Thursday, June 24, 2010

Slavery and forgiveness

Since I live within walking distance of the local University, I have the tremendous opportunity to serve as a "Homestay Mom" for international students. My current homestay student is from China and she has returned home for a few weeks, during the semester downtime.

Before she left, she asked if we could watch the movie "Memoirs of a Geisha." The movie features several prominent Chinese actresses, even though it is based on a Japanese cultural phenomenon. So, I decided to invite a friend from church along with my other room mate and make a regular gathering out of it, where we might bring the gospel to bear on some of the key themes.

Disclaimer: Although the movie is rated PG-13, it really is pretty morally offensive, so I would NOT RECOMMEND this movie to anyone young and impressionable. Essentially, a geisha is nothing more than a glorified prostitute. And while the film really highlights the dark and disturbing undersides of this past cultural practice, my major concern was that it seemed to also play into the many Hollywood stereotypes that portray women as primarily objects of lust.

The key redemptive themes that we focused on in our discussion after the movie were the ideas of slavery and forgiveness. The main character is a seven-year-old orphan sold into slavery with the intent that she will eventually go into prostitution until she can pay back her keep to the house mother where she is being raised as a slave.

It is a sincerely heart-wrenching tale, with dozens of relationships that are marked primarily by master-and-servant type roles. The woman who runs the prostitution home keeps all of the inhabitants in bondage to her whims and will, until one of them can earn enough money to buy the property and take it over. Since she sees Sayuri as a threat, rather than her best bet for the future of the home, she treats her exceptionally badly as a slave. The male protagonist owes his life to another businessman, dating back to when the two were young men and served together in war. All of his decisions in the movie are filtered through the other man's priorities.

What stood out the most in our conversation is how the characters, in addition to being in materialistic slavery to one another, also held deep seated grudges against one another, waiting for the day when they would exact vengence on the one who had wronged them. Several of the characters even harbored their bitterness secretly for decades, until they could "pay the other person back" (even though everyone else had completely forgotten about the origin of the offense.)

The only real brightspots in this movie (other than the visually stunning cinematography) occurred when the two lead characters were faced with their own moments of truth, and in both cases, they chose to forgive and to actually bless the others who had harmed them deeply.
  • "The Chairman" does not reject Sayuri for a major indescretion on her part, he forgives her and makes her his 'half wife.' Any other benefactor would have cast her away into a life of destitution for what happened (mostly because of their own wounded pride).
  • When Sayuri is made proprietor of the home, rather than enslaving or throwing out her "mother" who had treated her so maliciously and kept her as a slave, Sayuri allows her to continue to keep everything she has and to be the "mother."
So, while there were semi-redemptive ideas happening here, they were all seriously overshadowed by the fact that the characters were motivated by prostitution and possessions.

In our discussion, we focused on slavery and forgiveness as two sides of what was happening. We discussed how uncommon it is to see forgiveness practiced not only in this movie, but also in our day and age. Then we talked about how Christ has forgiven us for every wrong that we have done, no matter how bad. Not only things that we've done against other people, which can be really, really horrible, but also the wrongs that we have committed against a holy and loving God, who created us and every good thing that we have.  Because Christ has forgiven us completely, we actually have the freedom to walk away from horribly abusive lifestyles like prostitution. And because we Christians have received such awesome mercy, we now joyfully offer forgiveness to others who have done wrong to us (most of the time.)

We acknowledge that some non-Christians do have a sense of forgiveness, which is great, but it's not based on the ultimate undeserved forgiveness of God that we have experienced in Christ. So, they are not truly free. We also recognized that it is true that some Christians don't practice forgiveness either as they should. But when we don't forgive, we are actually enslaving ourselves by rejecting that which in fact makes us free.

Then I realized how much I need to continue to internalize the message of forgiveness myself. Unforgiveness for a Christian is self bondage. As difficult and painful asthe process of true forgiveness can seem, the trade-off is being set free from dark, disturbing and empty oppression. And so, I press on...

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