Stay in Love With God – Wesley, Haiti, and the Withered Hand

In 1991, the United States Central Intelligence Agency worked behind the scenes with members of a mafia-like organization in Haiti called the FRAPH to organize a coup d’etat against the popularly-elected government of Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The President of the United States at the time was George Herbert Walker Bush, père of the recently retired. At that time, I was working as a military adviser to a Peruvian infantry battalion that was attacking Indians and political dissidents around Huaichipa.

In 1994, as the operations chief for a Special Forces A-Detachment of nine men, I went to Haiti as part of a US invasion force, ostensibly to restore President Aristide to his rightful office and to end the bloody regime of Raul Cedras, the U.S. client who had become the de facto head of state after the 1991 coup.

Between the lines of the carefully crafted double-speak of the Department of Defense – a dialect I understood very well after 15 years in Special Operations – we understood that this benevolence was a mask for the very real concern that the Cedras regime’s depredations were about to cause a popular uprising in Haiti that would escape the control of the U.S. State Department. The return of the legitimately-elected Aristide – a key demand being made by popular movements there – was being choreographed to tamp down popular ire, at the same time ensure that Aristide was hemmed in by the United States in such a way that he could not pursue his original agenda of national self-determination for Haiti.

This is, of course, a much longer story, about which I have written volumes over the years, including a memoir of my participation in the 1994 invasion, entitled Hideous Dream – A Soldier’s Memoir of the Invasion of Haiti (Soft Skull Press, 2000).

The title of that memoir comes from Brutus’ line in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (2.1.63-69):

Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma or a hideous dream;
The genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council, and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.

This line is the interior monologue of a man about to step past the point of no return in a dangerous political act – the assassination of a head of state, and his former ally. Brutus compares his mental state – the inescapable anxiety of a dangerous act to which one has committed – to the anarchy of a political state suffering an insurrection. The irony, of course, is equally inescapable.

Oddly enough, I found myself in a similar position while in Haiti during the 1994 invasion, ergo the title of the book.

At the end of a military career that started in Vietnam in 1970, I had been exposed to enough of my country’s foreign policy as an insider to know how perfectly cynical it was, and I was in a state of moral turmoil about my own participation in this history. This included fairly extensive experience in the Reagan-Bush-era predations against Latin America.

In the sequence of activity that unfolded during the Haiti invasion, and in the chaos of poor planning by the task force that oversaw the invasion, I found myself for almost three months with an unprecedented degree of autonomy to take decisions on my own. The intersection of this autonomy with my destabilizing personal and moral fault lines created the conditions for a series of actions that I could be fairly sure – on my more rational days there – would lead to a collision with my own chain of command.

I began to intentionally-interpret the intentionally-vague language of our mission statement – to create stability – in a very specific way that I knew very well was inconsistent with the between-the-lines meanings of my government. I bent a Special Forces A-Detachment to my imperfect understanding of the popular will of the Haitian poor.

The outcome is not what I’m getting around on here, but for the record, my efforts were rewarded with summary relief from my position of authority and came within a whisker of landing me in a federal penitentiary.

One of the points I am sneaking up on is a living image, for my fellow first-worlders, of what Haiti was like.

That is, what Haitians were like, are like, as a peasant society, under the debilitating parasitic pressure of co-located urbanization resulting from extra-territorial, imperial domination. That’s a mouthful, but it’s a summary with an analogy that we’ll get to by-and-by.

Let’s start with what’s different in the daily lives of Haitians – different, that is, from what we generally know.

Daily life is daily. What I mean is, the direct struggle for survival for the majority of the population is renewed each morning with an immediate concern for water and food.

Kinship bonds are critical in this day-to-day struggle. Family ties are extended and Byzantine to the unpracticed foreign eye.

There is little of what we call infrastructure – vehicular roads (the overwhelming majority has no gas-powered transport), electricity, potable or even running water, sewage systems, medical facilities, etc.

The main construction method for houses is called the kay-pay (grass house), a method of interlaced bamboo or wood, plastered in with mud, and roofed with long-grass. People are packed into these houses at night, where they sleep on woven reed mats. Bathing is accomplished with a bucket and cup. Food is prepared – with rice and beans as staples – on fires, fueled by deadfall in the countryside, and by more energy-consumptive (and deforesting) charcoal in the city slums. Babies remain at the breast as long as possible.

Chickens, goats, pigs, bony horses, oxen and cows, donkeys and mules, and semi-feral dogs are ubiquitous.

The best land is used for export crops to get dollars to service US-based debts; and though Haiti could easily be self-supporting, they are forced to rely on expensive goods – including food – often produced in the United States.

People are thin, a consequence of strenuous life, little food, and gastrointestinal parasites, the latter responsible for the pot-bellies on most of the otherwise skinny children, many naked until they are 8-10-years old.

People are also very talkative, loud, and sometimes verbally combative.

Gossip is a major pastime, and the means of distributive communication. Perhaps the two most important means of general information sharing are street markets and riversides. Washing clothes at the riversides is a culture of women, who see this activity as far more than utilitarian. As children play in and around the water, this is where women talk with each other, take off their shirts to cool down, and to rage and laugh together about life.

Haitians are largely poor and illiterate, but their knowledge of their environment – physical and cultural – is manifold and deep. During my 21 different visits to Haiti (I returned often after I left the military), my own ineptitude at pretty much everything was always a source of amusement – especially to women and children. They are illiterate for the most part; but they are far from stupid.

Now with this snapshot as a backdrop, I want to describe a couple of incidents during the invasion.

Not long after we arrived, a handful of teams was sent to the port city of Gonaives. When I arrived on the second lift of helicopters, a crowd of easily 10,000 people had pressed in from all sides, and our teams were incapable of traveling the 200-or-so meters to the police caserne where we were to encamp. The crowd was curious and emotional, sometimes breaking into spontaneous political songs with African rhythms that set the place dancing.

Desame lame nou mande nou mande desame lame (Disarm the army, we demand. I can still hear it.)

The crowd had smeared its face with lemon juice from local trees to kill the sting of the teargas that the Haitian police had used on them moments before our arrival, and the helicopter blade wash had blown dust onto the lemoned faces, which stuck, making it appear that everyone had painted their faces pale gray – like a strange scene from a bad imperial film. Our teams were suddenly and fully occupied holding crowds back enough to maintain the circle of space necessary to land our supply helicopters.

Now inside this circle were a dozen or so of the hated Haitian FAdH (Force Armee dHaiti, police), the very ones who had teargassed the crowd, and – as we would learn – who had been beating the population down throughout the last three years of the Cedras regime, including a massacre in the nearby slum of Raboteau. The FAdH carried four-foot wooden batons, thick as the neck on a baseball bat. I had seen the film footage, before we left Port-au-Prince, of FAdH troops wading into civilian assemblies with these batons and mercilessly beating men, women, and children.

On an impulse, while I was part of the perimeter of US troops holding the landing zone, I stepped over to one of the FAdH, snatched the baton out of his hand, and threw it on the ground, precipitating one of the most memorable and startling experiences of my entire life.

With that little action, the collective voice of the crowd exploded with an expression of approval for my action and high-pressure rage against the FAdH, and the crowd spilled past our perimeter, advancing almost instantaneously to within few feet of the now terrified FAdH soldier. Thirty or so men were now pushing back against an agitated mass of ten thousand, and had we not barely contained this, the FAdH soldier’s body would have been distributed amongst that mass in an orgy of longstanding hurt, humiliation, and vengeance.

What was also revealed by this action and reaction was that our puny numbers with our guns were protected more than anything else by psychological barriers a truth that is a source of anxiety to ruling classes everywhere and at all times.

While barely contained in that instance, this incident made me a kind of popular hero among the Haitians, and that friendly disposition followed me to Fort Liberte in the Northeast, near the Dominican Republic, where I would spend the next three months.

I had seen with my own eyes what popular discontent in a peasant society looks like when it is let loose, and gained an idea of how deep the anger and resentment of systematic humiliation goes even when it is not manifest. It seethes under the surface, tamped down by the weapons of the authorities and the dependence on the system and its money, until an opening appears, whereupon the psychological barrier crumbles, and the rage erupts like a volcano.

When we finally got settled and the crowd went to bed that night, a U.S. officer rebuked me, calling my action a stupid stunt. And I sensed that I had jumped off onto a dangerous path in demonstrating this solidarity with the Haitian crowd… a poor crowd, an uneducated crowd, the kind of crowd that all authorities find extremely frightening and dangerous. My own authorities included.

I had a real sense now of that anxiety described by Brutus, of preparing to enter the unknown yet inexorable consequences of that “first motion” in an insurrection. And what would put me in the spotlight – so to speak – was the fact that I was using large assemblies of the unwashed – mobs, to the authorities – to do what I was doing.

I did so again and again over the next few weeks, first in Ouanaminthe, a border town, and finally in Fort Liberte; and I had learned to manage crowds – manipulate them even which gave me little pause, even as they continued to scare the crap out of Haitian policemen and rich people.

I was charged with creating and maintaining stability, and with nine people left by the time we arrived in Fort Liberte, my calculation was that we couldn’t control a million people without the most draconian methods or without re-arming and re-empowering the hated FAdH… unless we simply put the majority on our side. That majority was overwhelmingly the Lavalas movement of Father Aristide.

Not to be disingenuous, I was also already in a state of insurrection, because I was refusing to read between the lines. When the task force commanders dictated that we should re-arm the remaining FAdH and put them back in their casernes and on the street, I gave them their weapons, but refused to give them ammunition and threatened them with dire consequences if they so much as looked cross-eyed at anyone without clearing it through us. The FAdH in Fort Liberte then spent three months playing dominoes under a big shade tree.

I’ll only burden the reader with one other description of an event there, then I will get to the main point – which is a report on my attendance for a bible study last week (January 19-23, 2009) at the Bartimaeus Institute in Oak View, California.

After arriving in Fort Liberte, and summarily arresting the chief Cedras thugs in town, as well as the former ambassador to France under Francois Duvalier (for which I was later reprimanded), I had made contact with the partisans of Aristide – organized loosely as the Comite du Lavalas – and informed them that I would hold a public meeting with them, with the de facto (Cedras) local officials, and with the FAdH commander, at the small public library (not what you might imagine, but a large two-room cinder block facility with a couple dozen books).

In that meeting, we would hear all the grievances from popular representatives against the de facto officials and their bullies, and we would then announce the reinstatement of Aristide-era officials, including the mayor, a woman with whom I would become close friends, named Adele Mondestin.

This announcement was met with trepidation by the de facto officials and their allies, and with skepticism and not a little fear by everyone else – so accustomed had they become to the power of the de facto regime and the well-placed mistrust of any representative of the U.S. government… which I was. On this account, in a town of perhaps 2,000 souls, about 3,000 jammed up against the library on the appointed day to push and shove for a view and a listen through the open-air windows of the cinder-block building.

We had to fight our way through, two of us from the team, Adele and her cohort, the FAdH commander, and several anti-Aristide representatives who were selected by a process that remains opaque to me to this day.

The room, of course, was packed, also using a protocol that I left to Adele and those who understood the social hieroglyphics of Haiti.

The temperature, as it is every day in Fort Liberte, was in the 90s. The mass of bodies pressed in and cut off the ventilation. The air was still and stifling inside. All of us stank, me in particular because I was wearing a full uniform with all my “battle-rattle,” and sweating as only a blan can sweat in the tropics. The chatter of the mass was a kind of constant din, and we had to interrupt the proceedings again and again to temporarily quiet the rowdy onlookers. The FAdH commander, an overfed crook named Pierre Ulrich, had the aspect of a man about to be led to the electric chair as he surveyed the hostile sea of aggrieved faces now looking him smack in the eye.

Picture this, and you begin to appreciate how dangerous anyone can be who can mobilize a crowd of the oppressed.

This had been Aristide’s unforgivable sin, this ability to connect with the Haitian poor, and no policy concession would ever divest him of that sin. That’s why, after he won another fair election, he was again deposed in a coup blatantly organized by the U.S. in 2004, orchestrated for the Haitian independence bicentennial as a special form of humiliation, with Colin Powell presiding over the process. (I was there until the day before the coup, and I can report that every mainstream media outlet in the U.S. was knowingly complicit in this coup… another story.)

Returning to the library meeting, when we concluded the grievance session – a process that ground on for hours, punctuated by raucous affirmation from the entire crowd inside and out – I announced, like a little Caesar from the north, that heretofore the officials of the Aristide government were to resume all duties, and that any interference from the old armed actors, both FAdH and FRAPH (a right-wing death squad network, in the pay of the CIA) as well as a network of thugs called attaches, would be met with ominous consequences from my detachment and implicitly by the entire task force as far as the Haitians there knew.

Of course, that implication was a lie, and I was the liar.

The response to this announcement was riotous and celebratory; and it touched off three consecutive days of demonstrations, street theater, music, dancing, drinking, and satirical provocation against the former oppressors, who cowered in the caserne as my own team guarded them by sittingon the front porch of the caserne to be entertained by the parade of festivities.

For that time, at least, the old order had fallen. And my gut told me that I was further and further out on a limb.

Eventually, my team rebelled against my agenda, the task force got wind of my foolishness, and I was paid a surprise visit by a Humvee one morning that packed me off as a detainee in something called an Article 15-6 investigation, where among other things, it was suggested that I had become “seditious.”

* * *

Back to the present…

For some time over the last year, Steve Taylor, Director of Mission for the North Carolina United Methodist Conference, had been insisting that I attend the Bartimaeus Institute – a biblical study forum under the auspices of Bartimeaus Cooperative Ministries in Oak View, California.

I will say this now, and with emphasis, I recommend this institute for anyone and everyone who can go; and I suggest that every congregation routinely solicit scholarships to fund these trips to bring Bartimaeus’ special insights back into our congregations.

The intellectual parent of Bartimaeus is theologian Ched Myers, who I had seen speak here in Durham less than three years ago at the Hayti Heritage Center – an African American cultural center. I still identified as a secular activist then, and my main efforts were then directed against the bloody occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan by U.S. armed forces.

Ched did a riff on Luke 7:36-50, the story of Jesus having his feet wept upon and kissed by a woman described as “a sinner,” much to the chagrin of his hosts and even his disciples. In this riff, Ched did what the original authors of the Gospels meant to have done: He narrated the story aloud, with the proper dramatic inflections and gestures to bring the story to life; and he contextualized the story with some socio-economic background history.

I had been earnestly studying feminism in order to write my third book, Sex War, a study of gender and militarism, and I was thoroughly taken aback by the radical feminist content of this Bible story, given the social conditions that prevailed with regard to gender in 1st Century Palestine.

In the crux of the story, which we have generally and mistakenly taken to be simply at attention-getting clause, Jesus asks those around him, “Do you see this woman?”

Do you see this woman?

I had been writing for the last two years about the invisibility of The Inconvenient Other in systems of social domination, and here was that entire theme packed into a single question… 2,000 years ago, by a man who would eventually be executed for his ability to stir up crowds. And I had walked through life, including an activist’s life dedicated to fighting oppression, with Bibles lying all around me unread.

That turned out to be one of the key moments that would lead me to my own baptism on Easter Day 2008. I didn’t know it at the time, but there is a name for this kind of reading of the Scriptures: biblical animation.

So now, at last, let me get to the experience at Bartimaeus and what it has to do with my title, which includes the surname of John Wesley, the founding parent of Methodism. Wesley’s way of living has been condensed in a little booklet by Bishop Reuben Job, called Three Simple Rules – A Wesleyan Way of Living, which is widely circulated among Methodists. Those three rules are: Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God.

And ever since I read that little pamphlet, I had found the first two fairly easy to understand, and the last one very difficult. Because God is incomprehensible to me, not simply because I am a personhood formed within skeptical modernism, but because God doesn’t show her face. (In the Aramaic and even in the Muslim appellation Allah, the term that has been rendered as Father for us is actually a non-gendered noun that translates very roughly to the origin, or the “womb” of the universe.) When even a scientist like Stephen Hawking says that the origin of the origin, the precursor to the “singularity” of modern cosmology, is the point at which all theories collapse, and that if we could know that, only then would we “see the mind of God,” then how is an ex-soldier supposed to understand, much less “love,” God?

This is really a testimony to how obtuse I can be; and I’ll explain why.

When we were together, 13 of us, at the Bartimaeus Institute, Ched facilitated an acting class for the translation of the story of Jesus and the man with the withered hand.

For two days, we had poured over the similarities between the ministry of Jesus and the non-violent ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King – not for the apotheosis of King, but as a living and recent example of discipleship. And we had compared the circumstances of the Judeans under Rome with African Americans under legal apartheid in the U.S. South. We had been introduced to maps and pictures and descriptions of the social system into which Jesus was born, in order to contextualize the Gospel of Mark – our subject of study.

As we went along, I came to think of Herod Antipas as Cedras, because even more than the segregated South, the culture of 1st Century Palestine was a peasant culture deformed and oppressed by an imperial project, and overseen by a colonial surrogate ruler. Palestine was a dusty, broken place populated by the same kinds of animals, the same kinds of houses, the same pot-bellied, naked babies, the same kind of people as Haiti – with the same kind of unnamed but explosive discontent gnawing at their guts alongside the parasites.

Apocalypse Now small group – Part Two – 28 Days Later

Apocalypse Now Small Group
For Lent — from February 25 (Ash Wednesday) to April 11 (Easter is the 12th)
All Saints United Methodist Church


Apocalypse Now Links:
Part One – Volcano
Part Two – 28 Days Later
Part Three – Children of Men
Part Four – The War of the Lamb
Part Five – Revelation

Part Two 28 Days Later

Showing at the All Saints UMC Ministry Center, 7 PM, Friday, March 6
CHANGE – THE FILM WILL BE SHOWN AT STEPHANIE AND JEFF NELSONS HOUSE -contact me at [email protected] for directions

Directed by Danny Boyle
Produced by Andrew Macdonald
Written by Alex Garland
Starring Cillian Murphy (Jim), Naomie Harris (Selena), Megan Burns (Hannah), Christopher Eccleston (Major Henry West), and Brendan Gleeson (Frank)

[All quotes and images are employed under Title 17, “Fair Use” law, and no portion of this study is for profit.]

Notes on 28 Days Later

Note (1)

Something to think about

History is a process. One of the theologians we are using to study apocalyptic stories is John Howard Yoder.

The usual way we think of history is as a chronolog of facts and dates and names. So when we hear the word history in this section or later, we need to bear in mind that we are not talking about history in the usual way, but in the same way as John Howard Yoder; because that is how the word is being used here.

Yoder in the same way as many theologians sees history as the actual, located process of human existence, a process with which theology must struggle. The idea that human society has the freedom to sin (and its corresponding burden of responsibility) is not compatible with the idea that God moves us around like were a puppet show.

Yet theologians like Yoder confident that God didnt write us like a stage play continue to insist that the process of human history is inextricable from the cosmic direction leading to a final, great attractor telos is the Greek word. What Yoders point of view says about discipleship is that it is active, and that discipleship happens historically in identifiable and unique times and places and forms.

Think for a moment about time.

We need to get philosophical for a second.

We can think of it as an unraveling universe the terminal entropy idea. Or we can think of it in synonyms: past equals regrets, future equals anxieties. Or as emergent forms that enter and leave like ghosts leaving no visible footprints.

One way that we can try (a heuristic device, again) is to plot time along one horizontal line, and form intersecting at any point along that line. The historical process is such that at any intersection there was or is a total form for the known universe. As far as we know, every instant along this time line is absolutely unique; yet the present never leaps over the past into something New. We are creatively unique, yet we are also all vestiges of a specific, located history (a process that includes past and present).

Existence is the Now the totality of forms at the absolute present.

^ >>>>>>>> TIME >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

So time and history move together, and never apart. When people take a birds eye view of history as process they frequently find certain apparently stable forms that bind together chunks of time. We can identify something called the American Civil War. We have time brackets for something called The Enlightenment. Others will date something called the age of industrialism, the Han Dynasty and so forth.

If we think of history as traveling in a kind of trajectory, we can also identify certain periods wherein some dramatic change actually alters that historical trajectory. The inertia of chronological time and chronological history is knocked off course by these transformative interruptions of what we can call thanks to the Greeks again kairos time. Kairos time irrevocably bends the trajectory of history. Kairos is also called Gods time.

These kairos shifts were recorded by people in the time of John of Patmos as marking the beginnings and ends of ages. Telos is the unfathomably distant point to which all things are being drawn.

The telos is further down the road than a mere age. Yoder says that the church is to be a community apart, an exemplary community, and a teleological community. Our particular connection to all other kairos periods is through our story, a story in which we believe and a story that takes place in a particular time and place because it is the story of God crashing through infinity to become flesh.

In our own day, and in our own lives, we do not always record time chronologically. We record periods between events, whether it was while Grandpa was alive, or during this administration, or when we still had the kitchen yellow. This is closer to a kairos conception of time than a chronological one, because the events are more prominent than metered time.

In 28 Days Later, we reiterate that we are using the heuristic standpoint of the Ecology-Personhood-Culture Triangle. With the introduction of time as something to observe in unpacking these stories, we put that triad in motion. In discerning the historical process now (and by strong inference, in the past), we have to be aware of the ways in which the past was dramatically, almost inconceivably different. Then, and only then, we can begin to try and understand the how of that difference.

I have made many trips to Haiti. Anyone from the industrial metropolitan cultures of the US, Western Europe, and Japan that spends even a few days living with Haitian peasants, far from the road, has glimpsed the different-ness the asymmetry of historys contingent forms. We were together once (about 50 Haitian peasants and me), sharing the same actual social space. Yet, it constantly occurred to me as I looked around, our universes in personhood, the experience of being an embodied individual were very distant from one another in place and time. Their ecology, their culture, and the personhoods that derive from that ecology and culture, are not miniatures or embryos of us.

The modernist perception of historical time includes the myth of progress. This progress is seen as the telos of history (making it an idol!). Contained within this ideology of progress is the notion that Haitians or whomever are just backward, under-developed, a more adolescent form of the our very own very adult culture, inevitably and with proper instruction from we adults becoming like we are.

Not actually the case. Everything those Haitians do the day-to-day actions that make them who they are are completely different. Yet we co-exist in 2009 as part of the same Now. Not so the past. If we are to see into 1st Century Palestine, for example, we may have to find a Haiti now to remind us how far we live from the people we study in the past. Because both are peasant cultures. The ecology is different way different for us.

No particular central point here just placing a few landmarks for later.

Quote from Sondra Higgins Matthaei, author of Making Disciples – Faith Formation in the Wesleyan Tradition:

Christian identity and vocation are shaped not only by Gods work in us and participation in our faith community but also by our culture and the events in the world in which we live. We are Christian in a particular place and a particular time. The way we see ourselves as Christian is affected by our cultural inheritance, including family of origin, the region or country of our birth, racial or ethnic identity, gender, class, and age. We are affected by the events of the world in which we live, especially those events that raise questions about what it means to be faithful disciples.

This was true in 100 AD, too.


Note (2)

The opening scene of 28 Days Later is a montage of newsreels of the most horrific kind of mimetic violence. The newsreel montages of police riots, lynching, and other disturbingly realistic mayhem we discover are being broadcast on multiple television sets to captive chimps in some kind of lab the plot leads us to suspect a bioweapons lab. The chimps biochemical reactions to the mimetic-violence images is used somehow to create an actual virus, to be named simply Rage.

The virus will soon escape the lab as you have seen or will see where it spreads in seconds from person to person, placing them in a total and irreversible state of vicious schizoid aggression. The episodic (mimetic) violence that was being portrayed in the newsreels of mob violence directed at the laboratory chimpanzees is no longer transitory. Its a biological uber-bomb that hits humanity like a nuclear war.

28 Days Later is a quantum leap from Volcano, the idealized apocalyptic with the Hollywood conventions. 28 is a Girardian nightmare mimetic violence transformed into an unstoppable biological epidemic.

Rene Girard is a Catholic theologian who calls the spirit of the accuser in a lynch mob a Satanic spirit. But in this leap from mimesis to biological catastrophe, we only get our first glimpse of the Satanic in the fact that the lab exists at all that anyone would engineer such a thing as a lethal hyper-epidemic. Satanic in that such a real application of science would be an attempt to substitute our own sovereignty over that of God.

I think you can steer clear of most trouble by never (1) retaliating, (2) dominating, or (3) humiliating. The central message of the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth was peace. Peace requires more than chanting peace. It implies a lot of do-s and dont-s. The dont-s are a good way to start. They are not easy just because they are dont-s.

Apocalypse Now small group – Part One – Volcano

Part One Volcano
Showing at the All Saints UMC Ministry Center, 7 PM, Friday, February 27

As we enter into the season of Lent we are called to reflection, repentance, and [renunciation]. Lent is a time of preparation when we look beyond human frailty and the brokenness of the world to resurrection, hope, and new life. We are reminded that our faith does not rise and fall with the financial markets but resides in the enduring love of God who is present with us as we struggle and strive to love God and our neighbors. This Lent can be a time when we recommit to practice every day the Wesleyan values to do no harm, do good and stay in love with God.

-Council of Bishops, UMC

Reflect – pay attention and think
Repent – turn around (from Jerusalem – the city – back into the wilderness)
Renounce – compulsions, empty pleasures, and addictions; renunciation demonstrates that you are free

[All quotes and images are employed under Title 17, Fair Use law, and no portion of this study is for profit.]

REQUEST FOR PARTICIPANTS – You decide whether you want to watch the movie first, then review one, some, or all of the Notes; or whether you want to review Notes then watch the movie afterward. Then share a bit about whether and how the order of viewing and reading might differ.

Notes on Volcano

Note (1)

The idea for viewing Volcano, which is neither the worst nor best of the genre, came about because it placed such emphasis on Los Angeles as its setting. Several years ago, I picked up a copy of Mike Davis superlative book Ecology of Fear Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster. This book comes with a strong endorsement for both content and style. Peculiar at first, the book is a mesmerizing page-turner of revelation about the reality and the myths of the effects of urbanization (an ecology) on culture and personhood.

Note within a note: Though Davis and others (like Matthew Lassiter, who wrote about Southern suburbanization, another facilitator-recommended book, The Silent Majority), would call themselves radical urban theorists (RUT), their actual research and publications place them in a more prophetic role in society today.

(A must-read for anyone who lives in the suburbs and wants to know how we got here.)

Reviewer Walter Kern wrote of Davis book,

Davis sixth chapter The Literary Destruction of Los Angeles, explores LAs destruction in novels and film by hordes, nukes, quakes, cults, monsters, bombs, pollution, gangs, terrorism, floods, plagues, riots, aliens, volcanoes, sandstorms, mudslides, freeways, distopias, and more (pp. 280-281). I took the significance of Davis account this way: the fiction is an obsessive exploration of unconfronted dangers in fantastic terms, and it perhaps reflects a desire to break through the denial locking LA in a system of doom.

Here is a key point about many extremity stories; they are a public imagination of breaking out of inertia inertia experienced as a system of doom.


Note (2)

From: A Dictionary of Sociology |
Date: 1998 |
© A Dictionary of Sociology 1998,

originally published by Oxford University Press 1998.

heuristic device Any procedure which involves the use of an artificial construct to assist in the exploration of social phenomena. It usually involves assumptions derived from extant empirical research. For example, ideal types have been used as a way of setting out the defining characteristics of a social phenomenon, so that its salient features might be stated as clearly and explicitly as possible. A heuristic device is, then, a form of preliminary analysis. Such devices have proved especially useful in studies of social change, by defining bench-marks, around which variation and differences can then be situated. In this context, a heuristic device is usually employed for analytical clarity, although it can also have explanatory value as a model.

Using films, readings, and cultural criticism to study social phenomena is employing them as heuristic devices.


Note (3)

Volcano is a Hollywood production. It follows Hollywood formulas. Its story contains a handful of pretty standard film conventions. It idealizes many aspects of reality, and it reproduces idealized archetypes, characters polished and idealized to give us some recognizable essence as viewers and participants in the film.


Note (4)

Hollywood produces films that are generalized cultural commodities. Cultural because they are expressions of our social life, generalized because they are now almost universally available in American society, and commodities because the primary motive for making them is to accumulate monetary wealth.

(This does not mean that these films are reducible to any one of these characteristics, or that there are not elements of the films that have to be described independently of these three categories this is a heuristic breakdown.)

The scale of the industry which makes these cultural commodities has made it into an effective transmission belt of social values. Not necessarily an originator of values, but certainly a transmission belt. (There is, however, a value-degradation inhering in the production of film-as-commodity. Like the competition to produce junk food for kids, the competition at the heart of market relations creates an arms race of over-stimulation and sensationalism that makes jaded emotional junkies of us consumers.)

What differentiates the disaster or apocalyptic genre(s) of film from other films is the condition of extremity that is the setting and background.

So in addition to, and often mixed with, the transmission of social values which may be diverse and situational, there is a circumstance that forces greater moral questions to the forefront of the story, often presented as ethical dilemmas confronting the protagonist(s).


Note (5)

Before the film begins, there is the well-known 20th Century Fox intro, with the skylights and triumphal trumpets. Can we think about these recognizable corporate logos in any way as idols? If yes, then what does that mean for us, as church? How do we define idolatry?


Note (6)

Background music and emotional intelligence.

Linda Kintz wrote a book called Between Jesus and the Market – The Emotions that Matter in Right-Wing America. Kintz is an alumnus, that is, from a right-wing evangelical (dispensationalist) family of origin; and she is not interested in demonizing the right, but in understanding people with whom she still retains powerful attachments of love.

She speaks of an emotional (or affective) intelligence that is inextricable from other dimensions of intelligence, of an enculturated emotional response what she calls resonance that undergirds an elaborate, emotionally-resonant belief system that might be visualized as a closed set of concentric circles stacked one on top of the other and ascending heavenward: God, property, womb, family, church, free market, nation, global mission, God.

Intelligence recognizes; and emotional intelligence recognizes patterns of thinking because a pattern of thinking is simultaneously associated with a pattern of experiencing, or feeling.

Our affective intelligence operates, even in our most instrumental and impersonal relations, in the same way background music operates in a film. Background music cues us on how we are to participate, as a member of the audience. Background music mobilizes a targeted feeling. It helps us know how to behave (even if it is our psychic behavior as viewer-participants). The emotional resonance of our own beliefs, in a similar way also cues us how to behave.

An experiment: Watch one scene from Volcano, whichever whole scene. When youve finished, switch to English subtitiles and mute the sound. Watch the same scene again. Youre still getting all the information, but the absence of the background music that seems in the background when we watch uncritically is dramatically apparent, and even felt as a minor kind of loss.

Resonance leads us places; so wed be well advised to investigate to whose tuning fork we are responding.


Note (7)

During the opening scenes of Volcano, there is a revealing series of social conflicts represented. [Think again of revealing revelation as a process of unmasking.] In the business, these are called, oddly enough, reveal scenes.

There is protagonist Mike Roarks marital conflict; he is separated from his teenage daughters mother.

There is racial conflict in the confrontation between the young Black man who is seeking assistance for his neighborhood and a white policeman.

There is class conflict depicted in the public transportation demonstration and counter-demonstration, where Norman Calder (played by John Corbett), a wealthy financial speculator, confronts a Latina maid over the proposed route of a commuter train. Further along, Norman abandons his wife, the higher-minded emergency room physician who refuses to submit to Normans directive: I dont want my wife treating gunshot wounds. I want her treating tennis elbow.

There is even gender conflict, though they softballed it more than the other social contradictions by having it played off with stoic humor by female protagonist, Amy Barnes, the government geologist, played by Anne Heche. Tommy Lee Jones Mike takes a very mildly (and therefore easily forgivable) macho tone with Barnes in their second encounter. (More on gender further along)

The almost bulleted precision of these conflicts obviously part of a writers checklist of social contradiction present this list of conflicts as constitutive of a general state of conflict, perceived as impending, like doom. This is an aspect of extremity used in apocalyptic (revelatory) literature and film, extremity to reveal (unmask) the characters true selves and the correct answers to the terrifying moral questions. The other aspect is for the condition of extremity to be understood as necessary to break up the doom of inertia moral sloth atomization oppression sin.

The serial presentation of these conflicts in the set-up phase of the film is foreshadowing the kairos moment that is about to interrupt this condition.

We know that; because weve seen many movies before. Someone with a different history in a different place, untrained as a participant in the movie experience, might not recognize all the ideas that we recognize in common, nor the emotional reactions to those ideas. We have all, as persons, learned in our interaction with culture and our own ecology, to experience the same resonance in reply to the same ideas.


Note (8)

Apocalypse is Greek for revelation.

One of the most memorable and culturally inscribed reveal scenes in film for us is in The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothys dog, Toto, sniffs out the pathetic man behind the machine that was The Great Oz.

In Revelation we will see a similar reference to actual idol-machines used by the Romans in the time of John of Patmos.

The process of revealing is the process of unmasking, unveiling. Every society we know uses stories to reveal how we are supposed to be. The stories themselves can be radically different, because stories are part of culture, and culture is determinative of and determined by personhood and our surroundings (ecology). Thats why local stories have such richness of detail; because a de-localized (cosmopolitan) ecology is abstract and so personhood is abstracted, as well as the culture being homogenized.

Personhood, ecology, culture.

Stories are a universal cultural production, even though there is wide difference between stories. Stories are universal in spite of the fact that some stories are organic and some are commodities. The stories you tell about something that happened within the family, like the stories told at family reunions, funerals, and weddings, are stories told inside the family. These stories are never conceived of as anything except the preservation of the story itself. Thats an organic story. When a story is a means to make money, then that story is being commoditized. A commodity is a thing-for-sale. The objective of the commodity is not what the commodity does thats only an intermediate concern for the producer its that the commodity will produce a return on a monetary investment.

No matter whether some stories are organic, some are commoditized, and many are both or somewhere in between, the central fact remains that stories are part of the formative process (of personhood, culture, and ecology) in every society. Many stories may be wrong; and many may even be stupid; but the story-itself is powerful because it has this proven formative ability.

Volcano is a Hollywood commodity. A car is a commodity, too; but that doesnt mean that I dont use my own car for what it does transport me to places way beyond my walking ability at outrageous speed. This movie is also a story that does what stories do, like a car does what a car does. This story tells us how to be when we participate as a non-critical audience. To the critical viewer, however, the story tells us a good deal about who we think we are.

The story we live into as followers of Jesus is one of selflessness, sacrifice, and forgiveness.

The story in a television ad for womens depilatories is that you are unhappy, but that with the acquisition of this product you can make yourself more valuable and without it, you will continue to be un-valuable.

Each of these stories tells us how to be.


Note (9)

The story presented in Volcano, in a very contradictory way, contains strong elements of a specifically Biblical understanding of the world.

The formative story for the Hebrews was captivity. The unique thing about the story in that place and time was that the captives themselves, and not the conquerers, were the protagonists of the story.

This begins what culminates with the Incarnation the preferential option for the social underdog. With the primitive church, this anti-oppression bias was potently combined with a doctrine of spiritual equality (between master-slave, man-woman, Jew-Gentile).

In Volcano, this essentially Christian message of spiritual equality (though few people understand or acknowledge it) is mixed in with a fair amount of modernism (what Illich calls perverted Christianity) and a lot of patriarchal archetypes. The important thing to understand, however, is that the elements of selflessness, sacrifice, and forgiveness are not completely effaced in Christianitys encounter with modernism.

This core belief in redemption through love however it has been tortured in the service of agendas has shown a remarkable resilience, even though epochs of absolute horror.

In this film, the savior is not the shabby little shaman from Nazareth with the burning empathy for everyone he met. The savior in Volcano is a government man; and his disciples are bureaucrats and technocrats, along with uniformed armed services.

The gospels spell out the exact opposite message that the powers have been supplanted by the Kingdom of God, in cross and resurrection. Jesus of Nazareth was executed precisely because he refused to acknowledge the sovereignty of the principalities and powers. His was a political not a religious crime. But solely taking Volcano to task is inadequate. What can we find of the good? There is another grain of Christian sensibility (service) even in the disingenuous language about politics and government, called public service.

One apocalyptic theme in this film is the good of human solidarity. Another well-known theme within that is the theme of money becoming useless or meaningless. The unhesitating plot line crushes cars and explodes superstores in order to save a living humanity.

Remember the scene where the little boy, ash-stained in the opening scene of the films denouement. He looks for his mother among the similarly ash-stained and scrupulously diverse rescue workers. Look, he says, pointing. They all look the same. This highly manipulative scene is the commoditization process tapping into a shared and resonant belief in the good of human solidarity, and in equality before God of every human being spiritual equality

once a violently divisive claim, especially as it had to do with gender. The most emotionally resonant scenes in this film are all without exception about the transformative power of human love and solidarity.

That the film industry in the real world operates on an absolute opposite, Spencerian, dog-eat-dog ethos, is not an embarrassment to the storys representation of solidarity-as-good. It is a contradiction. It is an embarrassment to the industry establishment and dominant classes of people more generally in the face of an un-erasable Judeo-Christian communitarianism the vision of which industry producers must admit into the story to achieve an emotionally resonant participation by the buying audience. The audience is a consumer; but the audience is also still human, still in search of meaning, and that meaning abides in the holy spirit that we believe to be manifest in authentically caring human fellowship.

This little boys scene is a story convention with its origins in antiquity; but alongside these ancient beliefs in good, the films story gives us conventions that are only recent reflections of the human condition. That is, there are conventions that are reproducing beliefs that are distinctly modern.

Man-Conquering-Nature is a huge (MODERNIST) cultural thought-cluster in this film, of course;