Avatar Revisited at Out of Ur

The following post is a response to a question concerning my recent article at Out of Ur regarding Pastor Mark Driscoll’s critique of the movie Avatar.  For the original article in Out of Ur, please refer to the following link: http://www.outofur.com/archives/2010/07/driscoll_avatar.html.
At one point in the article, I write: “The movie Avatar was not simply a movie to Pastor Driscoll. Nor was his critique of this movie simply poor cultural critique to me. It was a symbolic statement of total blindness to what the Western powers have done and continue to do in our day to indigenous peoples and their habitats globally all in the name of progress.”  This statement gave rise to the following comment by “Melody”:

‘…total blindness to what the Western powers have done and continue to do in our day to indigenous peoples and their habitats globally all in the name of progress.’  Paul, could you give three specific examples of this?

Here is my response to Melody’s comment:

Hello, Melody.  Thank you for your question.  I will seek to provide numerous examples past and present, and from different angles, after first outlining different aspects of what I mean by oppression in this context.

Oppression takes place in various ways, including the following: first, through direct military confrontation by Western powers that involves annexing domains and taking resources, as in the colonial period; second, through Western powers’ fostering dependence among indigenous peoples and developing countries coupled with enticing developing countries to open their doors to foreign markets, which at times leads these developing countries to take lands and resources from their own indigenous peoples to build industry; and third, by failing to overturn the structures of evil that carry on from the past into the present. When I speak of “total blindness to what the Western powers have done and continue to do in our day to indigenous peoples and their habitats globally all in the name of progress,” I have this multi-faceted view of what I call ”oppression” in the blog article in mind.  In what follows, I will engage these three points.

The way in which the Western powers function today is often quite different from previous times–here and abroad (as I stated in my Avatar article, the movie is a “page right out of American history”; while there are multitudes of pages to American history, the Manifest Destiny ambitions often present in US expansion fill scores of pages–see for example the video “How the West Was Lost: A Good Day to Die” {1993}).   One church leader in a developing country told a friend who’s worked with indigenous peoples internationally that “They used to come with machine guns.  Now they come with briefcases.”

My friend mentioned to me recently that in places like Rwanda and Cambodia indigenous people are displaced from land for the sake of big business. While it may be locals displacing the indigenous people, it is often bound up with efforts to cater to Western businesses and expansion of markets, as well as historic patterns of influence by the West that have inspired local manifestations of the drive to control weaker or more vulnerable populations and use their resources for one’s own good.  While I favor international trade and affirm God’s calling on humanity to steward and cultivate creation, it is also important that we are intentional on protecting the rights of the poor and marginalized as we pursue trade that is truly free.  Trade that is truly free ensures that the poor and marginalized do not fall through the cracks in the pursuit of ecomonic development.

I should say at this point that Western powers are not simply military powers, but also corporate business powers.  Globalization has strengths and weaknesses, and it is extremely important that governments have in place safeguards that protect the marginalized and weaker parties here and abroad. Given the biblical, orthodox doctrine of original sin and total depravity, we should never favor unregulated free trade: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Recent movies draw attention to the reality of how Western powers put pressure on developing world countries, and in a variety of ways.  Highly regarded film critic Emanuel Levy writes of the movie Blood Diamond, “Though mostly set in Sierra Leone in 1999-2000, ‘Blood Diamond’ clearly wants to draw attention to broader issues and other locales, namely, the exploitation of Third World countries by Western powers such as the U.K. and the U.S. While the scarce resource in this tale is diamonds, the same exploitation could be depicted in the case of other scarce natural resources, such as rubber, gold, oil, which more often than not results in a tragedy for the country in which they are found.”
http://www.emanuellevy.com/search/details.cfm?id=5195

The movie Hotel Rwanda draws attention to the post-colonial situation in which Western powers largely abandoned Rwanda when the conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi people erupted into civil war and genocide (According to the BBC, the Belgian colonialists were responsible for increasing tensions between the groups: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/1288230.stm).  The movie also intimates that a sense of dependence was created, and when the Western powers exited Rwanda, the infrastructure collapsed still further.

It is not simply Western political powers and market forces that create such dependence; churches do as well, as when largely white mega churches speak of ”adopting” villages in Africa or inner city African American churches.  In contrast, John M. Perkins rightly charges that we must replace charity with community development.  Community development involves working among people, drawing from their experiences and looking to support them rather than drive them, helping but also being helped by them, ministering relationally in a particular region together with them.  A friend of mine from Africa who is ministering in Haiti with a North American ministry providing holistic care is challenging North Americans and others from the developed West to minister with a Christ-centered approach that views the Haitian people as being as valuable as people from developed Western countries.  This more redemptive approach that my African friend espouses entails asking Haitians what they believe is necessary to effect change and not patronizing them.  ”Patronizing them” involves telling them what they need to do rather than partnering with them to confront the crisis.  The Haitians have told my African friend that they often feel as if they are treated as projects by Americans and other people from developed Western countries, and that the end game is producing a product that can be exhibited as a trophy back in the developed West.  This is a subtle form of oppression–not like the overt hostility of Avatar, but nonetheless still dehumanizing.

Like in Avatar, the Haitians may not have the technological and technical resources, but they do have strong relational bonds–they have one another.  In addition to my African friend, a pastor from a mega church that has a significant ministry in Haiti has conveyed the same point to me.  Both individuals have claimed that they have rarely if ever experienced such profound relationality.  My African friend said that he did not need to be known to be loved in Haiti–he was sucked in and loved and ministered to, even though he had come to minister. We have so much to learn from such people, and so should not go trying to fix them, but to partner with them, joining them in our shared search for significance and life in the midst of horrific suffering.

Mention was made above of the need to overturn longstanding structures of evil.  Native peoples in what became the United States were often forced onto some of the poorest land, and some reservations are on land used as key sites for storing nuclear waste.  See a recent AP discussion on the storage and cleanup of nuclear waste that bears directly on Native peoples today at
http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5iM3xkapqBxYkFxJyYO4QIGDf4TK
gD9GV63180
. Also, see an earlier article on a related topic at http://www.umich.edu/~snre492/kendziuk.html.  To the extent we benefit from the evils committed in the past and present against such indigenous people, to that extent we ourselves are culpable.

Lastly, Western consumers–myself being one of them–find it very difficult not to fall prey to furthering oppressive structures in impoverished communities worldwide, where sweatshops are created to produce goods at far cheaper costs and at far greater benefit to American consumers–and at great cost to the employees in those lands.  While one may say the people there are better off than they would otherwise be because they have these jobs, their well-being is certainly not up to the humane standards we prize.  Nike, Wal-Mart and other companies have had to face front and center these concerns, and these issues require resolution and reform in many spheres of industry and business worldwide (see the following articles:
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/27/business/global/27nike.html and
http://www.businessweek.com/bwdaily/dnflash/content/oct2008/db2008109_219930.
htm
).

I should add that the West is not alone in this and related problems.  See the following article for a multi-faceted discussion of China on the environment:
http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2009/11/13/think_again_green_china.
See also the articles on worker abuse in China:
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/05/business/worldbusiness/05sweatshop.html and
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/06/opinion/06tue2.html.
Lastly, see the article on ethnic minority oppression in China:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jul/08/china-protest-uighur-deaths

While the West, and America in particular, has done much good across the globe at various times through such efforts as world relief in times of crisis and in restoration of devastated countries after times of war as in the Marshall Plan for the restoration of Germany and also parallel efforts in Japan after WWII, our history is nonetheless a checkered one.  We must be alert to both dimensions if we are to further good practices and guard against destructive patterns and tendencies.

I trust this helps, Melody.  I need to sign off due to my travels.

All the best,
Paul Louis Metzger

8 Responses to “Avatar Revisited at Out of Ur”

  1. Danny Summerlin Says:

    Paul, this is a very well written, well reasoned, and well cited explanation. I end up in similar conversations, and I start to sputter at the scale of the history of oppression, and mostly just end up half-mentioning a dozen things, which I fail to connect with modern day experience. I am going to quote you from now on when I need to explain the role we have today in past oppressions: “To the extent we benefit from the evils committed in the past and present against such indigenous people, to that extent we ourselves are culpable.”

  2. Paul Louis Metzger Says:

    Thank you for your comment, Danny. I am encouraged that you find this explanation meaningful and useful. May God’s grace abound to you as you bear witness to Christ on behalf of the oppressed.

  3. Kelsi Shelton Says:

    I echo Danny. Thank you so much for laying out such a thorough explanation. This sufficiently sums up the oppressive nature of “Western powers”. These are specifics and truths that every American needs to wrestle with and redemptively respond to. Especially Christians.

  4. Paul Louis Metzger Says:

    Thank you, Kelsi. I appreciate your words of solidarity.

  5. Cooky Wall Says:

    After reading many comments regarding Avatar which were posted on various blog sites, I intentionally sought out your response. To me, the movie, Avatar, was such a vivid picture of western colonization that I was overwhelmed to the point of tears. I was struck that not everyone could even see it. I definitely associate myself with your comments, and appreciate your thoughtful response. It helps me to organize my own thinking.

  6. Alexis Y. Says:

    Thank you Dr. Paul for being the mouth piece of the voice less, the masses living in poverty in western hemisphere as well as those in the remotes areas of this so called” majority world”; suffering internally and silently, whose lives and hope deteriorate helplessly in front of their eyes due to such greed from hegemonic powers of this blue planet! Thanks for stimulating my thinking!!

  7. Olwa Says:

    I agree with the people who think that this is a well thought out comment. I would further agree that the West have done a lot in terms of assisting developing countries but I say this with a lot of reservations because of suspicions associated with interests that are tied to such endeavors. The question is whether these humanitarian interventions are not tied to conditions that further suppress the growth of these nations. The movie Avatar gives us a clear picture of how the powerful are only concerned with their gainful interest in disregard of those regarded as less powerful or primitive. We should open our eyes to see that this is not only the problem with the west, but also a problem in every community. If we are to bring change we should seek our neighbor’s concerns and well-being first. I hope that begins with me.

  8. Colleen Says:

    Both the post on the initial commentary on Avatar and this response are very helpful to me. I appreciate the global sweep of many situations in many places, not one bad guy and one good guy, but rather how we live and what has become normal for us. In Dr Metzger’s lecture the video on Said’s views on orientalism ends with a quotes, “To produce knowledge you have to have the power to be there, and to see in expert ways things that the natives themselves can’t see.” That knowledge then again becomes power. In Avatar the greed for the mineral drove the exploitation. Which as shown in this post happens over and over again.

    I am pondering how the control of the conversation – the French writing the volumes on Egypt – dictates what people believe and therefore act on. An example can be the debate on how in Africa so must aid has been given and yet no change. While personally I don’t support aid outside of a crisis situation, what is not raised in the debate on aid, is unjust trade subsidies. Most Africans would welcome no aid in return for just trade.

    According to Global Policy Forum, ” It’s worth saying again: every cow in the West receives $2.5 a day in subsidies, compared to 90 cents a day for every child in the developing world. But this global financial crisis presents an opportunity to get rid of distortions. And there is little doubt that at $100bn a year each, US and European farm subsidies are distorting world trade.” http://www.globalpolicy.org/social-and-economic-policy/international-trade-and-development-1-57/agricultural-subsidies.html

    While we in Africa have not made good use of aid and our own corruption does cripple us, reports of aid given is seldom stated in the context of the structural injustice of international trade, often upheld by national lobbyists. The challenge for me is to be willing to hear the complexity and listen to a breadth of voices, and not be content with the main story that is reported by the loudest voice.

Leave a Reply