Tangled webs

My son and I went to see "Syriana" the other night. It is in no danger of being called "the feel-good movie of the year." I left feeling quite disturbed.

The film portrays some of the political and economic forces that intertwine in setting foreign policy and determine interventions in other societies. This fictionalized story looks at forces at work off center stage in the US -- in the oil biz and intelligence community -- and touches on how people outside, leaders and terrorists, might look at US. It's certainly not political science or reportage, but does what art does best -- gives you a glimpse inside worlds we don't normally have access to.

I walked out of the theater with a vague sense of dread, and of being unclean. If nothing else, Syriana evokes the numbing sensation I often get from the news, that world events are too big and complex to do much about, but because it can tie many ends together in a story with characters that are human, if not sympathetic, there's another hit -- that I am complicit in them.

I like to think we can tackle the big, collective sins, but this film reminds me that neither I nor anyone else can completely define them. As we live together in communities, nations and the world, we all have interests, and what's "right" doesn't always win. And even if I "know" what is "right," I often don't have the power to do much about it, even if I vote, write my congressman or shop at Ten Thousand Villages. (I realize as I write this how easy it is to pick out actions I do take and ignore the ones I don't, and still try to look good.) It's easy to see why managing the personal sins I have "control" over and accomodating to the ones that are too big is an attractive option.

A gospel of the Kingdom of God doesn't let us get away with not being implicated in the big picture. If the Kingdom truly is at hand, then we're free to try to change the unchangeable and right unfathomable wrongs (why do I suddenly hear "Man of La Mancha" in my head?) If the focus isn't "did I win?" but "did I live out of Kingdom values?" I can do something, even if it doesn't change the course of the world even a degree.

What's truly scary about Syriana is that the main characters were trying to do what was, in their view, the right thing. Whether seeking wealth or power, pursuing social reform, terrorism or a quixotic sense of making things right, they were driven. The key question is, what (or who) is driving? If I give in to this sense that I can't effect anything, and go along for the ride, I'm not going to like who is driving. Because it will probably be me, not Christ.

Our complicity in the big picture and issues isn't new, of course. But we are more aware of what we are complicit in these days, thanks to media and global communications. And so we have to retool how we speak the gospel into a world that knows, even if only on a subconscious level, about our mutual implication in the world's brokenness. What is hope once we lose that illusion of innocence? This knowledge can drive me into a holy bunker, or it can drive me to join God's mission to the world. What it can't do is let me think I've done enough, because I find, like Luther, that I can never finish that to-do list.

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