Saturday, March 12, 2011

Following Bud Fox and Esther in Resisting Temptation

A post by Bill Mefford

It was through the 1987 film, Wall Street, that I learned more about temptation than I ever learned at church. In the film Bud Fox opts for a quick path to affluence by ignoring the ethical constructs with which he was raised. For Fox, it is a battle between two fathers for control of his identity, even his soul. His father, played by Martin Sheen, is the airline mechanic who, though continually beaten down by forces much greater than himself, finds his power through his solidarity with his union and his unwavering belief that hard, steady, honest work is the only way to progress in life and as a person.

Gordon Gecko, on the other hand, is the father of Fox's ambitions: a man of power and wealth, whose monologues throughout the film reflect a cycnical realism where the individual is the final arbiter of all that is good and right. Justice, for Gecko, is ultimately utilitarian; doing anything to maintain one's own position and security at the top of the established social order. At the end of the film, Fox faces an impending jail term for giving in to the temptations offered by Gecko, yet experiences his liberation as he tells Gecko that he betrayed Gecko because he realized in all his attempts to be like Gordon Gecko, he will always just be Bud Fox. His father's ethic is rediscovered and it is that which saves Fox.

Many of these same lessons are found throughout Scripture of course, as we see once again in the story of Esther, which we discussed last week. In this book, all of the characters face temptations as well. And I believe these are instructive for where we are in our struggle to defend the rights of immigrants.

To recall, Haman schemes his way into the number two position in the Assyrian Kingdom and takes great offense at Mordecai's refusal to bow down before him. Haman, like Gecko, determines that justice is best attained through securing one's position and security by any and all means, including elimination of those who oppose him. Any attempts to challenge the rigid social order are seen as subversive to the point that Mordecai becomes a public enemy of the state, and he and his race must be annihilated.

While I think there are challenges to comparing the Scriptural context to the current day, I believe we can find points of convergence in some of the underlying values and messages. For instance, Haman's treatment of Mordecai and the Jews is an extreme form of objectification as he carelessly is willing to throw their lives away when they no longer are deemed useful. While not nearly as extreme, this corresponds with the way that immigrants are often treated today. While it is commonly said by the media and elected leaders, including the President, that immigrants often do the jobs no other Americans want to do and that they are necessary to our economy, there has been little public outcry against the state-sponsored terror initiated by the Bush Administration and increased exponentially by the Obama Administration through indiscriminate raids, indefinite detention, and an alarming increase in the deportations of immigrants. The Department of Homeland Security is undertaking a mass family separation strategy and it is nothing less than immoral. The economic usefulness of immigrants, the demonization of immigrants by the media and elected leaders, the tragic number of deaths in the desert with zero public concern, and the state-sponsored terror directed against them reveal our society's objectification of immigrants.

More instructive though from the story of Esther are the temptations both Mordecai and Esther faced and how they responded.

Mordecai, in chapter 4, is presented with an alluring temptation that could have been disastrous for him and his people. Mordecai, joined by others in provinces where the edict to destroy the Jews was read, puts on sackcloth and ashes, and protests in front of the city gate in order to move Esther to action. Esther's isolation by her place in society is so entrenched that she has no idea what is happening to her own people. Her handmaidens are the ones who have to come and tell her about Mordecai sitting in sackcloth and ashes.

What is so stunning of course, is her response to Mordecai's protest: she sends down clothes for him to put on. Thus, the temptation for Mordecai is to react to Esther's tepid action by stopping his protest and perhaps trying other (more acceptable) ways to protest this edict. Or he could simply accept the current social order where Jews have no rights and are mere objects for the Assyrian rulers to use and then throw away.

Mordecai's choice, I believe, is in some ways a similar choice facing immigrant communities today. Immigrants can accept the status of objects, less than human, used for building the U.S. economy by working perpetually in low-income jobs no one wants, or waiting to be forceably ripped apart from their families and detained in private prisons for months at a time before being deported. Immigrants can be satisfied with the nice rhetoric of the President as he speaks of the importance of immigrants in the history of the United States and of his support for such things like "comprehensive immigration reform" while his policies continue to break up families and deport people at an unbelievable pace. The hypocrisy is stunning. The Administration mouths the words of compassion, while engaging in policies that are terrorizing.

Mordecai refused to accept the clothes sent down by Esther. And in doing so, he refuses to let her off the hook. She must act, she must risk, she must use her access to power redemptively so that those, like Mordecai, who do not have that same access may move from objectification to humanization. Immigrants can follow Mordecai and refuse to buy the rhetoric of politicians like President Obama and force him to act, to risk, to use his political capitol for the good of others and not merely for his own re-election. Immigrants can force him even now to stop such programs of state-sponsored terror as 287g and Secure Communities, and to grant administrative relief to DREAM Act students and the families of citizen children.

And of course, Esther faces her own temptations as well. She tries to get out of risky engagement by sending down clothes to Mordecai. That could have been so easy. Just do a little mercy, satisfy the immediate need identified from the comfort of her (suburban) palace (by other people than herself no less), and she could have gone on with her life. But Mordecai refuses the clothes, reminds her that her own life, her own identity that she has somehow forgotten because of her rise to affluence, is also at stake. And so she now must risk, she must reach out in her position and urge the King to rescind the edict.

She of course does and saves her people. She resists the temptation to allow herself to be paralyzed by the enormity of the injustice, or the enormity of the force of government bearing down on her people. What she did was utter bravery. She resists the temptation to allow her perspective to be tainted - as it so often is for those who benefit from the social order - to see the problem of injustice as one that is actually the problem of the victims than a problem of unjust systems. She could have easily joined others in saying that Mordecai "earned" his fate by not bowing down. No, Esther redemptively uses her place in society to defend the rights of her people, the Jews.

And should we.

Those of us in positions of power (those of us with legal status, in other words) must resist the temptation to feel overwhelmed by the power of the federal government being used right now in a mass family separation strategy and instead, we must fight harder than ever against the enforcement-first (read enforcement-only) strategy of the Obama Administration. We must act and risk our own position in the social order to push President Obama to do the same and provide administrative relief for undocumented immigrants. We must resist the temptation, as benefactors of the current social order, to join the media (and it is not just Fox News) and elected leaders in blaming immigrants for the mess of the broken system. It is not their fault, and they should not be forced to endure state-sponsored terror, discrimination, and massive family separation because the United States benefits from their labor but refuses to ackowledge their dignity.

Mordecai and Esther refused to give into temptation and I thank God for that. I pray we will do the same and that our ending will also find a people saved from danger and restored to full humanity. Like Bud Fox and like Esther, may we find our own liberation in advocating tirelessly for the protection of the rights of our immigrant brothers and sisters.

1 comment:

  1. Who knows but that we have come for such a time as this.