One of my favorite genre of movies and literature involves dystopian communities or worlds. Wikipedia defines dystopia as
“a community or society that is in some important way undesirable or frightening. It is the opposite of a utopia. Such societies appear in many artistic works, particularly in stories set in a future. Dystopias are often characterized by dehumanization, totalitarian governments, environmental disaster, or other characteristics associated with a cataclysmic decline in society. Dystopian societies appear in many sub-genres of fiction and are often used to draw attention to real-world issues regarding society, environment, politics, economics, religion, psychology, ethics, science, and/or technology, which if unaddressed could potentially lead to such a dystopia-like condition.”
I personally love to watch them because, for me, they are a filter, a pair of special lenses which allows all of us to see the gaps in our world. Dystopian movies are creepy yet challenging. They force me to analyze where my social status would be in their world and how I can bridge the gaps of injustices.
Last week, I watched the dystopian movie Elysium. Throughout the story, there are two distinct living places – earth and an orbiting home in space called Elysium. For those who can afford it, Elysium is a place where the rich live far away from the poor, a place where any disease and most injuries can be healed by a machine. The humans on earth struggle to stay healthy, and they do not have access to such machines. The people and corporations on Elysium use the much poorer people on Elysium to make a profit. The people on earth are kept in check and even treated in a much harsher justice system than on Elysium.
As I watched the movie Elysium I wondered: Would I be on Elysium or on earth? What would happen if everyone on earth had the same privileges as the humans on Elysium? What would happen if people on our earth had the same basic privileges?
Another dystopian tale is The Hunger Games trilogy, and some of us went to see The Hunger Games:Catching Fire film in December. In this story, their country is divided into 12 districts plus the capitol. The people who live in the Capitol are not required to enter the games; however, the games are entertainment for them. They live in excess with flowing food, entertainment and drink. Their clothing and makeup style is surreal while those in the districts live in poverty and must fight to stay alive.
The Hunger Games makes me wonder: Which district would I live in, or would I live in the Capitol? What would happen if everyone in the districts earth had the same privileges as the humans at the Capitol?
In our society, we think we’re so far ahead of the curve but there are so many “isms” like racism and sexism that keep the playing field far from equal. I’m still getting to know the racial climate of Cincinnati, so I’m going to speak to my experience in St. Louis. The areas of north city and north county are predominantly African American while the areas of south county and west county are predominantly white with west county being wealthy white people. White flight still happens. People fear when others of another color move into their neighborhood. Instead of getting to know their neighbors, they only see color.
East St. Louis, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, was known for the white flight back in the 60’s and 70’s. When I’ve driven through parts of East St. Louis in the past few years, it feels like it’s another country – one ravished by war and poverty.
Furthermore, my friends at Eden Seminary felt uncomfortable going off of campus as people of color were often pulled over in Webster Groves. Even Webster Groves had unofficial segregation: a predominantly white area and predominantly African American area. As I am white, segregation and discrimination wasn’t something that I experienced, so all seemed fine from my position. By my seminary friends sharing their experiences and their fears of simply stepping off campus, my eyes opened to the area’s dreadful reality.
As this is the remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, opportunities open up for us to reflect on racial justice issues. I know this time of year gives me pause to ask myself how I could better stand up against unjust systems. While I may not be intentionally a racist, I must still ask in what ways do my thoughts and life choices hurt people who are racial and ethnic minorities? Are there things I could do to stand up against these unfair systems? How are my sins of neglect and indifference hurting my neighbor with less privilege and the Body of Christ?
I thank God that in every generation, we have people who are willing to be prophets, to teach us how to better treat our neighbors. They are willing to stand up to the unjust systems even to the point of death. Of course, we have Jesus the Christ, the one who taught us how to love one another, how to risk when our surroundings are full of injustice and how to give dignity to the expendables in our society.
The prophets of the Hebrew Bible stood up for the poor, widows, orphans and aliens. Throughout time, we’ve had people risk life and reputation to stand up for what they believe. Recently, these modern prophets include Mahatma Ghandi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. whose birthday we celebrate this weekend.
Granted, because of the leadership by people like Martin Luther King, Jr., official segregation washed away with the Civil Rights Act. Separate water fountains and restaurant counters ceased. Schools were integrated.
But there’s still unofficial segregation as we see when areas are predominantly inhabited by one color or another, or when the poor must choose between medication and food or when women make nearly 30% less than men when working, segregation still happens.
Yet the story is not over. There is still hope, a hope that Jesus saw in his lifetime and a hope that King preached about right before he died. King closes his final sermon by saying the following:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Deuteronomy 34 is the text in which King’s speech is referring. The day before he is assassinated, King gives this speech in support of sanitation workers who were striking in Memphis. The end of the speech is haunting. King is resonating with Moses at the end of Moses’ life. Moses never makes it to the promised land, much like King
Instead, it’s Joshua who leads them to the promised land.
Just as King was like Moses, are we called to be like Joshua – leading people to the promised land? Are we the ones called to be a true prophet and risk our lives to make sure all in our society have equality and dignity?
When I was thinking of a title, I originally decided to go with “Still on the Mountaintop.” But I was wrong. We’re so much farther than the mountaintop. We’re miles past the mountaintop. But we still have a ways to go to see a true new heaven and new earth, an actual promised land. And when people will stop being abused or murdered because of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender and sexual orientation, then we’ve gotten to the promise land. We will have created the Kingdom of God of which Jesus often spoke.
Let’s learn from our history – whether it’s the history of this country or the history of humanity. Let’s even learn from these crazy fictional dystopian stories by realizing that some people will always try to suppress the rights of others. Humans often feel like someone needs to lose in order for them to succeed. Maybe if we try to help all people succeed we will find our own success. As it says in Jeremiah 29:7 “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
That’s the type of vision King had for us and that’s the type of vision Jesus had for all of God’s children. There are no segregated neighborhoods. People aren’t arrested or pulled over based on the color of their skin.
So here’s our challenge today – working together to usher in the new heaven and new earth that’s mentioned in Revelation 21. We are called to usher in the promised land where all live together in love. Let us seek the welfare for all of the Body of Christ.
Can you see this promised land? We’re so close now… Close your eyes and listen to the Spirit of God inside of you… you will find it.