Saturday, March 27, 2010

NANKING: A Reflection

It’s not that I don’t think there’s any such thing as Evil. It’s that I think what is good and what is evil is defined by human beings, not by any god, and I resist the idea that there is a supernatural cause, a great big EVIL that reaches into the world despite our best efforts to keep it out. “The Devil made me do it!”

But have we really drawn on our own best efforts? When I say this about evil, that the universe itself has no evil, I am saying something much worse. The universe does not care. It will not intervene. It is more vast that we can understand. Though people say they have a spiritual melding with it, that’s in them: subjective -- not in the universe. Although a person who is looking at reality can get into a certain amount of harmony, in the end it’s either an illusion or very good luck that makes that happen. We do not control the universe. Some of it feels very evil indeed, but that’s in us -- not the universe.

My movie tonight was “Nanking,” one of the major atrocity stories of WWII, a holocaust that had nothing to do with Jews and everything to do with how war kindles a fire it cannot control. The earlier movie about North African soldiers, who bravely fought for France and then were killed when they demanded their pay, is the same thing. We find the same story everywhere, on every continent but the Antarctic. Tim would say “Genocide.” It IS Evil. But the universe didn’t do it. WE did it.

What makes “Nanking” exceptional is that the atrocities were witnessed and recorded in words and images and that those witnesses actually took effective action. These people could have left unscathed because they weren’t from either China or Japan -- they were “Westerners.” And they included Nazis, who were allies with Japan. The very people who are often reviled and mocked in theory circles, a few Colonialists actually tried to live up to the noble ideas of “civilization. The Nazi said he tried to find a moral way out in his own mind, but could not. The people needed witnesses.

The form of the film is a mix of old film, interviews with Chinese who were little children at the time but managed to survive even as their families were murdered in front of them, interviews with the Japanese soldiers who smiled as they told of repeatedly raping little girls, and historic written material read by actors. These latter were a bit unexpected. Mariel Hemingway with no makeup as the head of a girls’ college. Woody Harrelson. Jurgen Prochnow as the Nazi businessman. They did straightforward “readers’ theatre,” sitting in chairs wearing clothes that weren’t exactly costumes. No fireworks in the performances, just deep sincerity. None of the Westerners portrayed are living anymore. Mariel Hemingway’s character left after the crisis and then committed suicide. A Japanese officer is also represented by an American actor reading a translation.

There’s no question that what happened was evil, a frenzy of suffering and destruction, a murderous mania in men who were supposed to be disciplined. One said, “We had nothing else to do, so we raped the women.” Then the little girls, then the little boys. You want to talk trauma, you want to talk holocaust, this is a good example -- but no better than the many contemporary examples we’ve sworn would never happen again. How do we even begin to think about such stuff? I think we have to back way off and think about our methods. And I think we have to make it part of our ordinary lives, not some specially marked day or place. Not attributing it to a mysterious force that makes us powerless.

Worship came to mind since it was illustrated several times in the film. Ineffective in stopping events, but maybe helpful in responding to them. Then I thought of Von Ogden Vogt, the minister of First Unitarian Church in Hyde Park, Chicago, from 1924 until the end of WWII. He built an amazing Gothic mini-cathedral there that was not properly maintained and has since had the Gothic spire removed. I guess now it’s truncated Gothic. He also had a rather definite understanding of worship which I share in my own way. He was the same sort of patrician and determined person as those illustrated.

Part of this worship is a double sequence at the beginning which I call “the Dilation of the Soul,” which is an invocation of ultimate dimensions. The idea is to confront the worst terrible things, the Evil, in concrete examples and personal confession. In fact, some liturgists call it Confession of Sins. Greed, envy, sloth, anger, vanity -- loss, suffering. Lay it out there, as stark as you can.

THEN comes the hard part and the real use of the minister: the Assurance of Pardon, gratitude for love and grace, human courage, all the dearest things about being alive. If you can make this affirmation honestly -- and particularly as a group -- you will find yourself on liminal ground, open to ideas and change, prayer and thought. Then it’s important for the minister to call you back out to real life without discarding whatever happened in that space/time. You should find yourself either confirmed or changed.

That’s what this movie does. That’s what many great works of art do. Make you confront the evil, and then make you look just as hard at the glory and the power. The two things need to be in balance. Lately it seems that the world has offered so many images of ghastly things that it has been a challenge to come up with the equivalent redemption. The temptation is to shirk and deny the bad stuff.

These heroes in Nanking simply defined a “safe zone” where ordinary noncombatant families could come to be spared. They asked the countries to endorse this, but no country would. So they went out and stood personally at whatever gates they had -- the entrance to the girls’ college, the gate to the Nazi’s grounds -- and personally denied entrance to any Japanese soldiers. The soldiers didn’t quite dare to kill or overrun them, few as they were. I’m not saying these heroes were protected by God. Some were not particularly religious. But somehow they had Real Moral Courage, clear enough to change human events. The universe did not smile; it did not frown. But WE do. And we're so glad that they alone escaped to tell us.

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