As usual I arrived to the theater without a plan. I knew neither the films nor the times they played. After realizing that we had a choice between waiting an hour and a half and hoping for tons of previews, my friends and I decided to rush in and catch The Karate Kid with Jackie Chan. In this film a single mother from Detroit and her son get the chance to start a new life halfway across the world in Beijing. The boy, Dre Parker, struggles to adjust to the world his mother finds so intriguing despite the fact that the culture resembles that of the U.S. in every way, at least according to what the movies tell us. Perhaps he has such a hard time for this very reason. The school he attended comes complete with school lunch bullies to contest, and cute girls to woo. This combination leads to big trouble. Fortunately, the maintenance man at his apartment complex knows Kung-Fu. He bargains a truce between Dre and his enemies by convincing them to settle their differences in an upcoming Kung-Fu tournament. The maintenance man now has to teach his new pupil Kung-Fu, hence The Karate Kid. Yeah, I don't understand the title either.
As I watched this movie, I couldn't help but compare Dre's new life in a strange land to my experiences here. I have never traveled to China. I don't really know anything about life there, so I will just assume that everything I see in this movie accurately represents real life, which we know Hollywood movies always do.
For those who arrive late, the film opens with Dre in a public park in Beijing challenging some old men to ping-pong. Shortly after realizing his inadequacy in this endeavor, another kid his age challenges him to talk to the cute girl sitting on a nearby park bench. This begins a fascinating exchange of dialogue, and not because Dre's interest in the girl were particularly riveting, but because it revealed something about Hollywood's China that surprised me. Shortly after a failed attempt at speaking Chinese, he realizes that she already speaks his language. For English-speakers who've traveled the world, it comes as no surprise that our hero could find a place where people speak English. But I find it wholly remarkable how everyone there speaks fluent Spanish. I would have guessed that as many people speak Spanish in China as speak Chinese in El Salvador: a few, but you'd really have to know where to look. Some will say that they really did speak English and relied on dubbing to communicate to a larger audience. Nonsense! I like to think that China sees the Spanish-speaking world as an important cultural influence, a world power to communicate with in order to compete economically and hold prestige in their lives. Surely everyone pays attention to every move Spanish-speaking countries make. Such communication would bring honor and success to many.
Shortly after his exchange with the girl, a bully challenges Dre to a fight then executes several dishonorable moves as he submits our hero to an embarrassing defeat.
This bully, it turns out, belongs to the prestigious Kung-Fu School of Evil, or something like that, who chants its motto, "No weakness, no pain, no mercy," at every meeting. This kung-Fu club will cause hardship for Dre until Jackie Chan's character negotiates the tournament solution. They constantly threaten and intimidate him to the point where they danger his physical and psychosocial wellbeing. Fortunately, he finds a way to overcome his oppressors. He finds a tradition that keeps the violent powers from drowning his hopes and his soul. The tradition shows him a better way.
Unfortunately, too many organizations throughout the world really do live by the creed, "No weakness, no pain, and no mercy." Too many choose to solve problems with violence. Too many people have to face the reality of that violence every day. In The Karate Kid, we see how a group of people who push their weight around while marking their territory can disrupt the lives of everyone else. As hard as Dre had it in Hollywood's China though, he had an easy life compared to many in the world. He could leave and explore the city with friends feeling perfectly safe. His bullies only bothered him and did not come after his family members. They did not use firearms. They did not require their members to kill just to join. Too many people around the world face the reality of violence every day.
El Salvador has seen its share of violence through the years. It has a history plagued with massacres and war. Though those have passed, the violence has hardly let up. Organized gangs push their weight around and mark their territory. People who live or work where they operate have to pay a "rent" if they want to pass without physical harm. The country of El Salvador can expect ten to fifteen or more murders every day, despite the efforts of the police and armed forces. The weight of violence can break people down, and we can't just negotiate a peaceful tournament for a nice Hollywood ending. Yet the people, like Dre, need to find a way to overcome their oppressors. The people need a tradition that keeps the violent powers from drowning our hope, from drowning our souls. For this reason, the Salvadoran Lutheran Church stands together with other faiths and organizations in proclaiming, "No more violence!"
This year, the Lutheran Church of El Salvador celebrates its 24th anniversary with the theme, "No to violence, yes to life," to guide its ministries for the year. In the days leading up to the anniversary on August 6th, we held several events in honor of this goal, culminating in a march through the streets of San Salvador.
Thousands showed up to the march, giving an impressive demonstration of the values of the church. But the most impressive events I attended were the retreats in the preceding days. Women from a visiting group invited me to the women's retreat to translate, so I had the good fortune to witness such a powerfully moving event. They invited participants to come forward to share their thoughts on this year's theme. Many women spoke, providing some powerful testimonies. But few complained of the hardship associated with the gangs, although they certainly had those experiences on their minds. Instead they called the women to come together and do their part in reducing the violence. Violence often begins at home, and we each have a responsibility to create an atmosphere of peace. We aim not to take down the institutions that plague us, but to build up ourselves and the communities we take part in every day. If we act violently before our children, then our children learn violence, but a house that works for peace will have children that work for peace. Whoever we are, we can take actions that proclaim louder than words, "No to violence, yes to life!"
At the youth retreat, teenagers from all over the country broke up into groups to discuss the various types of violence, psychological, emotional, cultural, and others which often lead to physical violence. They then brainstormed ways that the youth could include everyone, and commit to building a society not based on fear, but on love. Dre from The Karate Kid made a commitment to long hours of training and discipline to overcome his oppressors. In the same way, the Lutheran youth of El Salvador have made commitments that should challenge youth everywhere, that we can work together to help those around us. When we see somebody suffering, we can say, "No more violence."
Everyone can take part in a tradition that keeps the violent powers from drowning our hope. Dre found it in the ancient art of kung-Fu. The Karate Kid provided a simple, fun diversion from the real world and a refreshing breather from the effects-driven films Hollywood normally puts out. But this diversion calls out to a deep-seeded human need, the need to take part in something greater, something that will help us stand up to the craziness and provides the peace we need. Jesus took part in such a tradition so many centuries ago, and he continues to call to us today. Do we have what it takes?
Wax on! Wax off!
Nicholas Green serves in El Salvador as a long-term volunteer with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of El Salvador. He supports the National Youth, with the Family and Gender Program of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of El Salvador. He also assists with the Communications Program.