(this is a departure from my usual ramblings – and a bit longer – so bear with me)
Be a Shoe
I saw the movie Snowpiercer a few weeks ago after hearing a bit of buzz about it and reading both graphic novels (it’s on Netflix now by the way). I found it a very thought-provoking movie on many levels. Many reviewers hit on the environmental themes in it, while you can also see themes about meaninglessness vs. purpose in there as well (the stolen children who maintain the engine’s inner workings, thus keeping everyone alive). It’s definitely a movie that offers many layers and provokes a lot of thought. A prevailing theme easily apparent throughout is that of class exploitation as well as the limits of revolution. It’s a very dark film, filled with the kind of violence fueled by despair of those in “the tail”. Unfortunately it bears a very strong resemblance to our own world.
Here’s a summary just so we’re all on the same page. In the near future an environmental catastrophe has plunged the world into a global ice age. The remnants of society live on a train that runs perpetually without stopping because, as the engine is the source of all heat and energy for everything on the train, they will die. The rich, who paid to get on the train, live in luxury and decadence while the remainder of society lives in a crowded slum at the rear “tail” of the train. Because of the deplorable conditions in the tail they rise up to take over the train.
The main theme that runs throughout the movie is the unjust oppression of the passengers in the tail. It’s clearly a message about the 1% who have nothing rising up against the 99% who live in luxury. The rich eat sushi (but only on certain days of the week) and harvest fresh food from the garden cars while the tail lives on protein bars which we later learn are made from cockroaches. It’s an underdog story in an age of Anonymous and Occupy – that much is clear enough. Absolute power vs. forced weakness, haves vs. have-nots, class vs. class. The minister of the train, Mason, repeatedly calls for the lower classes to know their place at the back of the bus – er, train.
Order is the barrier that holds back the flood of death. We must all of us on this train of life remain in our allotted station. We must each of us occupy our preordained particular position. Would you wear a shoe on your head? Of course you wouldn’t wear a shoe on your head. A shoe doesn’t belong on your head. A shoe belongs on your foot. A hat belongs on your head. I am a hat. You are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot. Yes? So it is. In the beginning, order was proscribed by your ticket: First Class, Economy, and freeloaders like you. …Now, as in the beginning, I belong to the front. You belong to the tail. When the foot seeks the place of the head, the sacred line is crossed. Know your place. Keep your place. Be a shoe.
But the true nature of the struggle is much more complex. As the story unfolds perspectives change a bit. From the view of the tail passengers, the rich hate them and only desire to maintain their own decadence at the expense of everyone else. But as we view society from the upper-class cars, we see that their view of the tail passengers as violent, barbarian welfare children is not that far off either. The tail passengers forced their way on board and exist only by whatever welfare the upper class send them, all while contributing nothing to the train (which both symbolizes and is society). Their fear and disgust is well-founded. After all we find out that many tail passengers resorted to cannibalism, including our hero. The walls and doors that separate the cars and the castes allow those on the other side to be demonized because they are never really seen. People are rarely people in Snowpiercer, they are almost always simply “them”.
We see the spiral of violence begetting violence, with each side’s perception of the other being constantly shaped by that violence. Both sides fall into a self-fulfilling and self-sustaining cycle of violence. As it turns out the cycle is being maintained by individuals charged with maintaining those stereotypes. The walls that separate the passengers are both real and metaphorical. When those walls come down chaos ensues.
Thugs and Criminals
Fast forward (or backward) to the ongoing images and stories of riots and police actions in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Here we see some strikingly similar images to what we see in Snowpiercer: violent rabble confronting heavily armed officers charged with maintaining order. A sharp division has arisen as to how those images and stories are to be interpreted.
The mainstream and social media responses to the grand jury’s decision in Ferguson were angry, confused and conflicted. Many called the protesters “thugs” and felt that the violence was unavoidable. Other responses lashed out at the police, the media, and/or the government for the unrest. The law of this particular spiral was clear: expectations of violence will be realized with causality always pointing towards the other as the cause of the violence.
The true sadness in all this is that neither the protesters nor the “law abiding citizens” seem able to move beyond the stereotypes that they have been written in to. They are as blind to their skewed perception of the other as they are to how the reinforce the skewed perceptions that others have of them.
In Snowpiercer I wondered at one point how the first-class folks would react if they knew the actual conditions that the lower class lived in, rather than just what they were told. The upper classes had no way of truly seeing the plight of the others, given their solid indoctrination into the horrors of “the tail” from childhood and the impermeable barriers between them. It’s hard to make them out as evil participants in oppression. Rather they passively believe what they are told, and when they see violent revolution it would be hard not to characterize the revolutionaries as criminals and anarchists bent on breaking society.
The revolutionaries are just as blind to what goes on in the upper class cabins. They seem to believe that the entire upper class is against them, while in fact it is merely a small but powerful minority manipulating events and opinions on both sides. In the same way that the upper class can’t see down the line, the lower class can’t see up. That blindness is the root cause of unrest and hostility on both sides. At one point toward the end of the film the creator of the train tells the protagonist Curtis that no one has ever traveled the entire length of the train from front to back. In the same way, none of us are truly aware of what goes on in our society in an objective way. We don’t communicate.
The sad truth of the matter, both in Snowpiercer and in American society, is that if both sides would be willing to put aside their preconceived notions about each other and recognize the walls that have been put up things would most likely de-escalate quickly. However we continue to self segregate, even in our churches, perhaps because it’s simply easier to live with like than with unlike.
So what does this have to do with the Incarnation? Everything.
The Word Made Us
Consider the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. The God active in those pages is one completely unlike us. He is Holy, we are not. Because of that humanity can’t even exist in the full presence of God. The High Priest stood as the intercessor between God and the Jewish people only as long as he was clean. If there was a hint of uncleanness he would likely die if he entered the Holy of Holies. God sheltered Moses in the rocks as He passed by, for “no one may see Me and live ” (Ex 33:20).
Yet in Jesus we have the exact opposite of a God who is far off. In Jesus God comes to us not in great glory but in humble flesh. The Incarnate Son, Jesus, is God’s self-identification with us, not so that He might know us better but that we might understand and be in relationship with Him.
It is clear from Jesus’ ministry that his purpose was not only to heal our relationship to God but to heal our relationships to each other. Jesus affiliated with the marginalized – the poor, the sick, the cast-out, – as well as those favored by society. He saw the walls that kept people apart and demolished them. He challenged the hypocritical to turn outward rather than inward and to realize that they were not in right relationship to God if they were not in right relationship with their fellow human being. He challenged the “sinners” to recognize who they were and approach God as savior and not as executioner.
This I believe is how we need to live our lives out today. To believe in the incarnation means to believe that Jesus came as one of us, and because of that I need to see Jesus in those around me and be Jesus to them. The incarnation demolishes any stereotypes we have about the other and challenges us to see us as truly in relationship.
In Snowpiercer the violence spirals further and further down until both the train itself, signifying society, crashes under the weight of that spiral of violence. What happens here hopefully will be different.