Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Choose Life: Even When He Does Abortions

As a Christian, and a pro-life advocate, I am deeply saddened by the murder of Dr. Tiller in Kansas on Sunday, May 31. I am saddened because my belief in the sanctity of life applies to doctors who perform abortions, as well as the babies that they abort. I am saddened that this action will set the pro-life movement back twenty-years. Finally, I am saddened that many diligent, loving, and sacrificial individuals who have been working in the pro-life movement for years will be painted with the broad brush of right-wing radicalism because of one man’s heinous actions.

No doubt Dr. Tiller will become a martyr for pro-choice movement. Many examples are being given of how Dr. Tiller performed “mercy” abortions on young women who had been raped, or whose pregnancies had gone terribly wrong. Dr. Leroy Carhart reflected on these cases as he compared Dr. Tiller’s murder to the assassination of Martin Luther King and the bombing of Pearl Harbor http://washingtontimes.com/news/2009/jun/09/tiller-likened-to-mlk/?feat=home_headlines. Such emotional outcries are exactly what will invigorate the pro-choice movement, a movement that has been losing momentum in the minds of Americans. A recent Gallup poll illustrated that only 22% believed that abortion should be legal under any circumstances http://www.gallup.com/poll/1576/abortion.aspx. This “legal under any circumstances” philosophy was what made Dr. Tiller particularly controversial. Here is his description of the late term abortion procedure his clinic provides:

At Women's Health Care Services, our Fetal Indication Termination of Pregnancy program involves managing the pregnancy by the premature delivery of a stillborn. During this process, we will try to duplicate the natural, safe, and reliable process that nature has developed. Your cervix will be opened over a one to four day period with repeated insertions of sponge-like sticks (laminaria). When your cervix is opened adequately, labor will be induced with naturally occurring hormones, and you will have your delivery under "twilight" sedation. With twilight anesthesia for the labor and delivery most patients do not remember much about the process. Generous amounts of medication are administered during the labor to relieve discomfort. On the first day of the process, an injection of a medication is made into the baby to assure that it will be stillborn and will not experience any discomfort during the procedure. After the delivery, all patients receive a D&C and are usually able to travel the next morning.

I don’t quote to elicit an emotional response from the reader, but simply to show clearly the work that Dr. Tiller did. For the procedure described above, the fee was $6000. This is where my problem with Dr. Tiller arises. He indeed believed that he was helping those who no one else would help and whose circumstances were dire as extraordinary circumstances and fetal abnormalities drove them to seek abortions. New York Times writer Judith Warner tells stories of Dr. Tiller’s heart for women in the crucible of “unique” unwanted pregnancy http://warner.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/04/george-tiller/. However, Dr. Tiller was not a provider of only these type of abortions, and in his own words in a 1995 speech cited that a scant 8% of the late term abortions he performed involved fetal abnormalities: “We have some experience with late terminations: about 10,000 patients between 24-36 weeks and something like 800 fetal abnormalities between 26-36 weeks in the past 5 years.” The generalization that Dr. Tiller was only helping women who were dealing with complications is false. 92% of the late term abortions that he performed between 1990-1995 had no relation to the potential suffering of the fetus if the pregnancy was carried to term.

Regardless of how Dr. Tiller lived his life, regardless that he chose to perform thousands of abortions where the mother and fetus were perfectly healthy, regardless that he became a very rich man as a result of his work as an abortion provider, he had a right to life, a right to live as he chose under the law, and snuffing out his life in the way that Scott Roeder did is a evil action no different than those committed by Dr. Tiller.

The most important piece that can come out of this tragedy is an examination of the pro-life movement. I believe that the reason that Americans have been moving toward limiting abortion in this country is not because of legal challenges at the state and federal level, and certainly not by protestors standing outside abortion clinics harassing patients that go in or come out, but through the quiet and diligent work of many in the pro-life movement who have opened crisis pregnancy centers, supported them financially, and volunteered their time to work at them. These facilities provide women with options other than abortion. They educate women about the option of adoption; they help single mothers find work and a place to live should they choose to keep the baby. These type of pro-life organizations, that build relationships with the women in crisis, that love them unconditionally, and support them in a time of need and calamity are the organizations that will reduce the frequency of abortion in this country.

Women who choose abortion, usually choose it because they are scared of how their friends, family and unfortunately their respective religious communities will judge them, they don’t have the financial resources to undergo a healthy pregnancy and all its medical requirements, and they don’t know how follow the procedure of carrying the pregnancy full term and giving the baby to a loving family through adoption.

If the 66% of people in this country who call themselves “pro-life” stopped being pro-life only at church, or during election season and took a proactive approach of financial support of crisis pregnancy centers and privately subsidized single mother housing, we would slowly begin to put the abortion clinics out of business. I am not so naïve to say that abortion will be cease to exist, as history has shown that even prohibiting it by law will not eliminate it. However, if we are serious about reducing abortion in this country, let us follow the example of Christ and seek to build relationships with women who are considering it, let us love them in this trying time, let us support them emotionally and financially as they choose life.

The tragedy of Dr. Tiller’s murder and the ensuing reaction from the pro-choice community should invigorate us in the pro-life community to be pro-active with our time, money and abilities to help promote the sanctity of life and help all humanity to choose life in all circumstances not just when it is comfortable and convenient.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Eastwood's Grand Torino: Bigotry Gone Right

Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino is a film that further establishes Eastwood as one of the greatest Hollywood directors addressing issues of morality and ethics through the medium of film. Million Dollar Baby addressed euthanasia, and Unforgiven and Mystic River dealt with revenge in masterful ways that place the characters in the crucible of moral and ethical situations where right and wrong become obscure and the decisions characters make are never guided by black and white morality.

In Gran Torino, Eastwood takes on the issue of bigotry. The main character, Walt Kowalski, is a fair man in that his hateful prejudice and racial slurs are directed at all people of a different race, color, creed, or ethnicity equally. Throughout the film, the racial slurs flow from Walt to his neighbors, strangers on the street, and even his “so called” friends: a barber and construction worker.

What the movie intelligently avoids is a cliché transformation of Walt’s bigotry to an understanding and loving man. While a story about total transformation may be inspirational for a few moments after the credits role, its thematic significance is undermined by the fantastical notion that one could change such deep rooted hate that has grown and festered for 50 years in a matter of a few days, weeks, or even months.

Another film that deals honestly with this long, hard transformation is American History X. Here, the hate and bigotry of the main character is only transformed inside the walls of prison. While locked up, a young man’s prejudice and stereotypes are challenged and slowly broken down as he is forced to work with, eat with, and eventually understand a black man: a member of the race he has been taught to despise.

For Walt, his understanding and eventual acceptance of another group of people comes through interaction with two other characters: his Hmong neighbors, Thao and Sue. Interestingly, Thao and Sue’s actions, though antithetical, help to draw Walt out of his solitary state in the neighborhood. What is keen about the screenplay writing and Eastwood’s acting is that while Walt Kowalski’s mean spirit and dislike for Thao and Sue diminishes, his derogatory slurs toward them and their family do not. Walt may accept Sue’s invitation to come and eat with her family, but he still has the audacity to call her family “fish heads” as he stands uncomfortably in the middle of their living room.

Sue’s kindness towards Walt and her refusal to be offended by his “mean as hell” demeanor represent the ideal. Sue has courage to befriend Walt as she sees the island that he has placed himself on, and the isolated nature of his life. Sue’s tolerance is really a model of how one can bridge racial, cultural, and generational gaps.

Thao, on the other hand becomes the character Walt chooses to invest in. As we see Walt teaching Thao “how to be a man” through work, action, language, and love, a central theme of the movie is developed. Walt is a mean, cruel, and bigoted man; however, he has something of value inside of him. His mentoring of Thao, though imperfect, illustrates he has something positive to give to the world. He tries to give this knowledge to Thao; his instruction is done in his own, often racially offensive way, but ironically, both Thao and Walt benefit from it.

In many ways, Walt reminds me of Miss Dubose from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Like Walt, she is cruel to kids and adults alike, and full of racial hatred, but inside of her is a courage Atticus wants his kids to see. To him, that gives her value, and he wants Scout and Jem to interact with her in order observe what real courage is.

The most significant theme of the film is the message about life and death. Gran Torino begins and ends with a funeral in the same church, with the same family, with the same priest officiating. Between those deaths, we see the message of life. In the midst of the film, the same priest who officiates the funerals tells Walt: “sounds like you know more about death than life.” after Walt shares some of his stories from the Korean War. The Hmong priest echoes the Catholic priest as he tells Walt how he sees him: an empty, mean, and unhappy man. The lesson: value in life comes from relationships. Walt has none. His wife is dead, he cannot relate in any way to his two sons (they avoid even talking to him on the phone), his grandchildren have no interest in knowing him, and he is surrounded by neighbors of another culture he has chosen to hate. His life is bereft. However, there is hope. A hope found in pouring himself into Thao. This pouring of his life, like the man himself is imperfect, but nonetheless Walt allows his life to benefit another.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Still Watching and Loving Lost

For some time now, I have been a consistent viewer of the TV series Lost. For me, it is one of the few shows (I only watch two, sometimes three a week) that is worth my time and energy. Interestingly, I didn’t start watching the show until Season 2 was completed. That summer my wife and I watched the first two seasons and we were caught up in depth of the characters, and the mystery. Furthermore, we always enjoyed the frequent literary, philosophical, scientific, and religious allusions. As the show has continued into Season 5, I have spoken to many who have left Lost because its content and storyline demand so much of the viewer. Truthfully, one can’t watch Lost while doing something else. Unlike most TV shows, Lost requires the central focus of the viewer. Character complexity, frequent allusions (some which require research) confuse some viewers and the inclusion of time travel and all the intricacies therein sometimes frustrate viewers to the point where they give up and turn to more canned dramas. In these canned dramas one only has to focus on the events of a single hour after which the problems are solved in a tidy way until the following week. In some cases, others have turned to the even more banal sitcoms and reality TV where one doesn’t have to think at all. (My animosity towards sitcoms and reality TV and reasons behind it really need to be saved for another time.)

I am amazed at how some criticize a show like Lost because they can't figure everything out the first time through. Have we become so lethargic that we must have everything spelled out for us, and be spoon fed the purpose and themes of all that is shown on television? While everyone has different tastes, those who have left Lost for the aforementioned reasons and instead turned to the canned drama, the sitcom, and the reality TV show are indicating much more about themselves than the writing and purpose of a show like Lost. This phenomenon exposes something about TV viewing in America. We have left books for television, now when television challenges us, we turn the channel. We don’t want to have to reflect on a television show, we don’t want to have to delve beneath the surface of a show’s characters and events, to find some connection to our own lives or the world in which we live; instead we want pure distraction. While I agree distraction can be fun and necessary in some moments in life, I don’t agree that distraction is all we should look for in our television viewing.

One friend told me that she stopped watching Lost, as she compared it to a bad relationship in which she gave and gave, but never received anything in return. While I agree the demands of watching shows like Lost (yes I agree other quality shows exist) are great, the rewards for the critical viewer are just as great. If television is going to be part of our lives, shouldn’t it challenge us in some way? Are the shows that we are watching causing us to grow? Are they asking good questions and addressing pertinent issues in our world and culture? While Lost isn’t perfect, I feel challenged while I am watching it, and I am challenged to reflect the next day as I discuss an episode with my students and friends. For me, this makes a show worth watching. I hope creative writers and talented actors continue to bring these types of shows to viewers in years to come.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Emptiness in Horrific Cinema

As the lack of originality in Hollywood continues, I am reminded that what Hollywood produces is dictated by what we, the consumers, are willing to hand over $8.50 to see. I struggle with the plethora of trite romantic comedies that run the same plot sequence with different pairings of prurient young men and women attempting to demonstrate the complexities of love. I struggle with action heroes who don't really represent honor or integrity, leaping from scene to scene supported with only catchy one liners that don't allow them to truly demonstrate any true heroic qualities. My greatest struggle with film today is that viewers flock to truly obscene horror films, filled with blood lust and now more than ever sexual lust, where the actors and screenplay have no other purpose than to desensitize viewers to death, sex, and thereby devaluing both. I have been troubled for the last month as I have seen advertisements for My Bloody Valentine and Friday the 13th. Please understand, I see value and purpose in some movies that others might consider "horror" movies. 28 Days Later, Alien, Scream, are a few (there are others as well) that I think move beyond the realm of shocking gore and sex and leave the viewer with some thematic significance. We see characters who demonstrate love, sacrifice and courage in times of great distress and anguish in movies like 28 Days Later and Alien. In Scream at least the writers had the creative ability to dissect the horror genre and include some level of mystery. Sure these movies are terrifying, but within them we see more than terror and death, we see admirable responses of characters within the crucible of pain and suffering, or at least we are able to step back and see the bathos that horror movies bring into the art of cinema. However, can we really say this of movies such as Friday the 13th? Not only is the premise that Jason Vorhees is still alive (at age 62) after being killed with an ax, machete, drowning, cremation, sent to hell, etc. (check out Wikipedia for other forms of Jason's demise) beyond ridiculous, but the writers and director of this film have chosen to include graphic sexuality as part of the story because the basic plot of Jason killing victim after victim (he has been doing this since the 80's) isn't enough to get people into the theater. Some may dismiss me as a prude, but I really question what one could hope to gain from this type of cinema? This really leads back to my point in the first sentence. I know we can make better choices at the theatre, and I hope we will begin to do so. We, the movie viewers, dictate what is shown on the screen. We feel the temptation that a movie like Friday the 13th brings. In what new ways will Jason take a life? What will that girl look like in the nude? In what outlandish ways will sexuality be portrayed on the big screen? If we are honest, many of us watch these films to have these questions answered, and usually we leave the theatre disappointed. We have given our money and time over to something that has done nothing for us mentally or emotionally. Instead it has only shocked us for a moment, and twisted our view of concepts like death and sex that are not trite or trivial, though we were made to believe so for 90 minutes.

Habakkuk 1:13 -Your eyes are too pure to approve evil, And You can not look on wickedness with favor. Why do You look with favor On those who deal treacherously? Why are You silent when the wicked swallow up Those more righteous than they?

Only 13 Dollars a Week?

From what I am hearing President Obama's stimulus package is going to be passed in Congress tonight or sometime tomorrow and of course with 35% being tax cuts we are all wondering what size our piece of the pie is going to be. I have heard estimates from anywhere to $9-$13 a week for the average American to which many are saying: "What am I going to do with that?"

In the grand scheme of my budget, which isn't much, $13 or $26 per pay period isn't going to buy much, but in reality that is $648 a year which in a lump sum sounds alright. I would be happy with a $648 raise wouldn't you?

If that doesn't convince you, think of it this way, Open Arms for Asia (http://openarmsforasia.org/index.htm), a non-profit organization that cares for homeless orphans in India, has 17 kids that need full sponsorship at $35 a month. This $35 goes toward food, education, clothing, medical care, and many other basic needs that many of us take for granted in the United States. My family is currently supporting a young girl named Sandya whose parents died of disease and who was eating out of the city dump and begging for food until OAFA found her and brought her into their orphanage. You can see from her smile that a meager $35 has made a significant impact on her life. If that $13 a week is not enough to make a significant impact on your budget, consider giving it to someone for whom it would be life changing. According to my math you would still have $19 left over and the satisfaction that an amount that you consider a pittance is opening up a whole new world for another.

Matthew 25:21 — “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ ”

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Ironman: A Lesson on Second Chances

I know that the film Ironman has been out for some time and that the critics and superhero fans have commented on its success at the box office as well as Robert Downy Jr.'s revival on the big screen, but I have been contemplating the significance of this film and its themes and lessons for some time now, and I believe that the time has come to make them public.

During my first viewing of Ironman, I was contemplating whether or not my 10 year old son Dominic should be allowed to view it. I had heard about the violence, torture, sexual innuedo and decided to first preview it before allowing Dominic or any of my children to view it. The acting was good, the story funny, and the development of Tony Stark's character and Ironman's adventures was intriguing. I thought the ending was somewhat cliche'. Once again the superhero faces impossible odds and overcomes the fact that his nemisis has developed fool proof plan (an iron suit with significantly more power), I had seen this before.

However, during my second viewing, I saw the brilliance of this movie. I was watching it this time with my kids, strategically editing the allusions to sex and hoping my kids wouldn't be tainted by Tony Stark's apparent obssession with alcohol, sex, materialism and his own intellectual ability. The climax came as Stark broke free of the terrorist's grip, and in the midst of a spectacular explosion, blasted himself into the desert where he was forced to wander aimlessly without food or water until discovered by the military.

I remember stopping the movie at this point and asking my kids: "What do you think Tony was thinking about as he was wandering in the desert?" My kids gave the usual answers: "He was probably happy to be alive, he was thinking about how he hoped he would make it home, he was thinking about all the things we would do when he got home."

I saw and opportunity in that last statement so I asked a followup question: "If Tony makes it home safe, (we all knew he would make it out) what do you think he will do differently?"

My kids weren't sure how to answer, but Dominic responded: "Stop making weapons and do soemething good."

I have to admit; I was proud. Dominic saw the central theme of Ironman:

"If we are given a second chance at life, if we have been caught up in all the distractions of this world, if they have become idols to us, and we like Tony have been sent to into the darkness of the cave, and tortured because of our failures, when we are free again will we retreat back into the narcissistic arrogance that first isolated us? Maybe like Tony we have walked through the desolate desert and longed for another opportunity to use all the gifts and talents we have been given. Maybe we have realized that God gave us our abilities to not only glorify him, but help others. Up until his imprisonment in the cave, and his journey through the desert, Tony was living for himself. He purchased priceless paintings simply because he "had to have them" and put them in storage where no one could enjoy them. He treated women as objects of his pleasure, never fostering any type of in-depth relationship where he would have to be real and vunerable, and probably most significantly, he used his highly developed intellect to create weapons of destruction, weapons that would make him wealthy."

The excution of Tony's response to redemption and what he does with his second chanc is what made the second half of Ironman exceptional. Did you notice how his focus changes? What courage he has to take the very industry that supplies his life blood and shut it down. What about the stock price? What about the board of directors? What about the employees of Stark Industries? Stark's courage is exceptional. Look at his approach to alcohol. Tony is seen drinking alcohol in the second half of the film, but instead of the flippant attitude of a borderline alcoholic, we see a more responsible user of alcohol. Finally, he approach to women? He is awkward in his interest in Pepper, just as she is skeptical of his new attitude toward her; however, she is not a object for his pleasure, but a complex being that he choses to pursue with care and caution. Sure he fails her, but what are we to expect from a man who up to this point saw women only as objects of sexual desire?

I don't know if anyone will ever read this blog or care about my observations, but if like me, you are a superhero fan, watch Ironman again, this time with a new perspective and examine your own life and the understand the power of redemption. Live life deliberately, use your gifts and abilities for others in hopes that you will better the world around you.

2 Corinthians 5:15

"And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again."