Godless Politics

After watching a clip from The Rachel Maddow show discussing faith and politics, and having watched Real Time with Bill Maher last night, it inspired me to think about the topic myself. This has been an issue that I have thought about on many occasions, that I’ve discussed with friends and family before, and my stance is still the same. Religion has absolutely no place in politics, none whatsoever. Mind you, I am using the term “Religion” here and not faith as I see there being a distinct difference. One can have faith without having religion, and one can have faith in things larger than oneself which are not religious in nature (such as faith in humanity) that give one hope. My focus is on the use and abuse of the construct of religion in politics.

One of the most recent examples of a politician using God as his own personal scapegoat to escape responsibility is Texas Governor Rick Perry with his ridiculous prayer mega-meeting. Instead of coming up with real solutions to real problems both for his own state and for the nation is that he figures that if enough people pray to fix the financial crisis then it will just magically happen. I have never seen such a blatant example of complete and total governing ineptitude. Really? Really?! You’re just going to “pray away” the debt crisis? Such idiocy never ceases to both amaze and deeply frustrate me. Such an obvious lack of interest in solving very serious problems should be very telling to the voters in his state that the man they have entrusted to govern them is a completely incompetent buffoon and should be a very loud warning siren to the rest of the nation as a whole. Under his governance, a number of children in Texas are now going to have to pay to ride the public school bus (I can’t remember if it’s state-wide or not). Regardless, the simple fact that his incompetence has now placed yet another financial burden on already struggling families is shameful. But not to worry Texas, Rick Perry’s plan of prayer will surely take care of everything…

Additionally, religion should not be used to impose the morals and beliefs of certain sects and groups on the nation as a whole, or create laws which do the same. The spiritual belief systems that people hold have no place in the world of law and political policy because religion does not concern itself with physical reality. One could argue that religious texts give direction and order from which people can draw to direct their daily lives, and so it does have bearing in the way people conduct themselves. However, the point of this conduct is to help the person develop spiritually, not to simply get them re-elected or force everyone to behave the same. Religious texts are there to help believers advance along their spiritual journey. They do not exist to justify one’s immorality, prejudices, greed, or any other negative or hateful self-serving thoughts and behaviors. But of course, people do that constantly. The use of religion to both excuse and justify abhorrent behavior has always been one of my biggest pet peeves, which seems almost a trivial way to label something which angers and upsets me so much. I think that when people take something like faith and religious practice that is fully capable of doing so much good and giving so much hope, then pervert and bastardize it to fuel their own hate-filled agendas, it’s an absolute travesty and betrayal to the very core of what they claim their own belief system to be. Anybody who USES religion to benefit them in a way which is purely self-serving and to the detriment of others, in my opinion, is not a person who truly holds those beliefs in a sincere and honest way. But I digress.

The problem that arises from mixing religion and politics is that it takes the beliefs of some and assumes that because they work for some then they should be the beliefs of all. If something works so wonderfully for some, why wouldn’t everyone else want to be so enlightened, righteous and happy? But there’s the problem. An individual’s path to God, the Divine, to spiritual enlightenment is deeply personal. Not everyone gets the same results doing the same thing. Not everyone feels the light and love of God through Christianity or Islam or any other one specific spiritual philosophy or religion. I find it incredibly presumptuous and narrow-minded to assume that what works for you will work for me. That’s just not reality. I can understand the desire to share that thing which you have discovered that makes you happy and gives you a sense of joy, and there is no problem with sharing your beliefs and discoveries with others. The problems arise when sharing ends and an individual then moves towards the forceful assertion of those beliefs on others.

Your perception and idea of morality is not necessarily the same as mine. There are very few things which humanity in general can agree upon that are uniformly either right or wrong, and even on those issues (such as murder) there can still be shades of gray. To use the example of murder, unless you are mentally unwell, everyone can agree it’s the wrong thing to do. The Bible simply says, “Thou shalt not kill.” But what of war? Self-defense? Hunting? If humanity is simply directed to “not kill” that leaves a lot open to discussion and debate. Abortion is a major example of where the arguing over semantics both generally and religiously has mixed in rather terrifying ways. Just recently a bill was made law in North Carolina where a woman who seeks a FEDERALLY PROTECTED AND LEGAL medical procedure will now be made to endure an ultrasound before she can go through with her decision to terminate her pregnancy. Why? The woman is already aware of her condition and has already made her decision. This law serves no other purpose than to scare and guilt women into making the “moral” decision as seen by one group of people, and certainly makes what can already be a traumatic and difficult experience even moreso. This certain kind of morality is one that is based on some peoples’ interpretation of their own religious texts. How then is it right or just to impose that on others? How do attempts at shaming and traumatizing others make you a more upright individual in the eyes of God? Religion and faith are things which should be constantly evolving and working towards creating the best people and world possible, but NOT in the political realm. When you are a completely transformed spiritual individual I believe that you lose the desire to exert your will onto others. Maybe if our politicians and government officials began to focus more on what they need to change for the better about themselves, maybe if they got a little more in touch with their own Gods, maybe then they would have the knowledge and compassion to better lead this country WITHOUT feeling the need to be so concerned about everyone else’s spiritual and personal lives. You can can be a person of faith and not impose your beliefs on an entire country.

In my opinion, the imposition of a religious-based morality often leads to a lack of morality in that it often creates a moral and legal rigidity that leaves no leeway. The Bible was used to justify slavery and for the oppression of women by cherry-picking passages and quotes that could show these actions as not only justified but good in the eyes of God. It is still being done today to deny rights to the GLBT community. I find it frustrating and mystifying to me that people who claim we should all take the Bible literally only do so when it comes to passages which support their own spiritual, political, and moral beliefs. It’s like finding the right App for your phone. If homosexuality makes you uncomfortable, there’s a quote for that. If you think women should not hold jobs or positions of authority, there’s a quote for that. If you think that our planet is a really big toy made by God, there’s a quote for that too. If there is something you want to justify, you can find a quote for it in the Bible. This kind of manipulation of holy texts turns into a way for people and political figures to play on the emotions of their constituents and the public in general. If you can make your crusade against gay marriage, abortion rights, environmental or even fiscal policy Biblically based, then how could you be wrong? Wouldn’t that make God wrong? And again, that’s the problem – the hijacking of God to make you also appear infallible.

I wish to end this with stating that I believe in God and that I am a spiritual person. I have faith both spiritually speaking and in the belief that humanity is capable of accomplishing and doing great things. I do not hate Christianity, Christians, or any religion nor do I blame it for the great travesties of history. PEOPLE are responsible for their own acts of evil, bigotry and violence. It is the actions of man that are responsible for creating our world’s problems and for committing the greatest of sins. Religion is simply the vehicle they use to carry out their will. Religion does not make anyone do anything they don’t already want to do, it only gives them a means of not accepting the responsibility of their own actions by placing the blame on something which cannot disagree or argue with them. Religion is capable of inspiring both great good and compassion in this world and the few who use it for evil should not tarnish that.

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The Tree of Life: A Review

The Tree of Life movie poster

Roughly two weeks ago my husband and I went and watched the film “The Tree of Life”, written & directed by Terrence Malick. It won the Palm d’Or at Cannes this year and stars Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Sean Penn. I would like to start off by saying I enjoyed the movie, I really did. Did I LOVE the movie? Well, no, not to the extent that I adore other films. Is it worth watching? I would say yes. I will be completely honest though, there were times where I felt extremely bored and fidgety. “Where is this going?!”, was the biggest concern I had, especially when there was the very lengthy segment about 1/4 of the way into the film detailing the creation of the Earth and the life on it – pretty, but frustrating. If that sounds random, it is and it isn’t. I’ve found this film to be rather complicated to explain to people when they ask what it’s about. I will do my best to do so here, perhaps in a more verbose fashion than I did when casually speaking to my co-workers.

What I got from the film was that it is first about life, death, and spirituality – more like a meditation rather than a straight narrative. This is not a conventional movie where we have clear, distinct, and succint actions, explanations and narratives. There isn’t one particular plot that is explained over one and a half hours like most films. Like I said earlier, a meditation describes the mood of the film far better. We see a family of a husband and wife with three boys growing up somewhere in the south during the 1950s. They are typical, normal, average in every way. We see blips of Chastain’s & Pitt’s characters meeting, being in love, and after their marriage, then the births of the children and more little blips of their early childhoods. The main focus of the film is during the childhood of the eldest boy (Jack), and that’s where the majority of the film takes place, at this time in his life. We do see segments of this boy as a man (played by Sean Penn) being extremely contemplative and thinking back to that time in his life that we watch, and how it affects him in the present, but this seems to exist as framework to support the rest of the film. I believe the bigger part of this man’s story is this specific time in his childhood because to him those were some of his most formative years, the ones which would later have the biggest impact in his adult life, the years that still remain so vividly etched in his memory. They appear to be those years which would continue to haunt him as a man and the ones which would cultivate the complex and troubled relationship with his father (Brad Pitt).

The casting in this film was amazing. Brad Pitt played this role exceptionally well. He was a human and all those terribly complex things that come along with being human: emotional, fearful, ambitious, spiritual, domineering, loving, envious, violent, etc. and you could see it. He was capable of expressing much more through his eyes, his body language and his presence than through mere lines. It was a subtle and yet powerful performance. The same can be said of Chastain and the child actor who portrayed the eldest boy. There is not a lot of straight dialogue but brief exchanges between the characters through normal speech. Far more is expressed through looks, glances, and body language than verbally. There are the occasional narrations from the main characters, mostly Jack(?), but they are not there to aid the viewer in better understanding what’s going on or to explain the story. These narrations are more like thoughts these individuals have about their situation, about God, about life. I remember a particular segment in the film more vividly where (potential spoiler) after another boy drowns at a public swimming area very suddenly, you can hear Jack in a whispering voiceover telling God that, “you let a boy die today”, and goes on to further ruminate that, “if you don’t have to be good, why should I?” I was really struck by that in a way that is hard to explain and it really stayed with me. Those are the sorts of observations and questions I feel that everyone asks at some point in their lives about God/the Divine. Why were some things “allowed” to happen? Why did this person die, get sick, get hurt? It’s a question that seems both child-like in its simplicity and extremely adult all at the same time. They’re certainly thoughts that I’ve had from time to time, and maybe that’s why that little part of the film stuck with me so.

Overall, the film come across as a very large-scale vignette on life-in-general with several smaller vignettes about certain aspects of life – short stories in a much larger and never-ending book if you will. We see powerful and overwhelming images of the cosmos and universe that make one feel so terribly insignificant that are still so breathtakingly beautiful (aided by a gorgeous score). You don’t know whether you want to cry from the sheer wonder of it all or due to your own feelings of meaninglessness in the grand scheme of a seemingly unending existence. Maybe both (for me at least). Which leads me to the following: I have read criticism that the family of characters is boringly average and that there seems to be no reason to be interested in watching them – why should we care? To me, that’s sort of the point. The family we see IS normal. They live and die and experience moments of joy and pain in between. That is exactly why Malick shows them. They are all of us in all of our trivial moments that mean so much, yet so little in the grand scheme. This is a story about these characters that also tells the story about you and I. The movie could be your life or the life of someone you know. That’s the whole point! This isn’t a thriller, horror flick, or romantic comedy where the characters are meant to be relatable yet are put in situations that are virtually impossible if not fun to imagine. This film isn’t about taking you out of reality but pushing you further into it. This film wants you to look at your reality and I mean really look at it. What is it that makes us who we are? What is it that continues to shape and touch us throughout our lives, no matter where we go or how old we get? What should we leave behind and what should we embrace? Who or what is God? Is there a God? There are just so many questions that this film asks and that wants you to in turn ask of yourself. Being a human in extraordinary circumstances isn’t the point, it’s taking a look at what’s normal and how THAT can be incredibly extraordinary in the most humble & mundane of ways.

I will admit that there were times where I got frustrated about the pacing and felt at times bored, I won’t lie. There did come a time though where the film picked up and started to realize its own point and became much more engaging. And I must add that the cinematography is simply stunning. There is absolutely no debating just how beautiful this film is to watch. You may be one who becomes bored with the storyline, but you can’t deny enjoying what you’re seeing at least. And while I feel that the overarching theme is not something new (what is anymore really?), I did find that the method and delivery of it was still captivating and thought-provoking. It was a movie that I left in quiet thought going over everything I had just seen and trying to figure out the deeper meaning behind it all. It left an impression on me, which is what a truly good piece of film-work should do. Obviously tastes may vary, but I feel that at its core, this film has much to reveal to the more-than-casual viewer.

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