courage


I’ve been writing recently about my recent trip to Israel. My last post had to do with experiences that helped me better understand the divine nature of Jesus. This post will have to do with his humanity.

Jesus was ” truly God and truly man,” said the Council of Chalcedon in response to heresies that denied one or the other of these aspects. The idea that Jesus was fully human didn’t fit with the Gnostic idea that matter is evil. In line with Gnosticism, the Docetists thought that he was pure spirit and his physical body was an illusion. The modern emphasis on spirit and spirituality can easily take on a neo-Gnostic tint, viewing the physical world as unimportant and, by extension, downplaying Christ’s physical nature in preference for his spiritual and divine aspects.

Going to the places where Jesus spent time helped me appreciate both the physical and psychological aspects of Christ’s humanity. We went to Capernaum, the home base for much of his ministry. Ruins of the town’s living quarters have been excavated. The foundations of the houses are nearly all identical, low stone walls demarcating one house from the next, each house essentially a single long room. Looking at the residential area, it occurred to me that Jesus in all likelihood lived in one of these houses. He wasn’t just an ethereal figure who spent his days on the mountaintop and floated into town now and then to dispense some wisdom. He lived right among the townspeople, sleeping and waking, eating and drinking, one of them. And he taught in their synagogues.

Synagogue in Capernaum

Synagogue in Capernaum

Capernaum has the remains of a fourth-century synagogue, probably on the site where the previous synagogue stood when Jesus spoke there. We visited the ruins of first-century synagogues in the nearby towns of Chorazin and Gamla. Since Jesus was essentially an itinerant preacher, going from town to town, he may have spoken in those places. I imagined a Sabbath long ago, the local community of Jews gathered for worship. Jesus and his disciples walked in, and Jesus started to teach (perhaps after reading from Scripture, as in Luke 4). Everyone was amazed. Not infrequently, though, his message evoked resistance, even rage–again, see Luke 4. Of course, he knew exactly what he was doing, slaughtering sacred cows in order to replace them with something more faithful to God.

Synagogue in Gamla

Synagogue in Gamla

I tried to imagine myself walking into a synagogue knowing that what I had to say would evoke a furor, and I immediately felt a visceral resistance. I couldn’t have done what he did! Is that because he was God and I am not? I  think instead it is because he was more truly human than I am. My humanity prompts me to seek approval from others, to fear offending anyone, and to lack confidence in myself, especially when doing something that is difficult or that provokes opposition. In reacting this way, I am living in only a portion of my humanity, the self-protective and cowardly part. I am being inhumane, since a humane response to others would be to have such compassion for them that I would have the courage to tell them what they least want to hear.

In Habitation of Dragons Keith Miller wrote of his temptation during speaking engagements to say only what gains approval: “I unconsciously tone down the unpleasant aspects of that which I am saying and accentuate those things which affirm the group’s existing beliefs and prejudices” (p. 172). He recognized where that led him: “So for that night I became what the Scriptures call a ‘false prophet,’ more interested in material approval than in speaking any creative, freeing truth God had given me” (p. 173). I admit that when it comes to speaking the truth I am more likely to behave like Keith Miller than like Jesus.

Another way of describing the difference between Jesus’ humanity and mine is to say that he is willing to fully be himself, and I’m not. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said that we are all in despair because we want to be a self, but don’t want to be the self we are. Maybe I could walk into a gathering and upset everyone with my message, but only if I was a better me, a me who had all my issues worked out, who was sure of himself. In contrast, Jesus was entirely confident in who he was. In becoming human, he not only took on flesh but was more comfortable in his skin than anyone who has ever lived.

So, in this and other ways (such as his relationship with his disciples and his relationship with God), Jesus showed us how to be human. I hope that I will continue to learn from his example.

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar questions.

No_One_Writes_to_the_Colonel_FilmPosterWhen I was in North Carolina recently, I saw a movie sponsored by the Modern Languages Department of Methodist University, where I taught before retiring in 2012. The film was El coronel no tiene quien le escribe (No One Writes to the Colonel), a 1999 Spanish language film by Mexican director Arturo Ripstein, based on a novella of the same name by Gabriel García Márquez. It has me thinking about what life is like for older adults in third-world countries.

The film is set in a small fishing community on what is apparently the Mexican coast. It is the 1940s, and the colonel (played by Fernando Luján), a veteran of the Cisteros war, has been waiting 27 years for the pension he was promised. Every Friday, he dresses in his best suit and waits on the dock for the mail boat, expecting to receive the letter announcing the beginning of his long-delayed pension. The lawyer who has been representing him has been ineffectual at everything except collecting additional fees. It seems that the government wants to forget about the war, so bureaucrats ignore the efforts of the war’s veterans promised benefits.

The colonel’s wife Lola (Marisa Paredes) tells him the pension will never come. Yet he keeps hoping—in the pension and in another longshot possibility, that the fighting cock that was the prized possession of their recently deceased son will win at the cockfights held each fall. The colonel and his wife are destitute, and the mortgage on their house will be due before the cockfights start, so much of the plot has to do with the couple’s efforts to prevent foreclosure.

The couple’s grief over their lost son is heartbreaking. At one point, Lola says pathetically, “It’s a sin to live longer than one’s children. A sin to wake up each morning.” The gamecock has special poignancy because it is all they have left of their son. The Colonel caresses it tenderly and carries it almost as if it were an infant in his arms. This fighting rooster is not just a potential breadwinner; he is a representative of all that was lost.

Besides impoverishment and the loss of their son, the couple are struggling with the lost integrity of their society. The injustice regarding the pension is part of a larger corruption, one that has infected most members of the village and, as it eventually turns out, underlies their son’s murder. The colonel remonstrates at one point, “The nation ended up like me—an old rag.” This is a despair that most older adults in liberal Western democracies never experience; even those of us who rant about government waste or oppression don’t have to grapple with the sort of societal rot that surrounded the colonel and his wife.

What is to be done in such a situation? The colonel does a couple admirable things in response. First, he clings to his honor. At times, this has a humorous element, as when he tries to save face with the neighborhood boys, telling his wife “They can’t find out I know nothing about cocks. I’m a full colonel, you know.” Ultimately, though, preserving honor proves costly, when he refuses blood money that would have provided financial deliverance.

The other thing he does in response to the corruption is continue to show up on the dock, even though there is no hope the letter will arrive. I see that as being his testimony to the whole town—mute testimony that says louder than any words that an injustice has been done, and no one should accept it as normal when such an injustice done to members of the community.

I know the film is a fictional account of events long past, but, still, it reminds me of real needs that exist right now in many countries. As I think ahead to my own retirement, I hope I’ll remember the plight of poor older adults who aren’t wrapped in the sort of financial security blanket that I have. Can any of us be fully at ease as long as so many people, be they young or old, have insufficient food, clothes, or shelter?

Two days before Christmas I went to see the exhibit “Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus” (at the Detroit Art Institute through February 12). The thesis of the exhibit is that Rembrandt discovered a new way to picture Christ. During the Renaissance, artists tended to paint a brown-haired, light-skinned Christ, often with a muscular, well-proportioned anatomy patterned on the Greek ideal. This Christ is active and heroic, typically gesturing with emphasis or emoting openly. Rembrandt’s early representations of Christ usually fit this mold. However, over the course of years, Rembrandt’s portrayals of Christ changed. For example, an early print showing the raising of Lazarus has Christ dramatically raising his arm over the grave, while a later version of the same event shows a much more subdued miracle worker. An early print of Christ’s trial shows him as a bold and dramatic, but, in a print made 20 years later, Christ is so unobtrusive that the viewer has to look carefully to pick him out from a clutch of figures.

The curators are particularly attentive to tracing Rembrandt’s change from painting fair-haired European Christs to painting dark-haired, Jewish Christs. Rembrandt lived much of his life in the Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam and became quite familiar with his Jewish neighbors. In the mid-1640s, he made studies of a young Sephardic Jew, and, shortly thereafter, he and his school produced several pictures of Christ that had the hair style and facial features of that Jew. Rembrandt had discovered Christ’s Jewishness. (The view that Rembrandt was influenced in his portrayal of Christ by his interactions with his Jewish neighbors is disputed by some scholars, as noted in an article in the Huffington Post.) Rembrandt’s new way of picturing Christ continues his tendency towards a less active, more subdued Christ, but also evokes a new interiority. This is a contemplative figure whose serenity is suggestive of inner depths of spirit. The portraits of Christ made in the late 1640s are small, with a dark background that pushes the image of Christ towards the viewer. They invite intimacy.

The exhibit prompted a fair amount of reflection on my part. I was fascinated by the process of discovery that Rembrandt had to go through to find this Christ. The preconceptions bequeathed from his culture had to be stripped away little by little until he discovered a Christ freed from those preconceptions. It was courageous to follow this road of discovery to its end. Though Amsterdam was a city of relative tolerance, presenting a very Jewish Christ to a society that looked down on Jews took boldness, especially for someone whose livelihood was dependent on how the public received his work.

I also am interested in how the change in his representation of Christ is correlated with events in Rembrandt’s life. He achieved prominence in his twenties, moving to Amsterdam when he was about 25 and quickly becoming a successful and sought-after portrait painter. However, three of the four children he fathered with his wife Saskia died in infancy, and Saskia herself died when Rembrandt was about 35. Though he earned a decent income, Rembrandt lived beyond his means and went bankrupt when he was about 50. Isn’t it likely that these losses and struggles influenced his art by making it less showy and more subdued? Might the contemplative Christ reflect a more contemplative Rembrandt?

I also wonder whether Rembrandt’s process of discovery of a more interior Christ entailed a progression in his religious understanding. The earlier Christ is patently God-like—a distinctive figure who stood out from those around him and exercised his power in a dramatic fashion. The later Christ is more human—a man who was remarkable primarily in the sensitive and meditative qualities he displayed. This Christ is less intimidating and more approachable than the earlier version. Many followers of Christ go though a similar progression in how they view him. Early on, he is much different from us: the great prophet, the worker of miracles, the savior of the world. Though none of these elements disappear, they come to be counterbalanced by Christ’s humanity. He experienced the same times of confusion and struggle that we do; he felt the same feelings as we experience, and he sometimes faced daunting obstacles, just as we do. This is a Christ we not only respect, but one with whom we can relate. Perhaps in his later works Rembrandt was portraying Christ as he had personally come to know him.

The earlier, Classical portrayal of Christ evokes the universal myth of the hero. A more ethnically distinct Christ is a more parochial, less universal figure. Rembrandt was inviting his viewers to consider Christ as having been embedded in a particular culture and living in a particular time and place. At first, this might seem to make Christ less relevant to those from other cultures or living in other circumstances. Yet being tied to a certain time and place is a universal human experience. Like Christ, we all need to be engaged with our particular place and time. None of us lives as a universal man or woman; we all live as Jews or Dutchmen or Argentines or Americans, born in a specific era, with unique challenges and opportunities. Christ the Jew was Christ in the flesh, dealing with all the limitations that implies. He lived a life in the particular; he was human.

Skeeter, Minny, and Aibileen

I recently saw The Help, the movie based on Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel of the same name.  The “help” are black maids who worked for genteel white families in Jackson, Mississippi on the threshold of the civil rights era.  Skeeter (Emma Stone), a product of one of those genteel families who returns from college with hopes of becoming a writer, takes interest in the maids’ stories, and eventually produces a book detailing the cruelty and racism they endure.  I read several reviews of the movie and was struck by the wide divergence of critical opinion.  Some reviewers gave extravagant praise, while others saw only a shallow white-guilt film in which noble black characters contend with despicable white racists.  I liked the film, mostly because it isn’t just about prejudice or about black suffering.  Even more, it’s about woman’s inhumanity to woman (just as destructive as man’s inhumanity to man) and about responding to such inhumanity with either cowardice or courage.

The maids have to leave their own children behind in order to raise their employers’ children.  Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), the central character, has raised 17 white children.  In the film, she is charged with the care of a two-year old girl, and is disturbed that the child’s mother is neglectful.  However, she dare not say anything for fear of retaliation.  Aibileen and the other maids, including her best friend Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), endure such indignities as not being able to use their employers’ bathrooms (because they “carry different diseases”), hearing whites make racist remarks in front of them, being fired without cause, and being excluded from the job market by vindictive former employers.  When Minny is fired by the film’s villain, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Davis Howard), Hilly makes sure that no job offers are forthcoming from any of the other women in the Junior League.  Fortunately, Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), who married into money but is rejected by Hilly and company because of her own humble origins (i.e. she’s considered poor white trash), is delighted when Minny agrees to work for her.  Celia is the only innocent in the film, unaware of the unspoken rules of white domination and black deference.  Everyone else knows the rules and either supports or resists the white power structure.

As I said, the movie is about woman’s inhumanity to woman.  The males are away at work, so it is their wives who keep their maids in line by means fair or foul.  The mistreatment is sometimes deliberate, such as Hilly’s attempt to deprive Minny of work, but much of it is thoughtless.  It should be noted that whites’ mistreatment of blacks isn’t the only abuse of power and position that’s occurring.  Everyone who deviates from in-group norms is the object of one or another form of sanction, whether it is Celia Foote being socially excluded, Hilly’s senile mother being sent to a nursing home for laughing when Hilly gets her comeuppance from Minny, or Skeeter being pressured to give up her journalistic aspirations and become a housewife.  Of course, the Junior Leaguers aren’t all-powerful, and a feminist critique might say that they are themselves victims of patriarchy who have been denied fulfilling careers and relegated to meaningless domesticity.  Maybe so, but that doesn’t justify meanness. 

It’s hard to be courageous when doing so could result in ostracism, loss of employment, or violence (the movie doesn’t portray acts of violence against blacks, but it’s clear that white-on-black violence is very much a fact of life).   The temptation is to cave into the social pressure, as did Skeeter’s mother.  Skeeter wonders why Constantine, the black maid who had raised her, has disappeared from her parents’ house and presses her mother for an explanation.  After numerous evasions, her mother admits that, after an innocuous disturbance at a dinner she gave for a group of white women, she summarily dismissed Constantine rather than give the appearance of allowing black insubordination.  Though none of the maids show this degree of cowardice, none will tell Skeeter about their experiences because of fear that they might be found out by the town’s whites.  Aibileen is among those who refuse, but one day at church the preacher exhorts the congregation to have courage and speak the truth like Moses did.  While the other worshipers smile and shout “Amen,” Aibileen sits uneasily, her face showing the dismay of one who is sure that God is speaking directly to her and now she’ll have to do something about it.  She immediately calls Skeeter to her house and starts describing what it is like to be a maid in Jackson, Mississippi.

Her courage in telling her story is not the only way Aibileen practices her faith.  Early on, we learn that her son had died a few years earlier.  Not only did she grieve, but, as she told it, “After my son died, a bitter seed was planted inside of me, and I just didn’t feel accepted anymore.”  We later learn the circumstances of her son’s death and see how easy it would have been for her to develop a lifelong grudge against whites.  She struggles against her bitterness, though, and trusting a white woman with her story is both a sign of how far she’s come and a further step towards healing.  At the end of the movie, following a final confrontation with Hilly, Aibileen muses to herself, “God said to love your enemies.  It’s hard, but I’m trying.”  (I’ve paraphrased this.)  Sure, forgiveness is difficult, but she’s made tremendous progress.  Her life is no longer one of malice or resentment.  Nor is it one of fear, though there is still much reason for caution.  As a churchgoer, Aibileen might have been familiar with I John 4:18: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”  Whether or not she would have known the verse, she was living it.