by Brian Walsh
So I’m at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah this week as a guest of the Windrider Forum from Fuller Theological Seminary. And I had the unique privilege of watching the Inauguration ceremonies with more than a 100 students and faculty from Fuller, Biola College and Taylor University. It was a moving experience that has left me with mixed and conflicting feelings, that perhaps mirror the conflict and confusion embedded in both this day and in President Obama’s speech.
I know and I appreciate that today is a day of hope. Today is a day of promises fulfilled. Today is a day that, for many Americans, begins to take away the shame and the embarrassment of the last eight years. I stood, without reservation, with everyone else in the room as Mr. Obama took the oath of office. and I put my hands together in applause.
And I appreciated the wisdom and the seriousness of Mr. Obama’s address. I heard him when he called America to humility and restraint. I appreciated his insistence that America can no longer consume more of the world’s resources than is just or fair. And he is right in saying that America has been a child and it is time to grow up.
But I worried when he said that America is ready to “lead once more.” I was deeply concerned when he said that America “will not apologize for our way of life.” And while I appreciated his statement that the issue wasn’t the size of the GDP “but the reach of our prosperity” I’m not sure that he has quite understood that American prosperity has consistently been bought at the expense of both freedom and prosperity for much of the world.
When Mr. Obama says to America’s enemies that he is confident that they will suffer defeat and yet, “we will extend the hand if you unclench your fist” I confess that I am appalled. Appalled at the lack of understanding of his so-called enemies. Fists get clenched for a reason and they will seldom open because the threat is uttered with greater intensity. The bullshit of the clenched fist can only be transformed into the open hand when the reasons for the clenching of that fist in the first place are redemptively addressed.
So it was with these kinds of conflicted emotions that I left our morning session and went to my first festival film together with the rest of the members of the Windrider group. And the film we viewed could only intensify our emotional response.
Taking Chance is a dramatic retelling of the story of Marine Lt. Col. Michael Strobl’s who escorts home the body of Private Chance Phelps. This is a film that you will cry through. I did. There is a tenderness, care and respect in this film that makes the audience feel very deeply the loss of the Phelps family. From the cleaning of the body in the Marine mortuary to the respect of all involved in the transporting of this young man’s remains home, to the meeting with the family, this is a film that takes us on this final journey home.
Directed by Ross Katz, co-written by Katz and Lt. Col. Strobl, and featuring an incredibly moving, and appropriately understated performance by Kevin Bacon, this is a film that everyone should see, including Canadians who have faced the loss of our own military men and women in Afghanistan.
Taking Chance is, of course a wonderful double entendre. “Chance” Phelps is taken. Taken from this life, and taken home. And there is of course something of a chance, a risk that Lt. Col Strobl takes in taking Chance home. Moreover, there is a chance that is taken in telling this story on film.
But the film does not take any chances on the war in Iraq per se. This is a story about a man who died serving his country, of the care that is taken over his body and of the grief of a great many people. And neither Ross Katz nor Lt. Col. Strobl are going to make this man’s death, and this family’s grief, an occasion for either criticizing the war in Iraq nor are they offering a piece of propaganda in support of the war. Indeed, I’m sure that both men, and pretty much everyone in the theatre today, would applaud President Obama’s commitment to a withdrawal from Iraq.
And yet …. And yet I can’t get over the place where Chance Phelps died. And I can’t get over the fact that the American government, and George W. Bush were prepared to take a chance on the life of Chance Phelps based upon utter lies and deception.
President Bush said during his last press conference that the fact that there were no “Weapons of Mass Destruction” in Iraq was a great disappointment of his presidency. Let that sink in for a minute. He was disappointed that such weapons did not exist! Would he have preferred that they were there and that Saddam Hussein had used them in order to justify the American invasion? He was disappointed. My hunch is that the families and friends and loved ones of the more than 4000 Americans who have died in Iraq are more than “disappointed.” Devastated would probably be the better word. And their devastation, their grief is multiplied a thousand times in Iraqi homes.
President Obama spoke today of hope over fear and unity over conflict. I’m not sure that such hope can be found without repentance, nor can such unity be achieved apart from apology. My hunch is that more than just the American way of life is going to have to be apologized for. The murderous deception of the previous administration will also need to be apologized for.
In his sermon, thinly disguised as a prayer, Rick Warren said that this was a hinge point of history. While it may be pretentious to tell God something like that, Warren is undoubtedly right. This is a hinge point in history. But nothing will change if God answers Warren’s prayer that America will be “a more prosperous nation” and that ours will be “a more peaceful planet.”
I’m sorry, but greater prosperity for this one nation or its rich neighbours to the North will not and cannot result in a more peaceful planet. That is something that not even God can pull off. More importantly, God isn’t interested in pulling off that kind of prosperity for America.
What God is interested in is justice. What God is interested in is righteousness and truth. And that means that if this is to be a hinge point in history, then this is an administration that must take humility so seriously that it is willing to apologize for a way of life that is rooted in injustice, that it is willing to say, “we are sorry” not just because Chance Phelps died in service of his country, but that he died in service of a lie and in service of a way of life that cannot and should not be sustained.