Wednesday, December 31, 2014


Well, it’s on again. Sony Pictures, in an extraordinary display of courage and defiance of Kim Jong-un, leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, has decided to release the controversial comedy “The Interview.” The principle of free speech has been upheld by Hollywood’s finest. Pretty soon now and we’ll all be hearing the sound of cash registers, Sony’s corporate team, and an exclusive band of C-list actors singing, “Ka-ching….Ka-ching….Ka-ching!”

The film’s producers are telling us that the release of the film is all about upholding deeply held democratic principles and values. But, God forgive me, I’m having a very hard time believing that release of “The Interview” has much to do with principles or values. It’s all about “Ka-ching….Ka-ching….Ka-ching.” By the time all is said and done, “The Interview” will probably make more money than it ever would have if it had been released prior to Kim’s threats of Armageddon.

There’s a part of me that thinks I might enjoy it if I were to see it. I love comedy¸ particularly slapstick. I love anything Laurel and Hardy ever did. I’ve seen Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First” many times and I laugh myself to tears every time I see it. But, my all-time favorite screen comedian is Charlie Chaplin. He was the master of masters.

I also love satire and parody. When it’s done right, it provokes thought and, hopefully, prompts the public to act. Chaplin’s 1940 film, “The Great Dictator,” was a masterpiece of the genre, possibly on a par with Jonathan Swift’s 18th century classic, “A Modest Proposal.” Chaplin’s genius was especially evident in the scene where Adenoid Hynkel (Adolf Hitler) cavorts around his office playing with a large world globe, occasionally kicking it gently with his feet, tapping it with his hands, and once bumping it with his buttocks. He’s so consumed that he even caresses it gently, like a mother would a child. By the time the scene was over, audiences around the 1940 world realized that Hynkel (Hitler) was a raving lunatic.

Unfortunately, as brilliant as Chaplin’s work was, it didn’t stop the carnage. Years after the war, Chaplin made a sad admission. He said that if he’d known what was happening in the death camps while he was making “The Great Dictator,” he would have scrapped the project. Chaplin never said why.

I guess some things just aren’t that funny. Nazi death camps weren’t funny in the 1940’s. Stalin’s gulags weren’t very amusing, either. While those involved in the production of “The Interview” might think the subject matter is funny, people who are unfortunate enough to live in North Korea don’t think life there is funny, nor do they find Kim Song-un very amusing.

It’s been reported through secret United Nations channels, that some North Korean mothers are being forced to drown their infant children to satisfy the demands of Kim. Men, women, and children are being systematically starved to death while Kim and his minions swill down close to a million dollars’ worth of Hennessy cognac every year. In February, 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Council published a lengthy report on human rights abuses in North Korea. Included in those abuses are:

“Confiscation and dispossession of food from those in need” (page 10)

“The police and security forces of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea systematically employ violence and punishments that amount to gross human rights violations in order to create a climate of fear that pre-empts any challenge to the current system” (page 11)

“As a matter of State policy, the authorities carry out executions, with or without trial, publicly or secretly” (page 12)

“Extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds” (page 14)

"Lengthy prison sentences for simply watching video recordings, dance, photos, books, or drawings that Kim deems to be “decadent, carnal, or foul” (page 59)

There’s very little about North Korea or Kim that’s funny, but there is one thing. Hollywood and Kim Song-un have a shared contempt for religion. The United Nations report quotes Kim as saying, “Religion is a kind of myth. Whether you believe Jesus or Buddha, it essentially believes a myth…. we cannot take religious people to the socialist society and religious people should die to cure their habit.”

Like Kim, Hollywood detests religion. In the 1991 film “At Play in the Fields of the Lord,” for example, one of the main characters let Hollywood’s philosophical cat out of the bag with this gem, recited by one of the main characters - “Jesus….Kisu…what’s the difference….it’s all hocus-pocus.”

It all goes to show that Tinseltown, geopolitics, entertainment, and lunatics can sometimes become strange bedfellows.

The international crisis appears to have passed. The cash registers are once again singing, “Ka-ching….Ka-ching….Ka-ching.”

Hopefully, this little kerfuffle has taught Sony and the rest of Hollywood a valuable lesson. Don’t provoke lunatics, especially if you don't want to wind up in their gunsights. Pick safer targets, like religion, instead.

Thursday, December 18, 2014


Christmas is near, although it seems a lot less like Christmas this year than I think it should be. It’s not that the external trappings aren’t familiar. The national Christmas tree has been lit. In Kansas City, the Plaza lighting ceremony has taken place. Here in Emporia, we’ve recently had our Christmas parade.

The trappings say peace, but events in our streets, in our neighborhoods, and on the international stage are telling us that violence is becoming the norm rather than the exception.

The trappings say good will, but the air is filled with unease and longing. People are looking for someone who will bring them peace and fill the longing in their souls. As it has always been, false messiahs of one sort or another have stepped into the gap. They seem omnipresent these days.  They declare that they are society’s wise and anointed. They claim, by virtue of their education or pedigree, that they, and they alone, are capable of knowing what is good for the uneducated, unenlightened masses. Some even believe they have a duty to deceive us¸ because we’re too ignorant or stupid to understand the “truth” they peddle. They promise us peace and liberation, but no matter what they do or say, they cannot deliver us peace, nor can they satisfy the longing in our souls for liberation. All they can give us a lethal dose of oppression.

The refrain is oh so tragically familiar, so appropriate for this season.

Two thousand years ago, Israel’s dreams and longings, which had been so long dormant, were beginning to stir. For nearly four hundred years, the once proud nation had been ravaged by one conqueror after another – the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. Hope had been all but extinguished. The warnings of Israel’s prophets had gone unheeded and hopelessness was now the people’s lot. As conquered people, their dreams and aspirations had to give way to the dreams and aspirations of their conquerors. No matter how enlightened the conquerors deemed themselves to be, the people of Israel felt oppressed. The Babylonian legal system couldn’t fill the people’s longing, nor could the efficiency of the Persian governmental system. Greek culture was no substitute for the glory days of David and Solomon. The Romans may have brought the Pax Romana with them, but it could not bring peace to the people’s souls.

The situation must have seemed hopeless, but, miraculously, hope persisted. It sprang up in the most unlikely places and it was revealed to the most unlikely people.

If someone had told most people back in those days that Bethlehem would host history’s most amazing event, they probably wouldn’t have believed their ears. The prophets may have presaged it all, but their words had been hidden by the years of silence. Bethlehem? It would have been like telling people that something amazing was going to happen in Lebo or Americus or Tonganoxie. After all, we know good and well that the important things only happen in Washington, D.C. or New York City. The event itself seemed to be by invitation only. Obscure players like Anna and Simeon were waiting in the wings for their glorious moment on stage. Out in the fields surrounding Bethlehem¸ angels proclaimed the good news to shepherds who were “tending their flocks” rather than to the connected and powerful of that time. It was like inviting long haul truckers rather than city commissioners, congressmen, senators, presidents, ambassadors, or policy experts of one stripe or another. The angels, by Divine appointment, knew the score. They knew the shepherds would rejoice. I suspect they also knew the powerful and connected would have felt threatened, as they probably would today.

A few dignitaries did manage to attend this wonderful event. We know them as the “Magi from the east.” How did these foreigners know where to go to find this new-born king? It’s written that they were guided by “his star.” And, how had the priests and teachers of the law missed what was happening? Could they have been too close to temporal power to see what was going on?

The Magi worshipped the child when they found him. King Herod, fearing for his throne, had children murdered in a failed attempt to eliminate him. About thirty years after his birth, the priests and teachers of the law had him crucified.

I doubt that things would change much if Jesus were to be born in our time. Long haul truckers and “foreigners” would worship him. The powerful and connected would try to do away with him.

In a week’s time many of us will be celebrating Jesus’ birth, remembering that he came to bring the world peace in a time that was every bit as chaotic as ours. We’ll be considering his humble advent and we’ll be looking forward to his second advent, the time when oppression will cease, peace will prevail, and the mouths of the so-called wise and powerful will be silenced.