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Posts Tagged ‘redemption’

The New York Times has a moving story about one pastor’s efforts to gather the stories of those who lived through lynching in the 20th century.

The Rev. Angela Sims visits people one at a time, and with care encourages and coaxes them to share their stories for the sake of history — and healing. She tells the Times:

I’m listening for what salvation and redemption might look like. I’m listening for how grace might play out and for notions of forgiveness.

I think about some of the individuals I’ve met and the way they’ve talked about having to get rid of racial hatred — to be in relationship with God, to not hate themselves. I’m looking for a way to articulate this ethic of resilience.

The story leaves one with the sense that Sims is still working out what she means by an ethic of resilience. At this point, the Times story better conveys what such an ethic looks like in the stories of survivors. At its core, Sims’ work wades into the mystery of evil’s presence in the world, juxtaposed against God’s goodness. As the Times story notes:

For Ms. Sims, such interviews went beyond racial issues to ontological ones. “The question of where God was in the midst of this evil,” she said, “is held in tension with the way God acted. They name the evil, but they recognize something beyond it.”

In trying to form a “theology of resilience,” Ms. Sims has combined the firsthand testimonies with Biblical teachings, particularly the Book of Micah with its cry for moral justice and the Gospel of Matthew with its mandate for disciples to travel the land. She has also been inspired by the essays of Alice Walker and a lecture by James H. Cone, the leading exponent of black liberation theology, about the lynching tree being the crucifix of African-American Christianity.

In helping others to bear witness, Sims is charging all our memories so that we might do more than leave the past behind. Instead, we must let the past shape how we all listen to others in the present and consider with humility how God might want us to live better in the future — for the sake of justice, for the sake of peace, and for the sake of reconciliation.

As for Sims, though it is taxing to hear such stories, she is undaunted:

There is no rest for a weary soul when you’re doing the work you were called to do.

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When the Academy Award nominees were announced early Tuesday, I was delighted to see Charles Ferguson’s superb “Inside Job” among the five finalists for Best Documentary. In my world, it would be a finalist for Best Picture, period. But it’s not my world.

At the same time, I was disappointed and surprised to see other worthy films from the semifinal pool of 15 left off the list of finalists, especially “The Tillman Story.”

That’s not a knock on the other films; documentaries are a crowded field with many worthy candidates. Two of my favorites from this past year, “The Oath” and “A Film Unfinished,” didn’t even make the round of 15.

Still, I wish the Academy had made room for the quiet but powerful film “Enemies of the People.” After reading about the film last August in The New York Times (here and here), I couldn’t resist blogging about it. Finally, this past week the film gained a showing in Seattle in a tiny screening room at the Northwest Film Forum.

“Enemies of the People” lived up to the advance billing it received in the Times. It is a searing character study, following Cambodian journalist Thet Sambath in his quest to explain the Killing Fields in the 1970s, where an estimated 2 million people died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. 

As part of his quest, Thet Sambath spent years building a relationship with Nuon Chea, No. 2 in the Khmer Rouge to Pol Pot. Only near the end of the film, just before his detention for trial on human rights charges, did Chea begin to explain why he felt so many had to die.

His answers are a mix of paranoia and racism; if there’s regret or remorse it is difficult to see. Yet we see that paradox of humanity: He sees Thet Sambath as a friend; he plays with an infant grandchild; he is surrounded by loving family members. Yet he is responsible for the deaths of millions.

The disconnect between these realms in his life represents the rupture of his soul, which took place long ago. There is no sense to be found here, no explanation that is satisfying as Nuon Chea allows us to peer into an abyss of his own making.

But the documentary is about more than Chea; Thet Sambath finds two men at the other end of the chain of command, men who carried out scores of killings and literally had blood on their hands as well as their souls. I’ve never seen such hollow eyes in human beings; their interiors have been devoured by rot of their crimes.

Denial could not protect them. In fact, to finally talk about their actions brought some degree of relief, and they even sought out others to add to their stories, which peel back the layers of depravity step by horrifying step.

Still, their relief is incomplete, even as Thet Sambath approaches them more as a confessor than as an accuser. They can find no redemption.

As for Thet Sambath, who lost his father, mother and a brother to the Killing Fields, there is some peace as his quest concludes. In the film’s final scene, we see Thet Sambath walking over the crest of small hill as his voice speaks of finally being able to move on in his life. Perhaps there has been some redemption for him as well, redemption from sorrow that only truth can salve — at least partially.

He has not allowed anger and bitterness to consume him. In this courageous film, he has provided a service for the rest of us, however sobering, and a warning about how madness can consume a nation.

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I don’t watch football that much these days — since September I’ve watched maybe five games from start to finish. But today I will make space to watch my Pittsburgh Steelers take on the Baltimore Ravens. However, I’ll be among those Steeler fans with a sense of ambivalence because of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, twice accused but never charged or convicted of sex assault.

Yes, he served a four-game suspension, submitted to counseling and suffered public humiliation. He also is starting to receive praise for changing his behavior during this season. Beyond that, of course, I have no idea what has gone on behind the scenes. For example (and this is important beyond words), has he taken steps to set matters right with the two women who leveled accusations against him? Has he turned away from the boorish behavior that alienated so many in Pittsburgh? One can hope, but who knows?

All I see is his great play on the football field. But that’s the problem, because all too often great play covers a multitude of sins; it is the cheapest of graces. Ask the University of Washington, still embarrassed from decade-old transgressions by its football team, which received a well-documented free pass from both the university and the legal system. Ask Brett Favre, who escaped sanctions from the NFL  over allegations of sex harassment and indecent text messages — at considerable cost to his reputation.

So at what point, even from afar, does a fan extend grace toward the fallen athlete? As today’s New York Times notes, fans in Pittsburgh are mixed in their attitudes toward Roethlisberger:

He divides Pittsburgh, the City of Bridges, the way the Allegheny River does downtown from the north shore, with the split occurring mostly along gender lines. Men generally seem of a similar mind as Kenny, a sexagenarian nursing a beer at Jack’s Bar on Thursday morning who ascribed Roethlisberger’s behavior to youthful indiscretion and said, “No charges were filed, so I don’t pay any attention to it.”

Women were less forgiving, their ambivalence exemplified by Cecelia, a sexagenarian hotel employee who said she was tuning out Steelers games as long as Roethlisberger was on the team. “I watched the first four this season, but none since he came back,” she said. “It kills me because I really, really love the Rooneys.”

Parallel to Roethlisberger we’ve seen the redemption story of Michael Vick, having served time in prison for running a dog-fighting operation, who inspired folks with the best play of his career in leading the Philadelphia Eagles to the playoffs. That Vick served time in prison provides a sense that there has been some justice (or retribution) in his case; a sense that is missing from Roethlisberger’s situation.

That’s the tricky thing about forgiveness — how do we extend grace while reckoning with our notions about fair play,  justice, accountability, and punishment? Does Roethlisberger have to earn forgiveness and grace from the public, or are we to offer it unconditionally? At what point will he have done enough?

Perhaps one place where Roethlisberger might look for guidance is the man lined up directly across from him in today’s game — Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. As William Rhoden writes in today’s New York Times:

On Jan. 31, 2000, after a Super Bowl party in Atlanta, a fight broke out between a group of people with Lewis and another group. Two men in the other group were stabbed to death. Lewis and two companions were indicted on charges of murder and aggravated assault.

The charges against Lewis were dropped in exchange for his testimony against the other men and a guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice. He was sentenced to a year of probation. The N.F.L. fined him $250,000.

Standing before the judge, handcuffed and in a prison jumpsuit, was a watershed moment, Lewis said. A year later, Baltimore won the Super Bowl and he was named the game’s most valuable player, though he was not invited to Disney World.

Rhoden examines all that Lewis has done to turn his life around, from excellent play on the field to charity off of it. Most notably, he mentors others who have run afoul of the same demons that nearly took Lewis down. His message is blunt, he tells Rhoden:

I tell them, “Trust me, don’t ever take my path. Don’t ever do it the way I did it because everyone won’t make it. You got to be willing to walk in a storm.” That’s what I tell people all the time: “If there’s something in your life that you know needs changing, make sure you change it before God’s got to change it. Because if God’s got to change it, you ain’t going to like it.”

Rhoden adds:

Lewis plays a violent sport and plays it violently. But he describes himself as a man of peace, a man of love, a man of joy and a man of God.

He sprinkles his conversation with Biblical allusions and scriptural analysis to drive home a point. Asked which Biblical figure he most closely identified with, Lewis, without hesitation, said David, who is often depicted as a flawed but righteous king, warrior, musician and poet.

It is noteworthy, then, to see that Lewis was among the first players to contact Roethlisberger as all his misdeeds exploded into public view last spring. He extended a grace born from the deepest of sources — his own humiliation.

If Roethlisberger finds redemption, if not forgiveness, it will be because he recognizes that the journey is no quick fix, but a long haul lived one day at a time. He’ll need the help of people like Lewis, who extend unconditional love.

He’ll also know that today’s game, win or lose, has nothing to do with the outcome.

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Got to see Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” tonight, and it was quite a ride — definitely a film best seen on the big screen.

I expected to see a film that played with the notions of perception, of the distinctions between dreams and reality, all in a manner that plays mind games with the audience. On that level, I wasn’t disappointed.

At the same time, I wondered about the degree to which Nolan would use the film to take a stab at some bigger ideas, as he did with “The Dark Knight” and the war on terror. In that case, Batman was embraced by many on the pro-torture right as a martyr, forced to suffer for taking on the thankless task of doing the difficult but necessary to subdue a relentlessly evil force — and forced to live without the thanks of those he protected.

With “Inception,” Nolan does play around with some big ideas — that ideas have consequences that we can’t necessarily control,  for example — but not necessarily in much detail. But what the trailer doesn’t signal is the manner in which the film revolves around questions of guilt, remorse, forgiveness, responsibility, redemption — how can all of us grant ourselves some degree of grace for things we have done? That is an universal question.

It is one thing to be caught up in the film’s thrill ride, a heist movie wrapped up in a dreamscape, which is its driving force. But these questions of grace and redemption reside at the movie’s emotional core, and the degree to which you are moved on this level is also part of your experience as a viewer. I don’t want to put too much weight on this dimension and suggest that Nolan offers some profound insight, but this is part of the film.

I’ve not decided yet how successful Nolan is with this question of redemption, and I’ll probably go see it again — both for the thrills and the reflection.

Just what Nolan would want.

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