Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Hidden Figures: a social justice film review

ticket-1543115-640x480 Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 120 plus films later, here is the review for March 2017.

Hidden Figures
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

“Hidden Figures” offers important insights in how to fight for justice. The time is the 1960’s, the place is the South of the United States, the backdrop is the Cold War. “Hidden Figures” weaves together four stories, of three African-American women who help NASA in one race to space.

After a slow start, the movie hits the rocket burners, deserving Oscar nomination for Best Picture. With the race to space essential to US national identity, it is the mathematical brilliance of Katherine Johnson (played by Octavia Spencer) that will calculate the orbit of spacecraft Friendship 7. She will also re-confirm the mathematical figures for re-entry and touchdown that enable John Glenn (played by Glen Powell) to become the first American to orbit the earth. Such is the hidden skill that powered the American space race.

In the celebration of hidden talents, “Hidden Figures” also showcases the multiple ways by which oppressed minorities can stand for justice.

First, there is the public anger of Katherine Johnson. Publicly, powerfully, in front of her all white work colleagues, she names the reality of her lived workplace experience. She is direct, describing her mile long walk to a segregated bathroom. She is honest, exposing what is being hidden by the separate coffee machines. Katherine Johnson reminds us there are times for public anger.

Second, there are the skilful words of Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae). To train as an engineer, she needs changes in state law. She acts in ways polite and pragmatic, seeking a respectful leave of the court to remind the judge of his place in history. “Your honor, out of all the cases you gonna hear today, which one is gonna matter hundred years from now? Which one is gonna make you the first?” Mary Jackson reminds us there are times for skilful manouvering through individual and persuasive legal argument.

Third, there is the shrewd foresight of Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer). Aware of changing technology, she acquires from the library a book on how to programme the newly computer. Next she works with her colleagues, helping them upskill. Finally, she announces she will not offer her newly learnt and suddenly essential computer skills unless all her colleagues are employed with her. Dorothy Vaughan reminds us there are times for solidary, when sacrificial leaders act with shrewd foresight and then stand with and among those they lead.

Each of these women face injustice. Each find different ways to respond. Together they are a reminder of the diverse options available in the fight for justice.

Director Theodore Melfi skillfully weaves together these four stories of three women and one astronaut in the same workplace. Opening and closing scenes are essential. In the beginning, the three women are together, needing to overcome the obstacle of a broken-down car on the way to work at NASA.

In the end, the three women are apart. From different places they watch a single event, the return of John Glen to earth. The women have grown. Each one has have found unique ways to connect their inner courage with external action. Such is the power of “Hidden Figures.”

Posted by steve at 06:11 PM

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Religion and politics: Learning with Wiremu Tamihana

I’ve just had a piece published in SPANZ. In the midst of concern about how to do theology after Empire and be the church in violent and unstable times, there is much reference to theologians in Europe, like Bonhoeffer. Why not also look here in New Zealand and learn from indigenous people who in times past have confronted colonising power wielding military might?

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Religion and politics don’t mix. It’s like mixing ice cream and manure, says Tony Campolo.

Over the holidays I read The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800-2000 by Vincent O’Malley. It’s a brilliant book – meticulous in research, clear in argument, attractive in presentation. The fast facts are sobering.
• War in the Waikato brought more British troops to New Zealand than were available for the defence of England.
• WW1 killed around 1.7% of the NZ population. Yet in the Waikato War, 4% of Maori died, including alarmingly high numbers of Maori women and children.
• Some forty years after the war, 3,549 Maori remained landless through land confiscation.

The Great War for New Zealand documents how Maori mixed religion and politics. In 1861, faced with increased conflict and the settler lust for land, Waikato Maori were presented with an ultimatum: retain your land only as long as you are strong enough to keep it.

In response, Maori leader, Wiremu Tamihana pointed to the presence of kings in Russia, France and Tahiti. If these kings were not required to submit to Britain’s Queen, should Maori? Tamihana then turns to religion, noting the “only connexion with you is through Christ” and quoting Ephesians 2:13 (KJV), “In Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.”

Given this Scripture, Tamihana asks the British Crown to leave the Maori King and let the results “rest with our Maker.” For Tamihana, religion and politics clearly mix. Christ brings people together, God the Maker judges all leaders for the behaviours that result.

Tamihana clarifies his understanding of religion and politics in a later exchange. Placing two sticks in the ground he declared that one was the Maori King and the other the Governor. Across both he placed a third stick, representing the law of God and the Queen. Finally, he traced on the ground a circle around both sticks, [saying] ‘That circle is the Queen, the fence to protect them all’ (The Great War for New Zealand, 143). Again, we see the mixing of religion and politics. Again, God is the judge. This allows for differences, provides protection for all peoples and makes leaders accountable under God.

Reading Tamihana’s theology of religion and politics three things stand out.

First, the creative way in which religion and politics are mixed. Christians often turn to the kings of Israel, the two-sided coin in Matthew 22:15-22 or Romans 13:1-7. Tamihana’s use of Ephesians creatively points to ways that religion mixed with politics can preserve difference and ensure justice.

Second, the reading reversal. In Ephesians, those who are once far off are the Gentiles, whom God acts to redeem. For Tamihana, those who are once far off are the English, now “made nigh” by the blood of Christ. This connects Maori with Israel. It means those who arrive in New Zealand are brought by God. As such, their actions and ultimatums are judged by the character of Christ.

Third, the power of Scripture translated. Ephesians had been translated into Te Reo by 1835, the entire New Testament by 1837. Translation allows Maori to read Scripture for themselves. The result is Tamihana in 1861 challenging colonising behaviour from the Scriptures they have brought. Such is the power when people are encouraged to read for themselves in their own language.

As 2017 begins, our talkback is full of active discussion concerning race, identity and politics. In the months ahead, we face New Zealand elections, the reality of Brexit and a new President of the United States. Tamihana offers much wisdom. Religion and politics mix best when they appreciate difference, look to Christ in bridging between diverse groups and consider all peoples accountable to the character of Christ.

Posted by steve at 08:27 PM

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Letter to the editor March 31 2016

My recent letter to the editor of the Otago Daily Times has just been published! A little flag wave for justice. Ten days after submission, but still a point worth making.

The ODT (19 March) leads with the headline: “Camp site like ‘refugee camp.’” It quotes Brandon O’Callaghan comparing a Gibbston camping ground to a “Syrian refugee camp.”

The article mentions 200 people camping. The Za’atari refugee camp holds 83,000 refugees. The leading ODT photo shows twenty parked cars, with people relaxing on camping chairs. Syrian refugees walk, arriving at Za’atari desperate for food and water. 86% of Syrian refugees live below the poverty line, a far cry from the financial resources freedom campers require to navigate Aotearoa New Zealand.

In a short time, Dunedin City will welcome Syrian refugees. What will they make of Dunedin’s leading newspaper making such pronouncements about the realities they have experienced?

Freedom camping is a problem needing solving. Misleading headlines add more heat than light. Can I suggest the ODT do some fact checking in order to run headlines more accurate and compassionate.

Dr Stephen Taylor

Posted by steve at 03:05 PM

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Big Eyes: a theological reflection (on the power of fundamentalisms!)

Monthly I publish a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 90 plus films later, here is the review for May 2015, of Big Eyes.

Big Eyes

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