Archives for posts with tag: Christianity

Right up front:  if you’re a member of Martin Richard’s family, Krystle Campbell’s family, Lingzhi Liu’s family, Sean Collier’s family, or if you’re any of the hundreds of people injured by the Boston Marathon bombings, this doesn’t apply to you.  I’d have some nerve trying to tell any of you how to feel about anything related to the hell you’re in right now.

The rest of us on the other hand…well, we need to get over it.  At any rate, we need to be over it enough to not care where in the hell they bury Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

We’ve insisted that we’re better than the barbarians who did what they did in Copley Square on April 15th.  We are.  We’ve told anyone who would listen that we’re Boston Strong.  We are.

So shouldn’t we have been Boston strong enough not to have done something as barbaric as let someone’s body lie around and rot for days on end because that someone hurt us terribly and therefore by our holy judgement deserved it?

When you refuse burial of the body of your enemy, you’re exacting a fairly pointless revenge.  You’re not doing anything that will change anything, heal anybody, resurrect anybody.  You just want to do something hurtful to make a point because you’re consumed by frustration and outrage and…

And what is it that terrorists do again?

Everyone connected with the Boston community, even those not directly affected by the bombings, has the right to some bitterness.  We’re allowed to  feel an emotion best summed up by the words “may he rot in hell.”  We’re not allowed to give voice to it or do our best to act on it by holding up a burial. 

If we’re going to do that, or if we’re going to start beating up people we think are Muslim because we believed the sheer idiocy of  “not every Muslim is a terrorist, but every terrorist is a Muslim” (I first heard that from Gerry Callahan, but it could’ve authored by any number of right-wing lunkheads) or if we’re going to be so hateful as to suggest that Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s widow be arrested simply for wearing a hijab, I am once again forced to ask this question:

Can we at long last give up the delusion that we’re in any way a Christian nation?

Christian behavior is the kind of thing the law enforcement professionals who faced down Dzhokhar Tsarnaev five days after the bombings did.  They combed the streets of Watertown not as a death squad out to even the score  but as police trying to make an arrest.  You’re not supposed to kill anyone when you make an arrest.  You’re supposed to secure someone dangerous before anyone else gets hurt.  After he was arrested EMTs and doctors and nurses moved heaven and Earth to save Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s life.  That’s Christian behavior.  All of it was laying down your life for your friends and loving your enemies.  You can look that up right in the Gospel.

As living Christian values goes, or just as being decent and fine and noble goes, how does that compare with say pitching a bitch because you don’t want Tamerlan Tsarnaev taking up space in a Cambridge cemetery?

I think the men and women who arrested Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and those who saved his life are who we really are here in Massachusetts, in this nation, in this world.  I think the first responders and the blood donors and the anthem singers  are who we really are.   Somewhere there is a man who has donated his grave to Tamerlan Tsarnaev.  We should all hope to be exactly like him when we grow up (and Sean Hannity has probably already called him a traitor).  The best of us is us.  Experience and the optimism that is part-and-parcel of being a practicing-if-thoroughly-flawed Christian has taught me that.

I know people who attack random Muslims aren’t us. I know those who think they’re somehow serving justice by insisting Tamerlan’s Tsarnaev’s family go through a nightmare trying to lay their justly infamous son to rest aren’t us.   I know the likes of Ann Coulter speak for a tiny nasty and irrational minority and they aren’t us.

But they’re here.  Once again, they’re here.  They’ve insisted on their stage time  in this tragic play as they always seem to at times like this.  The world  will notice them.  The part of the world that sees the Tsarnaev brothers as heroes will notice them and say “see, look at that!  They talk this big game about how they’re so enlightened, so superior, and look at that!”

I just we all can remember, especially in remembering April 15, 2013, that we are called to better, to be who we really are:  as Bostonians, as the people of Massachusetts, as Americans, but mostly as, in the words of Charles Dickens, “fellow travelers to the grave”– the human race.

The race to which we belong and to which Tamerlan Tsarnaev also belonged.

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Part of a series on The Irish American Catholic Mets’ Fan on movies based on the Gospel.

I have to begin with my favorite story about this film and one of my favorite stories about film of all time.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew was directed by Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini– who was an avowed Marxist, atheist, and gay.  He dedicated the film, as we find out in the first frame, “to the dear, joyous, familiar memory of Pope John XXIII” who reached out to befriend Pasolini in the interests of greater dialogue with non-believers.

It gets better.

According to legend (like most legends it has multiple versions; by all means, if you know a different one, tell it), Pasolini cast Enrique Irazoqui in the role of Jesus when Irazoqui came to his door collecting for the Italian Communist Party.

Pasolini essentially told the not-quite-twenty Irazoqui “I haven’t got any money for you kid, but how’d you like to be in a movie?”  Irazoqui said he couldn’t possibly accept because he was dedicated to serving the party and if he was cast in the movie, he would be less able to serve the cause.    Pasolini explained to him that by being in this movie, he would be helping the cause.

Signor Pasolini, you tell no lies.

That’s not to say The Gospel According to St. Matthew is in execution The Gospel According to Karl.   Pasolini does not take any socialist liberties with scripture.  In fact,  he takes hardly any liberties at all.  This is a very unadorned straightforward interpretation of Matthew’s Gospel.  It’s practically a word-for-word retelling.  Pasolini seems to figure that if he just tells Jesus’s story flat out, that by itself will go a long way toward furthering his Marxist political agenda.

He’s more or less right.

In Being Catholic Now, Anna Quindlen says she can’t figure out how any kind of conservative movement could ever count the Gospel as central to their beliefs because the Gospel is such a progressive document.  Conservative movements, Christian and otherwise, are a little more complicated than that, but after watching The Gospel According to St. Matthew, I see what she means.  For all its myriad flaws, communism did at least originate as a critique of something that cried out for correction: economic injustice.   Watch this rendition of Matthew’s Gospel and you realize just how central the theme of economic justice is to that book.

One look at the characters populating this film and you understand that they’re not merely poor, they’re just barely surviving.  Those rugged hills all around them look mighty unforgiving and every town from Bethlehem to Jerusalem is a step above a pile of bricks.  Their clothing is simple and drab.  Their faces are decidedly un-Hollywood in their plainness, and the expressions on them are of people who haven’t had anything to be happy about in a long time and aren’t holding their breaths waiting for the next time they’ll be happy.    In case you still don’t get it, they’re underscored at different points by Odetta singing “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”  and Blind Willie Johnson playing “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was the Ground.”  These are the conquered, the beaten-down, the struggling, the hopeless.

These are the people Christ joins.  He looks like them, lives like them.  He ministers to them.  He heals them.  He comes to bring them the Gospel and by God do these people ever look like the could use good news right about now.

The good newshe brings  is the same good news we’ve known about for 2000 years.  Blessed are the poor in spirit.  Come unto me all you who labor.  My yoke is easy and my burden is light.  The last shall be first and the first shall be last.  It’s right there in your dusty old King James Bible.  In this film, in the mouth of Enrique Irazoqui playing Jesus, they’re not dusty and old any more.  They’re immediate and real, as quietly intense as Irazoqui himself.  Pasololini stays out of his way and the Gospel’s way.  There’s nothing fancy going on here; the Sermon on the Mount is done almost entirely as a close-up of Irazoqui. Just preach, Jesus, just preach.  Preach to the poor and the outcast.  Let them know whose part God really takes in a world of haves and have-nots.  In Pasolini’s world, it’s crystal clear who that is.  Not only is Christ united with the poor, he’s practically hostile to the wealthy.   The forgotten and marginalized get to hear about the poor in spirit and easy yokes and light burdens.  The rich find out it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than to it is for them to reach the kingdom of heaven.  They find out they can’t serve God and mammon.  The powerful are told in no uncertain terms what a bunch of hypocrites they are.  This is the economic justice of the Gospel as Pasolini sees it.  And he hardly changes a syllable of it for this movie. 

So many film renditions of scripture proceed from the idea that scripture needs to be jazzed up.  We need a spectacular wall of water as Charlton Heston marches through the Red Sea.  We need Robert Powell, James Mason, and none other than Laurence Olivier speaking the Gospel in Eton-perfect English accents.  We need Jim Caviezel’s blood and guts spilled all over every frame.  It all assumes that scripture needs help.  The message isn’t nearly enough. 

For Pier Paolo Pasolini, the Gospel is plenty.  The message of hope for those with nothing, the warning that material advantages are spiritual disadvantages for those with everything, that God sees how the goods of this world are distributed and sides with the shut-out, needs no dressing up.  The Gospel According to St. Matthew is the cinematic equivalent of a 95-mile-an-hour fastball right down the middle.  This is the Gospel, Pasolini just exactly as it is.  It says the weak and the suffering are not alone and there’s hope and that privlieged ought not be too comfortable.   Let’s see if you can handle it. 

It took a gay Marxist atheist to do it. 

If that’s not God writing straight with crooked lines I don’t know what is.

Next in the Hooray for Holy-wood series:  Jesus Christ Superstar (1973, directed by Norman Jewison).

Over the next five weeks of Lent, The Irish American Catholic Mets’ Fan will be discussing  five different movies based on the Gospel.  The first installment will cover the 1961 film, King of Kings.

Holy Redeemer, Word Incarnate, Prince of Peace, and…captain of the Enterprise?

Yes, some five years so before he was Captain Christopher Pike in the original scrapped pilot for Star Trek, Jeffrey Hunter was Jesus, as we discover when he appears a fair amount of the way into the biblical epic King of Kings.  As Christ, Hunter looks a lot like the image of Christ so ingrained in your head thanks to everything from Renaissance painting to that hippie-looking friend of yours you instantly nicknamed Jesus.  The shoulder-length hair, the beard, the gentle eyes that nevertheless seem to penetrate the core of your soul– that’s Jeffrey Hunter in this film and that’s Jesus.  That physical representation is so firmly etched into our imaginations, it seems like we hardly bother to try to imagine him looking any other way.  We know what Jesus looks like and we know how the Gospel story goes:  blah blah angel, yadda yadda Mary, so on so forth  stable, et cetera et cetera  baptism, this and that miracles, yakkity schmakitty Last Supper, whoseywhatsit crucifixtion, yap yap Resurrection, roll credits.

To be honest, having only seen bits and pieces of it around Easter, that’s what I expected from King of Kings:  some straightforward, neat and clean, unchallenging, unimaginative rehashing of the Gospel rather than a retelling of it.   Nothing controversial, nothing that would call overt attention to Christ’s call still-revolutionary acts like loving  your enemies and serving he poor, just something safely pious that years from now they’ll be able to show on AMC during Holy Week.

To a point, that’s exactly what you get with King of  Kings.  When anyone says anything taken directly from the Bible, it’s the King James version: Jesus teaches that you can’t serve “both God and mammon,” not God and money.  For people who were still  many many centuries away from sewers and laundry detergent, those Israeli peasants sure do look good as do the Hollywood-perfect settings in which they live.  Everything is big and sparkling, reminding you that this is very much a biblical epic in the tradition of The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur.  This is a nice safe Sunday school Bible story…to a point.   Watch it from beginning to end and you start to notice a few things.

You notice this isn’t a one-to-one retelling of any particular Gospel.  The action begins with Rome’s conquest of Israel 63 years before Christ’s birth.   We see an occasional miracle, but several, from the wedding feast at Cana to Lazarus are conspicuously absent.  Just before heading to Jerusalem, Jesus stops off in Nazareth  “to spend time with his mother” (as the uncredited Orson Welles solemnly narrates).  The Gospel is added to and  subtracted from as freely as any other movie based on literature.

Characters are either built up beyond any literary basis or inserted into the story whole.  Barabbas (Harry Guardino), the insurrectionist freed rather than Jesus when the mob demands it of Pilate on Good Friday, gets far more than the brief mention he gets near the end of the actual Gospel.  He’s at the center of perhaps the main theme of King of Kings: the question of whether Jesus is a political messiah sent to drive out the Roman overlords or something more…or less if you’re Barabbas, who tries to hijack Jesus’ followers on Palm Sunday as part of a massive uprising against the Romans in Jerusalem    The character Lucius is woven into the story as a Roman version of the Greek chorus, commenting on the story while also standing just barely apart from it.  Lucius serves as a sort of captain of the guard for Pontius Pilate and although a Roman, adopts a vaguely neutral stance in the conflict that arises between John the Baptist and later Jesus and Herod and the Roman authorities.    He’s loyal to the empire (“as you have a duty to your God, so I have one to my emperor” he quite fairly explains to Jesus in a scene in which Jesus comes to visit John the Baptist in prison), but also finds Jesus to be no threat to it.  He refuses to participate in the slaughter of the Holy Innocents after Jesus’ birth explaining that as a Roman soldier he doesn’t go around murdering children (are we talking about the same Rome, Lucius?)   On Good Friday, he serves as a kind of defense attorney for Jesus (people on trial before a Roman governor had access to legal counsel?).   Both characters have screen time comparable to Jesus himself.

For all the hue and cry over the The Passion of the Christ, you can’t help wonder if maybe this movie is where Mel Gibson got his ideas.  The Crucifixtion isn’t especially tough, but plenty of other scenes are.  When the Roman general Pompey makes his way to the doors of the temple in Jerusalem to start plundering, his path is blocked by a line of elderly Jewish priests.  Pompey doesn’t hesitate in ordering them wiped out with spears with a wave of his hand.  Barabbas’ Palm Sunday rising in Jerusalem is put down mercilessly and graphically.   More disturbing than the violence is the dance of Salome, which is so erotic all Brigid Bazlen is missing is the stripper pole and which is also equally creepy when you understand that her seven veils number is being done for her stepfather.   If this is something you can show endlessly on AMC during Holy Week, it shouldn’t come on until after the kids have gone to bed.   It’s not all nice and safe.

That extends to some of the theology Kings of Kings addresses (and the moment it addressed any theology, it addressed more than I expected). The Judas question is actually dealt with beyond just making him a simple villain.   In King of Kings, Judas (Rip Torn) is portrayed as being one of Barabbas’ rebel zealots (which some theologians have postulated he actually was) and plans to use turning Jesus over to the authorities as a means of “forcing his hand” and making him come down on one side or another once and for all.  Preach peace or lead the rebellion.  Love our enemies or drive them out.  Pick one.  The “forcing his hand” theory is one of several that have been kicked around for years about what Judas’ motivation was for doing what he did.    Whether you buy it or not is almost beside the point.  What’s impressive is that King of Kings, made way back in 1961, is willing to look at Judas as being complicated enough to have a well-meaning if misguided reason for selling out Jesus rather than just sticking with the more palatable idea that he was a flat scoundrel looking to make a fast thirty pieces.

If you’re looking for a Gospel story at the Children’s Bible level, it’s not here with King of Kings.  Not entirely anyway.  It looks nice, but it’s not squeaky clean.  There’s plenty of thous and thys and verbs that end in -eth, but it’s not as old-fashioned as you might think and it’s not a verbatim regurgitation of the Good News.  It roughly retells the story while  taking liberties that help to address matters as profound as what everyone from Jesus to Judas to Barabbas to Pilate to Herod was thinking when they each did what they did and what each may have thought of the other.  It’s a poetic interpretation, meaning it’s not exactly faithful to its source material, using it only to tell the story it wants to tell.    The thing that’s most appealing about it is the source material itself and there’s enough of that in there to prove that for all the Hollywood you see and for all the liberties taken, you can’t screw up the Gospel too much.  A huge portion of the Sermon on the Mount is there and everything from the Beattitudes to the urging to pray for those who persecute you was  plenty subversive  and challenging even in 1961 (and now) that this self-consciously handsome movie  can’t disguise it.  Jesus is still gentle and disturbing.  So too, it has to be noted, is the Blessed Mother (Siobhan McKenna)  who never raises her voice above a whisper but shows herself to be iron-tough when he tells Jesus simply “I’m coming with you” when he sets off to Jerusalem and his doom.   It’s an enjoyable and thoughtful interpretation but it’s not quite a holy card.  And that’s what makes it enjoyable and thoughtful.

Next in the Hooray for Holy-wood series:  The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1964, directed by Paolo Pasolini).

Since I know I’ll need to, I’m going to start this blog entry with a number of caveats.

I tend to favor stricter gun laws over loose gun laws, but on balance I believe in the Second Amendment as I believe in every part of the Constitution.  Nevertheless, I have two small children and for as long as they reside in my house, no firearm ever will.  I consider that too great a safety risk  and would consider it so whether I was a Marine sharpshooter or someone like me (who has no experience anything more menacing than a paintball gun).

While the whole “mama grizzly” angle may be all the rage right now, we dads are in fact every bit as protective of their children as moms are. I’d like to think I’m not a violent person.  Nevertheless, the last person you’d ever want to be would be someone who would dare harm a hair on the head of either of my sons.  I sincerely hope I don’t get any kudos for that sentiment.  It’s not particularly noble or heroic.  It simply goes with the territory of fatherhood.  I pray fervently every day that I never have to actually prove the truth of my words in this case.

We Americans are not a perfect people.  No such people exists.  But we are on the whole a good people and this is a good country.  I know that seems a little obvious and you would not think I would need to spend three sentences articulating it, but given the subject matter, I take no chances.

Last caveat coming up…

I’ve read the accounts of what happened involving a woman named Sarah McKinley as she shot and killed a man named Justin Martin as he and another man tried to invade the home she shares with her three-month old son.    While there might be some details that haven’t emerged yet, everything I’ve heard leads me to the conclusion that Ms. McKinley probably did the only thing she could do and at the very least the actions she took were entirely understandable.

I’m not writing this to condemn Sarah McKinley.   I keep thinking about her story and I keep coming back to the same conclusion I think most people would come to:  you can’t condemn her.  You can’t put yourself in her place for even a second and then honestly say to yourself that there’s no way you wouldn’t ha’ve done the same thing.

I would however like to think that if any of us were faced not just with her impossible crisis but also its aftermath, that we wouldn’t be happy about it.  We wouldn’t celebrate it.  We wouldn’t see it as an occasion for crowing.  To my knowledge, Sarah McKinley doesn’t see it as such herself.    But she has a whole legion of new fans now who can’t bay their praise of her at the moon shrilly enough.  Here are just a few posts I’ve found relating to Sarah McKinley’s utterly terrible but thoroughly legitimate decision to kill Justin Martin:

“Nicely done. I am glad I live in a state (Florida) that allows people to be safe in there own home!”

“This was definitely a win-win situation- one less piece of garbage out of society, another one off the streets.”

“It’s too bad she couldn’t get both of them.”

“Damn. Go, Mama!”

I realize that these are posts from message boards and the average message board offers all the thoughtful reflection and nuanced opinion of the average survivalist compound in the wilds of Montana.  Reading them still brought me up short.   It wasn’t just the comments themselves.  It’s the comments and the time someone at one of the Republican debates shrieked “Yeah!” at the discussion of someone being allowed to die because he or she didn’t have health insurance and couldn’t otherwise afford healthcare.   It’s the comments and it was one of the candidates at another of the Republican debates receiving an applause break when his record of executions carried out under his governorship was discussed. It’s the comments and the glee that the news of Osama bin Laden’s death generated.    If it could be said of anyone that his departure from this world made it a better place, it could be said of him.  I certainly didn’t  grieve that night.  Even so, there was still a little part of me that paled at the joy death seemed to bring my people.  I see similar sentiment now in the wake of what happened to Sarah McKinley and it unnerves me again.    I find myself wondering not for the first time and not for the last:

Do you think maybe it’s time to quit calling ourselves a Christian nation?

Christ’s teaching on mercy and loving your enemies is integral to the Gospel.  It isn’t a stretch to say that those teaching define Christianity.   They are precepts  we Christians are justly proud of.  Almost no one that I know of in this country follows them.   When we list what’s great about us as a people or as individuals, we almost never list our quality of mercy or the understanding and dignity we afford to even the people we despise most.   More and more what I hear called virtues are being “uncompromising” and “tough” and more and more it seems like the way to be uncompromising and tough is to be belligerent if not downright warlike.

Now because a mother in one of the most terrifying situations you can imagine makes a desperate decision that will no doubt leave her and quite possibly her son traumatized, warlike behavior is now a clear sign of great parenting.

Sarah McKinley is all of eighteen.  She has a three-month old son she is raising on her own because her husband lost a battle with cancer during the recent holidays.  For my money, the clear sign she’s a great mother is that she hasn’t utterly cracked up and blasted off her shotgun at anyone and everyone she can find in range in the state of Oklahoma.  She has about as good a list of reasons as you can find to spit her pain at the world and she chooses– she chooses– not to do so.  She realizes she has that perfect little boy and she knows she must keep it together for him at all costs even when keeping it together is the absolute last thing she wants to do and certainly must seem like the hardest thing to do.   That’s  what will get  a “damn, go mama” from me.   That’s uncompromising and tough through the roof.  Shooting some guy who was trying to break into your house with a knife is just a horrible moment in your life you never want to relive and you’re just glad it’s over with.   It’s nothing to celebrate, not even for a second.

Sarah McKinley exercises mercy and compassion every day.  We will never hear about it.  She shoots somebody and now suddenly we realize what a great parent she is.  Justin Martin had parents too.  Their grief will be dismissed as insignificant because their son will be judged to have had what happened to him coming.  While that may or may not be true, I would like to think that wouldn’t matter.  I would like to think that anyone’s death is a cause for grief, for the realization we are lessened with every life lost, no matter how wasted a life it was.

That’s not how it works for us.  It might work that way in some hypothetical Christian nation.  We’re not that.  We rejoice over death too much to be one.

Sarah McKinleys walk among us everywhere and show kindness and decency ripped straight from the pages of the Gospel.  We don’t care.  We just want to see those who we have decided deserve to die get what’s coming to them.   Then we celebrate.

I won’t be so presumptuous as to declare that God weeps for that.

I just know that I do.