Today there will be a march in downtown Detroit commemorating the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's march down Woodward Avenue and his subsequent speech that previewed his famed "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, DC. King, like Gandhi, sought to pursue social change and justice via nonviolence. There were others then and now who believe that only violence can permanently change our realities. We often refer to these violent actions as terrorism. In this essay my friend Bruce Epperly reflects on the message of the movie The East, which focuses on eco-terrorism. I invite you to reflect on the question of the pursuit of justice -- should we take the route of nonviolence or violence?
Justice, Vengeance, and Terrorism:
The Provocative Message of “The East”
Bruce G. Epperly
Films can raise important ethical questions and challenge our accustomed uses of language in the public sphere. The recently-released film “The East,” directed by Zal Batmanglij and written by Batmanlij and actress Brit Marling, invites us to ask, “Who are the terrorists in our midst – the obvious ones, whose violence directly harms persons, or the more subtle white collar managers, whose behavior destroys the ecosystem? How should justice-seekers respond to the destructive behaviors of corporations, governments, and other institutions?”
In the spirit of one strand of biblical justice, a group of eco-avengers give corporate managers a taste of their own medicine: they dump oil in the home of a CEO whose corporation is responsible for a marine catastrophe, give poisoned medicine to corporate leaders whose medication’s side effects include death and neurological damage, and force a corporate CEO and Vice-president to jump into a pond polluted by their illegal dumping. While the group is publically known as “The East,” and described as eco-terrorists, they see their work as that of righting-wrongs and balancing the scales of suffering, based on the ancient principle of lex talionis, “an eye for an eye a tooth for a tooth.”
“The East” (the film is named after a violent ecological justice group) raises a number of ethical issues. First, it raises the issue of our definition of terrorism. Broadly speaking, terrorism relates to “systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective.” Groups that commit acts of violence are often described as terrorist, especially if they are considered political extremists or are motivated by their fidelity to Islam. Seldom do we describe those who bomb abortion clinics as terrorists, although they claim to be motivated by their Christian faith and have clear political objectives. Both groups create a climate fear. While defining corporations as terrorist groups is more difficult to pin down, the violent actions of The East are motivated by the belief that corporations create a climate of fear among those who experience the pain of cancer, nerve disorders, and economic exploitation. Members of The East believe that corporations, driven by a type of economic fundamentalism that inspires them to place profit ahead of environment and personal well-being, contribute to the deaths of innocents. They are scandalized that such corporations may be accused of illegality (although their punishment hardly ever fits the crime) but never terrorism or crimes against communities, humanity, and the environment.
The general populace and media respond to political terrorism with fear and the desire for swift justice. Such feelings are often justified given the violent actions of these individuals and groups. In contrast, corporations are often applauded for their contribution to the economy and shared holder wealth. Their litany “this will create jobs” trumps the well-being of children and the natural habitat. Death and destruction are simply part of the cost-benefit analysis, or the cost of doing business. There will always be casualties, or side effects, from medications that help people or businesses that provide employment.
Perhaps, the word “terrorism” should either be eliminated from our public vocabulary as an unhelpful word that puts an end to all rational reflection. Lacking that, we should use the word with clear precision or broaden it to include any group that commits direct or indirect violence to the community. In the latter case, the term eco-terrorism would embrace violent cell groups, like the East, and corporations, whose actions destroy the environment through intentional and illegal misconduct.
Second, “The East” asks the question: How shall we respond to corporate injustice? The Hebraic tradition has many instances of “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” ethics: injustice and oppression have consequences, whether to the first-born male children of Israel, the wealthy landowners of Judah and Israel, or the Babylonian dynasty. Certain portraits of God speak of God as the avenger of injustice and the advocate of the oppressed, not just in word but in act. Actions by groups such as The East fit the notion that judgment needs to be meted out on evildoers; these groups, however, do not have government authorization and thus fall out of the usual norms of justice-making.
The other option is the more difficult one: the pathway way of persuasion rather than violence. “The East” raises this as a slower, more subtle, but effective approach to institutional injustice and violence.
The moral arc of history is slow, but relentless, and the lives of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Desmond Tutu testify to the patient, but determined quest for justice that appeals both to the highest values of the oppressor and the political realities of the time. The way of Jesus is the way of non-violence, and it is also the way of the cross, not just the cross of suffering love and personal sacrifice, but the cross of surrendering the desire for swift vengeance for the long haul quest for justice that allows the oppressor and oppressed to find common ground. The way of non-violent justice-seeking is motivated by a belief that the oppressor can be redeemed and, accordingly, needs to be presented with the opportunity to change her or his ways.
I take the path of Gandhi, King, Tutu, and Mandela. I seek peaceful transformation. Yet, the quest for peaceful transformation needs to be undergirded by broader definitions of corporate and white collar crime. Often apparently indirect and non-intrusive (that is, non-physical) forms of violence wreak more havoc over the long haul than direct physical violence. The subtle violence of pollution, economic stress, physical illness, and environmental devastation may be more harmful to the overall populace than singular acts of violence. At the very least, our era of global climate change calls for new understandings of crime and a transformation of our national spirit, so that corporate greed and malfeasance is put on a par with individual acts of violence. I am grateful to the makers of “The East” for raising these challenging and subtle ethical issues.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual teacher, pastor, and author of twenty five books, including Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel and Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He will begin as Pastor of South Congregational Congregational United Church of Christ, Centerville, MA, on Cape Cod in July.