The biblical call to #Resistance


(Photo: Dept. of Homeland Security)
(Photo: Dept. of Homeland Security)



13516307_10207991225331162_2607895595677842343_n*Note — This guest post is by the Rev. Daniel Lawson, priest-in-charge at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Romeo, MI. He preached this sermon on Sunday, and it is especially relevant in light of  the ongoing scandal of immigrant children being separated from their parents at the US border, and Trump administration officials quoting the Bible to defend the policy. I publish it here with his permission.*

A sermon for the feast of SS Peter and Paul, my parish’s patron feast.

Our first lesson today was written during the Babylonian Exile. We don’t know much about the actual life of the prophet Ezekiel, but scripture tells us a lot about his contemporary, the prophet Daniel.

Daniel didn’t want to get political. All he was trying to do, while living as an exile from Israel in the heart of the Babylonian Empire, was to live his life in obedience to the commandments of his God. He wasn’t trying to make a statement. He just trying to live his life and say his prayers and do what his God commanded him to do. But when the empire tried to tell him not to do what God had commanded him to do, he resisted, and it got him thrown into a lion’s den.

In our Gospel lesson, we hear about St. Peter. Peter didn’t want to get political. All he was trying to do, while living as an exile from Israel in the heart Roman Empire was to follow the instructions Jesus gave him. Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. He wasn’t trying to make a statement. He just trying to live his life and care for God’s people and do what his God commanded him to do. But when the empire tried to tell him not to do what God had commanded him to do, he resisted, and it got him crucified.

In our epistle today, we hear from St. Paul. Now Paul really didn’t want to get political. All he was trying to do, while living as a Jew with Roman citizenship, was to proclaim the Good News. In the letter to Timothy, the writer from the Pauline school says to pray for those in authority, that we may live holy lives in peace. In Paul’s letter to the people in Rome, he urged the community of believers there to obey the civil authorities as far as they could while hating what is evil, holding fast to what is good, and loving one another with mutual affection and extending hospitality to strangers.

Paul desperately wanted to avoid rocking the imperial boat if he could possibly avoid it. And yet in today’s lesson, Paul writes from prison that “I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”

Yes, Paul, too, found that obedience to the law of faith brought him into conflict with the empire that led inevitably to his martyrdom: his death bearing witness to the Kingdom of God against the kingdoms of this world that would pretend to usurp God’s rightful place as Lord of all.

From the first story in Genesis, taught to help the people of Israel captive in Babylon resist the Babylonian Empire, through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ at the hands of Pontius Pilate, to the last book of Revelation, written by John on Patmos to help the nacent Christian community resist the orders from the Roman Empire to cease and desist their way of life and worship, Holy Scripture is nothing if not a guide to the faithful of how to resist empire: how to keep the faith in the face of powers and principalities that demand that we obey them and not the commandments of our Lord. A guide for people who desperately want nothing more than to live our lives and tend our gardens and obey the commandments of our Lord, who don’t want to get drawn into the affairs of empire, but are unwilling to compromise obedience to God to appease an empire that makes competing claims on our allegiance.

Saints Peter and Paul, whose martyrdom we celebrate today, had no interest in getting drawn into the affairs of empire. But they were faithful to God’s call, and when it no longer was possible to both obey Caesar and obey God, their faith allowed them no other option but to resist the empire, and affirm their allegiance to the Kingdom of God. They fought the good fight. They finished the race. They kept the faith. And from now on, there is reserved for them the crown of righteousness.

Which leads us to today.

On the borders of the United States, the New York Times reports, hundreds of children are being forcibly separated from their parents, and locked in vast warehouse centers like a former Walmart in Brownsville, Texas that currently contains nearly 1,500 boys. Neither parents nor children know where each other are, nor when, how, or if they will be reunited. Detaining children and families who cross the border is not new; the previous administration did so in 2014, although courts ordered them to change their practices, but the current practice of systematically separating families is a new evil.

The moral leadership of the Episcopal, Catholic, Methodist, and a host of other churches has condemned this practice. The United Nations has condemned this as a violation of the rights of children. The American Psychological Association cautioned we are doing irreparable damage to the mental and physical health of these children.

And despite the Attorney General’s claims to the contrary, Holy Scripture is clear:

In Deuteronomy 6, the people of Israel are told that the land is theirs as a gift from God and they are to remember that they were once aliens. In Deuteronomy 10 the Lord reminds them that God loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing, and you shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. In Deuteronomy 27, the inverse is true: Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien of justice. Isaiah 16 commands God’s people to be a refuge to the outcasts of Moab. Jeremiah 7 promises that if you do not oppress the alien, then I will dwell with you in this place. Ezekiel 47 commands, along with Leviticus 19, that aliens shall be to us as citizens, and shall also be allotted an inheritance. Zechariah 7 similarly warns not to oppress the alien. Romans 12 describes the mark of a true Christian as one who extends hospitality to strangers. while Hebrews 13 reminds us that in obeying our order to show hospitality to strangers, some have entertained angels without knowing it.

And vitally, Matthew 25 makes is abundantly clear: the status of our souls on the day of judgment will depend, in the judgment of the nations, on how we welcome the stranger and care for the vulnerable.

God is love. If we claim to love God but are unmoved by the plight of the vulnerable, we lie when we claim to love God.

In ordinary times, when our prayers are answered that those in authority leave us in peace to live Godly lives, we obey our mandate to love the stranger through our lives of service. We tend our garden and grow food for the hungry. We care for the sick and those in need. We hold coat drives for refugees and repair homes for those afflicted by poverty and raise money for the victims of disasters. We do our work for the spread of the kingdom of God. This is what we do.

But how do we welcome the asylum seeker when our government, acting in our names, no less, tears families apart before those fleeing danger even get a hearing on whether they are legally entitled to refugee status? How do we care for the vulnerable when our government locks them in abandoned warehouses? What can we do in the face of an empire that choses to inflict such evil on the world?

We must cry out. We must resist. We must name the evil we face, and do what we can to stop it. I don’t know where this resistance leads. For the prophet Daniel, it led to a lion’s den. For SS Peter and Paul, it led to their execution. We don’t want to get political. We just want to be faithful to the gospel. But when Caesar makes claims that stand in the way of our obedience to our God, God has to win, or our faith is empty.

As we resist, the message of faith is this, as one wise mentor of mine said: “Don’t worry about your life. Just do what Jesus sent you to do. All shall be well.”

Brothers and sisters, this is not easy stuff. This is not comfortable territory. I don’t know what it looks like to try to stop this. All I know is that God is love, and forcibly separating children from their parents is not of love, and not of God, and we have to do something about it.

And we give thanks for the witness of SS Peter and Paul, who bore witness to the love of God in the face of empire. Praise God for those in every generation in whom Christ has been honored. Pray that we may have grace to glorify Christ in our own day.

Self-interest, survival, and hope on “Fury Road”



Note — This post is by Benjamin Walthers, a freshman in the Honors College at Oakland University majoring in English and Secondary Education. Over the course of this semester, students in my course, International Relations on Film, contributed posts to the blog reflecting on the movies watched in class and the ideas those films helped us to think about. Benjamin’s piece, the last in this series, is presented here with minor editing.

Mad Max: Fury Road depicts a world transformed into a state of dystopian survival. But hidden under the façade of a high-octane action movie is a social critique on the true nature of humanity.

On the surface, the film focuses on Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), two survivors struggling in their way to mend their broken world. These two heroes fight against the creatively grotesque, if not pretentious, armies of Gas Town, the Bullet Farm, and the Citadel.

Through intense action scenes and cinematic explosions, gunfights, and car tricks, the duo fight almost relentlessly in order to capture the Citadel and restart the world. Beneath the expectedly over-the-top action scenes and clichéd story lies a harsh criticism about human instinct in a dystopian world.

The film opens with a brief history explaining what happened to the world to make it virtually uninhabitable. The exposition is presented in a form of old news reports containing words such as: “The water wars” and “The oil wars.” Without fully revealing the history, the dialogue alludes to the idea that humanity, in times of limited resources, fought over the water and oil.

Fueled by greed, humanity itself is what caused the collapse into a dystopian future in which whoever owns the resources possesses the power.

From the beginning of the film to the end, one idea is represented: In a time of anarchy, humanity devolves to its primal state and acts on basic instincts of self-interest or preservation. Outside of the three main outposts of “civilization” left — Citadel, Gas Town, the Bullet Farm — there is no security offered. It becomes the individual’s responsibility to protect itself against any threat.

When Max first encounters Furiosa, his immediate instinct is to threaten her. Shortly after his threat, a fight ensues between Max, Furiosa, and the wives that she had stolen from Immortan Joe, ruler of the Citadel.

At the end of the fight, Max is able to steal the war rig Furiosa was driving, leaving her and the wives in the desert vulnerable to a vengeful, pursuing Immortan Joe. Max acted with cruel indifference, but, in this world, he did the right thing, serving his own interests. Stealing the truck meant increased chances of survival and the ability to outrun Joe. That’s what mattered.

In this world even cooperation is done out of selfish necessity. The three outposts in the film are shown connected to each other through trade. Without no other explanation for their cooperation, it can be assumed from the film that a forced dependence has been established. Citadel has water and food; Gas Town and Bullet Farm have commodities corresponding to their names.

Subtle reminders of the dying nature of the world are scattered visually throughout the movie. Most notable are the depictions of the characters; some are attached to medical devices, some are sickly pale, and others are covered in malformations.

Stuck in an unforgiving world, the towns have no choice but to trade to gain needed resources. Therefore, cooperation with one another in different ways must be maintained.

Even Furiosa’s actions of saving the wives from Joe is a result of self-interest. Near the end of the film, Max asks Furiosa why she is choosing to help the wives and incur the wrath of Joe. Furiosa replies that perhaps she’s looking for redemption. This explanation foreshadows Max’s final decision to help take over the Citadel.

With a satchel full of seeds from her dying matriarchal tribe, the Vuvalini, Furiosa and the brides plot to use the water in the Citadel to regrow the world.

Throughout the movie, Max is afflicted by visions of a young girl he had failed to save in the past. From this, it can be extrapolated that perhaps, like Furiosa, Max is looking to repent. When presented with a seed symbolizing birth, life, and growth, Max understands that he has the opportunity to aid in the regrowth of his dead world.

By saving the world, Max could finally redeem himself.

In an anarchic dystopia, humanity devolves to a primordial state of self. Actions are dictated by selfish needs. Max and Furiosa’s self-interest allowed for survival and, regardless of motives, the overtaking of the Citadel where they could plant a new seed and begin a new world.

Mad Max: Fury Road shows that, in the fall of civilization, so long as survival is maintained, hope is not lost.

Other posts in this series can be found by following the links below.

Hotel Rwanda

The International

The Battle of Algiers

Dr. Strangelove

Thirteen Days

Alexander Nevsky

The Godfather

High Noon


The Mission

Bloody Sunday

“Hotel Rwanda”: Dramatizing the world’s moral failure

hotel rwanda
Don Cheadle stars in “Hotel Rwanda.”


Note — This post is by Gillian Elder, a freshman in the Honors College at Oakland University majoring in International Studies. Students in my course, International Relations on Film, are  contributing posts to the blog reflecting on the movies we are watching in class and the ideas those films are helping us to think about. Gillian’s piece is presented here with minor editing.

The film, Hotel Rwanda, recounts the events of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 from the perspective of Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) and the refugees that have taken shelter in the Hôtel des Mille-Collines which he manages.

Through its depiction of what happened in Rwanda, the systematic slaughter of more than 800,000 mainly Tutsi civilians in only 100 days, the film invites discussion of the problems of humanitarian intervention and what can and should be done to solve such complex problems quickly and effectively. It also gives us a chance to think about how to improve crisis response to prevent instances like Rwanda from taking so many civilian lives, should they occur in the future.

As former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has observed, “in many of today’s conflicts, civilians have become the main targets of violence,” proportionally, 75 percent are civilian casualties. As tensions between Hutu and Tutsi reaches a breaking point and civil war erupts, the United Nations is called in to maintain a non-existent peace. But as the film shows over and over, the UN intervention force is hardly given the means or the men to do so effectively.

Despite the fact that large refugee flows are rightly seen as a humanitarian emergency, states were unwilling to use the word “genocide” to describe what was happening. They were unwilling to invoke the word given the political, legal, and moral ramifications that came with it.

This observation is painfully evident in the film when we hear an audio clip of an actual statement by a US State Department spokeswoman during a press conference about the events occurring in Rwanda. The American official says “we are aware acts of genocide may have been committed” but is “not in a position to answer” whether or not it is considered to be genocide.

The international community’s hesitance and indecisiveness in defending the Rwandan civilians, and later the UN’s decision to withdraw nearly all of their peacekeepers from the country, results in the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives.

Many nations fear involvement in civil crises that would morally obligate them to step in, even when civilians have no one else to defend them. But if these nations were to combine their military strategies with addressing the underlying sources of conflict, and committing to their actions as they resolve the complex conflict at hand, losses can be contained. Even in a place like Rwanda.

Political scientists Jon Western and Joshua S. Goldstein argue that the emotional impact of crises like Rwanda are “heightened by new communications technologies that transmitted graphic images of human suffering across the world.” Yet this may not be enough to trigger an international response.

In Hotel Rwanda, Joaquin Phoenix’s minor role as journalist Jack Daglish shows this in action. He is the reminder of how publicized the Rwandan genocide was, how the world could see it unfold in near real time. Phoenix’s character is the embodiment of the fact that the world was watching and choosing not to act.

The international community acted to save its own, evacuating Europeans and other Westerners but abandoning Rwandans to their bloody fate. By dramatizing this sorry episode, Hotel Rwanda presents the moral dilemmas that lurk behind international interventions, and highlights the international community’s ultimate failure to, as Annan wrote, “reaffirm faith in…the dignity and worth of the human person.”

“The International” and hydra-headed global finance


Note — This post is by Angela Givens, a junior in the Honors College at Oakland University majoring in Chemistry. Students in my course, International Relations on Film, are  contributing posts to the blog reflecting on the movies we are watching in class and the ideas those films are helping us to think about. Angela’s piece is presented here with minor editing.

Loosely based on the 1980s scandal of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), the 2009 film The International, directed by Tom Tykwer, is about corruption and organized crime surrounding the International Bank of Business and Credit (IBBC), a fictional bank in Luxembourg.

Along the way it raises hard questions about about the effects of global finance on international politics.

The two main characters – Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) and New York District Attorney Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) — are currently working the IBBC case, trying to uncover the truth about the IBBC’s hidden agenda as an arms broker and dealer in missile control systems.

As the story unfolds we learn the bank’s intent is to not only act as an arms broker to Third World countries and rebel movements, but in doing so control the customers by controlling their debt.  Umberto Calvini (Luca Barbareschi), an Italian defense magnate caught up in, and eventually victim of the banks schemes, explains IBBC’s – and by implication the global banking industry’s – business model this way:

The IBBC is a bank. Their objective isn’t to control the conflict, it’s to control the debt that the conflict produces. You see, the real value of a conflict, the true value, is in the debt that it creates. You control the debt, you control everything. You find this upsetting, yes? But this is the very essence of the banking industry, to make us all, whether we be nations or individuals, slaves to debt.

This is a huge effect of global finance in the film, one that we see play out over the end credits sequence. While the sinister head of IBBC lies dead, his plans seemingly in ruins,  instead we see the IBBC is still in business and seems to have won. All the investigations have come to naught  because everyone has their hands in the IBBC pot, securing the bank’s safety.

In explaining the essence of political economy as a reciprocal relationship between wealth and power, political scientist Robert Gilpin argued that wealth is leveraged to change the balance of power, and that new power is used to change economic relationships to gain more wealth. Repeat. Power and wealth to go hand in hand.

All those wealthy countries have an interest in the IBBC. But more importantly, they have an interest in maintaining the system as it is, one where wealth and power work together to benefit a select few.

If the IBBC gets shut down, another bank will rise to take its place. The IBBC is like a hydra, cut off one head and another takes its place. It’s like a never-ending cycle.