Friday, December 31, 2010

The Faith of Children

Since Thanksgiving, we have all had many opportunities to revisit Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol by reading the original or watching one of the many stage and film adaptations. This year, as I often do, I tuned in again for Scrooged and enjoyed its zany moments as much as the poignant ones.

In the film, Frank and little brother James Cross grow up with very different hopes and dreams for themselves and for Christmas. Frank’s ambition is to be rich and powerful; James is more humble. Frank embraces the ruthless consumerism of the holiday season; James simply wants to enjoy the warmth of family.

Frank, the film suggests, grew embittered under the tutelage of a father who gave his small son five pounds of veal for Christmas, a gift never actually intended for him and one that will last only as long as the next family meal. The child seems to escape through television and hence, becomes a television executive who callously requires hundreds of people to foresake the spirit of Christmas and work the day, entertaining the world with another adaptation of Dickens. Frank definitely misses the message of Dickens, however. He endorses stapling tiny antlers to the heads of mice. He evinces greed and self-absorption by paying his secretary Grace (i. e., Cratchit) so little that she cannot afford a tree for her family or therapy for her son, and Frank spends on gifts as little as possible, only participating, it seems, because corporate duties require him to do so. Frank is Scrooge and the Grinch and every bah-humbugger out there.

Little James, still in the womb when Frank receives the veal, must have grown up under similar circumstances. Surely the boys’ father begins and ends as a Scrooge; after all, no ghosts traipse through the senior Mr. Cross’s dreams. Nevertheless, James honors Christmas in its purest form. He gives generously and thoughtfully. He shares with others, and he hopes for a better tomorrow by forgiving his jaded brother year after year and inviting Frank to share Christmas with him. He is a character with great courage. He grows up in a home that holds out little hope, a home that does not seem to have a faith that sustains, yet he believes and dares to hope for joy.

Of course, even the smarmy Frank shows courage when he faces Marley and his three helpers. He is brave when he confronts his past, present and future. Most important, Frank overcomes fear and deeply ingrained habits to give himself freely to his lost love, Claire; to right the wrongs done to Grace and her family; and to teach the world to believe in miracles.

As 2011 dawns, be a James. Have the courage to believe, and if you cannot, find the courage to change as Frank did.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Ordinary People, Extraordinary Courage

One of the most memorable moments in Michael Shaara’s book, The Killer Angels, is a passage describing the Confederate assault in July, 1863 at Gettysburg. The Union forces have seized the high ground. They are dug in behind a low wall that shields them. They have a clear view of the Rebels as they climb up the hill into enemy fire.

The front line Confederate forces, like the men trying to cross Omaha Beach on D-Day,, had little chance of surviving. Nevertheless, they marched on, sometimes stepping on their own. They simply closed ranks, filling in the gap created by the fallen soldier, somehow summoning the courage to march on, to do their duty as ordered by Generals Lee and Longstreet.

Shaara’s portrait of men who fought even though they must have known they were beaten before they even began, touched me. These men and boys, children really, stepped in blood and body parts. They must have been nearly deaf from the sounds of gun and cannon fire. The ones in front knew that they were the shield for the ones in the rear, the ones who would actually climb over the wall to engage in hand-to-hand combat.

I cannot put myself in their shoes. I cannot imagine facing such danger and walking on (even though I might have found the courage if I had been called upon to serve). Certainly, I’ve been brave, and I’ve seen through to the end many tasks that I wish I could have refused. Still the sacrifice of these soldiers inspires me. I am humble in the face of their courage. A modern soldier makes me feel the same way.

Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, just twenty-two years old when he faced insurgents in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, is the first living Medal of Honor recipient of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Fired upon, knocked back, and spared by his protective chest gear, Giunta rallied to rush into danger and help a fellow soldier. Giunta then ran deeper into enemy fire to “to defeat an enemy ambush and recover a fellow American paratrooper from enemy hands” (White House statement).

What impresses me as much as his courage is his humility. When interviewed for 60 Minutes, ( Giunta said he is not at peace with the knowledge that he is the single recipient of the most distinguished military honor. He does not consider himself to be extraordinary, only mediocre and average, a soldier who simply did what any other soldier would have done in the same circumstances. Giunta paid tribute to all the other soldiers with whom he has served, and he testified to the courage of each one.

Giunta is right. Courage is doing the work in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. Courage is recognizing the merits and strengths of others.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Panama City, Florida School Board

Many years ago, while rehearsing for a role in a college production of a Woody Allen play entitled Don’t Drink the Water, another member of the cast picked up the stage pistol, pointed it at me, and pulled the trigger. The sound was real enough to frighten me. I screamed at him: “Don’t do that! Don’t do that ever again!”

Not known for unscripted dramatics, my outburst stunned everyone present into silence. I looked from face to face and began to cry. The mock gun and the childish act shook the ground beneath my feet. I did not know how to act or overcome the intense fear.

I remembered this moment while watching the video footage of the Panama City, Florida school board staring into the barrel of a gun. Those men and women remained calm. They displayed courage.

One woman and school board member, Ginger Littleton, was among those ordered to leave the room by Clay Duke, the interloper who died that day in Florida. Somehow Duke’s rage or powerlessness or despair would not permit him to harm spectators and women. His targets were the Superintendent, a man, and male members of the school board.

Still Ginger Littleton could not save herself without attempting to save those other Board members. She returned and tried to knock the gun from Duke’s hand. She did not succeed, but who would not praise her for her valiant effort? She tried to save her friends. She tried to protect them from harm.

The Superintendent Bill Husfelt tried to draw the gunman to him and him alone. He asked that Duke spare everyone else on the dais. He asked Duke to hold him responsible for any employee terminations. Who could not admire a man who tries to save his colleagues? Who would deny Husfelt’s courage?

Jerry Register, a Board member, offered to help Duke’s wife find another job. In doing so, he drew the gunman’s attention to himself and away from others. He attempted to provide some hope for the desperate, disturbed man. Who would fault the man for acting so charitably?

When Duke begins to fire, Mike Jones, the security guard and former policeman, rushes into the room to protect and defend. That is his training. That is his job. Still, it requires courage to enter a room where a gunman has the advantage. Who does not admire Mike Jones?

These are ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. These are ordinary people of courage.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Sister Prejean Walks in Atticus' Shoes

Sister Prejean studied English, education, and religious education. Her dedication to the church and to a life of service took her beyond high school classrooms, however. She is now perhaps best known for a Pulitizer Prize winning book, Dead Man Walking, and for her personal journey in forgiveness, a journey that has brought her to condemn the practice of capital punishment. Her life proves the American dream: courage and conviction have carried her from humble beginnings to a position of authority and honor. She has earned awards such as the National Abolitionist, the Sanctity of Life, and the Champion of Liberty, each in recognition of her work to put an end to capital punishment and to defend the dignity of all men, even the lives of men who have taken life.

Sister Prejean’s stand begins in the belief that men convicted of heinous crimes have not lost their right to simple human kindness. That belief allowed her to become the pen pal of a convicted murderer, imprisoned in Louisiana. Her letters encouraged the convict, Patrick Sonnier, to request that Sister Prejean become his spiritual advisor. In that role, Sister Prejean acquired experience in prison practices, including execution, for she walked beside him, guiding him to accept responsibility and his own death. Her walk tested her own conviction and capacity for forgiveness. She emerged as a religious servant and educator on a world stage after explaining her journey in the book, Dead Man Walking.

What draws me to Sister Prejean is not just her stand against capital punishment, one with which I agree. What compels me to admire her is her very human struggle to forgive and her belief that forgiveness is not the same as being soft on crime. In her own words, Sister Prejean thinks that

Forgiving violence does not mean condoning violence. There are only two alternatives to forgiving violence: revenge, or adopting an attitude of never-ending bitterness and anger. For too long we have treated violence with violence, and that's why it never ends.

She is right, but she is not in sync with conventional wisdom. Mel Gibson has made a reprehensible career and obscene amounts of money by playing against forgiveness. His most recent film, Edge of Darkness, is a revenge movie disguised as the pursuit of truth and/or justice in spite of evil adversaries who care nothing about either. His earlier films, especially the gritty film Payback or the historical spectacle The Patriot, are identical. In these, Gibson portrays men who commit violent, depraved, brutal acts, but we spectators celebrate them and even condone the violence because Gibson’s characters have standards, including fierce loyalty and a love for loyal women. We agree to believe that violence done by such men has some sort of moral imperative whereas violence done by evil-doers simply begets more violence.

On the world stage, some would argue that events playing out in the Middle East are excellent examples of the hazards of an inability to forgive and triumph over revenge, never-ending bitterness, and anger. Slights, spites, and injustices committed hundreds of years ago inspire divisiveness, tyranny, oppression, and violence. No act of revenge has quelled the turmoil and hatred. Neither simmering bitterness nor explosive anger has brought about peace and prosperity. Violence simply begets more violence, and treachery breeds savagery. While forgiveness may not be an easy or likely strategy, it may be the only viable one. Would that it were part of an international plan to win the hearts and minds of nations.

We cannot lead the world or our own little corner of it except by example. Sister Prejean is leading. She searches her own heart and mind to forgive those to whom evil has been done and who often do evil in return. She searches her heart and mind to summon empathy for victims of poverty and violence, their surviving family members, and their community. She tries to walk in their shoes, as Atticus Finch advised, while guiding them toward forgiveness, sure that liberation and empowerment will follow. As Catherine Ponder, author and minister, puts it, “When you hold resentment toward another, you are bound to that person or condition by an emotional link that is stronger than steel. Forgiveness is the only way to dissolve that link and get free.” Forgiveness is also the more courageous course.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Scout Finch and Bishop Tutu

Scout, the narrator of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, observes that her ancestor, Simon Finch, was a fine Christian who ignored one Biblical admonition--the one against owning human beings. His descendants continued to ignore that particular piece of scripture in order to scratch out a living by possessing a cheap labor force.

Scout’s observation that slavery and disenfranchisement are unchristian is at the heart of armed combats, family divisions, and injustices delivered for hundreds of years around the globe. It is also one of the arguments that Bishop Tutu used to bring world-wide attention to the horrors of apartheid and thereby, facilitate an end to the racial divide and oppression in South Africa.

In 1960, the year in which Tutu was ordained as an Anglican priest, South Africa deported non-whites, including black Africans and Asians, from areas designated for whites and closed the doors of education to them. Non-whites were allowed to return to South Africa as guest workers only. In other words, South Africa built a figurative wall on the border, but granted access to those who would do the work that white South Africans needed done while disallowing those guest workers any opportunity to improve their circumstances.

Tutu decried the deportation, the disenfranchisement, the desecration of Christianity, but he lacked a world-wide forum. Only when Tutu became the first black General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches in 1978, eighteen years later, did Tutu find an international stage upon which to make his stand and turn the world’s lens to the plight of his nation and its people. By 1984, Bishop Tutu’s cause was one in which the world was invested, signified by the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to him the same year "not only as a gesture of support to him and to the South African Council of Churches of which he is leader, but also to all individuals and groups in South Africa who, with their concern for human dignity, fraternity and democracy, incite the admiration of the world.”

I enjoyed the great good fortune of hearing Bishop Tutu speak some years ago. His voice was musical and his spirit infectious. His capacity for love and hope seemed indefatigable because he endured a cruel, unjust, oppressive system, yet he speaks about man’s promise, divine mercy, and his own gratitude for the world’s empathy. In doing so, his life becomes a parable for the life we could live.