By Thomas Merton
Sorry, it’s been a while. But it’s 8.37 on a Saturday morning, I’m watching Jean Vigo’s ‘A Propos de Nice’ (a dialogue-free short film about French people being happy, any five minutes of which are better than ‘Inception’ – which is already very good, but Vigo doesn’t need CGI to turn a Gallic city upside down), and for some reason I want to blog again.
No big promises – but if you join me in the comments, I’ll be grateful and try to write more often.
My thoughts this weekend:
The proposed North Carolina constitutional amendment to ban recognition of same-sex partnerships is antithetical to the best of what the US stands for in terms of personal liberty and the pursuit of happiness; it is opposed to the spirit of compassion and respect and love for neighbor that are at the heart of the Christian teaching that everyone who supports the amendment cites as their reason for doing so; even while its proponents believe (or say they believe) the amendment protects their own marriages, if passed it will actually actively hurt people who only want to be allowed to have a measure of protection and recognition for the love they share, and therefore it follows will in reality undermine community as the foundation of society; it continues a tragic tradition of fear being used to oppress people who are already marginalized; it serves no positive purpose and in fact reinforces the social structural realities that lead to stories such as this one.
Groups like Believe Out Loud, Equality NC, and Faith in America are good resources for information and how to take action, but I’d want to emphasize one thing that is often, by my sights, neglected in anti-homophobia/pro-humanity activism: Genuine dialogue. I changed my mind about theology and sexuality partly through relationships with people wiser and more experienced than I, partly through academic reflection, and partly through my own experience. This seems to me to fit with the Wesleyan quadrilateral of engaging scripture, reason, tradition and experience as we seek to discern what is right, among other historic Christian ways of interpreting the world. It is not a betrayal of Christian principle to be open to dialogue with people with whom you disagree. It has a long and noble history. I’m happy to talk with anyone who wants to know where I stand, what I think, and why I believe that a serious conversation about sexuality and spirituality is not just important for the sake of addressing the injustice of inequality and homophobia, but for the future of peace on earth. I’ll write more about this later; for now, I want to invite a dialogue; and to ask you to seriously consider how we might persuade proponents of the anti-LGBTQ amendment that it is actually in their interests to vote against it.
When I was growing up, I was always afraid of violence. northern Ireland was a European centre of politically-motivated killing for most of my childhood. Politicians and public officials were killed all the time. Political activists who espoused violence were often killed too. And people who had no direct involvement in either politics or violence were caught up in it, going about their business, killed in bus stations or pubs or on the street. Nearly 4000 dead in around 25 years of intensive violence, perpetuated in the cause of two competing ideologies: should northern Ireland stay part of the United Kingdom, or be reunified with the Irish Republic, along with the attendant questions of human rights, equality, historic injustice, and the kind of stake our people would have in our own society.
We took the rhetoric of ‘targeting’ political opponents beyond the dehumanising manifestation currently alive in US culture, and finding its horrific expression in the Arizona shootings this weekend; some of our current political representatives actually killed people themselves. Anyone who worked for the state – police officers, civil servants, census takers – could be considered a legitimate target by Irish Republican militants; the daily nerve-wrack of checking under the car for a bomb became a fact of life. And despite the protestations of some historical revisionists, for many Protestants, their religion and ethnicity seemed to be enough of a reason for them to be living in fear. At the same time, the Irish Republican and nationalist community often found itself repressed by the state, living under suspicion, and abused into second class citizen status; pro-British militants killed many people just because they were Catholics.
Hearing Stanley Kubrick’s voice on the new Criterion edition of his coruscating anti-war melodrama ‘Paths of Glory’ is like listening to a ghost; not because the director has been dead for over a decade, but because he said so little in public when he was alive. It’s one of the characteristic delights of a marvelous disc that provides thoughtful context for a film that was so dangerous to Gallic pride that it couldn’t be seen in France for over twenty years after its first release in 1957. It’s a powerful, painful experience to watch; a story of true horror – on the Front, and in the chateaux occupied by sneering generals playing chess with life while Kirk Douglas tries to save his men from the evil that distorted notions of honor breed.
The first scene of Nagisa Oshima’s ‘Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence’ (new on DVD and Blu-Ray from Criterion) is occupied with the horror of a soldier being forced to cut his intestines open as a punishment for being in love with another man. The last image of the film is the smiling face of a soldier the night before his execution, beaming a greeting of filial affection to a former enemy. We’re in a POW camp run under the auspices of the Japanese military, where Allied soldiers are half-subjected to, and half-ignored by an honor code that proposes self-disembowelment as the response, it appears, to just about any infraction. In between the attempted seppuku and the smiling greeting, the adorable Tom Conti reflects poetically on the mutually assured idiocy of war, Ryuichi Sakamoto gets angry, and then gets healed while his fascinating and eventually ubiquitous score overplays but not so much that it bothers, and gorgeous burnt light provides a mystical hue to what is ultimately a nightmare that becomes a dream and then finally a reality the audience always wanted: reconciliation between people who were otherwise ready to kill each other.
But not before David Bowie saves the world.
Of course I never knew Tyler Clementi, the young Rutgers student who took his own life last month in a tragedy so unfathomably horrific that it doesn’t permit adequate attempts at description. The story that has emerged so far is that Tyler was enjoying a romantic moment with another guy, while his roommate secretly streamed the encounter live on the internet. Shortly after Tyler found out, he jumped off a bridge.
Of course I never knew him, but his story demands a deeper listening than has yet been promoted or presented by our culture’s spokespeople. This is not just a story about one man and two acquaintances whose idiotic prank appears to have caused such fear of exposure that Tyler felt he had to kill himself. It’s a story about all of us. And we all need to listen to it.
Two films released by the Criterion Collection this week focus on men at war. We’ll discuss Terrence Malick’s ‘The Thin Red Line’ on the next episode of The Film Talk, and below; later in the week I’ll post a piece on ‘Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence’. These are two of the most compelling films released on DVD this year.
When I first saw Terrence Malick’s ‘The Thin Red Line’, it was the turn of the century, Bill Clinton was still in office, the Twin Towers were intact, and the film seemed to be about the past. The distant past, to be sure: a film that begins with a reptile submerging and ends with a plant growing on a beach seems to exist a long time before we did. The nearer past, ostensibly: it takes place in 1942 during the early Guadalcanal Campaign (although you’ll look in vain for the caption that appeared on the print I saw over a decade ago to indicate it; Malick, it seems, has had that removed from the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray and DVD release: he wants the movie to exist outside time). This is only appropriate, as it aims to be a poem about the primitive roots of violence, the lack of maturity among men who see the world only as a fight, the power of love to sustain even when it is broken, the tragedy of human beings caught in a web that they think dictates that only violence can be the path to power in this life.