Thursday, September 15, 2011

Looking Beyond Ourselves

Last Sunday we had the opportunity to see the new movie "The Help" that is currently playing in theaters.  It is based upon the book of the same name that has been on the bestseller list for the past two years or so.  Our church book group had read the book together and discussed it and I was anxious to see how closely it followed the book.  The producers of the film did an excellent job of translating the book into movie form.  The actors chosen to play the characters seem to fit the written description well.  It was a very entertaining and at times heartwarming movie.

In case you are not familiar with the book or the movie, it is about the 1960s era in Jackson, Mississippi.  A young woman named Skeeter decides to write a book about the lives of the black maids who help to raise the children of white families.  This was during the era in our country when black persons had to use separate restroom facilities, had to drink from separate water fountains, had to eat in separate restaurant rooms, and had to attend movies using the balconies rather than the main floor.  The Civil Rights movement had not been achieved and the movie briefly mentioned the death of Medgar Evers and the beginnings of the influence of Dr. Martin Luther King.  It also mentions the death of President John F. Kennedy with a scene of the family watching the funeral on television.

Skeeter is connected to a group of young socialite women headed by a cynical and mean spirited woman need Hilley.  This woman is promoting a plan she wants imposed upon citizens of Mississippi that would require anyone with a black maid to build a separate restroom for them as she does not want black persons to use the same restroom that she uses.  She believes that white people can receive diseases from touching black people or using the same restrooms that they use so she is very enthusiastic about her plan and wants others to join her crusade.  This is all going on at the same time that Skeeter is interviewing black maids so that she can write a book about their lives. 

The movie focuses on these two women and the crusades in their lives which push them in opposite directions resulting in the dissolution of their friendship.  Neither can see life from the point of view of the other because their individual interests become the central focus in their lives.  The character Hilley reminds me of Jonah from the book of the Bible by the same name.  Jonah is told by God to go preach to the people of Ninevah because God planned to destroy their city and God wanted to give them the opportunity to repent before this happened to them.  Jonah hated the people of Ninevah because they were the enemies of the people of Israel.  He did not want them to repent.  He wanted them to be destroyed. 

Jonah finally reached Ninevah (despite a side trip to Tarshish and spending a night in the stomach of a fish) and did what God asked him to do with the result he expected--the people of Ninevah repented of their sins and God decided not to destroy them after all.  Jonah's reaction to this news was that he went out of town and found a big bush to sit under and pout because his enemies were not destroyed after all.  The plant soon died and Jonah mourned for it because it was gone.  God has the last line in the book of Jonah because here is what he said about Jonah's actions: "You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.  And should I not be concerned for Ninevah, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?"  (Jonah 4:10-11)

God was challenging Jonah's attitudes about life.  He could be concerned about a plant that provided him some shade but he could not be bothered to care about thousands of people who may have died.  Jonah had a deep prejudice against the Ninevites based upon their history with his people, the Israelites.  He would have been pleased for them to have been wiped off the globe.  After all, his people were God's people and they were the enemies of God's People.  Obviously, though, God had other people than just the Israelites.  God must have loved the Ninevites also or God would not have decided to give them a chance to repent in the face of their destruction.

In the era from 1860 to 1960, it was okay to many people to treat persons of color as less than full humans because some in society decided that was the approved system of behavior.  That system was challenged by those who did not approve of that sanctioned way of living and finally in the courts of the USA and equal civil rights were guaranteed by law for persons of color as well as others.  Today, that way of life seems so far in the past.  Some persons who did not live in that era may even think that such a story such as The Help must have been fabricated.  It does not take one long to look at society today,  however, to see other examples of how humans continue to mistreat other human beings based upon a characteristic or trait that they find unacceptable.  It may not be based on color now; it may be based upon ethnicity, sexual orientation, country of origin, status of citizenship, or other factors of one's choosing.  We as a society continue to have a long way to go to reach the place where we treat others with equal respect regardless of who they may be.  The question continues to be not if discrimination will be imposed upon some but who will society choose to level its discrimination at next?

Skeeter chose to look at her black neighbors in the Jackson, Mississippi of the early 1960s as equals.  Something in her life equipped her to do this.  Her friends who were involved in the social scene of society were not as well equipped and chose to continue the system that looked upon persons of color as inferior and perhaps even dangerous.  The Civil Rights movement upset their comfortable social system and their lifestyles that were a century old and more.  The end result for Skeeter was that she had to leave her home of origin and venture out into the world where people lived who shared her common ideas.  You may say she was ahead of the times in which she lived.  You may say that she was misplaced or that she outgrew her past.  In any case, you may also say that her life included attributes that others in her hometown did not seem to have, those of compassion, mercy, and grace.           

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