Friday, March 27, 2020

Film for the Age of COVID: "Red Beard" by Kurosawa

Toshiro Mifune in Red Beard, a film by Akira Kurosawa

I am coming around to thinking that the greatest film Akira Kurosawa ever made was not a samurai epic, but the fable about strong compassion called Red Beard.

The story centers on two doctors. One is the 19th century equivalent of a newly minted medical school graduate -- in this case, someone who has had the benefit of "Dutch learning" in Nagasaki, and has now come to Edo (Tokyo) to be the shogun's doctor. The other, nicknamed "Red Beard," is a senior doctor who runs a clinic that principally caters to the poor. The older doctor appears to be a bit of a tyrant, but it is soon revealed that his priority is all-around well-being of the community.

The proud and self-promoting young doctor changes as he witnesses the behavior of the devoted older doctor.

The particular genius of Kurosawa is to show that Red Beard can be both unbelievably compassionate, and also strong and tough in a conventional sense. An example of the former is when he patiently tends to a young girl who has been traumatized by ill-treatment and repays his kindness by lashing out. An example of the latter is when Red Beard single-handedly defeats a gang of ruffians guarding a brothel. (Later, he rues his own behavior. "This is bad. A doctor should not do this.")

One after another, the people in the film seem to be "infected" by the compassion that Red Beard demonstrates. It is a veritable "cascade of compassion."

One of the very first blog posts I ever wrote was about the problem of violence, and whether mere "nonviolence" is an adequate counterweight to it. I wondered if we don't need to go beyond nonviolence to compassion. "It seems to me," I wrote, "that compassion is something that, once experienced, tends to become contagious." (See Is the Opposite of Violence Non-Violence? Or Is It Compassion? )

I continue to think a lot about how violence is "contagious," and how we can find a similarly "contagious" antidote. (See Violence: Taking Over Like a Virus )

In an excellent chapter on Red Beard in The Films of Akira Kurosawa, Donald Richie writes, "One can see what Kurosawa has had the bravery to do in this film. He is suggesting that, like the hospital, the world in which we live may indeed be a hell but that good, after all, is just as infectious as evil."

You can watch Red Beard on Kanopy.  (More suggestions of great films on Kanopy here.)

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

On the Need to Slow Down

I'm listening!

I wondered yesterday: is it possible that the world -- the environment, the climate, Nature -- has sensed that we need to slow down, and that it has been sending us a message?

In other words, the challenge here is not to save the Earth from being "damaged," but to rescue human lived experience from becoming hopelessly sped up and commodified?

I was on a phone call with a group of environmental activists, and someone shared a reflection entitled, "What Can the Trees Teach Us" by Nichola Torrbett. "As far as I could make it out," she wrote, "the immediate message is SLOW DOWN."

We remarked on the irony that humans have had a very hard time listening to other humans suggest that we need to slow down; the message from the atmosphere has not been able to quite register, either; but now a microscopic bug has seems to be getting through to us.

Later, I reflected on how this has operated in my own life. I remembered a moment, sitting in a train car as it zoomed through the state of New Jersey, realizing that no matter what was happening in my life I always felt better when I was moving.

I remembered an essay in a collection on my shelf, and pulled it down to read again. In 1906, Henry Adams wrote about how life seems always to be getting faster and faster. Looking back on his own time, he observed "[b]efore the boy was six years old, he had seen four impossibilities made actual, -- the ocean-steamer, the railway, the electric telegraph, and the Daguerreotype; nor could he ever learn which of the four had most hurried others to come." (From "A Law of Acceleration")

And today that seems quaint.

When I was a teenager, the big bestseller was Future Shock by Alvin Toffler. I was amused to discover that twenty years later, it became a bestseller in Chinese translation in the bookstores of Beijing and Shanghai. The book is, in a way, an extended updating on Henry Adams' observations: the biggest change is the accelerating pace of change itself.

There was a wonderful show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York a few years ago, about the Futurist movement of the early 20th century. The Futurists sought to make a virtue of this acceleration of society -- with consequences that were partly entertaining and partly terrifying. (See What Kind of Future Comes From Worshiping Speed, Machines, Flight, War?)

I wrote once before about the need to slow down in a slightly different context: talking about the concept that George Orwell wrote about in 1984, "ownlife." That was when I began to see what a huge effort is needed to slow down and choose where to put one's own attention.

For the rest of this year (at least), the pace of our lives will be changed for us. What will we learn from the experience?

Saturday, March 21, 2020

A Note on Groupthink (and COVID-19, Economic Bubbles, Climate Devastation, World War and Even Bigger Threats)

from the Kristof and Thompson article
We're all trying to wrap our heads around COVID-19 and the mathematics of epidemics.

There was a very good piece by Nick Kristof and Stuart A. Thompson in The New York Times that uses an interactive graph to help one understand how the numbers behave: "How Much Worse the Coronavirus Could Get, in Charts."

I've noticed that all of us have a difficult time sorting out the risk we face individually from the risk to society in aggregate. The problem seems to be that our minds have trouble holding different categories of numbers at the same time.

A related problem is what we are willing to think, and what we feel comfortable saying in conversation with other people.

I made a note of another article that appeared in The New York Times - "Why Did the Coronavirus Outbreak Start in China?" by Yi-Zheng Lian. Lian argues that things got out of hand because of a cultural tendency in China to defer to "the official line" -- or, more to the point, the fear of punishment meted out to anyone who contradicts the official line. Lian writes, "Punishing people who speak the truth has been a standard practice of China’s ruling elite for more than two millenniums and is an established means of coercing stability. It is not an invention of modern China under the Communists — although the party, true to form, has perfected the practice. And now, muzzling the messenger has helped spread the deadly COVID-19, which has infected some 75,000 people."

I have become very wary of broad brush characterizations of peoples and nations. (I come by this wariness honestly, as a recovering Orientalist.) But I was struck by echoes I found in Lian's article of a post I wrote about a decade ago about how the Chinese context sets up a "prisoner's dilemma" that squelches independent voices and independent action: "Merry Christmas, Mr. Liu: The Prisoner's Dilemma in China."

Coincidentally, a few weeks ago I watched an online lecture about the years leading up to World War II in the Pacific. Prof. Mark Ravina makes the case in "War Without a Master Plan: Japan, 1931-1945" (Lecture 19 in Understanding Japan: A Cultural History) that something similar was operating in Japan at the time: the facts showed plainly that Japan was embarking on a path that was doomed, but there was a cultural tendency to acquiesce to what was believed to be the group's overall view. No one wanted to dissent.

Groupthink: the same phenomenon that we see in Florida today, where no one dares utter the words "climate change."

Which brings me to the problem I spend the most time puzzling over: our inability to cope with the risk inherent in the current nuclear weapons regime, and our acquiescence in this state of affairs.

We are all huddled in our homes now. We have a lot of time to think. We have grown tired of watching the same talking heads on the TV news shows. We have begun to reflect, and to have heart-to-heart talks with people we can really level with. And some of us are even beginning to think that maybe we really can live our lives differently.

To do so will require us to think.

And to say what we think.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Great Films on Kanopy

There isn't a day that goes by that I don't tell someone about how they can watch great films on Kanopy.

Kanopy is a film streaming service that people from many communities can access free using a local library card or university ID.

I've discovered that many of my favorite films are available on Kanopy. (And I've discovered many, many more films I didn't know about -- along with tons of documentaries and educational materials.)

Here are a few of my favorites -- together with blog posts I've written, where relevant.

Wings of Desire


The Hours 

Women Without Men 
Blog post: Can Shirin Neshat's Film "Women Without Men" be a US-Iran Cultural Bridge?

Jules and Jim
Blog post: What Would It Take for Friendship to Trump War?

The Great Dictator
Blog post: Why Weren't People Talking About It?

The Hurt Locker
Blog post: DU: Will we ever be able to say "We're done here" ?

The Most Dangerous Man in America
Blog post: Zombie Alert! (How Government Secrecy Seduces Congress to Support War)

National Bird
Blog post: The Truth About Drones (*NOT* APPROVED by the US Air Force)

The Door
Blog post: IN ORDER TO HAVE A FUTURE: We MUST Study Chernobyl . . .

Hellfire - Journey from Hiroshima
Blog post: The Marukis' Antiwar Paintings: A Lesson in Collaboration

I Live in Fear
Blog post: FILM ABOUT HIROSHIMA: Kurosawa's "I Live in Fear" (Nuclear Danger: Three Ways of Talking About the Unmentionable)

Message From Hiroshima
Blog post: FILM ABOUT HIROSHIMA: On Tanabe's "Message from Hiroshima"

Beneath the Blindfold
Blog post: The Revelations of "Beneath the Blindfold"

Here are several more great documentaries we have used in the past for film screenings at church:

The Interrupters

The House I Live In


Call Me Kuchu


(What's next? I have a whole list of new films to watch on Kanopy . . . !)

Sunday, February 23, 2020

For Christian Activists: "Faith in the Face of Empire"

Mitri Raheb, Faith in the Face of Empire:
The Bible Through Palestinian Eyes
During Lent 2020, as I am looking for ways to understand what the way of Jesus might tell us about how to save the planet, I have returned to Mitri Raheb's book, Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible Through Palestinian Eyes. I've previously written about Mitri's book -- see: How Shall We Live in the Face of Empire? (Reading Mitri Raheb). I am reminded once more what a vital resource it is for Christian activists.

I've boiled down six takeaways from the book:

(1) The lure of Empire: Faith in the Face of Empire is a wake-up call that today -- as in the days of Jesus -- it is practically a full-time job to keep from getting sucked in to a life defined in terms of the world's empires of power. Some of the ways that happens is through collaboration and accommodation, but it can also happen when we think we are meaningfully resisting or rebelling.

(2) Community: Note to self! Pay attention to the distinction between getting wrapped up in politics and contributing to a new, better way of doing community (polis).

(3) The margins: What might happen if, instead of devoting my time and attention to people with the most power, I devoted my time and attention to people who are sometimes considered "marginal"?

(4) Diversity: Renew my commitment to seeing diversity as a source of strength. (Beware of the temptation to think being strong comes from presenting a monolithic front!)

(5) Live in tension: Can I respond to the call to live in the tension between "the world as it is" and "the world as it should be"?

(6) What's the job? Mitri suggests that the real job for me (and for all of us) is to be an "ambassador of the kingdom" -- i.e. what Jesus was talking about when he said, "The Kingdom of God is at hand."

All six takeaways directly contradict mainstream habits prevalent in US society today. Notably, a common thread in many of these is the importance of not getting seduced by the appeal of force. In certain ways, these takeaways can also feel counter-intuitive to people who consider themselves "activists," and who are struggling for effectiveness and success in struggles for in social justice, liberation, and change.

Maybe these six takeaways could be the basis for generative discussion about, for example, how the faith community might participate in the "Back From the Brink" campaign.

More: See Want to "Save the Planet"? What Might We Learn from the Way of Jesus?

(Here's a link to posts about the time I spent at Mitri's center in Bethlehem in 2015: Faith in the Face of Empire: A journey in search of hope in the land of conflicting narratives. There is a good bio of Mitri Raheb on Wikipedia.) 

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

What Will Our "Salvation Story" Look Like?

Joe and Rachel at the "Fiery Furnace" formation in Arches National Park, Fall 2017.

If we get out of this mess, will it be through our own doing? Or will it be through salvation by God?

Each year, on the day before Easter Sunday, many churches hold an Easter Vigil which includes stories of people's salvation throughout the ages with the help of God.

My favorite of those stories is always the one about the "the fiery furnace" -- and God's protection of the faithful Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the wrath of King Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3:1-68). Of course, I also like the one about the Noah finally finding dry land after the flood; and I like the one about Jonah getting spit up by that whale after three days; and I like the one about the Jewish people escaping across the Red Sea with the Egyptians in hot pursuit.

But I think the reason I like the fiery furnace story so much is that it is simultaneously so surreal and so direct. It's a story of unbelievable horror -- and also of a horror that we have all faced every day since August 6, 1945.

I went through a different sort of fiery furnace experience, myself, during the summer of 2017. I was diagnosed with lymphoma and had to start immediate chemotherapy. I kept telling myself that it might feel like they were putting fire in my body, but I was going to come out the other end alive. 

Baptism by fire: first night of R-CHOP, June 2017.

Within six months, the lymphoma was under control and I was able to go to a reduced treatment regime. We even managed to go on some trips. I was struck by how far I had come in a short time when we we posed happily in front of a rock formation called the "Fiery Furnace" in Arches National Park, in Utah.

And I wondered: did I owe my salvation in that time of trial to God? Or to people? Or to both?

World nuclear arsenals are currently estimated at over 14,000 warheads. Will we achieve salvation from this existential threat? Are we waiting for God to do it for us? Can we do it without God? How are we imagining this story of salvation -- if there is one -- will go?

These are some questions that I will be thinking about on Easter Eve, April 11, 2020.

More: See Want to "Save the Planet"? What Might We Learn from the Way of Jesus?

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The Woman at the Well: Important Conversations to Save the Planet

Conference for defense contractors

As an opponent of nuclear weapons, and as a proponent of nuclear disarmament, I am inclined to seek out people who think like me: other opponents of nuclear weapons, other proponents of nuclear disarmament.

Given an opportunity to travel to a meeting or conference or rally, my first question tends to be, "Am I likely to run into 'my people' there?"

It's a reasonable enough impulse. This is hard work. We all need to draw strength from others who are committed to the same cause. And, as a practical matter, it's important to be together in the same place from time to time, in order to make plans and coordinate efforts.

Recently, though, I've been thinking a lot about the story of the woman at the well (John 4:5-42). It's a story about what happens when people who are not very much alike have an encounter with each other. It's based on particular conditions that existed 2,000 years ago; but it's also about what's happening right here - now, today.

I notice three important things happening in the story:

* Jesus is talking to -- gasp! -- a Samaritan

* Jesus "tells her everything she's ever done"

* the two of them eventually get around to the main thing: the desire for "living water"

From this story, and from the Good Samaritan, I've heard many times that Samaritans were a group of people that Jesus' Jewish audience would have considered "off limits." I'm finally beginning to admit to myself that I probably haven't really understood this in the past. I thought, "Well, Samaritans did things like eat pork and Jews don't eat pork, so, yeah, they would have been considered outsiders." But since I don't really have strong feelings about eating pork, this is a pretty weak characterization.

It's beginning to occur to me that, to understand the depth of feeling about "Samaritans" that is intended in this story, I would need to think about a group that is devoted to living a life that is antithetical to the one I value. For instance - instead of opponents of nuclear weapons and proponents of nuclear disarmament, I should think about proponents of nuclear weapons and opponents of nuclear disarmament. I should imagine a conversation around the counter at the diner in Amarillo, TX, near the Pantex nuclear weapons plant.

Okay, but what does the "tells her everything she's ever done" mean? I used to think that it had something to do with psychic powers or the ability to read minds -- or, anyway, at least profound powers of deduction, like Sherlock Holmes.

I have now come to believe that it has a much simpler meaning. It refers to two people having a conversation, and one of them reflecting back to the other person what he heard her say. Is that so remarkable? Does that explain the joy with which the Samaritan woman reported to her neighbors about Jesus?

When you think about it, we are seldom such good listeners. When was the last time somebody listened -- really listened -- to what you were trying to say? Most of the time, most of us are two busy thinking about what we are going to say next to be able to listen to the other person. Sure, we listen -- but we're really just listening for the pause that will be our signal to talk.

I imagine the Samaritan Woman expected to be talked at -- and instead discovered to her surprise that she had been listened to.

The climax of the story, though, is the part about "living water." It comes at the wrap-up of the conversation -- it's sort of like the end of a meeting, where someone says, "Okay, so where did we end up?" The Samaritan Woman says to Jesus, in essence, Okay, I think we're done talking, so let's do what we need to do. You take your water and then I'll take mine. This is sort of the 1st century version of, Well, I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree.

Jesus says, Why do we have to stop being in conversation? Instead of "getting down to brass tacks" -- you take your water and then I'll take mine -- he suggests something that is perhaps less easy but also more fulfilling. I believe that what he was suggesting with the words "living water" (and what she heard in those words) was relationship -- the way of staying in connection with each other (and staying in connection with God) that includes communication in both directions and growth on both sides. And I believe that is what drew her in, and what sent her  out to tell other people.

I am an opponent of nuclear weapons, and as a proponent of nuclear disarmament. I don't know if I have the courage to go to a well where people are likely to think exactly the opposite of what I think. I don't know if I will have the patience to listen. And I don't know if I even really believe (yet) it's worth it to stay in relationship with them.

But I am pretty sure that if I want to follow in the Way of Jesus I am going to have to try.

More: See Want to "Save the Planet"? What Might We Learn from the Way of Jesus?