Wednesday, April 11, 2012

"THE STONING OF SOROYA M.": More Than a Parable

After watching “Lord of the Flies” and seeing what happens when the good old Brit rules fail, it’s instructive to watch “The Stoning of Soraya M.” and see what happens when rules are enforced, under corrupt circumstances or not. Soraya’s story is true. She was a blameless wife in a small village in Iran who was accused of adultery and stoned to death. The movie was made by Iranian ex-pats who did not shrink from reality. Using a puppet, CGI, and tricky technology, the method of killing is vividly cruel. The actress playing the victim, buried in a hole to keep her from escaping, knew what was coming but when movie blood ran down her face, she was no longer acting. The full horror hit her hard. The laws in question were Sharia laws, not English Common Law, but the two movies watched together make it clear that there’s more involved than just rules. So what is that?

My reference is a chapter in a Victor Turner book, whose ideas about liturgy I admire so much. The book is “Dramas, Fields and Metaphors” and the chapter is “Passages, Margins, and Poverty: Religious Symbols of Communitas.” He suggests that culture is always balancing structure (laws, inspectors, punishers) against communitas which is basic human decency and care for each other. Maybe one could say laws versus principles is the same thing; even Leviticus versus Jesus.

It’s possible to go too far in either direction. Too far with law and you have Sharia stonings, too far WITHOUT law, and you have boys killing each other. But it’s hard to imagine too much loving kindness unless it becomes merely indulgence with no shape or order. There are instances of communitas emerging from groups in chaos when natural leaders find expression.

Two things make the laws in “The Stoning of Soraya M” so horrifyingly enforceable. One is laws, rules and punishments that invade far too many realms better addressed in the modern world by counseling, separation, arbitration, and so on. (Sharia law reaches into the home, affecting sex, diet, dress and so on.)

Second, people with power use laws to punish the vulnerable, the poor, the stigmatized, the “immoral,” the indigenous -- criminalizing them so the powerful can do what they like and profit from it. Too often Sharia law treats women like livestock. Lifting up of “the least of these” is urged in the stories and songs of poor people, often joined by religious persons like Jesus or St. Francis. The original Islamic movement DID include this force. Poverty becomes a solidarity and a source of kindness that is good for society as a whole. Happiness as individuals or as society depends upon successfully maintaining the tension between the two. Otherwise the result is demonstrations, revolt and guerrilla opposition.

The next series of movies that I’m watching is by Bela Tarr. “Satan Tango” is a seven hour depiction of a society so crushed by totalitarian control, poverty and corruption that life is only alcoholic misery. (It’s in Hungary -- oh, poor Hungary! In the Fifties I got up to listen to the 5AM news in hopes that they’d managed to revolt! Then the US let them down, which prompted e.e. cummings to say, “Let’s bury the Statue of Liberty because it’s beginning to stink.” The poets and the tricksters. also align themselves with communitas, the poor and the suffering.)

What I see around me in prairie small towns is the encouragement of “the majority rules” interpretations of democracy, instead of the communitas concept of protecting the minority. It’s not quite out of control, but enough to tilt the allotment of funds towards the benefit of the rich and powerful. Cut welfare, schools, subsidies for the arts. Okay, call it Republicans versus Democrats, except that it doesn’t parse out exactly.

Originally the rule of law was meant to restrain dictators, like the English kings who had the power of life and death over their subjects, like today’s remnants of the Ottoman Empire. In “The Stoning of Soraya M.” part of the dynamic was that Iran had had a dictator, the Shah, a tolerant leader who was open to Western-style freedoms. In the name of political freedom, the forces of Ayatollah Khomeini took back the country, conflating religion with secular governance. Then vengeance overran justice and once again people pretended to be God. Even in the US we intend the “rule of law” to preserve us from chaos and violence, but it must be constantly monitored and restrained to keep the government from pressing us into invasive rules. (Somebody please tell the Supreme Court.)

Reformation can finally be triggered when people are strangled by laws with disproportionate punishments. The US is going broke by incarcerating SEVEN TO TEN times more of its citizens than any other country. (Can that be true? A factoid from the radio.) Lives are destroyed. Families are broken. Commerce suffers.

In both Iran and the US the most inflammatory laws are about sex. The pill, the cost of raising children, the genome, fertility strategies, and so on have made many former rules simply obsolete. Can the 140 children of a sperm donor inherit his estate when he is already married? Bureaucratic structures like marriage are under attack from two directions. People ignore marriage by just living together, snubbing the rules as trivial and confining, with the result of confusing responsibility for finances, children, and inheritance. But on the other hand people who see marriage in the more romantic communitas sense of love and sharing want it certified for their own previously excluded kind. Such turmoil is the perfect opening for abuse. We are told that even in America today Sharia law is causing the death of women by the hands of their own family.

Our society is addressing the communitas forces through stories like this movie, even as the legislatures pass ever more complex laws, adding to the mess until we end up with something like our strangled fat tax code. The lack of realistic solutions prompts guerrilla activism: Occupy, street marches, wikileaks. Government pushbacks come in the name of law and order: the cops with pepper spray, fire hoses and truncheons. Our only hope seems to be that somehow the striving forces will produce a dialectic solution we can live with. But when?

Surely we could work out something better than trying to stone each other to death with words. The operant myth here might be the one about the hero who slew a dragon and sowed the land with its teeth. (Missile silos fill the earth around here.) They germinated and grew into ranks of soldiers. Someone threw a stone into the midst of them. The man who was struck by it turned on the next man and soon the whole company was killing each other until there was no one left. Sound like a presidential primary? Didn't Santorum just take a hit for religious conservatism?

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