The one element of Steven Spielberg’s movies which has remained just beneath my consciousness for nearly thirty years is not his stunning cinematography or compelling drama. It is a song; a simple Welsh melody which carries us through Empire of the Sun. We first hear Suo Gân (Lullaby) as the movie opens. British choir boys sing it in church in the compound reserved for foreigners living in Shanghai. The soloist is Jamie (Christian Bale), a boy of about 10. He is British by birth, but he has never set foot on his parents’ homeland. Jamie’s family live as privileged foreigners have lived ever since China capitulated in the First Opium War a century before. They take no notice of the Chinese except where their own wants and needs are concerned. Jamie, a son of privilege, knows no other way than to lord it over the natives beneath his station.
Change comes quickly when the Japanese attack. China and Japan have been at war for years, but Shanghai is undisturbed until December 8, 1941. As America’s Pacific Fleet burns in Pearl Harbor, Japan’s legions occupy Shanghai. Jamie’s family flees, but in the confusion he is separated from his parents and left to fend for himself, eventually landing in an internment camp adjacent to a Japanese airfield.
By 1945 he is no longer Jamie, but Jim, a rough lad learning to survive among the mixed multitude in captivity. Jim can hold his own, having grown accustomed to lying, stealing, cheating, and other mischief. His innocence dies bit by bit, not only through the tribulations of war, but through betrayal by men he trusts. Yet Suo Gân remains with him. One morning he awakens to see Japanese aviators participating in the ceremony of the kamikaze. Jim comes to attention, salutes, and sings the lullaby in tribute to these men who will soon die in the service of their Emperor. Their deaths come more quickly than expected. At that instant, American P-51 Mustangs, the “Cadillac of the sky”, attack, rapidly transforming the airfield into a smoking ruin. In their wake Jim pauses to consider the dreadful price he has paid to survive. With despair he confesses, “I can’t remember what my parents look like.”
At war’s end Jim finds himself in an orphanage among children awaiting reunion with their parents. Tears of joy flow, but he stands in shocked silence. His father passes by, not recognizing the hardened youth as the beloved, if rebellious, child he knew. It is his mother who sees him, first as the Jamie she loved, then as the Jim she does not know how to love, and finally as a young man with gaping wounds in his soul who desperately needs the healing that only a parent’s love can bring. He looks into her face and four years of pain and death wash away in peace beyond hope – the peace promised in the strains of Suo Gân.
All Jim can remember is the song, but it is enough to set him on the path of healing and reconciliation. So it is with the exiled, destitute people of YHVH. He also gave a song to them – a song that would carry them through time to peace beyond hope:
Then it shall come about, when many evils and troubles have come upon them, that this song will testify before them as a witness (for it shall not be forgotten from the lips of their descendants); for I know their intent which they are developing today, before I have brought them into the land which I swore. (Deuteronomy 31:21 NASB)
Isaac Asimov could have written I, Robot without Karel Čapek’s help, but he would have needed a different word for the artificial life forms featured in his writing. Asimov’s robot stories shifted the paradigms of science fiction by exploring the unintended consequences of creating something smarter and stronger than a human, but without a human’s ethical configuration. For over half a century he probed dark and difficult territory, asking questions and spinning scenarios that remain disturbingly applicable to our present reality. Yet Asimov neither invented the word “robot”, nor initiated the inquiry into the potential nemesis of unbridled technological innovation.
Bad things happen when man plays the role of God, as Mary Shelley demonstrated in 1818 with her first novel, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. Shelley brought the question into the modern era, but it was Karel Čapek who mechanized it. Čapek’s play R.U.R. (Rossumovi univerzální roboti; Rossum’s Universal Robots) was a success from its first performance in 1920. The play introduced international audiences to the Czech word robota, meaning hard work, a word rendered into English as robot. The play is not a comedy; in Čapek’s imaginary world the robots are manufactured life forms designed to assist humans, but eventually they rebel and extinguish all human life.
Čapek revived this scenario in War with the Newts, a novel published in 1936 as satire on the hypocritically self-serving international system which enabled Nazi Germany’s dismemberment of Czechoslovakia two years later. It is a humorously dark tale about a race of sentient amphibian creatures discovered in the waters of Indonesia. The newts prove to be swift learners and adept at a multitude of tasks, making them ideal candidates for exploitation not only as workers, but also as undersea warriors. In time the newts, like the robots, rebel, destroying the dry land and turning it into shallow waters suitable for their environmental needs. The nations of the earth find themselves in a war for survival against a global amphibian army. It is a war humanity will not win, but Čapek reveals that the victorious newts will turn on themselves and become the instruments of their own destruction, leaving a remnant of mankind to rebuild the planet.
It is frightful to contemplate the end of one’s world, particularly when the end is justly deserved. Asimov, Shelley, and Čapek relate scenarios of judgment resulting from mankind’s own selfish shortsightedness – playing God, if you will. The element of terror they invoke lurks in the revelation that the instruments of judgment are the works of our own hands. As usual, art imitates life. YHVH renders judgment on those who disregard His standard of righteousness and set up standards of their own – playing God, if you will. Judgment brings a sentence of destruction and death, which is terrifying enough. What makes it more chilling is to learn the name of the one who will bring about the anticipated death and destruction. About 35 centuries ago, the doomed Canaanite civilization experienced that very thing shortly after Moses spoke these words:
It is the Lord your God who will cross ahead of you; He will destroy these nations before you, and you shall dispossess them. Joshua is the one who will cross ahead of you, just as the Lord has spoken. (Deuteronomy 31:3 NASB)
The worst fate a person can endure? That would be loss of self. It is not the same as selflessness, a desirable state of humility which YHVH honors. Loss of self means removal of what defines a person as a person. We see this in loved ones who slip slowly away through the ravages of progressive dementia. Little by little they forget who they are until in the end there is nothing left of them but the memory carried in the hearts of those who once knew them. It is a tragedy as old as humanity.
Some of our best stories spring from this loss of identity. Nearly 2,500 years ago Sophocles dramatized this phenomenon in Oedipus the King, a tale of a man whose birth was accompanied by a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. The parents attempt to circumvent the prophecy by ordering the infant slain, but to no avail. Oedipus is saved and brought up by foster parents, completely ignorant of his identity. Eventually he fulfills the prophecy. When at last the secret of his identity is revealed, his mother commits suicide and Oedipus puts out his own eyes.
This motif of hidden identity and forgotten knowledge manifests not merely in classic Greek drama, but in every literary form. It appears even in fairy tales, where protagonists like Beauty’s Beast and the Frog Prince lose their humanity. Rapunzel’s prince retains his identity, but he wanders in blindness. Similarly, Hansel and Gretel lose their way in the forest despite their best efforts. Princesses also succumb to identity loss, as we learn from Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. Even Cinderella’s true station in life is a mystery to her prince.
The fairy tales generally have happy endings, or at least the Disney renditions make them so, but that is not the case in every tale of this sort. One might say this identity issue is a perpetual human condition. We make it worse by ignoring our history, severing the connection with our fathers and mothers of ages past. This ignorance, whether self-inflicted or imposed by other forces, is the foundation of George Santayana’s famous warning, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. It is also a reflection of prophetic truth uttered by two men of God in the 8th century BCE:
My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being My priest. Since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children. (Hosea 4:6 NASB)
Therefore My people go into exile for their lack of knowledge; and their honorable men are famished, and their multitude is parched with thirst. (Isaiah 5:13 NASB)
When General Lew Wallace published Ben Hur in 1880, he had no idea that his tale of a wrongfully condemned Jewish prince would have such an impact on modern audiences. It is a tale of redemption, being the product of Wallace’s own investigation into the validity of the Christian faith. The epic scale of the story lends itself to the big screen, but Hollywood’s first effort at bringing Wallace’s characters to life in 1925 fell short of the mark. It took another generation of filmmakers, capitalizing on improved technology and cinematic techniques, to do justice to the tale. The result was William Wyler’s 1959 production of Ben Hur, a film that surpassed the achievements of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, released just three years previously. Wyler and DeMille both worked with the same leading man: Charlton Heston, a handsome actor known for his portrayals of tough men of action. Heston’s depiction of Moses remains the standard for cinematic portrayals of Israel’s Lawgiver, but it was his role as Judah Ben Hur which won him an Oscar as Best Actor.
The story follows Judah in his quest for revenge after his family is unjustly accused and sentenced for allegedly attempting to kill the new Roman governor of Judea. His mother and sister are taken to prison, but Judah is condemned to a hellish existence rowing the galleys of Rome’s navy. After three years his ship receives a new commander, Consul Quintus Arrius (played by Jack Hawkins), who leads the fleet against pirates who have menaced the sea lanes. On inspecting the rowers, Arrius takes notice of Judah as a man full of hate, but able to control it, a trait the Consul finds useful. Upon concluding his inspection Arrius offers this advice:
Now listen to me, all of you. You are all condemned men. We keep you alive to serve this ship. So row well, and live.
Judah finds opportunity to do more than that. In battle his ship is rammed and sinks, but he is able to escape and save the life of Consul Arrius. Later they learn the Roman fleet has won the day and Arrius is a hero. He returns to Rome, bringing Judah with him in hope of repaying the debt of his life. Judah becomes a famous chariot racer, trusted with some of his master’s most prized possessions. In time, Arrius rewards Judah with the greatest gift he can bestow: adoption as his son and heir.
Eventually Judah returns home, finds his mother and sister, and avenges the wrong done to his house. Yet it is not until he encounters Yeshua (Jesus) of Nazareth that he finds true peace. Lew Wallace’s story is, after all, a tale of the Christ, and would be incomplete without the redemption the Messiah offers. The roots of the story, however, go back to the time of Moses, when he spoke these words to the people of Israel:
The Lord has today declared you to be His people, a treasured possession, as He promised you, and that you should keep all His commandments; and that He will set you high above all nations which He has made, for praise, fame, and honor; and that you shall be a consecrated people to the Lord your God, as He has spoken. (Deuteronomy 26:18-19 NASB)
As with all good spy stories, the 1968 movie adaptation of Alistair MacLean’s Ice Station Zebra does not reveal the full truth until near the end. All we know at the beginning is that a US Navy submarine is on a mission to rescue British scientists trapped at a weather station on the Arctic ice pack. We realize something unusual is afoot since the boat’s captain, James Ferraday (played by Rock Hudson), has been ordered to take aboard not only a platoon of Marines, but also a British Intelligence officer who goes by the name Jones (Patrick McGoohan). At sea they are joined by Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine), a Russian defector. After an act of sabotage nearly destroys the submarine, Captain Ferraday confronts Vaslov, asking why he should not believe him to be the saboteur. Vaslov responds, “That should be obvious, Captain. I was born a Russian, but I chose my side out of conviction, not by accident of birth.” Jones vouches for him, and the mission continues.
In time the submarine reaches the destination and breaks through the Arctic ice near Ice Station Zebra. As the Navy crewmen rescue the surviving scientists, Jones and Vaslov go about the real business of the mission. Ferraday finds opportunity to speak with Jones alone as the British agent searches for what we learn is a canister of highly sensitive photographic film created in the United States for use in a British camera of extraordinary technical capabilities. Soviet agents had stolen the film and the camera, and the Soviet Union adapted both for use in a spy satellite. Jones explains this in one of the movie’s most famous lines:
The Russians put our camera made by “our” German scientists and your film made by “your” German scientists into their satellite made by “their” German scientists, and up it went, round and round, whizzing by the United States of America seven times a day.
Just as the film canister is discovered, a force of Soviet paratroopers lands near the ice station. Their mission, of course, is also to recover the film canister. It is at that point that we learn Vaslov’s convictions are not as strong as he would have others believe. He assaults Jones and reveals himself as a double agent whose real intent is to assist the Soviets in recovering the film. As the American and Soviet forces engage in a firefight, Jones kills Vaslov. The fighting ends when the hopelessly outnumbered Americans agree to surrender the canister, but then succeed in destroying it by a final act of intrigue. Having no further reason to remain in conflict, both sides withdraw, leaving the body of the treacherous Vaslov on the ice.
Boris Vaslov teaches us an eternal truth. Unable to choose between two identities, in the end he loses them both. So it is with everyone who halts between allegiance to the Kingdom of Heaven and the kingdom of this world. It is best to choose wisely since Scripture provides an unambiguous statement on the conclusion of this matter:
Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.” (Revelation 11:15 NRSV)
What does it take to remove a head of state? This question concerns situations in which a nation finds cause to remove a leader before the established time. A survey of history informs us that such circumstances usually involve war and upheaval. The incumbent, whether a king or a prime minister, is not inclined to surrender power, and therefore must be compelled to give it up, often on pain of death. In consideration of this state of human affairs, the Founding Fathers of the United States established a procedure by which presidents might be impeached, or removed from office. The product of their deliberations appears in Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution:
The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.
And that is all they have to say on the matter – which is why jurists for nearly 230 years have debated exactly what they meant.
The Founders certainly understood the seriousness of the question. They had just gone through a lengthy and painful process of removing King George III as head of state over the American colonies by the extreme measure of extricating the colonies from the king’s domain and establishing a separate sovereign nation. Their attempts at less drastic measures had not sufficed, leaving them no option but the usual method of war and upheaval. That is why they sought to limit the power of the president, providing a method of removal by legislative and judicial means. The grounds for removal would have to be well established, which is why the Constitution specifies the obvious transgressions of treason and bribery. But what exactly are “high crimes and misdemeanors”? This is where it gets interesting, and frustrating to those who desire to remove an incompetent, unpopular, or abusive president.
The Founders sought not only to prevent abuse of power in the Office of the President, but also to protect the dignity of the office and ensure continuity of government. Succeeding generations have understood this, which is why only three presidents have been the subject of impeachment proceedings. President Richard Nixon resigned before Congress could vote on articles of impeachment for his abuse of power. Had he not done so, it is likely he would have been the only president ever removed from office. Congress did impeach Presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton on charges stemming from their obstruction of Congress and abuse of power, but acquitted both men – not because the charges were unfounded, but because of the political motivations behind the impeachment proceedings. Under such circumstances, their removal would have brought immense harm to the Office of the President and its foundation in the organic law of the United States.
One might wish that the Founding Fathers had been more specific in the standards they expected of people holding high office. Then again, how much more specific did they need to be in a Christian culture based on the rule of law derived from the Bible? Their understanding of God’s requirements for public leaders shaped their creation of the Government of the United States, leading them to do as YHVH did: provide just enough detail to establish wise government under the principles of justice and mercy.
It is understandable why Peter Jackson had to take considerable license with The Lord of the Rings when he brought J.R.R. Tolkien’s mammoth work to the screen, and yet his choices inevitably brought disappointment to Tolkien aficionados. Why, for example, did Jackson choose to minimize the presence of Farmer Maggot? Tolkienists take issue with the fact that his role in The Fellowship of the Ring was diminished to the point of insignificance. In the book, Farmer Maggot saved Frodo and his companions as they fled the Shire, giving them provision and helping them elude Sauron’s dreaded Black Riders. It was unexpected help, for Frodo had considered Farmer Maggot an enemy. As a child Frodo had taken a liking to Maggot’s mushrooms, and on more than one occasion absconded with portions of the good farmer’s crop. Such youthful mischief roused Maggot’s anger, compelling him to chase Frodo from his land and threaten him with his very large dogs should he ever return. And so it was that Frodo grew up fearing Farmer Maggot, never knowing that beneath his fierce anger lay a loyal, generous, and hospitable heart. Thanks to the mediation of his companion Pippin, and to the dire need of the moment, Frodo at last gained opportunity to get to know the real Farmer Maggot. He explained as much as they prepared to leave Maggot’s home:
Thank you very much indeed for your kindness! I’ve been in terror of you and your dogs for over thirty years, Farmer Maggot, though you may laugh to hear it. It’s a pity: for I’ve missed a good friend.
Frodo’s words present us with an all-too-familiar and all-too-tragic reality. How often have individuals, families, and nations remained at odds over ancient offenses, the causes of which are long forgotten? How much suffering has multiplied on the earth because natural allies regard each other as enemies, or at least minimize their contact with each other out of mistrust and misbegotten fear? And how much greater is that tragedy if the people who regard each other in this way are the two parts of YHVH’s people? In truth, Moses and Yeshua have no contradictions or arguments, but their followers think they do, and for that reason Jews and Christians have separated themselves from one another for twenty centuries.
What is this tendency of human minds to discard unpleasant things and cling to what is pleasant, nice, and amusing? This can be useful in remembering loved ones who pass from this earth. Whatever annoyances or difficulties they presented us in life fade from our memories, leaving only the glow of happy moments – of childhood kindnesses, of good smells and kind voices, of triumphant moments when a cooperative effort and patience brings victory over a harsh trial. This is good, but in truth these happy things have no meaning if not set apart by the unhappy things.
This truth of life has its reflection in art. Consider, for example, Of Mice and Men, a tragedy penned in 1937 by John Steinbeck to portray the pain of American society in the midst of the Great Depression. It is the tale of George and Lennie, two migrant farm workers in California with a dream of owning a farm of their own one day. From the opening of the play we see that Lennie labors under mental challenges that make him unable to care for himself. He depends on George to keep him out of trouble and think for both of them. All he knows is that he likes to pet nice, soft things with his fingers, and that one day when he and George have a place of their own, he can tend the rabbits they will raise. Lennie is simple, kind, trusting, and hardworking, but he does not know his own strength. The soft things he pets often end up dead. At first it is a mouse, then a puppy, and finally a flirtatious woman who invites him to stroke her hair. This last “bad thing” is something George cannot fix except by ensuring Lennie will never hurt anyone again. The play ends as George tells Lennie one more time about the rabbits, and then takes his life.
Steinbeck lived to see his sublime tragedy dismembered and parodied in superficial popular culture, beginning with animated cartoons. As Of Mice and Men became an Oscar-nominated film in 1940, Warner Brothers gave birth to a new American icon, Bugs Bunny. It did not take long before Lennie’s simpleminded fixation with furry rabbits became a standard feature in Looney Toons shorts, reaching a climax in 1961 with “The Abominable Snow Rabbit”. In the cartoon Lennie becomes an Abominable Snowman in the Himalayas who encounters Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Mistaking Daffy for a rabbit, the snowman picks him up and utters these now-famous words:
Just what I always wanted. My own little bunny rabbit. I will name him George, and I will hug him and pet him and squeeze him and pat him and pet him and rub him and caress him.
With these lines, this absurd cartoon illustrates how distorted shadows supplant what is unpleasant and tragic, leaving only a form of the truth, but lacking its power. Those who have no knowledge of Steinbeck’s story will laugh at the cartoon, but they remain ignorant of the full context, and are thus robbed of the life lessons Steinbeck sought to impart. The same is true of those who take the Bible in sound bites rather than in its full context, including these words of Moses:
And He will love you and bless you and multiply you; He will also bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your land, your grain and your new wine and your oil, the increase of your cattle and the offspring of your flock, in the land of which He swore to your fathers to give you. (Deuteronomy 7:13 NASB)
Left to right: Vittorio Orlando (Italy), David Lloyd George (Great Britain), Georges Clemenceau (France), Woodrow Wilson (United States).In a sense one might say that this present global system is Woodrow Wilson’s fault. The Armistice that ended the hostilities of World War I on November 11, 1918, took shape after the German Empire embraced President Wilson’s Fourteen Points as the basis for negotiating peace with the Allies. Wilson had presented the Fourteen Points in a speech to Congress at the beginning of 1918 as his proposal for ending the war and reshaping the world so that such a massive conflict could never happen again. A better world might have been the outcome had his plan been adopted in its entirety, but, sadly, it was not to be. Wilson personally led the American negotiating team to the Paris Peace Conference at Versailles in 1919, but during the lengthy proceedings he became gravely ill. The other Allied leaders took advantage of his illness to turn the peace conference into a revenge conference. Many of Wilson’s principles found their way into the Versailles Treaty and subsequent agreements, but not as he intended. The fruit of Versailles was a vindictive dismemberment of the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires, along with a humiliating disarmament of Germany and assessment of a war reparations debt that the German nation finally finished paying 92 years later. The Versailles Treaty did incorporate Wilson’s vision of a League of Nations, the predecessor to the United Nations, but the President’s own people rejected it. When the US Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, the United States turned away from an active role in managing the community of nations, thereby ensuring that the League of Nations would be nothing more than a hollow shell.
It is easy to summarize the Fourteen Points. They call for open negotiations among nations, freedom of the seas, free trade, disarmament to the greatest extent possible, evacuation and restoration of territories occupied during the war; “autonomous development” (a fancy way of saying independence) of peoples under the rule of the world’s great empires, readjustment of borders to reflect lines of nationality, and establishment of the League of Nations to oversee this new international order. The summary, however, does not convey the enormity of the tasks involved in implementing each point. Consider just one point: establishment of an independent Poland. That single act required dismemberment of three empires; creation of a Polish government with power and resources to run the country; international recognition and assistance; and a host of other actions to ensure Poland’s unhindered reentry into the community of nations after nearly 120 years of foreign occupation. It would be foolish to think that Wilson’s Fourteen Points were the only items under consideration in the Allies’ peace deliberations. In truth, they were only the beginning of the process, not the end.
This should remind us of something in Scripture. The analogy dawned immediately on President Georges Clemenceau of France. On hearing of the Fourteen Points, he is reported to have said,
Quatorze? Le bon Dieu n’a que dix. (Fourteen? The Good Lord only has ten.)