Greatness

Just the other day I watched “Thor: Ragnarok.” It was another entertaining saga in the Marvel Comics universe in which Thor and some of the Avengers appear.  And of course, in such films one is always on the lookout for Stan Lee, the founder of the Marvel universe. Let me just say you will never look at your barber or hair dresser the same way after seeing his cameo.

If you are a fan or planning to see the movie, I will try to give enough context – or [spoiler alert] you can read a description of the full plot here.

Central to the movie is the epic encounter between Thor, son of Odin, and – to his surprise – Hela, daughter and first born of Odin. Hela is the Goddess of Death and, by birthright, the heir to the Throne of Asgard – capital of the Nine Realms. If you are not into all the details of Asgard, Odin, Thor, etc… just go with capital of the universe. Not accurate, but it gives you an idea. Anyway…

Hela makes clear she intends to take over the throne and “make Asgard great again.” Her powers are considerable, and Thor is completely outmatched. With all the plots, subplots, where-did-that-come-from plot twists, amazing CGI, and all the rest – it is easy to pass right over the “make Asgard great again.” I have no doubts that line was intentional and intended to be commentary on the insatiable desire for power in the current American political sphere. Be that as it may, one should stop and consider what Hela desires, what a return to greatness looks like in her mind.

In all the previous Thor movies, Asgard is depicted as a defender of the universe and champion of peace – benevolent ruler over the nine realms. When it goes to battle it is always against very bad people. But Hela’s appearance reveals a very different past and path to Asgard’s current dominance. Hela reveals that Asgard’s dominion over the nine realms was not accomplished via Odin’s leadership, vision, or diplomatic skills. Odin, with Hela at his side, established that dominance through violent conquest. When his own lust for power subsided or his heart changed, Odin sought peace. Hela however was a warrior and goddess of death. The price for Asgardian peace meant imprisonment for Hela. But is also meant that Odin had to rewrite the narrative of his ascent to power. The movie powerfully depicts the papering over and subsequent the revelation of history unvarnished.

When Hela is released, Thor and the people of Asgard learn that everything they were told about Asgard and their history was a classic instance of the victors writing history. In this case, a lie. Because Odin refused to face the collective violent, oppressive and genocidal past, Thor and the people of Asgard are unable, unwilling and powerless to process the present moment. Hela offers a clear vision of a restored past – one awash in battle, honor, and conquest – the path that has already led to greatness. Thor and the good citizens of Asgard, with their past revealed, are offered the choice: embrace the unvarnished past or die. Hela will not allow any resistance to her reign and the vision of Asgardian greatness. To resist is to be attacked and killed.

The tagline “make America great again” had great caché in the last elections. Be careful what one wishes for. The path to greatness must always address the past. That was the lesson of Rwanda, South Africa, and so many other places. It was the role of the truth commissions that took place in all the villages of Rwanda. The soldiers of the Interhamwe were required to come forward and tell their role and their actions in order to be reintegrated into society. The refugees, most of whom were Hutu (the main tribal force behind the Interhamwe), had to acknowledge their tribal identity and what happened – even if they were completely innocent. The Tutsi people (a minority of citizens) needed to acknowledge the privilege they enjoyed during the time of European rule. Truth was the priority and precondition for reconciliation. In the light of truth, the hope was that their future will not repeat the past.

Are we prepared to look at the unfiltered history of how the United States got to this point in history? Do we use that history to think about current events in a context broader than the present. Consider the protests against the pipeline at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. If part of the vision is to make American great again by reducing dependence of foreign oil, this pipeline would carry up to 570,000 barrels of oil a day while creating 12,000 jobs in the area, $129 million in annual taxes, and reduce the overall dependence on foreign oil. If making America great again involves environmental protection, surely this project was a threat for oil spills and water pollution as the pipelines was to be bored under the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.

Most of the arguments were made on those bases. What about the story and history of the Standing Rock Sioux nation? In 1868 the lands of the Great Sioux Nation (Hunkpapa, Sihasapa bands and the Standing Rock Sioux) were reduced in the Fort Laramie Treaty to the east side of the Missouri River and the state line of South Dakota in the west. The Black Hills, considered by the Sioux to be sacred land, are located in the center of territory awarded to the tribe. In 1974 gold was discovered, and treaty or no, the Black Hills were invaded by prospectors. Then invaded by the US Army to protect the gold invaders. All that led to the Battle of Little Bighorn, but ultimately to the defeat of the confederation of Plains Native Americans. In 1890, the US simply broke the treaty in order to accommodate white homesteaders. Their compensation was to give each Native American family unit 320 acres in semi-arid lands and to force an agricultural life upon nomadic people. When the crop failed and the Native Americans began the Ghost Dance seeking the return of the buffalo, panic ensured among the Eastern United States. The result was the massacre at Wounded Knee. The story of Sioux people in the ensuing 127 years is a story most Americans don’t know – and yet were amazed at the resistance at Standing Rock.

What is the history we were taught? Custer was a hero, John Wayne was as American as it gets, and the destiny of the USA was manifest for all to see. Makes one rethink the remaking of greatness for America.

What about Robert E. Lee? A man of honor? An army officer who took an oath to defend and protect the United States only to resign his commission and take up arms against the nation he swore to defend? A valiant solder standing bravely against northern aggression in what became the lost, yet noble cause?

In one talk show, post-Charlottesville, one of the commentators made the broad suggestion that this was a “teaching moment” for white America to understand the truth of the nation’s rise to dominance: slavery, lynching, and a whole history of prejudice, injustice and more. The commentator suggested that white people needed to talk with people of color to understand their experience. An African-American commentator disagreed. His comment was “read a book, educate yourself.” In the last decades, I suspect more and more of the “papering over” of American history has been peeled back to reveal the American story – parts of which are shameful, but part of which are great.

“Thor: Ragnarok” gives us a choice when we consider “greatness.’ We can enjoy the myths of what it means to be great or we can know and embrace our history and decide what greatness really means.

Speaking of greatness….

You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)

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