Andres: Terrible and beautiful

Oct 9, 2017 by

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Netflix has released First They Killed My Father, based on the experience of Loung Ung, who as a child survived the Pol Pot regime during the Khmer Rouge years in Cambodia.

Carmen Andres

Andres

It is a compelling story of individual suffering and the personal toll of a horrific period in history. The story has galvanizing relevance today.

Director Angelina Jolie co-wrote the script with Loung, whose book provides the source material. The film peels away the layers of politics and history and gives a human face to the genocide of a quarter of Cambodia’s population.

Jolie crafts the story so that we experience the horrors of war, hunger, violence and loss through the eyes of a child. This adds power to the rare moments that bring comfort: a smile, a kind voice, the gentle touch of a hand and, somewhat paradoxically, stunning images of natural beauty.

Some critics thought Jolie’s use of beauty weakened the film, but I found it haunting. It brought to mind N.T. Wright’s observation in Simply Christian about the power of beauty to evoke awe, gratitude and reverence — and give witness to the good creation of a good God — while also leading us to a question: How can a good creation be full of so much suffering?

As we grapple with that, Wright points out that beauty also reminds us of its Creator, who is working to complete what he began: rescuing us and creation.

Beauty is a powerful “signpost to a larger beauty, a deeper truth,” which our desperate-to-be-put-right world is destined to be a part of when it is rescued, healed, restored and completed.

In other words, images of beauty in the midst of suffering fashion to a sharp point a longing for the world-put-right — and galvanize us to take part in that putting-right.

For me, that’s what beauty does in this film.

Images of refugees today began overlapping in my mind with those seen through Loung’s eyes: News footage of roads strewn with the discarded belongings of refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East. Memories of Syrian children I watched play in the squalor of tent settlements in Leb­anon. The haunted eyes of an Iraqi mother as she told me how she found the shattered body of her 5-year-old son killed by a bomb.

The images of beauty don’t anesthetize Loung’s suffering or that of the refugees I’ve met. They acutely sharpen my awareness of suffering — and of our call to enter into that suffering.

I recently heard Wright share how the Holy Spirit leads us to “the dark and suffering parts of the world.” As the Spirit leads us through the wilderness of our part in the biblical story and toward the new creation at its end, Wright says we ourselves are “walking models of recreation.” We share the pain of the world along the way, reflecting future glory here and now. We bring good news and light to the places that need it, just like Jesus.

Luong’s story and the stories of the millions of refugees in the world today confront us with dark and suffering parts of the world too often buried by politics, apathy or ignorance. We must listen to them — and to the Spirit, who demands we enter into that suffering as agents of the new creation.

Carmen Andres, a former editor of the Mennonite Brethren magazine Christian Leader, lives in Alexandria, Va.


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