war plans. The groundswell of grassroots opposition to this war persuaded President Obama to go to Congress before launching Tomahawk cruise missiles into Damascus. A vote was expected in days, and then it was delayed, as an unprecedented outpouring of public opposition from Americans of every political stripe pushed Congress to pursue alternatives to military force.  

Syria Is About People, Not Politics

Alexander Koerner/Getty Images

Syrian Refugees sit in the arrival hall after arriving at Hanover Airport on Sept. 11 in Germany. Alexander Koerner/Getty Image

I have been literally disgusted at how “politics” has dominated the media’s response and coverage of the Syria crisis. Millions of lives are at stake, as is the security of one of the most critical regions of the world. But all many of our media pundits can talk about is how this affects politics — i.e., how this could weaken President Obama’s second term or what this might mean for Obamacare.

I heard the same media blathering when I was in London last week when the Syria chemical weapons crisis broke through. “Does the vote in Parliament hurt the Prime Minister and help his opposition?” “Is the Labor Party now up, and the Tory down?”

Who cares?!

Syria: It Will Take More Than Saying No to Military Strikes

Combat missiles pointed to the sky, vician / Shutterstock.com

Combat missiles pointed to the sky, vician / Shutterstock.com

There’s a catch phrase that comes to the fore when people start looking for religious reasons not to enter a war like the one now raging in Syria: “Who would Jesus bomb?”

Jesus would not have bombed anyone, of course. Bombs were not weapons of choice in his day. But the cruelty of war was no stranger to his era. The Romans could be every bit as cruel as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. They executed dissidents like Jesus himself with ease. They leveled the city of Jerusalem. 

But if it is hard to imagine Jesus targeting a cruise missile aimed at another nation, it is not hard to imaging him encouraging his followers to stand with those who are most vulnerable, to seek ways to defend others from cruelty, to come to the aid of those refugees displaced by war. The question is how best to do that.

Why the Church is the Best Place for a Pussy Riot

On Aug. 17, three members of the Russian feminist punk band/performance art group Pussy Riot received the verdict in the criminal case against them: Guilty of "hooliganism" motivated by "religious hatred." Each was sentenced to two years in prison.

As a faith-based community organizer, I spend a great majority of my time trying to get political issues into the church so that the gospel can be relevant to the reality of those on and off the pews.

Therefore, I believe the best place for a “pussy riot” is the church. Although this may seem sacrilegious, here's why:

1. When the church ignores social and political issues it silently blesses injustice. (See slavery, the Holocaust, lynching, and child sexual abuse.) Testimony Time is a set time in many Black Churches when  congregants can speak of their pains and triumphs and how God brought them through.

Testimony time is democratic and a time of raw honesty. I call what Pussy Riot did protestifying because they protested by testifying about the political conditions of their country.