Saturday, May 25, 2013

Sometimes, Two Wrongs do Make a Right: Part 2

If you happened to read my previous blog (which I highly recommend!), I proposed that sometimes two wrongs do make a right.  I was writing about the biblical character Tamar, from Genesis in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament).  She did two things normally considered “wrong” (prostitution and deception) yet was declared righteous afterward. Writing about Tamar, I was reminded of the movie Gangster Squad which I saw last winter.
'No Right Turns' photo (c) 2010, Richard Eriksson - license: the movie, Josh Brolin plays a hard-nosed cop trying to do the right thing in a city owned by a powerful mob boss (Sean Penn).  Brolin’s character is personally selected by the chief of police (a very old looking Nick Nolte) to form a secret unit to wage a guerilla war on the mob, realizing that the mob had bribed judges and killed off witnesses making criminal prosecution basically impossible. The “gangster squad” as they were known, goes on to wreak havoc on the mob by interrupting drug shipments, blowing up buildings, and ruining the mob business all around.  These police officers, normally keepers of the law, operated outside the law, doing things normally considered “illegal” or at least “improper,” in order to defeat the powerful mob. In the end, it was really the only way to defeat the mob, in that the mob controlled the system that was intended to control it.

When I walked out of the movie, I remember thinking that perhaps the Gangster Squad might offer lessons for today.  Now, I must say up front that I do not support the violent methods portrayed in the movie.  I remember the biblical wisdom that “those who live by the sword, die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52) and that violence is not redemptive, but rather in the end only begets more violence.   So with that pre-condition, I would like to propose that perhaps the only way to defeat an unjust system is to operate outside of that system. The Gangster Squad could not operate within the criminal justice system, being that the mob had such an influence over it. In the same way, I am beginning to believe that the unjust systems and structures in this nation and in this world cannot be defeated by working within the system, they must be defeated by working outside the system—perhaps utilizing methods thought of as “illegal” or “improper.”
'Right Turn Only, Use Crosswalk' photo (c) 2008, A Gude - license: am reminded of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s philosophy of non-violent resistance and his insistence that any law which was unfair or unjust toward a certain people group was an “unjust law” and therefore should not be followed.    Let’s remember that slavery was once legal in this country, as was racial segregation, as was discrimination towards people on the basis of religion, gender, and so on. Just because something is the “law” does not make it “right.”   I think even my conservative friends would agree with me that “might does not make right.” Yet that statement alone recognizes that the law is often shaped by the most powerful. It stands to reason then that those in power are going to shape the law in order to most benefit them—as exemplified by what the rich and powerful are continually doing in America.  Therefore, working within a system and framework to defeat the powerful and remove injustice, when that system itself is designed by the powerful to keep the powerful in power, is going to be a losing endeavor every single time.
In America, we are privileged enough to have the capacity to change the law within the confines of the law through democratic elections. Yet those rights are continually being deluded through Super PACs, Corporate money, and voter suppression and disenfranchisement (best evidenced by the voter ID laws).  Still, the possibility remains that the people of this country (after all, this nation is a government of and by the people) could rise up and retake control by limiting the money and influence of Super PACs, limiting corporate campaign contributions, and restoring voting rights. But these three examples I have mentioned are a relatively new phenomenon, happening largely within the last 10 years. It seems to reason that things are only going to get worse, that the rich and powerful are only going to exert more control, continually shaping the system to benefit them and them alone.
So I am left to wonder, what else can be done.  Does America in the 21st century need a great leader like King or Gandhi? Does it need a stronger, more focused and unified movement than “Occupy Wall Street”  was to expose the unjust systems and galvanize Americans to change the system? Or, rather, do we need non-violent “gangster squads” to work outside the system, beyond the context of the “law,” to work instead within the realm of the greater moral law in order to break the unjust, immoral laws that are put into place by the rich and powerful to keep themselves rich and powerful?
Going back to Tamar’s actions then, perhaps in our time as well two “wrongs” can indeed make a right.


In a previous version of this blog I misspelled "Gandhi" --and perhaps more disturbingly, forgot to mention that the gorgeous Ryan Gosling also co-starred in the movie. My apologies.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Sometimes, two wrongs do make a right: Reflections on the story of Tamar from Genesis 38:12-26

The story of Tamar shows that the failure of those in the culturally privileged position to recognize the suffering of others does not mean such suffering does not exist. Further, the extreme measures undertaken by Tamar, and the obvious pre-planning done in advance, demonstrates the amount of work that must be done to achieve equality.  The formula is simple, the greater the inequality, the more work that must be done to overcome it. It is then completely unfair of those in the privileged position to criticize those suffering from inequality as not having worked hard enough to overcome such injustice.  Such is what had happened to Tamar. Rather than recognizing the gross injustice done to Tamar by Onan; that he sexually manipulated her, sexually exploited her, essentially sexually assaulted her, Judah essentially assumes she was the problem.  Judah assumes she was the cause of his son’s deaths. He assumes her childlessness was her own fault. Completely oblivious to his own privilege, unable or unwilling to see the great inequality, Judah resorts to taking the easy rode of blaming the one suffering from the gross inequality for not overcoming it.

Interestingly enough, even though Judah recognizes that Tamar was more in the right than himself, he seems content with the situation as is. He still did not choose to do the right thing, Tamar was still a widow denied the right of levirate marriage. Judah acknowledged this unfairness, but made no effort to rectify the situation and gave no indication he ever would do anything for Tamar.  She was dependent on him for justice and he failed her. This demonstrates the problems of a society in which some are dependent on others for justice in society.

'No Right Turns' photo (c) 2010, Richard Eriksson - license: her patriarchal society, Tamar was dependent on Judah for justice.  In society today, many are oppressed and marginalized like Tamar, on the outskirts of society and dependent on those in the culturally superior position for justice.  Only in society today, the justice often takes the shape of charitable giving, in that the poor are often dependent on the charitable whims of givers. Just as Judah came out of the whole event with nothing lost other than hurt feelings, Tamar essentially had to risk her own life to achieve justice.  The societal structure of charitable giving is often the same way. Those in the superior position of charitable giving donate only from their abundance, sacrificing little. They can walk away unscathed, much like Judah, having done little to change the unjust structures that caused the problem in the first place, and like Judah, get some pleasure out of the whole thing thanks to the “warm, fuzzy feelings” of having done “the right thing.

While this text may be useful as an inspirational text for women and others suffering from injustice and oppression, in other ways, it should be an indictment on society then and now.  The Tamar story can easily be interpreted by those in privileged positions as part of the Horatio Alger myth, that despite great injustice and oppression, people can overcome their suffering if they just try hard enough and are creative enough, like Tamar. But Tamar, and others like her, are the exception, not the rule. Rather than reading this story as an inspiration tale, those in privileged positions must rather read this story and others like it as an indictment on their society. Rather than praising Tamar or someone like her for “all they overcame,” those in privileged positions should rather be shaking their head in disbelief at all she had to overcome. Stories such as this should reveal to the privileged the gross inequality that exist in society.

In the end, one must conclude that Tamar, and others like her on the outskirts of society, is indeed righteous.  For the oppressed, this story certainly can be used as an inspirational tale. Tamar used the means available to her to achieve some measure of justice for herself.  Tamar’s story certainly seems to suggest that sometimes to do what is right, cultural “laws” or “norms” must be broken; justice cannot come from within an unjust system. Tamar broke the cultural norms regarding adultery and incestuous relationships to achieve justice. It seems then, in the case of Tamar, that two wrongs do make a right.