liberation theology

Son of Man

‘Together we shall lead ourselves, whether it be to glory or destruction.’ – Jesus in Son of Man

I’ve been meaning to start posting again, so when I saw that Catholic Anarchy had a post about the upcoming US release of Son of Man (directed by Mark Dornford-May), it seemed like a good opportunity to start back up.  Father Lloyd Baugh, a Jesuit at the Gregorian, came to Durham this week to screen the film and give a paper comparing it to other Jesus films.  My brief review is going to contain spoilers, in a sense.  I mean, most people know how the story ends, but I’m going to talk about specific sequences contained in the film.

Son of Man is unique as far as Jesus films go (to my knowledge).  Jesus is black.  He is presented as an unambiguously political figure, but still performs miracles (so he’s not just a political figure).  The film chooses to merge biblical stories with African rituals.  Instead of the baptism of Christ, we see him go through an African ritual undergone by young men who are coming of age.  Basically, Son of Man is a Jesus film from the perspective of liberation theology presented in a fictionalized South African context.

The film’s merit is found in its representation of the Gospel stories.  That is, as a film, it is decent, but not spectacular.  It might have been confusing at points for those not familiar with these stories.  Occasionally the acting is a little forced.  The scene where Jesus calls the disciples contains freeze frames: we see the disciple or disciples, the frame freezes, turns sepia, and the disciple’s name appear in red.  The whole thing felt a bit Tarentino.  One redeeming element of the sequence, however, is the way it enabled the film to present female disciples: the traditional name is shown and we see the letters change to feminize the name (I think Phillip becomes Phillipa, Andrew becomes Andie, etc.).

These moments of aesthetic faltering, amazingly, don’t detract from the force of the movie.  The film opens with the temptation of Jesus in the desert, but then goes back to the Annunciation.  News casts show a war between the ruling party and an insurgency in the fictional region of South Africa, Judea.  The scene cuts to Mary hiding running from insurgent soldiers.  She hides in a classroom amongst the bodies of dead children.  It’s there that Gabriel comes to her.

Throughout the film, familiar stories are reinterpreted in the South African context:

– the Massacre of the Innocents is depicted as insurgent soldiers take the butts of their guns and bludgeon children to death (though this time Jesus refuses to flee)

– Jesus goes into the mines to call the disciples

– Judas is a former child soldier

– Jesus saves a prostitute who has been doused in gasoline.

– During the last supper, Jesus and the disciples share a communal pot, but say nothing to one another.  As the pot passes from one disciple to another, the scene is cut with still frames of murdered children.

– The Garden of Gethsemane becomes a little area off the side of the road.

The most interesting points, in my opinion, are found in three scenes:

(1) Jesus tells the disciples that they are going to bring change by organizing the people, but says they must proceed without violence.  He puts a bag on the table and the disciples place their guns in the bag.

(2) There is an amazing scene which plays off the story of Jesus healing the man who is lowered through the roof of a building.  The amazing part isn’t the miracle, though.  It is the speech that precedes the miracle.  Jesus pretty much gives a liberation theologians critique of imperialism, decrying trade zones, the deployment of aid, the corruption of government officials… I don’t remember the exact points made, but the scene is powerful.

(3) Finally, and most interesting, we have the death and resurrection (not really a scene, but rather a good chunk of the last third or so of the film).  Jesus is captured, taken to a shed and beaten to death.  They dump his body in the back of a truck, drive him into the desert, and bury him in a shallow grave.  The Centurion returns to the city and finds Mary at a political rally.  He tells her that they have killed Jesus and takes her to the grave.  She digs up the body and they take him back to the city.  There is a fantastic shot of the pieta, refigured as Mary sitting on a plastic chair in the back of a beat up truck (I tried to find a picture, but there doesn’t seem to be one available – personally, I think they should have used the image on posters for the film).  Mary ties Jesus’ dead body to the cross and people begin to gather and sing.  Soldiers order the rally to disperse and fire shots into Jesus’ body.  Some people flee, but Mary and the disciples resume their singing in defiance of the military.  We then see the empty grave of Jesus, followed by a shot of Jesus and the angels walking through the desert, presumably back to the city.

I find this presentation of Jesus’ death particularly interesting because the power of the resurrection isn’t presented as Jesus coming back to life (at least initially).  Rather it is found in the community that rises up after his death.  The tomb is empty because Mary, and then the disciples, refuse to accept Jesus’ death.  Resurrection and Pentecost are in a sense collapsed into a moment of action whereby a community is formed.  It all sounds a bit like Zizek, doesn’t it? (not to suggest that Zizek is the only one who says these kinds of things… he’s just the one I read)  Of course this is just my take on it.

There are lots of other interesting aspects of the film, most importantly the role of women, that deserve attention.  Hopefully, with the US release of the film, these other aspects will receive the attention they deserve.

The Last Few Weeks

The last month or so has been a bit crazy so I haven’t been doing much writing.  During that time I did attend two conferences that I mentioned on this blog: ‘Christian Social Teaching and the Politics of Money’ at the University of Nottingham, and ‘Film-Philosophy’ at the University of Dundee.

I don’t think it’s really necessary to go through the papers I heard at Nottingham.  On the whole, distributivism was the most heavily lauded approach (at least by conference organisers).  Like any conference, there were a few ok papers and a few papers that left me shaking my head.

There were a few tendencies, however, that I found either worrying, perplexing or both.  First, the conference was devoted to thinking about theological responses to a crisis that emerged out of European traditions regarding economics, government, and society.  Why then were all such responses limited to these same traditions.  Granted, there were papers presenting Jewish and Islamic perspectives on the issue, but the tenor of these papers was more comparative than challenging.  There was no suggestion that these traditions offer any real alternative to the Christian interpretation of recent events.  There was no discussion of liberation theology save for a few snide remarks about how the Pope’s recent encyclical reveals how the Vatican is really far more radical than the liberationists have ever been.  I found this stance to be entirely guilty of the kind of epistemological coloniality that I discussed in my post on the Latin American politics conference.  I’m not suggesting Latin American, Asian, African, or indigenous thinkers are inherently more adequate theorisers of religion, politics, and economics.  I just think if one is attempting to challenge the current state of North Atlantic political economy, perhaps looking outside that geography might be a good place to start.  I tried to make this point at the conference, but was never afforded the opportunity.

Second, and more related to distributivism in general, I was troubled by the way property figured into the various debates.  There’s a great scene in Citizen Kane when a drunk Jebedah accosts Kane, saying:

You talk about the people as though you owned them, as though they belong to you. Goodness. As long as I can remember, you’ve talked about giving the people their rights, as if you can make them a present of Liberty, as a reward for services rendered…Remember the working man?… You used to write an awful lot about the workingman…He’s turning into something called organized labor. You’re not going to like that one little bit when you find out it means that your workingman expects something is his right, not as your gift! Charlie, when your precious underprivileged really get together, oh boy! That’s going to add up to something bigger than your privileges!

The scene sums up my problem with any theory of political economy that does not challenge on the one hand, the ruling class’ claim to ownership of the means of production, and on the other, the very theories of property that legitimise these claims.  I think that these are basic starting points for considering Christian social teaching and the politics of money.

Finally, there seemed to be a lot of papers that presented the old ‘popular theory x + Jesus.’  The unanswered question in these papers is always ‘Why do we need Jesus? What does he add?’

A week later I attended the ‘Film-Philosophy’ conference at the University of Dundee.  In general the papers were solid, though many of them addressed issues that I have no interest in.

One paper that did touch on some points relevant to my research was Caroline Bainbridge’s keynote on feminist film.  She focused on the institutional hurdles facing female directors.  In a sense, my issue with this approach parallels my criticism of the conference on Christian social teaching.  The criticism fails to escape the boundaries of the debate organised by the dominant theory: namely, auteur theory.  Why single out female directors?  Why not include female script writers who, in both film and theatre, face significant obstacles?  Why not challenge the whole idea of auteur theory, which focuses on the power of the director in a manner consistent with masculinist understandings of hierarchy, rather than discussing the collective nature of the production of film?  Feminist theory that argues ‘women deserve the same recognition, status or success as men’ is always far less compelling than that which argues ‘feminism offers an alternative reading of economic, political, and social relations.’

Anyway, it was nice to have a week almost entirely devoted to academic work rather than usual work.