The Austin Chronicle

A Letter From Guest Editor Ethan Hawke

Blaze director on why it's time for us all to act like grownups and demand integrity from our elected officials

By Ethan Hawke, August 17, 2018, Features

Maybe it's because I was born here. Maybe it's because so much of the best of my work life has originated from this city, maybe its because I've had articles from the Chronicle taped to my fridge since I had my own apartment, but the privilege of being the guest editor of The Austin Chronicle is deeply meaningful to me.

This summer I have two very personal films coming out. Blaze is about a singer-songwriter, Blaze Foley, who died in the same hospital where I was born. Much of this issue is inspired by my experience directing that film. The other, Paul Schrader's First Reformed, completes a family mission – with me finally wearing a cleric's collar.

When I was born in Austin in 1970 my parents were UT students living in a garage apartment on the grounds of the Episcopal seminary on East 32nd Street. According to family lore, my great-grandmother considered this to be a sign I was going to be a preacher, and the idea gathered momentum as I grew up, without my blessing. I wanted to be an artist. So I matured with a vague foreboding of that mysterious thing my Grandma Dell referred to as "the call." I was greatly relieved when all the evidence indicated (and my family agreed) that the arts were the more appropriate call for me to answer. I can always "play" a priest, I rationalized, but it took 50 movies to happen.

But now at last, in First Reformed, I play Reverend Toller, a religious man consumed by a blistering spiritual crisis. Having lost his son in the war in Afghanistan, and having lost his marriage in the wake of that grief, his lifelong faith in the church is leaving him, fast. He imagines more dramatic and radical action than prayer and contemplation, and begins to emulate what other religious activists have done. Could he do for our environment what John Brown attempted to do for the abolition of slavery?

I took on this role in the days after Obama left office and Trump was inaugurated. The issues that harrow my character – namely, climate change and our country's relationship to big business – were in the news daily. With my character's views, wounds, and concerns positioned in the forefront of my brain I read the paper and watched the news differently than before. I saw the news through the eyes of a reverend.

Baptized and confirmed in the Christian faith, the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth are deeply ingrained in my psyche: "Do to others as you would have them do to you." "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." "You cannot serve both God and money." "Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you, and pray for those who persecute you." "Blessed are the peacemakers." And as Anne Lamott might say, "a general humility before whatever force created redwood trees." Now watching the coverage of the central issues of our day (health care, immigration, environment, terrorism) through my character's eyes, my normal perception was honed.

Why is it we so rarely discuss our political views in the light of a spiritual context? We see politicians citing the name of God incessantly but rarely do we engage with anyone other than those who share our views, in any meaningful, grownup conversation about what prayer and God really mean. Most of us, myself included, still have the same relationship to our spiritual life that we had as youth: automatic rituals, memorized prayers, superstitious habits. Rarely do we ask ourselves, "By what moral ballast am I guiding my everyday actions and political views?"

In First Reformed, my character is asking himself these questions. Most critically: How can we be so nearsighted as to put personal comfort and short-term financial gain before the preservation of the air we breathe, or before the water our children drink? How did that topic not come up once in four televised national debates among the potential leaders of our own country and the world? Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, and many other spiritual leaders can be heard to say again and again, "If you care about only one thing, it should be our environment."

People I deeply love voted for Donald Trump, not because they didn't understand he was a disingenuous snake-oil salesman but because, they reckoned, at least he didn't try to pawn himself off as a good or noble person, and because they thought the Democrats did not understand how corrupt Hillary Clinton had become. I was reminded of high school friends who hated our sanctimonious school principal so badly they thought vandalizing the gymnasium would help.

My great-grandmother moved to Texas from Alabama in 1907. Her son, my grandfather, was a five-term Texas state legislator and two-term Tarrant County judge. My mother, who now lives west of Fort Worth, is a self-proclaimed yellow dog Democrat. My father, who now lives north of Dallas, almost always votes for Republicans. I grew up understanding and respecting both parties' platforms and positions. I was taught that this duality of approach is what made our country strong. In my grandfather's vernacular, "the bedrock of democracy is loyal opposition." He would often say, "You run on your differences, but you govern from where you are united." I grew up believing that, by and large, Republicans were common-sense, practical, moral people. Democrats were progressive, forward-thinking folks. Both parties were full of good Americans.

But this last election, the only thing that mattered to certain members of my family was that Hillary lose. We never really debated the issues. It was more like we were arguing over sports teams. One said, "It's just in the Clintons' faces. They're so smug. Don't you see it? Entitled and supercilious! Obama too!" The way one family member spoke reminded me of the disparaging things I say about the way Steph Curry chews his mouth guard. Yet I realize that if Steph played for the Knicks, I would love his pacifier-gnawing cockiness.

My family and I could disagree heartily over the individuals running for president but rarely did we ever get into the real nitty-gritty social policies that the candidates would champion when elected. It wasn't until Charlottesville that the dinner table erupted. We were unanimous in finding our president's racist behavior nauseating and started talking about what to do about it. I asked my Green Beret brother to watch the New Orleans mayor's speech about why the statues must come down. My brother spoke sensitively and intelligently to my son and me about the difficulties in leading transgender troops into battle. We each heard one another and acknowledged that there were rational arguments on both sides.

Most people, regardless of religious background, can agree that "doing unto others as we would have them do unto us" is a sound principle in which to root our everyday behavior. Most of us want to be good stewards of the land. Most of us want sick children to get the medicine they need. So why do some members of my family seethe over the Affordable Care Act as if Obama was deliberately trying to cause them pain? Why does my mother simply overlook any Democrat's adultery, untruths, or other failings but when Republicans do the same, they are "so hypocritical"? Why did we as a nation have to watch Paul Ryan smirk and sneer at virtually anything Obama had to say? Why is "Resist!" now the left's uniting call to arms? When did our identity as Americans become superseded by our identity as watchers of Fox News or CNN? My brother, whom I otherwise greatly admire, says he doesn't care if the Russians tampered with the election "as long as Hillary lost!" Why doesn't he see the danger in this way of thinking?

When I was a kid, House Speaker Tip O'Neill fought stridently with President Reagan but also openly admired him as a man of honor and good intentions. In the words of O'Neill's son, "While neither man embraced the other's worldview, each respected the other's right to hold it." I remember hearing prominent Republicans talk about what a fine Christian/husband/father Jimmy Carter was. I remember all of us cheering George H.W. Bush as he tore off a piece of the Berlin Wall. That was a victory for freedom, democracy, and hope for the whole world – not just for America or just for the Republican Party.

I remember during a break on the set of First Reformed, with my black robes on, a priest's collar and a silver cross around my neck, I looked at the news and saw Christian evangelicals laying hands on our president and praying with him. I wondered what exactly are they praying for? A wall? Lower taxes for the rich? Have they read the same New Testament I have read? I can still see the sentences printed in red and circled with a lead pencil in my great-grandmother's Bible:

A new command I give you: Love one another… Blessed are the merciful… As you wish that men would do to you, do so to them… For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and everyone who humbles himself will be exalted.

These men surrounding the president seemed to be advocating for laws that were in direct opposition to the teachings of the gospels. It doesn't make any sense to me. What does make sense immediately, is why our forefathers thought the separation of church and state was so essential to the foundation of lasting freedom. History has proven human beings cannot be trusted not to turn any religious teaching, no matter how benevolent, to suit their own greed and often murderous personal goals. Clearly in governance, we must rely on the law. That way, our faith can be our own.

Before he died, my grandfather asked me, "When did we start calling ourselves 'capitalists'? We are a democracy. We are the great democratic experiment. And that means equality for all under the rule of law, political freedom, and the separation of church and state. Those are the radical ideas that make this country special. At our best, we work for the common good, not just our own personal financial interests, and at a minimum, nobody gets to define God for anyone else. That's what freedom is all about. And this is a land of the free."

If what united his generation was World War II, maybe we too need a common enemy today. Sadly, we don't have to look far. Our whole planet is catching on fire. Every other melodrama is going to be surpassed, and then evaporate in the blinding heat. We need educated minds to step forward and start guiding the conversation away from the trivial and into substantive, meaningful goals for ourselves and our children.

Such leaders don't necessarily have to be elected officials. (That would be nice, but perhaps overly optimistic.) What is essential is that WE the people step forward as fathers and mothers, ministers and artists, teachers and soldiers, doctors, businesspeople, community leaders in whatever capacity we have, and act like grownups and demand integrity from our elected officials.

As the midterm elections approach, a giant opportunity becomes visible: for Repub­lic­ans and Democrats to start coming together as Americans. Many of my most left-wing friends are talking about the fundamental decency, wit, and goodwill of former President George W. Bush. This marks a fantastic change of perspective. Repub­lic­ans who loathed Obama are beginning to notice that his presidency was scandal-free. Our civil society and our institutions have an opportunity to start working together to thwart a truly malignant force in our government.

"All that is required [of our elected officials] is to show some guts against a blatant demagogue who is massively unprepared by temperament, knowledge or character to be President of the United States," wrote Republican consultant Mike Murphy in a 2017 exchange with CNN's Chris Cillizza. "After Trump is eventually driven from office, DC will be full of stories about the quiet yet brave patriots who courageously worked against Trump albeit from behind the scenes. … The rest ought to study up on Vichy France."

Now with my priestly robes packed away, my performance finished, and the film released, I realize I was not watching the news with my character's eyes. Rev. Toller had only given me permission to see with my own eyes. The eyes that were taught to understand what they see by my Republican and Democrat parents and grandparents. I don't watch CNN. I don't watch Fox News. I can't watch the news at all anymore. And yet well I know, the stakes are too high for any of us to turn away or naively hope that in his bumbling edicts our president may get some small bill passed that we support. Our president is unfit to lead our children to war; this we all now know. Our president cannot handle our foreign affairs, our sick, our finances, our ethics, the education of our young, or the care of our land. This is obvious to anyone who does not put their party loyalty above their personal integrity. Our sitting president is not prepared to handle this moment. We all hoped someone outside the system could help. I held that hope, but like a spoiled petulant child he is good at only one thing – demanding attention. We must stop letting him manipulate our differences to lead us all into the mud. There is too much good work that needs to be done.

And when in doubt, go to the movies.

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