Sunday, August 23, 2009

District 9 - Get on the Bus!

District 9, the sci-fi thriller named the "must-see movie of the summer" by Entertainment Weekly, has been out since August 14. Since my husband and I have two toddlers in our home, it is rare that we go on a movie date. We both love the sci-fi genre, and I relish any film with intelligent social commentary. Preachy can still be fun! Hence, we made the time to catch this hip new flick over the weekend.

I will spare you the background details and usual lead-up info that you'll find in the many professional reviews of this film. Here's the aforementioned Entertainment Weekly review in case you're interested:

Two facts I will throw out there are the modest $30 million budget and the age of the director, Neill Blomkamp: 29 years old! How's that for hitting those pre-30 milestones?? Way to go Mr. Blomkamp!

I will cut right to the chase by immediately commending the choice of setting for the film: Johannesburg, South Africa. If the objective is sharp social commentary involving racial and tribal loyalties and conflict, it's hard to beat this locale.

Many of us have spent some time contemplating religious, racial and ethnic conflict over the course of our lives. That is, if we contemplate at all... It's a little difficult to miss out on that particular "current issue", if you know what I mean. I'd almost feel obtuse if I started naming wars, instances of ethnic cleansing, and regional conflicts we have witnessed throughout our lifetimes no matter what our age. Think of how many a vampire could list! Anyway...

The absolute genius of this film, for me, was the aggressive and brutally honest analysis of how we, as humans, cling to our tribal, racial and ethnic origins to our own detriment as a species. I like to think of this film as a bus stop. If you see the film and make an attempt to absorb its message, you are waiting for a bus that you may or may not board. These days, there are more and more buses being added to the line and and there are also a lot of people trying to slit the bus tires. Where will the bus take you? To a place of mercy, compassion and acceptance of differences. A place of generosity. A place that has dethroned Fear as the monarch, and replaced him with Openness.

Here's a quick rundown of the plot and protagonists, and yes, this is a spoiler so if you plan to go, stop reading here and come back after you've seen it, or just skip over this paragraph:

A giant spaceship hovers over Johannesburg for several months and the aliens within make no appearance. A government agency called MNU is created to deal with the aliens, and human representatives finally board the ship. The aliens are sickly, starving, and confused. They are put into a refugee camp very close to the city of Johannesburg. How these aliens became stranded on Earth above South Africa remains a mystery, and eventually the creatures come to be called "Prawns" by the humans. South Africans, Whites and Nigerians sell to and barter with the aliens, whose favorite and most affordable form of nourishment is canned cat food. The aliens do have weapons, but nowhere near enough to be able to take on the humans, so for the most part they stay within their camp and eat their cat food. Eventually, their marginalization, extremely unfair bargaining power and poor living conditions push the Prawns to small criminal acts in order to obtain better food, essentials such as shoes, and more importantly electronic equipment to try and fix their mother ship. As a result of these increasing criminal acts, the Prawns come to be called terrorists and plans are made by MNU to relocate the Prawns to a new refugee camp 100 kilometers from Johannesburg. The project manager of the relocation project is the son-in-law of the head of MNU. His name is Wikus. He is filled with a sinister zeal which motivates him to evict the Prawns with the characteristic hatred we have seen so many times in real life stories related to ethnic cleansing, human rights abuses and torture. His zeal is purposefully portrayed as the product of fear and naivete and his character is depicted as more of a puppet than an evil commander. His foil is a Prawn who is called by the name of Christopher Johnson. Johnson has been working with his son and another Prawn to create a fluid that will allow the Prawns to fix their mother ship and return to their home planet. During the eviction process, Wikus clumsily confiscates this fluid, and in his violent gesture he accidentally ingests some of it. The rest of the fluid is transported to MNU headquarters. Wikus' ingestion of the fluid makes him sick and begins the biological process of transformation into a Prawn. He grows pincers in the place of one of his hands. MNU then tries to use him as a valuable resource to kill the other Prawns with their own weapons, since only Prawns can activate their weapons by using their pincers. When Wikus realizes that MNU in no way intends to save him, but only wishes to harvest his new ability to kill Prawns, he escapes back to Christopher Johnson's laboratory and hideout. The audience then discovers that not only Wikus' father-in-law and other family members, but also his own wife, are deceiving him and have written him off as dead. The rest of the action follows as you might imagine, with a lot of bumps and starts in the initial attempt of these two characters to cooperate in somehow retrieving the fluid for the ship and finding the method to transform Wikus back into a human. Wikus goes through a dramatic character evolution in that he ends up fighting against the South Africans, the Nigerians and the Whites to allow Christopher Johnson to escape in the mother ship with his son. Wikus had to literally become one of the creatures that he had hated in order to understand and cooperate with them, to the benefit of both the humans and the aliens.

The social commentary is not subtle, but the story and the effects render this film sublime. There is an obvious social movement underway across the globe that encourages riddance of tribal, religious and racial loyalties in favor of diplomacy and human rights. Hence, my bus metaphor. I could call it the "Peace Train", and that is a good song! But I don't want to get confused with any holy rollers! Do you think you would get on the bus if you had the opportunity? Have you thought about what it would mean to you and what sorts of fears or protectionism cause you to cling so passionately to your own tribal, cultural or ethnic origins when faced with an opposing group? It's a radical bus, and there may even be some flowers painted on it. I can't quite envision it yet because it's so far away from actualization.

Every group wants to point a finger at every other group. This is one thing I have noticed. "We only want peace. They are the aggressors. They have always staked claim to what is ours. They don't belong here and we do. Their philosophy is so alien to ours that we could never have a mutual understanding". If we want to start tallying up numbers of actual terrorists and which groups they belong to, perhaps there is a clear majority group at present. That said, throughout history, the majority group of terrorists has changed from age to age. There are ethnic groups on this planet, myriad Native American tribes being one example, that have been completely destroyed due to lack of tolerance, lack of respect and lack of mercy. This is a human flaw. This flaw is not a characteristic of one religious or racial group in particular. This sort of talk may inflame certain people, especially those who hold a special claim to a pure line of ethnic blood. That is their view, and they are free to hold it. There are very few of those sorts of people where I am from. Sadly, much of our American fabric has been built on creating a majority that has weeded out diversity due to fear and ignorance. I am speaking of diversity of religion, diversity of race, and diversity of ethnicity. Does it matter which majority is the one that fears and commits violent acts against another group? Is any majority with this attitude in the right?

At present, we have a President with an African father and Caucasian maternal ancestry. His election was a monumental step for this country and may I boldly say, speaks well for the future of me and my fellow bus riders.

Of course, attitudes of fear, vengeance and religious and tribal loyalties still run deep. A recent example of this is the statement of the White House following the "compassionate release" by the country of Scotland of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi so that this Libyan terrorist could go home and die in peace with family members in the final stages of an illness. The White House said it "deeply regrets" the release, recognizing the loss of the family members of the victims killed on Pan Am Flight 103. The US Attorney General, Eric Holder, strongly voiced his disappointment. "The interests of justice have not been served by this decision," he said in a statement. "There is simply no justification for releasing this convicted terrorist." Susan Cohen, the mother of one of the victims, was understandably more emotional in calling the release "vile" and in saying Scottish citizens should be ashamed of themselves and that the release had nothing to do with compassion, and everything to do with obtaining oil from Libya. If compassionate release were a policy created only for better oil diplomacy, then why did Jack Straw recently let the Great British Train Robber, Ronnie Briggs, go home to die with his family on the same basis? Compassionate release is part of the justice system in the UK, whether we Americans like it or not. In addition, no EU countries employ the death penalty. "An eye for an eye" is just not the trend of justice in most other Western nations.

Interestingly enough, "an eye for an eye" is still the trend in Middle Eastern countries. A personal friend of mine living in Saudi Arabia recently sent me a video of a young boy getting his hand severed off by a car running over it multiple times because he had stolen from a market. Is this because the populations of these countries are intrinsically more hateful and vengeful than the rest of us? Do they corner the market on harsh justice? More importantly, do we truly understand every link in the chain of events that led to the Pan Am Flight 103 terrorist bombing? Is it possible that the attackers were deprived and marginalized and abused by their own governments and other governments? Is it really for us to judge what should happen to this man's body, much less his soul?

I have an admission to make. I spent the night of September 11, 2001 alone in my apartment with a Muslim. I had moved to London from New York City days before, and this Lebanese young man was one of the first people to try to befriend me and welcome me to his city. He called me on the night of September 11, knowing that I was alone and could not reach my friends in NYC by phone. He came to my house and brought me food and candles, and we had our own vigil. We watched the television coverage of the event and cried. He was extremely emotionally distraught over the implications that this event would have for Muslims all over the world, and especially in Western countries. It was very meaningful to me that I spent that evening with a Muslim. I don't believe that it was a mistake. I believe that God was using that experience to teach me a lesson. I was learning not to react in hatred to a particular group or country.

Unlike Wikus in District 9, we don't need to ingest a chemical and go through a painful process of physical transformation to let go of our fear and hatred. We have the chance on our planet, right now, to begin true diplomacy with peoples and nations that have cultures and ethnic origins differing greatly from our own. We have the opportunity to base our policies on values such as human rights, mercy, and yes, compassion, rather than vengeance. There is a fine line between justice and vengeance. What do we as Americans, Christians, Jews or Muslims truly desire? Justice or vengeance? We have a long way to go to reach mutual understanding with those that we perceive to be our enemies. Unless we commence that journey, we may reach mutual doom sooner than we think.

I don't know if I'm on the bus yet, but I've made my way to the bus stop.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Nazarene and Prince Siddhartha

What are the subjects we have all been told to avoid at cocktail parties (or wine tastings, take your pick): religion and politics, right? Perhaps this explains the predominance of these subjects in the blogosphere. It’s difficult to choose the more inflammatory of the two. On the one hand, we have a group of angry conservatives who are extremely fired up right now about such topics as universal healthcare and the legitimacy of Obama’s birth certificate. On the other hand, mega churches are on the rise, Muslims are fighting for their beliefs and the preservation of their culture, Jews remain justifiably incredulous and outraged by Holocaust deniers and fundamentalist terrorists, and Buddhists just want us all to get along.

This post is purposefully anti-inflammatory. I believe that interfaith ministry and education could one day play a major role in the reintroduction of religious discussions into party circuits everywhere. Wouldn’t that be cool in a Star Trek sort of way? Klingons, Vulcans and Humans working together for the good of the Federation…

Until that future day dawns, I’d like to presently share some of my own spiritual inclinations and religious exploration.

I was raised in a Protestant family in a predominantly Christian part of the world. I grew up around a good number of Christian fundamentalists and also a fair share of Reformers whose beliefs were often referred to as “watered-down”. Fortunately, the Bible thumpers kept their distance for the most part and I was raised on run-of-the-mill Sunday school lessons. I knew a fair number of Reformed Jews as well, and had one Hindu friend. That sums up my religious education until reaching college.

The Eastern Philosophy course I took during the 1992 Summer Session was a true turning point in my life. I was fascinated by reading some of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and particularly the teachings of one Prince Siddhartha Gautama, more correctly referred to as Buddha. While I had always feared and disdained fundamentalist religion in any form, I had believed in the divinity of Christ since early childhood. The Eastern spiritual teachings I read in college echoed much of what I loved about the teachings of Jesus. I went through one short phase where I actually believed that Krishna and Jesus were one and the same. I wondered if Jesus and Buddha may not have both been divine incarnations sent to our planet in different geographical locations and historical periods. I was filled with joy to learn that people around the world, from all generations, had been striving towards similar spiritual goals and I truly felt less isolated in my spiritual search.

Obviously, Comparative Religion is its own rich subject matter and many a learned individual has written on the similarities between Buddha and Jesus. Here is a particularly informative and concise link to an interview with the religious scholar Marcus Borg on the subject:

Instead of an attempt to reinvent the wheel on a well documented scholarly subject, this post is a communication from my heart on what these two figures have imparted to me, and an affirmation of my belief that they hold valuable teachings for all of us.

My earliest remembered experiences of Jesus are saying my bedtime prayers at night, “thank you for my parents, thank you for my toys, thank you for Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny” and singing, “Jesus loves me this I know”. As a toddler, I thought it sounded like happy news and I believed it. When I found out that Santa, the Bunny and Tooth Fairy did not exist, I prayed, “Jesus, I still have you”. As my childhood progressed, I did read my Bible lessons and received confirmation as a Christian at the age of 13. I was then allowed to take Communion. One of my parents went through a revival phase during my early adolescence, so I also got to enjoy singing modern praise songs that included a full band and tambourines for all. On Sundays, we would sing songs to God for an hour and dancing was encouraged. Some people would be embarrassed by this, but I have to say that I truly enjoyed it! I did my fair share of Bible reading and usually I would skip straight to the words written in red in the New Testament. I contemplated those words and tried to get explanations to the parables. I prayed before taking tests in school and I found prayer to be a generally useful outlet to relax at bedtime, or in any time of crisis. I was a true believer. Some of my favorite verses were, “Seek and ye shall find” and “I can do anything through Christ who strengthens me”. I felt emboldened by my faith.

In high school, in college, and certainly in adulthood, I learned of the many horrible atrocities committed throughout history in the name of Jesus. I learned about the evangelicals who smeared his name through their public displays of extramarital affairs, drug use, narcissism and many other things most of us would consider vices. I learned about the hatred of many Christians towards homosexuals. I met some homosexual Christians who were able to teach me a lot about unconditional love and what a truly radical approach Jesus did have to ancient Jewish law and Old Testament beliefs and practices. I met many other Jews and Muslims and heard their perspectives on Jesus and how he was perceived by those from other faiths. I met Buddhists who claimed to respect the teachings of Jesus and viewed him as a brother to Buddha.

With time, and with the pressures of work and then child-rearing, faith took a back seat in my life. I recently experienced what could be called a spiritual revival after some Jewish friends recommended that I read and listen to the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, a revered Buddhist teacher. I then remembered that my father had given me the book, “Living Buddha, Living Christ” during my early adult years. Thich Nhat Hanh is a blessed soul who reignited my faith in the Divine and who re-energized my life. I then re-read the now classic, “Tibetan Book of the Living and Dying” by Sogyal Rinpoche. I re-read the Bhagavad Gita and I started reading the Bible again. I signed up for daily scripture through e-mail.

After searching online, I found meditation classes that were offered in my area through the Kadampa Buddhist Center, an affiliate of the worldwide New Kadampa Tradition. I read The Meditation Handbook written by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. For months, I meditated daily. I saw dramatic changes in my life, and with every new Buddhist teaching, I was able to make a new connection with Jesus. I finally started to understand some of those mysterious parables! So inspired was I by my newfound Buddhist meditation practice that I attended an actual Buddhist retreat at a temple in Glen Spey, New York.

My visit to that Buddhist temple, as ironic as it may sound, finally convinced me that although I do have immense respect for Buddha, Jesus is my true spiritual master. After a day spent in that temple, singing, praying and listening to the teachings of peaceful Buddhist monks, I walked away feeling oddly empty. I am not referring to the blissful emptiness that Buddhists wish to achieve. I felt emotionally flat to the point of slight physical discomfort. Nothing felt right to me. I wandered out of the temple and away from the common dining tent where I was meant to enjoy dinner. I got into my car and experienced slight nausea. I couldn’t understand these feelings because during my time in the temple, I had been inspired by the beautiful statue of Buddha Shakyamuni and the other Buddhist deities. I had particularly enjoyed the singing and was pleased with myself at having committed many of the prayers to memory before the retreat. When I started my car and the radio came on, I heard a Phil Collins song, beginning to end: “Don’t Let Him Steal Your Heart Away”. I listened to each word while driving, as if transfixed. Tears poured down my face. For the first time in many years, I felt the presence of the one that I only know to call Jesus Christ. I felt that he was singing directly to me. I went back to my hotel, after picking up a giant cheeseburger and a bottle of wine, and packed up my belongings. I decided to skip the remainder of the retreat and I drove home that night. Since that time, when I meditate, I try to clear my mind first, and then I try to invite Jesus to sit with me for a little while. I have also asked him to answer my questions in dreams which I believe he has done.

As a quick aside, I’d like to point out that at two other times in my life I felt that Jesus was singing directly to me in a pop song. The first time was after experiencing guilt following an encounter with some Evangelical Christian Fundamentalists. The song was, “I Love You Just the Way You Are”. You know, the one that makes you sing, “Don’t go changin’!” The second musical message was the Stevie Wonder song, “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” after recovering from an illness and while going through a divorce. As with the Phil Collins song, I immediately felt a spiritual presence and the tears flowed freely!

All in all, I feel that my spiritual progression over the past few years has been healing and transformative. I have experienced peaks and valleys, lulls and spurts. I now have a stronger sense of spiritual identity than I ever have, as I believe that our childhood religious beliefs are, on balance, more imposed than they are realized.

I will continue to read, contemplate and benefit from the teachings of Buddha for the remainder of my life, so long as I retain my mental faculties. From Buddha, I think we can learn to gain mastery over anger, jealousy, obsessions, and many other forms of harmful attachments. Buddha can peacefully guide us to realize our interconnectedness and our collective progression on this Earth as a group of souls.

Jesus will always be the one to whom I say, “Jesus, I still have you”. When I die, I will hopefully hold the hand of one of my loved ones and also feel the presence of Jesus leading me into the mystery that lies beyond our physical lives. Jesus offers to all of us the unique lesson of Grace and of strength perfected through weakness. Like Buddha, Jesus has a unique approach to illness. He said of many an illness that the purpose was not to destroy the body but to glorify God. When the apostle Paul asked Jesus for healing, Jesus did not heal him but answered instead, “My Grace is sufficient for you, for strength is perfected in weakness”. Jesus had a prostitute as a close friend and confidante. Jesus spoke to many women in his day and showed love and acceptance to a myriad of “sinners”. He was called out by the religious leaders of his day for his disdain of the law. He was said to have healed on the Sabbath. He asked one man to come and follow him, quite controversially on the day that this man was to bury his father. He said, “Let the dead bury their own dead”. Unlike Buddha, Jesus was reported to have shown anger on several occasions. He once cursed a fig tree because it had no fruit on it at the time. He once turned tables upside down in the temple in a fit of anger because he believed that God’s sacred place was not an appropriate venue for business transactions. Similarly to Buddha, Jesus was a radical when placed in the historical context of his generation. Perhaps his most radical quote was, “Before Abraham was, I am”.

While I respect and admire any person attempting to follow a spiritual path, I identify with the voice of that radical, Jesus of Nazareth. I may not go to a church for a while. I do drink. I do swear, on occasion, and I have always loved to dance. I don’t have much use for Christian fundamentalism, or any religious fundamentalism for that matter. What I know that I know that I know, is that as Jesus says, “my sheep hear my voice” and I can proudly yell BAAAAA from my rooftop tonight or any night! Good night! And G-d Bless!