A ‘Precious’ film

I just came back from seeing the movie Precious and it is an absolute must see. Although it is dark and utterly draining, it is still a testimony to the power of the human soul that remains even in the most trying circumstances. It is a movie that in my view all Latter Day Saints and all professed Christians should see, but unfortunately too few will.

Of course, this film is rated R and the R rating is well deserved. It is a gritty and no holds barred look at a side of American life that we all too often choose to ignore. Dark and nearly unspeakable acts of human cruelty are shown and described. Language is foul and free with four letter words perhaps being the most common words uttered. Yet, this is reality for a sizeable number of Americans. This film does not glory in this terror but reviles it desperately hoping for a way for its characters to escape it.

 

The film is set in Harlem in 1987 and tells the story of Claireece “Precious” Jones an obese impoverished illiterate African American teenager born into the most deplorable situation possible. At age sixteen, she is pregnant with her second child that we quickly find out is the result of her father’s repeated raping her. Her mother is a welfare queen and an absolutely intricate and fascinating monster of a human being. Precious is constantly belittled, beaten and brought down. Her plight is almost unimaginable.

Yet, first time actress Gabourey Sidibe fills her character with such personality and soul that she almost flies off the screen. Precious has withdrawn into a shell and hardly engages with the outside world. Yet, her inner imagination is shown in wonderful bursts of creativity that reveal that ambition cannot be putdown completely. Her character has no time for self-doubt even as she has been taught to hate herself. She is simply living day by day and hoping for something better from life. At one point, she mentions wishing she were dead, before soon after snapping back to reality and thanking God for the blessing of new days.

 

Mo’Nique a comedian not known for her fine acting, here plays the mother in an oscar worthy performance for the ages. She is completely human and this makes her menace even more terrifying. She is the result of a life drained of hope, and we realize that she is a poor victim even as she is a vicious perpetrator of hate. It is a performance that shows an incredible nuance and poignancy.

 

Precious of course receives help from an alternative school teacher Ms. Rain (Paula Patton) and a social worker played by an almost unrecognizable Mariah Carey. Yet, the film manages to present hope without trafficking in cliché or melodrama. There are no simple solution, and yet we can see how simple words of kindness or moments of attention fill Precious with light.  Bit by bit, she develops a renewed sense of self and a purpose in life. This film is also a powerful expression of the empowerment of motherhood as Precious is empowered by the birth of her second child in a beautiful way. Every moment of joy feels improbable but utterly real.

 

In the end, one leaves the theatre with a greater appreciation both for how low people can go, and the power for people to rise up again. Spiritually, this film made me think about the incredible power of the atonement. Even someone born into the lowest of the low is capable of being redeemed by the light of hope. There is a powerful moment where Precious stands outside of a church looking in and imagining herself part of the gospel choir, and that image could be a metaphor for the whole film. Small acts of kindness, and examples of humanity at its best are the way to bridge the gap and bring people into a deeper sense of hope. Every human being is a child of god with dreams and ambitions. Precious is the kind of person that we would all judge in a negative way if we saw her or spoke to her. She is neither refined nor articulate. Yet, this film can help us realize that this judgment is precisely wrong. It is a message that is powerful and enduring.

 

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Dayenu, praise and thanksgiving

In sacrament meeting today we had talks about faith during times of adversity. For some reason, these talks mad me think about the lack of faith expressed by the Jews in the desert. Even though they had been led out of captivity by god and miraculously brought through the desert, they still griped and complained about everything. Their problem was that they failed to recall the miracles that they had already experienced and be thankful

Jeffrey R. Holland referenced this in his talk Cast Not Therefore Your Confidence Away ( Which I have written about in the past )

“That is exactly the problem that beset the children of Israel at the edge of the Red Sea. That is lesson number two. It has everything to do with holding fast to earlier illumination. The record says, “And when Pharaoh drew nigh, the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and, behold, the Egyptians marched after them; and they were sore afraid.”

Some, just like those Paul had described earlier, said, “Let’s go back. This isn’t worth it. We must have been wrong. That probably wasn’t the right spirit telling us to leave Egypt.” What they actually said to Moses was, “Wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt? . . . It had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness” (Exodus 14:10–12).

And I have to say, “What about that which has already happened? What about the miracles that got you here? What about the frogs and the lice? What about the rod and the serpent, the river and the blood? What about the hail, the locusts, the fire, and the firstborn sons?”

How soon we forget. It would not have been better to stay and serve the Egyptians….”

There is a famous Passover song that beautifully expresses this idea the Dayenu that expressed the appreciation that each act of God in and of itself is sufficient to deserve our praise.  It goes through 15 things that God did for the people of Israel in taking them out of Egypt and bringing them to the promised land. They progressively intensify from acts involved in leaving slavery, to miracles in the desert, to the formation of a spiritual relationship with God.

A typical Verse

“ If he had given us the Torah and had not brought us into the land of Israel – Dayenu, it would have sufficed.”

On this week of thanksgiving this is a beautiful way to become more thankful for all that we have. Recount your blessings beginning with the most simple of all—life itself. Realize that each blessing by itself would be enough to put us in God’s debt eternally. Yet, he has given us more and more infinitely. He has given us bodies, a loving and caring savior and a plan of salvation. He has let us be born in the fullness of time to be able to experience the blessings of the temple and to help our ancestors become more perfected. He has given us much more than we can ever adequately recall. What a lovely way to think about Thanksgiving.

Disturbing issue of Facebook privacy

This post is not LDS related, but I really feel a need to comment on this news story

A Canadian woman apparently lost health related employment benefits because of pictures on her Facebook.  Conclusions must be tentative because we only have her side of the story, but purportedly she had received time off from work for depression. Her doctor advised her to get out and try to have fun. She took this advice and went to a bar with friends, whom took pictures of her which were posted on Facebook. Her insurance company Manulife used the images on her Facebook as a way to argue that she was no longer depressed and needed to return to work. Thus, her insurance company looked at private images on her Facebook and used that information to justify a termination decision.

I have been a public advocate for laws protecting individuals from termination due to information gleamed from Facebook. Because one often has little control over information or images placed on the internet today, it has become much more difficult to control the flow of confidential information. Thus, individuals are often held hostage to whatever reputation harming information others wish to place on the internet. In effect, the internet has turned everyone into a tabloid page celebrity. This diminished expectation of privacy is harmful to social interactions and civic discourse in society.

The contractualization of Marriage

( I now more clearly see how the contractualization of marriage has contributed to the growth of no fault divorce and leads to the decay of the American family. Back in 2009 I just began to understand this process.)

The contractualization of marriage

I am currently taking a class on the legal foundations of American capitalism and we have been speaking extensively about the trend in American capitalism to turn everything into contractual obligations and relations. I was reflecting on this topic and it made me think about the dispute over Gay Marriage in a new light.

In the past, I have advocated the notion that the state should get out of the marriage business altogether and merely grant civil unions. In this way, the state could allow religions to create their own marriages unmarred by any civil obligations. Any two people could get a civil marriage, while each faith would determine its own marriage policy. In Europe this has been done with success, as religious marriages are view as ceremonies of choice rather than integrally connected to the state grant of marriage.

My thinking today has made me realize that the opposition to this concept is actually rooted in the way that it turns marriage into merely a contract. Indeed, all too much of the language of the Gay Rights movement today paints marriage in this light as well. Marriage is the state granting a specific package or bundles of rights to a union between two people. In our rights heavy culture this seems like a natural way to conceive of such a union.

Yet, my realization is that this can seem like an overly mechanistic way of looking at a marriage. Indeed, religious notions of marriage do not tend to think of marriage in terms of ‘rights’ but instead think about it in terms of sacred responsibility. For instance, LDS families are often encouraged to sacrifice their self-interest and to work to produce and provide for children. Thus, Marriage is less about being given bundles of things from the state and more about having the state recognize and facilitate a series of relations and mutual obligations.

Part of the deep-seated opposition to Gay Marriage thus seems to me perhaps to stem from this more general discomfort with the turning of marriage from something of a duty to something of a privilege. Of course, the reality of marriage is always far away from the mythic ideal. We allow couples that are infertile, elderly or that will be a tax burden on society to marry freely. Moreover, we seem to have a culture of marriage for convenience, where emotions rather than commitment dominate. As I’ve said elsewhere, banning Gay Marriage will unfortunately do little to change these realities. Gay Marriage is in this sense a lagging indicator of trends in society that many religious individuals are uncomfortable with.

Yet, what I have also learned as I’ve looked at the history of marriage is that what marriage is has never been static. There is no mythic time of perfect marital bliss. Instead, societies have the ability to define the institution in a secular sense just as religious have the obligation to define it in a religious sense ( its clear the LDS notion of what a proper marriage is have changed over time) The question needs to be not one of tradition but one of an ideal condition whereby marriage is made sacred and preserved. One of the strengths of federalism in the United States is that it allows laboratory for democracy in order to allow us to truly see the impacts of different marriage arrangements. In the next decade I think we will see a lot more clearly what effect certain policies have on the institution of marriage and its strength in society.

Maestro of Dissent: Opposing gay marriage does not a bigot make

(This post shows my evolving views on gay marriage from 2009 to the present. It was also my first public statement on the topic in my very liberal university.)

Newspaper op-ed I wrote for my campus paper, The Hoot

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints on Tuesday announced its support for an anti-discrimination ordinance that would provide homosexuals with protection from housing and employment discrimination. The ordinance was ultimately approved by Salt Lake City. Although the church had issued several statements in the past declaring that it would support such measures, so long as they contained robust religious freedom protections, this was the first time the influential church actually threw its weight in favor of a specific piece of legislation.

In the wake of Proposition 8, the LDS church has acquired a reputation as homophobic and hateful. Its members have been targeted for boycotts and terminated from jobs by purportedly liberal Jewish organizations merely for being Mormon. Its meetinghouses have been subject to graffiti and protests. A no on Proposition 8 advertisement hatefully depicted caricatures of Mormon missionaries entering to a couples house and ripping up their marriage license. A large advertisement campaign in the northeast warned that the ‘Mormons were coming’ to take away rights. These hateful tactics have to some measure discredited the gay rights cause and turned some potential supporters, such as myself, away.

Indeed, the results of this city ordinance as well as the election night contrast between the successful amendment in Maine taking away gay marriage and the successful amendment in Washington State granting robust domestic partnerships reveal that current feelings towards gay rights are much more nuanced than a simple divide of the world into a pro- and anti-rights camp. Of course, there are some virulent homophobes and they do not have my sympathy, but contrary to the writings of some such as Hoot Editor Bret Matthew last week, those that voted to oppose gay marriage do not merely need to ‘grow up.’ Indeed, they have some valid fears about the decaying state of marriage in society as well as legal protections for religious groups. Gay rights movements would be more successful if they were able to understand these fears and strive to show how their cause would actually help rather than hurt the stability of marriage.

It’s been noted that those most likely to oppose gay marriage are likely to come from states with high divorce rates, single parent households or teen pregnancies. One can be cynical and use these measures as evidence of hypocrisy, or more realistically I think one can view the struggle over ‘traditional families’ as a representation of the failure between dreams and reality. Many rightfully want to stop the collapse of families and have, rightfully in my view, linked this goal with the need to return sacredness to the concept of marriage. We have become a culture where love is treated like a magic state of being rather than a spiritual relationship that requires hard work. Kids have all too often become a disposable commodity.

Somehow, voters in every state in the nation that has voted on gay marriage are convinced that changing the definition of marriage to include homosexual pairings would further dilute the meaning of marriage. It seems that they have grabbed on to this as some way to heal all of what is very wrong in reality and ‘protect the family.’ Yet, this seems to me to be a mistaken idea. Gay marriages bring no more or less stability than heterosexual marriages, but allowing them certainly does more to promote cultural values of monogamy and stability than forbidding them. Indeed, conservatives should be reminded that a generation ago the gay rights movement rooted in the free love culture of the Castro district of San Francisco mocked the pursuit of marriage as a heterosexist delusion. The desire for marriage rights is profoundly a conservative one. Indeed, the gay rights movement should in my view focus less on the individual rights aspect of gay marriage and more on this rather traditional focus on stability. Voting down gay marriage will not end the high divorce rate or lower the teen pregnancy rate. Instead, it just makes things worse.

Likewise, while some of the catastrophic legal impacts emphasized by the campaign against gay marriage are likely overstatements, it is absurd to suggest that religious expression rights will not be adversely affected at all. Churches would not be required to perform gay marriages, but they might be required to lease out space to gay couples to perform their marriages, for instance. Since legalizing gay marriage, Canada has seen many cases of arrests and law suits for actions that would clearly be considered legal under U.S. law. Yet, gay marriage is only at most a peripheral legal issue. We cannot allow, as Canada has, expansive notions of ‘hate speech,’ and political correctness to take away individual freedoms. The disturbing trend of prosecuting hate speech is rightfully viewed as an ill portend for religious individuals that hold biblical objections to gay marriage.

The broader move towards mandatory tolerance thus rightful makes individuals paranoid and less likely to compromise on matters of clear discrimination. Likewise, this is part of the reason why the distinction between civil union and marriage is treated as so significant. It seems to many that the main reason that gay marriage, rather than civil unions, is pressed is not for varying rights, but in order to force acceptance. The civil rights language of the movement rightfully gives the impression that opposition to homosexuals will soon become the equivalent of racism and carry the same legal consequences. Religious individuals fear more than anything else being told that they can no longer express their biblically based viewpoint freely in society without liability. We must make a promise and a commitment that acceptance and respect will not become mandated.

This brings me back to the referendums and Salt Lake City’s ordinance. The referendum in Washington and the vote in Salt Lake City have gained religious backing in large measure because legislatures in the state expressly worked to protect religious protections. The Maine legislation also was initially successful in passing because of attempts to do so, but fears of religious persecution were able to convince many to vote for the repeal referendum. Making it clear that religious speech and association ought to be protected is the kind of light that will disinfect some of the false rumors and allow voters to truly evaluate the costs and benefits of gay marriage. We can also see that it will take time for voters to fully evaluate these claims and come to these conclusions. Expecting instant results and change will only result in additional feeling like the goal of a whole movement is to impose its ideas and values rather than the actually conservative goal of preserving strong families.

LDS church takes a stance for Gay Rights!

I am incredibly overjoyed by the news that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has come out in strong support of a new Salt Lake City ordinance protecting homosexuals from discrimination in housing and employment. The New York Times has the story here  “Mormon Support of Gay Rights Statute Draws Praise”

(Side Note: The New York Times is supposed to be the best in terms of journalistic standards….What’s up with using Mormon on first reference and only using the official church title in the third paragraph. That’s pretty shoddy.)

Up to this point in time, the church had issued tepid approval of acts protecting the rights of GLBTQ individuals in theory, but had done little to actually support such acts. In Utah, lack of approval from the church usually equals legislative death. A position stating that the church ““does not object to rights for same-sex couples regarding hospitalization and medical care, fair housing and employment rights, or probate rights,” was far far too vague and indecisive. Almost a year ago, I wrote an op-ed in my campus paper urging the church to come out in active support of Equality Utah’s moderate and reasonable legislative agenda. It is disheartening to see that those bills failed despite the support of popular Former Governor Huntsman. Moreover, there is a lot of ground to cover as Salt Lake City is the first city in Utah to pass such basic protections. At the time, I was very disappointed to see the church’s absolute silence.  Today is at least a first step in the right direction.

The rhetoric of church spokesperson Michael Otterson was especially encouraging.

Otterson made it clear that this is a moral issue in that it deals with vitals needs of individuals such as housing and employment “”The issue before you tonight is the right of people to have a roof over their heads and the right to work without being discriminated against. But, importantly, the ordinance also attempts to balance vital issues of religious freedom.”

Moreover, Otterson reiterated the church’s position of respect “I represent a church that believes in human dignity, in treating others with respect even when we disagree – in fact, especially when we disagree. The Church’s past statements are on the public record for all to see. In these comments and in our actions, we try to follow what Jesus Christ taught.”

I was incredibly pleased by this statement as an indicator that common ground will be looked for when possible and compromise is possible.

I hope that this open backing has the widespread impact of helping to finally lead to the passing of common sense legislation that also protects the right of religious groups.

Happy Veterans Day!

Even though I am generally critical of most of the wars that America has fought in recent years, I want to make sure that our troops get treated with respect as heroes that risk their lives for their country. We should never let our politics get in the way of honor and respect. Moreover, we need to make sure that our soldiers are treated as heroes when they return and given proper health care, benefits and treatment. It is so sad to see war veteran homeless on the streets. How can we allow those that would risk their lives for our nation to end up begging for scrap on the street.

As hard as it can be at times, we must also pray on this day for the soldiers and the veterans of the nations that we have warred against and even those fighting for terror groups such as Al Queida. I am inspired by the myriad of examples in the Book of Mormon of prophets praying for the well being of their enemies. They are someones father, husband or brother as well.  It is when we dehumanize the foe that we end up compromising our most precious moral values.