Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Other Sides to "The Blind Side"

On Thanksgiving evening I went with members of my extended family to see the recently released movie “The Blind Side” starring Sandra Bullock. Based on the book by the same title, “The Blind Side tells the story of Baltimore Ravens left tackle, Michael Oher. Oher was a nearly illiterate 16 year old who was allowed to enroll in Wingate Christian Academy outside of Memphis, TN through the advocacy of a friend despite having very low test scores and a nearly non-existent grade point average.

The son of an absent father and a drug addict mother, Michael is a virtual orphan trying to make it on is own. Then one evening he is picked up by wealthy socialite Leigh Ann Tuohy (played by Bullock) who brings him into her family, provides him a home, gets him a tutor, advocates for him with his teachers and against his former gang banger friends, and even shows him how to play left tackle on his high school football team. Michael who is 6’4”, 390 pounds is physically a natural football player; he just needs to learn how to block, which Leigh Ann shows him. Michael ends up graduating from high school, getting a scholarship to Ole Miss, graduates from college on the Dean’s list, and gets picked up in the first round of the NFL draft by the Baltimore Ravens, where he now is a starting left tackle. And, oh did I say that Michael was black, and Leigh Ann is white.

On the surface of it, assuming that the movie was essentially true, it is a wonderful, tear-inducing, good feel story of how well meaning people can make a difference in someone else’s life, and how even someone from a broken home can go on to success.

Yet I came out of the movie feeling uneasy about the larger message this movie was sending. Without necessarily meaning to, "The Blind Side" reinforces all the stereotypes that obfuscate the issues of race and class in our culture. All the good and well meaning people in the story(Michael’s teachers, the Tuohy family, & the football coach) are white, and all the negative influences and people in need (Michael, his drug addicted mother, & his good-for-nothing friends back in the projects) are black. The only stereotype that the movie does not reinforce is the Southern racist stereotype; Leigh Ann Tuohy and her family are open, committed, caring and helpful to the end.

Now for all I know the facts support the story being told the way it was: Wealthy white woman saves poor black kid from certain destruction. I just got wondering about the other sides of the story that were not only overlooked, but for the most part did not even get an honorable mention.

For instance, what if the story was told from Michael’s point of view, rather than Leigh Ann’s? What did it take for a 16 year old boy to keep trying despite the negative influences all around him? How did a kid with a drug addicted mother get such strong values of caring for one’s own (maybe his mother was an addict, but she had values too.)? What was it like to walk into an all white school and have folks look at you, whisper behind your back, but not talk to your face? What was it like to know that people look at you either in fear or disgust, and yet pursue your goal? What was it like to be taken in by this strong willed, white woman and her family and certainly be loved, but also be seen as a charity project?

Or what about telling the fuller story of the change that had to overtake the Tuohy family? What was it like to be the beneficiaries of the plantation mentality of the South and yet take a black young man into your home? What were the fears and the questions they had? What was it like to have your white friends question your sanity and call you “nigger lover”, as they certainly were? How did the kids manage the ambivalence of wanting to be accepted by their peers, but listening to the values lived out by their Christian mother? What was it like to go against the grain of the Southern aristocratic worldview that had been handed down for generations and contend with the feelings of confusion, fear and doubt?

Or what about raising a question as to how the all white, upper class Christian school got its start? Did it start in the 1950’s and 1960’s when throughout the South public schools were ordered to de-segregate, and so private schools, many of them “Christian,” were started so that wealthier white kids did not have to go to schools with Black kids? In the years since, had Wingate Christian school sought to shed its elitist, separatist image or had it continued to be a vehicle for keeping the Christian haves from the poorer, darker have-nots? How could Wingate be a Christian school and yet still be such an essential contributor to the separatist, elitist fabric of Memphis society?

Or, what about asking the question, why were the white folks living in the mansion (just like the “big house” on the plantation) and all the black folks were living in the projects? Why despite desegregation, affirmative action, and various efforts at bringing equity, is there a greater economic disparity between blacks and whites today than in the 1970’s? Why do public schools that teach poor children tend to be underfunded, thus under-resourced and under staffed, and so a kid like Michael Oher is promoted from grade to grade even though he can barely read? Why not ask how Michael learned how to learn by listening rather than by reading and writing, and thus was not uneducated, but just able to take a written test? Why not ask how public education seems to reinforce the disparate status quo rather than really help students succeed when thy come from schools in poor neighborhoods?

Or perhaps we might ask why this story was made into a movie in the first place, instead of a movie where black folks help each other? Why not tell the story of John Lucas, a basketball star who got caught in drugs, got himself together and now helps athletes who struggle with similar problems? Why not tell the story of Tony Dungy, former NFL player and coach, who routinely mentors young men? What about telling countless stories of families, white and black, who are poor and yet sacrifice so their kids can succeed and go to college? What is it about the “market” of the movie business that needs to tell this story, a story that essentially reinforces the inequities and disparities in our society as long as there a few Leigh Ann Tuohy’s to keep us honest and remind us to be charitable?

Now perhaps I am making too much of a simple movie. As one person said to me, “Can’t you just take for being a good story?” Nope, I can’t because there are too many other messages a movie like “The Blind Side” sends, which make working for social and racial justice that much more difficult. It reinforces the personal attitudes and the social policies that make Michael Oher’s situation all too common, and the outcome of this story all too rare. It’s not that the story that “The Blind Side” tells is wrong; it is just that there other sides to the story that are not even acknowledged, and which also must be recognized and must be heard.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Last Veteran's Day - A Dream

The Year: November 11, some time in the future
The Place: A VFW Hall

The old veteran closed the door on the VFW. It was the last time he would ever do this special act. There was no point. He was the last veteran, and today was the last Veteran’s Day. The VA Administration had closed years ago and the VA hospitals had been turned back to their local communities. It wasn’t that people did not appreciate his service, or recognize his sacrifice (although truth to be told, he had just had a desk job). The people and the government had not turned their backs on their service men and women. The reason was simply that there were no more military veterans.

Decades ago, the people of the United States had simply and consciously decided they were not going to initiate any more wars. After long consultations between former soldiers, academics, politicians and just plain regular folks, the people of the United States came to the conclusion that waging war was just not an effective way to spread peace, encourage democracy, secure human rights and provide so called “national security.” Instead some regular folks had started talking about encouraging peace and democracy by sharing their national resources and expertise, and building bridges of understanding rather than the hostilities and hatreds caused by war.

Blogs, tweets, and text messages had proliferated on the Internet, and a new idea began to emerge that maybe there was another road to peace other than war. Websites, List serves and Social Networking sites were formed where people shared their ideas of how to build a more humane and safer world. Slowly, at first imperceptibly, the tide of public opinion began to change. Eventually entertainers, celebrities and media pundits started chanting the mantra of “wage peace, not war.” The politicians, sensing the winds of change, began claiming they had come up with “a new idea for a new century” and all of a sudden leaders started talking about the benefits of peace.

Now don’t get me wrong, the change did not come without great struggle. First of all, the nation’s history had been written around the theme of wars won and heroes created. All the great presidents in the first two centuries had come to fame in part because of their conduct in time of war, either as soldiers or leaders or both. Words like “freedom” and “country” could not be without a simultaneous mention of war. The language of war and battle infused every area of life from education to business to sports to religion. The imagery and ethos of war was at the heart of American culture, and there were many staunch patriots, both liberal and conservative, who could not conceive of being an American without reference to war. The change had come at a great shift in values and perspectives.

Even more difficult than the cultural transformation was the change in economic thinking. So many of the nation’s service, manufacturing and financial institutions had been built around the military's demand for war supplies. The makers of planes, cars, guns, food, and all the materials that went into those items had become dependent on the nation being at war with someone somewhere in the world at all times. And of course whenever there was an economic down turn, as happened in 1929 and 2008, the economy could always count on the military to provide impoverished men and women with no viable vocational prospects to join up and fill the ranks of the troops needed overseas. After the tide of public opinion had begun to turn, there were reports that came out that the CEOs of some of the major world corporations had actually held secret meetings trying to manufacture wars just to keep their businesses afloat. The corporations with major military contracts lobbied hard in Congress and spent billions of dollars making their point that war was good for the country. It created jobs and made heroes out of otherwise normal men and women.

However, the ones who had the hardest time were the politicians who had spent so much time trumpeting the power and prominence of the United States in the world. “God Bless America” had become the unofficial national anthem, and was used to pump up the crowds when realistic solutions to the nation’s problems seemed too difficult for these men and some women of leisure to work on. As long as there was war going on, they didn’t need to tackle the need for health care, better schools, responses to global warming and the like. They could cozy up to the lobbyists, get their fat checks, and basically do little to nothing to really improve life. The politicians had it made, and this change of the nation’s mind was hard for them to adjust to. Some didn’t, and were heard long after they had been voted out of office, mumbling “but I love my country” as they shuffled down the halls of the special politician respite care facilities that had been hastily constructed after so many of them basically had emotional breakdowns.

What turned the tide is that the regular folks, who were suffering under the neglect of their elected officials and abuse by their corporate leaders, finally got fed up. Historians debate what actual “tipping point was” but most agreed it came as a result of the confluence of several events that occurred near the end of 2009. President Obama decided to send more troops to the war in Afghanistan, a war that was killing more and more US soldiers each day, and making the Afghan people less secure than when the soldiers arrived. Bankers were touting that the recession of 2008 was over and giving each other huge bonuses, while one in 10 people were out of work, and one in eight lived in dire poverty. The president’s efforts to pass a comprehensive health care bill got mired down in political name-calling. Small businesses struggled to make ends meet. Young people, especially those just out of college found it difficult to start their careers. People everywhere just got tired of the lies, the hypocrisy and frankly, the bullshit coming out of their leaders.

So they hit the streets. They wrote letters. They walked into corporate headquarters and protested at bankers meetings. They marched on Wall Street, on Pennsylvania Ave, and on major streets in cities and towns throughout the country. They started emailing and texting their friends and family, and things began to shift. For a long time life in the US was chaotic. At times the police and the National Guard had to be called out to calm folks down. But then the police and guardsmen began deserting, not wanting to quell a movement that they themselves were in agreement with. There were reports in San Francisco, Philadelphia and Houston that police officers actually put down their guns and joined the marchers. There was even a governor’s wife in Minnesota who led a protest on her husband’s office at the capital. It was crazy, scary and exciting time.

After it was clear that Obama’s decision to send in more troops was wrong-headed, he reversed himself and the war in Afghanistan was terminated. The president ordered out most of the troops and instead sent teams of teachers, doctors, social workers, business consultants, community developers and engineers into the country to help rebuild what the soldiers had destroyed. Halliburton, Boeing and some of the other huge military contract companies began to shift focus and started building supply ships, and cargo planes to take seeds and tools to the impoverished parts to the world. Over a period of several years the World Bank experienced a complete change of leadership, and the new folks in charge started using words like “sustainability”, “eco-friendly” and “localized economies” rather than “growth”, “bottom line” and “globalization.” The change didn’t happen overnight, and for a long it seemed like nothing was happening, but as people looked back they realized the shift started when people got fed up.

And then the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the heads of the nation’s military branches, who had build their careers and professional identities on the need to conduct war, made an admission that shocked the nation. They asked for and received a prime time slot on national television. One by one these military leaders shared in graphic and often painful detail what war was really like. Each one shared his personal horror story of war, and then together they confessed their angst for sending men and women into the face of certain death for causes that rarely were clear and objectives that were never worthy. They talked about the lies and propaganda that were manufactured to justify their actions, and they asked for the nation’s forgiveness. They announced that they, the warrior heroes of the nation, were giving up their stations as military commanders, and were going to live more wholesome, productive lives.

Shortly after that, the recruiting stations closed. Because there were fewer soldiers, as time went on there was less need for veterans services. So little by little VA hospitals and other programs began to close simply because they were not needed. Then, one day in the spring the President announced that the next November 11 would be the last Veteran’s Day, simply because there were no more veterans.

Today was that day. The last veteran closed the door to the VFW hall, and smiled wryly. His granddaughter ran up and grabbed his hand as they walked together toward his car. He said to her “Want some ice cream?”

“Can I have chocolate cherry cheesecake with whip cream?”

He smiled “You can have anything you want. It’s a good day!”

Saturday, November 07, 2009

God and Guns

One of the things that Heeding God’s Call has done has sought to make the buying, selling, owning and using of guns an issue of faith. This expression of the gun violence prevention movement, which started here in Philadelphia, has drawn its base from the religious community, which has in turn given the movement respect and credibility in the wider community. However, by no means does that mean that the religious community is of one mind when it comes to the role guns do and should play in our society. Any Google search of “God and Guns” will turn up a host of websites and YouTube videos dedicated to the integration of God, Patriotism, Libertarianism and Second Amendment rights. On the other hand, a recent AP article reported that in Detroit pastors are carrying pistols into their pulpits and have organized armed “ministries of defense” to protect them and their parishioners during meetings together. I myself know pastors and Eastern University colleagues in Philadelphia who are not shy in admitting their ownership of a gun for their own safety.

While I am not against owning a gun per se (for instance I have many friends who are hunters), I am troubled by the intersection of faith and an instrument of violence, especially when that instrument’s sole purpose is to shoot, injure and possibly kill another human being, even in defense. This is the only use for handguns. At issue for me is not simply whether a Christian is justified in using a gun against another person either in war or in self defense, but rather the mistaken belief that the capacity to inflict violence of any kind against another person somehow makes them stronger and morally justified.

This “myth of redemptive violence” as Walter Wink calls it essentially believes that if I am wronged or injured by another’s use of violence, I am justified in getting even. This myth of redemptive violence is at the heart of nearly every cop show and “kick-ass” movie out today. This same myth dominates US foreign policy and has been the cause of all the deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the myth goes in US foreign policy, if we can somehow catch and kill Osama Bin Laden, the other leaders of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the world will be safer. What this line of thinking ignores is the verifiable reality that violence only breeds more violence whether on a city street or a mountain pass in Afghanistan. In fact it can be logically argued that the heinous 9/11 attacks that ushered in the “war on terror” were a response to U.S. military actions in the Middle East. Instead of pointing fingers as to who was to blame, we would do better to recognize that the pattern of spiraling violence feeds on itself, and no one wins, and no one is justified.

Moreover, fighting violence with violence does not work. In the article on the Detroit pastors, one of them was quoted as saying, “…the Scriptures are clear that civil authority is part of God’s plan…In our country it says in due process that you may bear arms to protect yourself. While we should be committed to trusting God, that doesn’t prevent us or command us to be totally passive.” By calling upon people of faith to take a non-violent approach I am in no way opting for passivity. The dichotomy between bearing arms and passivity is a false one. What people of faith have is the power of numbers and moral conviction. We don’t act in isolation expecting God to miraculously protect us from violence; instead we use the power of the message of love and justice working together in community to provide an alternative model of security and conflict resolution. While I appreciate the feelings of insecurity that lead people to pack a gun for protection, study after study shows that such practice makes our communities and homes less safe rather than more.

That’s why I continue to work alongside my brothers and sisters in Heeding God’s Call. While we don’t have all the answers, the power of our combined spiritual commitment is a source nonviolent power that can heal and provide an alternative to the discredited myth of redemptive violence.

A CALL TO ACTION - Heeding God’s Call goes to the PA State Capital in Harrisburg on November 19, 2009

The PA House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hear testimony on HB 40 at the State Capitol in Harrisburg beginning at 10am on Thursday, November 19. Please plan to join your fellow faithful there to help bring some sanity to this issue. !

Background: The ‘Castle Doctrine,’ established in common law and statute since medieval days, grants a legal right to use force, even lethal force, against threatening invaders of residences. However, under current law in PA and almost every other state, a person who feels threatened in a public place has a legal duty to attempt to flee. Lethal force may be used only as a last resort.

HB 40, the gun lobby’s ‘Shoot First’ bill, would turn this on its head. Namely, HB 40 would grant a legal right to use lethal force, including gunfire, against any person felt to be threatening, virtually anywhere. The operative phrase, of course, is ‘felt to be threatened,’ which opens a huge can of worms and danger. All a shooter would have to do if ‘Shoot First’ becomes law is claim she/he ‘felt’ threatened in order to avoid liability for harming or killing another, threatening situation or not.

This is, of course, craziness of the first order and would replace the law and order of a civil society with a ‘Shoot First Ask Questions Later’ mentality more akin to the mythical Wild West than to 21st Century America. Again, all so the gun lobby’s patrons in the gun industry can sell more guns.

So, Heeding is in the midst of organizing a trip/meeting/etc. in Harrisburg for all concerned faithful, to oppose the abomination in God’s eyes that is the ‘Shoot First’ bill, to make our views known and to remind legislators that we and they have a religious duty, whatever the faith tradition, to seek civility and peace, not the fear and violence promoted by the gun lobby.

For more information contact me ( or Heeding God’s Call (