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Commentary: Mountain justice

Just this past week I finally got to Frontenac Plaza to see “Winter’s Bone.” A friend had urged it on me a month ago. I’m sorry I put it off, but relieved that Frontenac’s policy is to hold over remarkable films so long. If you’ve seen it yourself, or read Harper Barnes’ splendid June review , you know (I trust) what a fine drama it is, and what remarkable performances are in it. One advantage of seeing it the week I did, though, was that it coincided with the recent word from Afghanistan about the renewed rise of the Taliban; they were behind the stoning of a couple who had eloped from a small mountain village. I found a surprising connection.

My first instinct when I heard that news report (and with Time’s horrific cover picture of the Afghan girl with her nose and ears lopped off) was to lament the re-emergence of this radical, primitive sect of purist Muslims. It was they after all who desecrated those lovely statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan well before 9 /11. That act of self-righteous desecration was enough to tell me how alien their values were, not just as a comfortable Western Christian, but as an admirer of great art.

I distrust, even despise, narrow religious believers, sects or officials of any stripe, whether it’s the late Jerry Falwell’s evangelical Protestants, or Israel’s uncompromising West Bank settlers, or our former Archbishop Burke’s condemnation of the ordination of Catholic women priests. So I was naturally quick to condemn the Taliban’s cruel behavior. Not only did they pronounce uncompromising judgment on the couple for what we would call natural affection, they imposed strict Sharia law. They forbade the match and then imposed death on the erring pair, and by a particularly primitive and painful means, stoning. It all felt horrifyingly Biblical.

Well, that abhorrence of primitive justice was just what I felt as I watched “Winter’s Bone.” The gritty heroine, Ree Dolly, must find her father and see to it that he attends his trial for methadone “cooking.” He has put up the family’s farm as security for his bail. If doesn’t show, the bail bondsmen can have the property, leaving Ree and the helpless kin she cares for cast out. The movie gives a vivid picture of the tribal relations and harsh justice that controls family behavior in those rural Ozark hills.

Neighbors and relatives resist Ree’s efforts to locate her dad. They warn her off, though why we do not know. But in spite of their unhelpfulness, there are still vestiges of common feeling, what Barnes calls “neighborliness and quiet country fellowship.” As if to compensate for their refusal to guide her to her dad, they do provide money or food to try to get her through her tough time, even though their lives are as much on a financial edge as hers. Simple, eloquent, and unquestioning tribal loyalty.

The acting, the setting, the lifestyle, even the moving country music, all contribute to making this Ozark society both credible and its customs forgivable. “Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner.” “Understanding breeds forgiveness.” At first we are offended by their resistance to helping Ree, but the longer we live in this cinematic world, the more we come to understand the mores that govern these folk -- values and customs that even Ree accepts, in spite of their effect on her chances for survival.

It is a genuinely tribal array of family. When she goes too far and tries to go directly to the head of the clan, his wife, having warned her not to pursue the man, administers a vicious beating, assisted by the other women of the tribe. The beating itself is only heard, but we see its results in the next scene, Ree sprawled on the ground, her face a bloody pulp. One is horrified but one has gotten to know the girl and her relations so well that with our outrage goes a grudging acceptance.

It is the same sort of aggrieved recognition of tribal customs that I began to feel for the real-life punishments visited on the “sinning” Afghan couple. As various news stories provided more details about the elopement, the more complex I discovered the situation to be. The man involved had in fact left his wife and run off with the much younger girl. They had broken both a tribal and an Islamic commandment.

The village reached out to urge them to return; all would be forgiven. Apparently, the tight-knit kin life of the village proved irresistible. Once back, however, they were turned on, as is perhaps “right.” Given their shared religious and cultural values, they probably should be: it was the same harsh judgments that the Ozark kin visited on Ree’s dad, who had, perhaps through his criminal incompetence, brought “the law” down on their local way of life. The horror of what they do to him matches in its cruelty the judgment rendered on the sinning couple. We may lament the fate of all the victims, especially the innocent, but the movie teaches us that obligations to kith and kin have been the default setting in human behavior from time immemorial.

What should we take away from this? Well, for one thing, we should be wary of making too instinctive a knee-jerk reaction to what appear at first alien religious customs and values. As Joe Biden has regularly reminds us, “You may question someone’s judgment, but never question their motives.” Given their religious values, the Taliban may rightly have hated the statuary tribute to Buddhism, a competing faith. Those Israeli settlers are in their mind fulfilling a Biblical injunction about the land their forefathers and prophets called holy. Archbishop Burke is hewing to a millennial-old tradition of his faith. We may find such stands uncongenial, even abhorrent, but we can make ourselves see what they spring from.

So, maybe we should not be so quick to label as “terrorism” or “radical Islam” what is to all intents tribal justice in the hills. The Ozarks may be half a world away from the Afghan hollows, but the mind set and the behaviors it produces are identical.

Jamie Spencer is a freelance writer. This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.

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