Outside the Law: Persistent Memories of “The Star Chamber”

“Disgusted with criminals escaping the judicial system via technicalities, an idealistic young judge investigates an alternative method for punishing the guilty.” — IMDB, The Star Chamber, 1983

I saw The Star Chamber a long time ago, but the thing I remember most is being perfectly caught in the moral dilemma from the story’s first minutes. (Michael Douglas is above-average as usual; Hal Holbrook is amazing.)

Have we all not been there on some level?

You are doing what the system tells you is right. You follow the rules of the system, with the presumption that somewhere in all of your effort is justice. That outcome may not be obvious, but you just have to believe that following an agreed upon protocol is better than going rogue and making up your own rules.

It has to be. If it’s not, how are we to live?

If you are not familiar with The Star Chamber plot, you can read a good summary on Wikipedia. A young, idealistic judge who believes two child killers have been released on a legal technicality is recruited into a secret society of judges whose members order hits on criminals who “fall through the cracks” in the system. It is hard not to pull for this illegal but satisfying attempt to make bad men pay for their egregious crimes against humanity. You know from the beginning, however, that there is no way, no matter how much you want it to, that this can ever work.

It’s a classic tale of becoming the very thing you are trying to eradicate.

The writing is on the wall, but I still get drawn into this idea, the idea that we can fight a broken system by refusing to play by its rules. Beyond that refusal, we can create alternative systems that punish the corruption of the others. It all should work as long as no one screws up.

The thing I keep coming back to in these stories, the fictional ones and the ones I live in my own life, is the terrible mistake of believing that human beings can ever be part of something that isn’t flawed. It’s just the way we are. We want to be good, we want justice, we seek the right, but so often we are left bleeding from the shards of an imperfect world no matter how hard we try to fix things. It’s such an ancient understanding it fuels most creation myths, and yet somehow we struggle to accept what we know and have known since human beings started taking a look at ourselves.

There is no end to the debate over government vs. private business when it comes to which system offers the most ethical environment for decision-making. Government and public systems are fraught with rules and regs that often paralyze action and lead to limp results; by the time you schlog through all of the dos and do nots, you almost forget why you wanted to do anything in the first place. Private business can be efficient, but the efficiency can leave gaping holes in thoughtful processes, and cuts the time often needed to review a decision for consequences.

In The Star Chamber, a hit is ordered on presumed killers, only for the judges to learn the men were not in fact responsible for the death that prompted the order. That’s not a problem, they reason. We know they are bad men. They did something. If they are not to die for this crime, they surely deserve to die for other sins.

While my personal ethical lapses may seem minor compared to those in the movie, I know that they often trend around the same kind of thinking. This whole situation is wrong! It’s so messed up. Anything I do to fix some of this mess must be better than living with this broken situation.

Except it never, ever works that way. Ever. Not in the long run.

Prayers today for the family and friends of the slain U.S. Ambassador in Libya.

Prayers for my friend who is in the middle of an election year mess at work.

Prayers for my country as we continue to grieve and seek justice over a decade after the terrorist attacks.

Just….prayers for all of us.

(You can view one of the better movie clips available online here: http://www.artistdirect.com/video/star-chamber/55261)

“And You Know These Bad Men by Sight?”

Harrison Ford’s Witness is one of my all time favorite films. The Wiki entry includes these lines:

Witness was generally well received by critics and earned eight Academy Award nominations (including Weir’s first and Ford’s sole nomination to date).

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times rated the film four out of four stars, calling it “first of all, an electrifying and poignant love story. Then it is a movie about the choices we make in life and the choices that other people make for us. Only then is it a thriller—one that Alfred Hitchcock would have been proud to make.” He concluded, “We have lately been getting so many pallid, bloodless little movies—mostly recycled teenage exploitation films made by ambitious young stylists without a thought in their heads—that Witness arrives like a fresh new day. It is a movie about adults, whose lives have dignity and whose choices matter to them. And it is also one hell of a thriller.”

I’ve never been able to shake some scenes, and the clip above is one particular sticky example. It replays in my mind often, and lately every day.

Some critics dismiss Witness as “just another cop movie.” Others praise it for being “devoid of easy moralizing.”

This Sunday morning I am asking myself, what does my country want to be? Is the 21st Century U.S.A.  just another cop movie? Or will we be willing to go deeper?

Wishing you a day of peace and reflection.

Collusion & Confusion: The “Loyalty” Crisis at Penn State

  1. a secret agreement, especially for fraudulent or treacherous purposes; conspiracy.
  2. Law. a secret understanding between two or more persons to gain something illegally, to defraud another of his or her rights, or to appear as adversaries through an agreement.

I once had dinner with a counselor who worked for a nonprofit organization that supports victims of domestic violence.  One of her programs involved recruiting men who did not have a history of DV to meet with and counsel men who had been identified as abusers.  I am fortunate to know a lot of quality guys who (I thought) would be great in this role, and I mentioned I would like to make some referrals.

Her words were slow and measured, and I can’t forget them.

“It’s not as easy as finding great guys.  It is a very complex dynamic when men talk, and it takes an unusual person to avoid colluding with the abuser.”

This was years ago, and I still don’t think I’m over it.  I was instantly very upset and even angry and defensive internally when I heard her words.  These were my best guys, my husband, my brother-in-law, lifelong friends I was bringing her and she thought they had the potential to collude with these horrible, abusive, violent criminals?  I was offended, and though I never said anything but, “Thank you, I’ll think about that,” I did not pursue getting involved with the program.

In my heart I know the real reason I was upset by her words, and that is because I knew instantly that they were true.

All of us have the potential to become lost when we get involved with very layered and complicated relationships.  This is because it can be overwhelming, and seems instantly easier in a tough spot to just deal with a small moment in time.

I’m counseling this guy, and he just said “Sometimes my wife just gets so mouthy it wears me out, you know?  She won’t do anything I tell her, I just lose it, I smack her around to make her be quiet.  You’ve been there, right, man?”  And I say, “Right man, I know.  Marriage is tough.”  Because I’m thinking, what do I say? Maybe I can help him by relating, by gaining his trust……

And as easy as that, you are IN.  I’ve seen it a thousand times, both men and women, people not wanting to ignite or exacerbate an already volatile situation and you just think, I’ll get past this and then we will figure it out.  I’ve done it, and I bet you have, too.

Sometimes, maybe it’s the only way, and I know we all do the best we can with what we have where we are.  But this very sad and disappointing scandal at Penn State is a reminder that even good guys, the best guys, can get lost without a road map with a very simple set of directions, and from which you never — ever — deviate.

When someone commits a violent crime against another person, there cannot be time to buy and layers to work through before we take action.  That action must result in the perpetrator being confronted and held accountable by law enforcement.  Too often we seem to think that our calling the police is what gets a person in trouble, and of course that’s crazy.  When you punch your spouse in the face, or when you engage a child in a sex act (either with or without their implied consent) you are in trouble of your own making.

We can’t rely on the minimum required by institutional procedures and policies.

Decide with me today that you will call the police when you have knowledge of a crime against another person, and especially against a child.  Don’t ask questions, and don’t wait.  Decide with me today that loyalty to a just and peaceful society that protects children is the only “winning team” you care to be on.

(Here is the most haunting article on this situation I have read to date: http://www.cbssports.com/mcc/blogs/entry/5881996/33197750)

Recognizing Jesus: Some Thoughts on Faith and Reason

I recently heard a distinguished professor of religion and ethics discuss some of the more complicated elements of the New Testament. He was a fantastic speaker and knew his material so well he needed no notes and spoke almost nonstop for two hours, holding his audience of students spellbound with both his knowledge and humor.

My favorite moment was when he spoke about the body after resurrection.

“And then there’s the question, what is going on with the body after resurrection?   Jesus has a body.  But he seems to walk through walls.   Then he sits down to eat a meal with his disciples.   I guess the food is disappearing and going somewhere….and then he apparently meets up with people who know him and they don’t recognize him.   They don’t recognize him? Hello?  Why not?  Is he wearing Groucho glasses?”

The class fell out laughing, but it’s a serious question.  What does this mean anyway?

Our professor suggested this: “Maybe when you read something in ancient texts, and it doesn’t make any sense, maybe just maybe you’re not focused on what the writer is really trying to tell you.”  Of course, his big maybe was a polite and gentle way of saying that people get into all kinds of arguments about things that are not really the point.

I get nervous sometimes writing about my personal beliefs about God, in part because we do tend to focus on the wrong things. I worry that if express my questions and doubts in a public way that I will be judged, excluded, and distrusted.   I just read about someone I consider to be a very interesting thinker (John Dominic Crossan) who gets a lot of blowback for questioning some “unquestionable” tenets of the Christian belief system.

I don’t know that I am with Crossan or not, as I have not read his work; but I know myself, and from what I have read I am fascinated.  I also want him and anyone else to ask these questions, to talk about history and scholarship, and to facilitate an open conversation.   I think our understanding of history, of ancient cultures and people, of spirituality and religion, and of the human experience is only enriched by our ability to have respectful dialogue about the most mysterious questions.

Mother Theresa had doubts. It’s rational to admit that if she felt this way and struggled, then there is no one who doesn’t hit the wall.  To some extent I think the closer to the teachings of Jesus one tries to live, the more logical it is that doubts and questions will arise.  Is this really how I’m supposed to do it, because this is very often not one bit of fun, and I’m not sure anything is getting better for anyone as a result.  Do I understand this right?  I really, really don’t want to be doing this the wrong way, or it’s all for nothing.  (I think JC had that moment himself, as I recall…..hmmmm…….)

I like the idea from the lecture I attended, and from Crossnan. If it doesn’t make sense, the answer may not be I need to “have more faith.”   Maybe, just maybe, I’m not paying attention to the right thing.  More egos in the religious community need to allow for that very real possibility.

This Easter I’ll be on the lookout for my best understanding of the man we call Jesus of Nazareth.  Note to self:  If I don’t see him, it’s probably not because he’s wearing Groucho glasses.

Image credit: 3oneseven

ISO: Legitimacy

A philosophy professor of mine recently summed up human nature this way:

Human beings are legitimacy seeking creatures.  We want to know what the right thing to do is, and we will move heaven and earth to persuade ourselves that whatever we’ve done is somehow justifiable.

This came up after a couple of hours of our class discussing the ethics of cannibalism at sea, so you can imagine we had struggled through some weighty life and death problems in a short time span.  Our heads were swimming with issues and questions, and when our prof dropped the concept above you could hear in the room’s silence each person’s recognition on some level of this reality.

It’s a fascinating idea.

We all have a need to articulate our decisions in an ethical framework, but the drama creeps — or barrels — in when our frameworks are different.  Slightly different, a little bit of drama.  Very different?  War.

That is how we are, and it is hard to deny or ignore once it gets into your mind.  I find myself thinking, “Should I do this?  Should I do that?”  and quite often it matters not one whit to anyone but me.  There can be nearly nonexistent consequences beyond myself, and yet somehow I go through the right/wrong process whether it be an enormous decision affecting others or simply a choice affecting me.

Ethical decision-making is incredibly complex if you take it seriously.  The world is full of black-and-white moralists who want us all to believe along with them that the world and people in it are simple things.  Just follow this law, or that rule, or what that spiritual authority is believed to have said, and everything will be fine.  What evidence there is to support this idea, especially in the context of occasionally conflicting laws/rules/texts is not clear to me, but that does not stop it from being incredibly popular.

To be quite frank I’ve dropped a lot of handwringing over the years compared to how I used to be.  I once heard someone say, “Guilt is a useless emotion” and I’ve never forgotten it.  It changed my life.  Agonizing over things I cannot undo is pointless.  But attempting to resolve the decisions I have made into an ethical framework that works for me is important and ongoing in my life.  Naturally this begs the question, what the heck kind of person retrofits his or her ethics to assuage a fevered conscience?

Apparently, every kind.

Image credit: Follow Steph

The Big Game – Suited Up at the 40

It takes a while to really get it.  At the proverbial mid-field point myself, I would say I am still trying to live the reality every day, but better late than never.  Here’s how it works:

We think we are born naked, but we’re not really.  We are wearing tiny, invisible, game day uniforms.  Little knee pads, wee helmets, grippy cleats, the whole ensemble.  Over time we start to notice not only are we suited up, we’re on the field.  So is everyone else.

We look around and start trying to identify our team members.  We talk strategy, and possible plays, and rest periods and practice times.  Sometimes we lose teammates, and that hurts.  Sometimes we find out we are playing a position at which we are terrible, but fortunately we have the choice to move around.  Good teammates will let us do that.  Sometimes we get traded, and sometimes we get suspended.  We are injured, sometimes severely.  We win games.  We lose games.  We go into overtime.

Slowly it dawns on us that these things are not happening to us.  We are engaged in most outcomes, and certainly always in our responses to the dynamics of the game.  It’s a relief, and it’s also a humbling and sobering moment of truth.

One of biggest learning  points in The Big Game is that the refs are not ethical arbiters.  Law is only law, and what is legal or technically aligned with the rules of the game most often only coincidentally aligns with what is right.  Learning to know the difference and to respect what that difference requires of us is a demand of the game with no clock running down. 

It is always on.

There is no postponement of The Big Game.  We are all playing it right now, and the sooner the adults involved in the West Virginia AAA State Football tournament debacle wake up to that reality and what we are teaching kids with this ridiculous behavior, the better.  It may be too late, because at the moment the field is littered with nothing but losers as far as the eye can see.

On an up note, one great thing about The Big Game is that there is often a thrilling emergence of an unexpected hero.  My hope is that hero turns out to be the kids themselves.  Time will tell.

What’s Mine Is (not) Yours

Last week’s post Hey Irony wrangled a bit with the wild west of the Internet, knowledge v. information, and the often confusing environment of intellectual property.  After a cascade of inner conflicts, I’ve decided to take a new approach to imagery used on Esse Diem.

Copy Copy Copy....Right

I try to use my own photographs when I can, but have often fallen back on Google images to represent some of the themes in various posts.  I have struggled with finding some great pictures that in my heart of hearts I know must “belong” to someone, but when I find them they are so long-lost to their original source and uncredited I can’t credit them either.  Frankly, I’ve just gotten tempted by the easy access to things that don’t belong to me. 

I think some people call that stealing.

I rationalized some images because I thought surely they would be credited if anyone cared; but after reading the article that inspired Hey Irony, I’ve realized that is far from the case.  There are no rules governing most of the Internet and therefore most blogging, yet even when there are no rules there are ethics in play.  It’s true on the Internet and it’s true everywhere.  Ethics are harder because there is no one to give you a black and white answer, so often we shrug and say, “Well, I didn’t know the rules.”

What I do know is that I revere the concept of intellectual property.  The image of Jeff Bridges, for example, came from the International Movie Data Base and clearly is an artistic treatment of a photograph taken by a professional.  It is beautiful, creative, unique….and it belongs to someone who should get credit for it.  If I can’t find that person I need to find another solution.

This week, the solution at Esse Diem is original drawings by my husband Jamie.  Among other things, he is an artist who draws and sketches daily, writes poetry, and regularly creates delicious meals for friends and family.  His drawings are spontaneous, clever, and whimsical.  I am honored to have his visual interpretations of the post themes this week.