Violence

‘American Sniper’ or ‘Selma’ — How Christian Is Your Movie Choice?

Images via 'American Sniper' and 'Selma Movie' on Facebook.

It’s no surprise when we talk about the influential power of the Christian pocketbook when it comes to politics, culture, or any other part of the social fabric in the United States. The conversation has been evolving for quite a while now, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have its standout moments. One such moment was the unexpected box office power of The Passion of the Christ. Large numbers from various faith communities urged their members to buy tickets in an effort to send a message with their purchase. They wanted the box office numbers to speak for Christian influence in the notably secular realm that was, and is, Hollywood. They wanted their money to talk.

I don’t see it as much of a coincidence that, according to The Hollywood Reporter, American Sniper finished its four-day debut on Monday — Martin Luther King Jr. Day — with a historic $107.3 million take. The previous best for a non-Hollywood-tentpole drama? The Passion of the Christ with $83.8 million.

Now, these two openings aren’t directly comparable. There are obviously different sets of circumstances surrounding the two films, including star-actor power, Hollywood support, and (for the purpose of our discussion) how much Christianized effort was involved. The buzz around American Sniper isn’t the same as when people purchased tickets to show support for The Passion of the Christ, even if they didn’t plan on seeing the film. Still, American Sniper brings us face to face with the issue Americans can’t escape in our modern society: the conflation of faith and patriotism.

A week ago, Sojourners ran an article from Religion News Service highlighting the role of Christian faith for Chris Kyle, the sniper and main character played by Bradley Cooper in the Clint Eastwood film. Several quotes from his book were used to call attention to the prominence of faith for Kyle in real life versus the lighter take on it shown in the movie. The article ends with one such quote:

“I believe the fact that I’ve accepted Jesus as my savior will be my salvation. … But in that backroom or whatever it is when God confronts me with my sins, I do not believe any of the kills I had during the war will be among them. Everyone I shot was evil. I had good cause on every shot. They all deserved to die.”

Even if such language is patriotic for those who defend a black-and-white, us-versus-them ideology when it comes to combat, it is disturbing at best in a Christian context.

Obama Extends U.S. Combat Role in Afghanistan

Photo via UK Ministry of Defence / Flickr.com
Photo via UK Ministry of Defence / Flickr.com

News agencies reported Saturday morning that weeks ago President Obama signed an order, kept secret until now, to authorize continuation of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan for at least another year. The order authorizes U.S. airstrikes “to support Afghan military operations in the country” and U.S. ground troops to continue normal operations, which is to say, to “occasionally accompany Afghan troops” on operations against the Taliban.

The administration, in its leak to the New York Times, affirmed that there had been “heated debate” between Pentagon advisers and others in Obama’s cabinet chiefly concerned not to lose soldiers in combat. Oil strategy isn't mentioned as having been debated and neither is further encirclement of China, but the most notable absence in the reporting was any mention of cabinet members’ concern for Afghan civilians affected by air strikes and ground troop operations, in a country already afflicted by nightmares of poverty and social breakdown.

While the concern for civilians may have been discussed even if not reported, it’s worth pointing out some of the suffering people on the ground continue to experience.  Here are just three events, excerpted from an August 2014 Amnesty International report, which President Obama and his advisors should ha considered (and allowed into a public debate) before once more expanding the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan:

The Oracle of Certainty: From Ancient Athens to ISIS

The Temple of Apollo, Anastasios71 / Shutterstock.com
The Temple of Apollo, Anastasios71 / Shutterstock.com

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.

On Being A Muslim Parent

LAST YEAR, as I was unpacking my son’s school backpack, I found the children’s book on the Prophet Muhammad that my wife and I read to him at night. He had brought it to school without telling us. “It was for show and tell,” he explained to me.

You might think that my first reaction would be happiness. One of my goals as a Muslim parent is to help my kids feel connected to their faith. Clearly my son felt close enough to his religion to bring a book on the Prophet to share with his class.

What I actually felt was a shock of fear shoot down my spine. It was an immediate, visceral reaction. A whole slew of questions raced through my head. What did his teacher think of Muslims? What about his classmates? Would somebody say something ugly or bigoted about Islam during my son’s presentation? Would his first taste of Islamophobia come at the age of 5 during show-and-tell?

My fear at that moment is one small window into what it feels like to be a Muslim-American parent at a time when Muslim extremism is on prominent display and Islamophobia in America continues to spread.

My wife will not let me watch news shows in our home for fear that one of our kids will saunter by during the segment discussing Muslim terrorism (and it seems to be a regular feature of the news these days) and ask what’s going on.

The truth is, I would not have a good answer for them. I am doing my best to get two kids under 10 years old to love and identify with their religion in a secular urban environment. I don’t have a way of explaining to them yet that there are some people who call themselves Muslim who do stunningly evil things. When the TV talks about Islam, mostly they talk about those people. Moreover, when some Americans think about Islam, all they think about are those people.

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From the Archives: December 1990

THE ODDS that this note will arrive for your birthday are poor, but know that I’m with you in spirit as you celebrate 16 big ones. ... What I want to say—some of it isn’t too jolly birthday talk, but it’s real.

Yesterday I stood looking down at a 16-year-old who had been killed a few hours earlier. I know a lot of kids even younger who are dead. This is a terrible time in El Salvador for youth. A lot of idealism and commitment are getting snuffed out here now.

The reasons why so many people are being killed are quite complicated, yet there are some clear, simple strands. One is that many people have found a meaning to life, to sacrifice, struggle, and even to death. And whether their life span is 16 years, 60, or 90—for them, their life has had a purpose. In many ways, they are fortunate people.

Brooklyn is not passing through the drama of El Salvador, but some things hold true wherever one is, and at whatever age. What I’m saying is, I hope you come to find that which gives life a deep meaning for you—something worth living for, maybe even worth dying for—something that energizes you, enthuses you, enables you to keep moving ahead. I can’t tell you what that might be—that’s for you to find, to choose, to love. I can just encourage you to start looking, and support you in the search. 

Sister Ita Ford was a Maryknoll missionary in El Salvador when she wrote this letter in August 1980 to her 16-year-old niece, who lived in Brooklyn. Ford was killed three months later by a right-wing death squad.

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'Demilitarize the Police!'

AS A FORMER reserve police officer who has taught ethics at two police academies, I followed the news very closely after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot to death by police officer Darren Wilson in nearby Ferguson, Mo. When I saw the military equipment of the St. Louis County Police—especially the sharpshooter on top of an armored vehicle aiming his rifle at the protesters—I said to my wife, “This may turn out to be very, very bad.”

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Unlocking the Answer to School Shootings

YuryZap / Shutterstock.com
“Sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” YuryZap / Shutterstock.com

Last week’s school shooting in Marysville, Wash., has us all asking the question again: Why did this happen?

Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary gave voice to the despair many are feeling as we search for answers. “The question everybody wants is ‘Why?’ I don’t know that the ‘why’ is something we can provide.”

Why did Jaylen Fryberg text his friends and family members to join him for lunch only to shoot them and then shoot himself? Whenever these tragedies occur we are tempted to blame the shooter by making him into a monster. We label the shooter “mentally ill,” claim that he was isolated from his peers, or was a generally troubled youth.

The answer to the question “Why?” has usually been to blame the shooter. We make the shooter into a monster because it allows us to make sense of senseless violence. Why did this tragedy happen? Because he was evil.

But Fryberg’s case won’t allow such easy answers. By all accounts, he was a popular and happy young man, seemingly incapable of causing such harm.

This horrific shooting is so scary because no one saw it coming. If a popular kid like could commit such a heinous act, anyone could do the same. Fryberg’s case deprives us of the easy out of blaming another. The only thing left is to face our own violence.

The Lives of Others

WE LIVE IN A TIME of widespread violence. No country, no community, no person is untouched by violence. It is a complex problem stemming from our thought patterns and actions that are, in turn, shaped by various forces in our daily lives. Because violence is so complex, we often seek an easy answer—typically, naming a specific religion, culture, ethnicity, or nationality as a cause of the evil that perpetrates or stimulates violence.

But we all know that such scapegoating is another crime that only creates more violence. Each and every individual and community has good and bad, strength and weakness, merit and demerit. Just as no one is perfectly good, no one is perfectly evil. In her well-known book Eichmann in Jerusalem, philosopher and writer Hannah Arendt points out that evil is related to the lack of reflective thinking. “The longer one listened to [Eichmann],” writes Arendt, “the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of someone else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and presence of others, and hence against reality as such.”

For Arendt, to think reflectively means to be aware and to take into account the reality that one’s own life is always in relation to the lives of others. This is also what the biblical texts this month invite us to contemplate.

Min-Ah Cho is assistant professor of theology and spirituality at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn.

[Novemeber 2]
When Injustice is 'Normal' 
Micah 3:5-12; Psalm 43; 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12 

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Why Do Westerners Join ISIS?

ISIS flag, Trybex / Shutterstock.com
ISIS flag, Trybex / Shutterstock.com

Whether ISIS is "Islamic," or a "state," it is definitely terrifying. As it terrorizes the Levant — killing Muslims, Christians, Jews, Yazidis, and other religious/cultural minorities in Syria and Iraq — and takes the lives of Western journalists, it strikes fear in the hearts of many.

Swirling around the alarming analysis are the rumors and realities of individuals from Europe and the U.S. joining the ranks of ISIS and fighting for their "cause."

The intelligence organization Soufan Group recently released a report stating that fighters from at least 81 countries have traveled to Syria since its three-year conflict began. Hundreds of recruits come from nations like France, Germany, the UK, and the U.S.

Of all the fearful intimations of this conflict, this feature seems to be the most frightening to many in the West. Could it be that my neighbor is a secret jihadi? Are redheads (a "pure" European stock) more prone to terrorism? Are mosques their hideouts? Regardless of the judiciousness of these questions, underlying them all is the question "why?" Why would someone leave the West to fight for ISIS in Syria and Iraq?

According to the Soufan report, those that leave for the Middle East to fight are typically 18-29 year-old men (some as young as 15) and some Western women who join with their spouses, or come alone to become "jihadi brides." These men and women are Islamic, often second or third generation immigrants, though very few have prior connections with Syria.

Why do they join? Is it religious devotion? Psychological imbalance? Tendency toward radical movements and anarchy? All of these motivations may play a part, but my argument is that these men and women who leave their Western homes for the dunes of terror are lonely.

These Western jihadis are isolated — that is why they join ISIS.

In Compassion and Sympathy: A Christian Response to Religious Violence

How did we get here? How should we respond? Photo via iurii/shutterstock.
“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” Phil. 2:1-2
 

I write this essay on the eve of a US led air campaign that marks “the biggest direct military intervention in Syria since the crisis began more than three years ago.” There is no denying that ISIS/ISIL has captured the attention of the world through its religiously inspired acts of violence. The atrocities committed in recent months by ISIS/ISIL have left countless people of faith—including many devout Muslim leaders across the world—speechless.

Yet, one of the central aspects of religiously inspired violence is that it rails against silence. Whether it is Christian violence in Nigeria and Uganda, Hindu violence in Western India, Jewish violence in Gaza, or Islamic violence in Indonesia and Syria, acts of terror demand denunciation. The ubiquity of religiously inspired violence across cultures and religious traditions lends credibility to the belief of some that religion itself is the problem. My own Christian tradition treats our inclination to harm and even kill one another as symptomatic of our fallen natures; it is a mark of our propensity to evil. This is what makes religious violence so pernicious: it twists our one remedy so that it exacerbates the disease.

Violence—whether it arises out of a Quentin Tarantino film or a YouTube video of decapitation—captures our attention. Even as we are repulsed by the scope of human depravity, such acts of violence consume our attention. Scenes of violence are like a mirror into the darkest parts of our soul: we cannot bear the images we see, but neither can we turn away.

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