I think I’m a resident of the Capitol

The first time I saw an ad in the subway for the movie Mockingjay, my first thought was, “oooh… should I put that date in my calendar?”

It’s an unusual thought for me about a movie opening. I don’t make it to the movie theater that often, but I LOVED the Hunger Games books. The movies based on the first two books in the series, The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, are the only movies I’ve seen on opening day since An Inconvenient Truth in 2006.

Like many great pieces of fiction, The Hunger Games story is compelling because it’s well written enough that as the reader, I want to insert myself into the story. Then the logical questions of great fiction follow close behind: if the conflicts in this fictional world represent something real about the world we live in, which side of these conflicts am I on in my own life?

Kathleen shooting a bow and arrowOooh, am I like the hero, Katniss, reluctantly becoming a leader in the resistance to the Capitol because I’m a great warrior and the people I love are being hurt? Am I her mentor, Haymitch, scarred from my experience of being a victorious tribute yet willing to not just survive but to help ensure that others can ascend? Am I the stylist Cinna, cleverly finding a way to resist the cultural domination of the Capitol at great personal risk? Who am I most like in this story of resisting injustice?

Hmmnn… I want to be like Katniss, but I’m more worried I’m just another resident of the Capitol.

Why? Like many Americans, my daily life includes comforts that are not equally distributed among most people — for starters, I have on-demand access to drinkable water. Thanks to the way food production is subsidized and manipulated, I can buy the food that I want or need from the store without much regard to the season or the distance required to get that food to my plate (as long as it’s on sale). I have access to meat, grains, and alcohol in many forms. I have constant access to electricity. When I want an electronic device (or clothes, or whatever), I can go to the store and buy it, or have it mailed to me within a day. All these things come to me as long as I pay my bills, and don’t ask too many questions about where all this stuff comes from.

Residents of the Capitol, who we see throughout the series, but especially in the final book of the series, live in denial about the social and economic extremes that must be maintained for their comfort-driven way of life to exist. They rely on the twelve districts to produce everything for them, and it’s clear that for the district residents (as in, everyone who does not live in the Capitol) their lives revolve around producing things for the voracious appetites of Capitol residents.

In one of the more telling facets of the books, we see that residents of the Capitol are starkly incurious about the residents of the districts: they learn enough about the districts to make the Hunger Games more dramatic to them, and not much else.

For residents of the Capitol, if their way of life exacts a high cost from other people, they don’t want to know. They would rather just eat and watch the games. Sound familiar?

Every day I see advertisements for the upcoming Mockinjay film: subway ads, web-based ads, magazine covers and more. The millions of dollars spent on visually arresting ads and clever promotions for the movie will generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the movie studio that created what will probably be a great film.

And the irony of it is that the advertising is designed to get me to pay top dollar to see this movie by telling me over and over that I’m just like Katniss Everdeen. But the reality is that if the advertising works to get me to the film — and I expect that it will — it’s because I’m just another resident of the Capitol.

Yes, go somewhere and read the names of people killed in Gaza

On Tuesday, I went with my wife Dana to one of the actions calling for an end to the violence in Gaza organized by “If Not Now,” a Jewish group here in NYC. I wanted to thank them, and also encourage everyone I know, Jews and non-Jews alike, to participate in their events if you’re in one of the cities where this movement is happening.

This particular event was one of those creative Jewish reinterpretations of something — in this case, Tisha B’Av, a day in the Jewish calendar set aside to grieve past tragic events that have befallen the Jewish people. There was also much to grieve regarding Gaza — by then, over 1,800 Palestinians had been killed, and Israelis live with daily fear from the ongoing bombardments and their own casualties.

In addition to some readings, we read aloud, together, the names of people, some Israelis but overwhelmingly Palestinians civilians, who had been killed in Gaza since the previous Friday.

When reading the names, which generally includes the place where they were killed, and sometimes their age of death, there are things that I couldn’t help noticing. The name of an adult woman, then the names of her children who died with her. A pair of two year olds with the same last name (twins). Five people with the same last name and the same place of death — a family. That happened repeatedly while reading the names: three, four, even nine people from a single family killed together.

Many of us are aware of the sheer number of people being killed (as of the day I’m writing this, it’s now over 1,900) but we shy away from looking at lists of individual names, or looking at pictures of each of them. But by reading the names, this situation becomes more real and demands further action from us.

It’s important not to just read the names and immerse ourselves in righteous anger, but to notice that we are grieving, and to think about how to proceed. We cannot, even in our justifiable grief, just demand retribution — although I guess you could, but then you would will have to go later and read more names, then more and still more. That’s not the way for me. Instead I’m focused on getting to the roots of violence and despair that are at the base of this, and support for the families experiencing the long-term effects of war.

As part of the event, we turned to a stranger to talk for a couple minutes. I talked to a woman named Rachel, and we talked about what had brought us there. I told her that I was grieving the deaths in Gaza, but also my brother, whose yahrzeit (the anniversary of his death) was in a few days, and he had also been killed in an armed conflict. My brother Eddie was killed by the Red Army Faction in 1985 while serving in the US Army, in an attack targeting the US Airbase at Rhein Main. So along with the many civilians killed in this event, my thoughts are with the families of all combatants killed as well — which we also read at the event, names drawn from this site that the IDF keeps of solders killed in this conflict.

Afterwards, Dana and I agreed that we had to find something to do. Speaking the names out loud with that group of people forced me out of despair and into action. We decided to start by supporting organizations that address the overlying political issue but also the need for humanitarian aid. We picked two groups:

It’s sad to read the names. You might mispronounce them, you might cry. Take someone with you — it’s a little overwhelming.

There’s a principle in physics called the observation effect — the sheer act of observing a phenomenon changes it. Well, there is the life-version of that as well. The act of observing war or violence changes it, probably because it changes us from spectators into actors.

Go be with people and read the names, and then see what you can figure out in terms of action for a long-term sustainable peace in Gaza. If you need more ideas for things you can do, let me know and we’ll think together.

To get you ready, here’s a clip of If Not Now in action:


For Christmas, let’s remember what’s fundamentally Christian

Works of Mercy Catholic Workers from Jim Forrest on FlickrMy wife is Jewish, and I was raised Catholic (confirmed and all) but I’m no longer a practicing Catholic. Even so, I find myself explaining some of the finer points of Christianity in our household. That’s because there are so many supposedly Christian folk who do very unkind and ungenerous things. Since my wife is no fool, she interprets Christianity by what Christians do, not by what they say.

And since it’s Christmas time, some Christians are saying and doing so many unkind things. Maybe it’s that I’m hearing too much about what’s on Fox News, with its insistence that everyone say “Merry Christmas” or their vocal opposition to fair pay for low-wage workers… you are not making the case for what it is to be Christian, much less why people would want to be Christian.

I want to bring us back to three Christian fundamentals that A: make the world a more decent place and B: bring Christianity a great reputation when Christians do them.

1- Love everyone as if they are your brothers and sisters. Everyone.

Okay, this includes strangers, people different from us, and people we don’t even know. From any and all countries and even people of other religions (self-disclosure: this would include me now). In case this is unclear, take a look at Luke 10: 25-37, where the greatest commandment includes, “Love your neighbor as yourself” and someone asks Jesus, “but, really?” and he answers, “yes, really” and we get the tale of the Good Samaritan helping a complete stranger.

In terms of being “fundamentally Christian,” this one instruction offers a simple answer to all sorts of questions. For example, it means that we care about people and want to help them in any circumstance.

Instead of making arguments against health care insurance reform such as “why should I support change to the health care market to require insurance companies to cover infants when I’m too old to have children?” (Forgoing at the moment the myriad other reasons that is a ridiculous question.) I find myself shaking my head… why call yourself Christian then insist, “I’ve got my health insurance, but I don’t know why you think you need health insurance.”

This also means it’s fundamentally Christian to be against war, since war involves killing your brothers and sisters.

There is no “us versus them” in this directive to love your neighbor — it basically turns the whole world into “we” and a “we” that we are compelled to act for. This is pretty cool, and when I remember being Catholic, this is one of my favorite parts, a practice that I still work to hold onto.

Being self-interested is not fundamentally Christian. Being kind and generous to all is.

2- Christians live by example instead of condemning others.

Okay, and then there’s that great Jesus story that culminates in “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Which is a story about how it’s easy to be harsh on other people even though we generally want to be treated mercifully. I didn’t understand this story when I first heard it as a young person (I didn’t know what adultery was, and I was particularly puzzled as to why you would “stone” someone when you could just shoot them… I was very young.)

But at the core of the story is that if we want God’s mercy we would do well to show mercy to others, since we have plenty of our own sins to be worried about. Think of all the scenarios this covers… opposition to the death penalty, opposition to “lock ‘em up and throw away the key.” This ethic in action brings us deep things like Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s work to lead the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa (and his support for restorative justice). We can still hold out accountability, just not harshness.

My mother and I talked about this concept of not judging people harshly when she was dying (when we had many long philosophical discussions, some of which involved how to respond to my brother’s murder). We talked about the Lord’s prayer, and how it says, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

My mom was laying in a hospital bed with a tube coming out of her nose and not much time left and she said to me with some despair, “Kath-a-leen, nobody cares about the second part of that as much as the first part.” Nobody? Really? Sometimes Christians hold themselves to a low standard.

But I care about it. This is one of my favorite part of the Christian doctrine because it’s hard to do in the moment, but it has so clearly made my life easier than if I were lugging around all that criticism and judgement.

Judging others harshly is not fundamentally Christian. Showing patience and compassion to all is. 

3- Question powerful institutions and be on the side of the underdog.

Here, I look to the recently-sanctioned nuns of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, who focus on doing good deeds and helping oppressed communities rather than enforcing randomly selected pieces of Christian doctrine (since there are plenty of biblical directives that Christians disregard, after all). Not that the Pope and I completely agree on this what this looks like — he has supported the bishops’ criticisms of the nuns for spending too much time on social justice.

Unlike the first two fundamentals, which I think of as hard but make our daily life easier, this one makes it harder because it involves siding with the “weak” and probably angering the strong. It means getting our hands dirty and sometimes, putting ourselves at risk.

I’ll give respect to the Pope for his commitment to live in relative austerity and reach out to prisoners, atheists and, well, pretty much everybody. Then there’s his recent exhortation (seriously, that’s what it’s called) to stop worshipping money like it’s God. He’s not using his powerful position to align himself with powerful institutional forces, and of course, he’s being criticized for it. Good for him. Good for all of us.

Aspiring to power and wealth is not fundamentally Christian. Siding with the disenfranchised is.

When you stick to the fundamentals, Christians can be a pretty awesome force for good in the world. These fundamentals are also where Christianity overlaps with many other great religious traditions as well as many great secular ideas that make the world more livable for all of us. So, please focus on these: for all our sakes.

Oh, and if you’re celebrating it, have a great Christmas!

Image from the “Works of Mercy” series by Ade Bethune, a Catholic Worker and artist, courtesy of Jim Forest on Flickr.

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