The Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland opened in 1967. It was the last attraction that Walt himself helped develop before his death. Today there are Pirates rides in five Disney theme parks, though nothing can touch the newest, in Disneyland Shanghai, which uses the latest technology, projections and animatronics. No, I haven’t been to Shanghai, except on YouTube.
The movie franchise has played a major role in recent updates, framing the whole script of the Chinese ride, and Jack Sparrow, the lovable and zany lead character of the series has popped up in the various other iterations. His appearance was quite literal recently, when Johnny Depp, the actor who plays Sparrow, put on his pirate costume and interacted with guests on the California version of the ride.
I’ve only ridden Pirates of the Caribbean at Magic Kingdom in Orlando, and I must admit to having qualms. I suppose I should proudly wear my “politically correct badge,” though I think I’d Sharpie it so that instead of saying “politically correct,” it read “decent human.” You see, Pirates in Florida is not scary or fast, but there is a scene where the pirates are selling abducted women. I’m not sure we should be celebrating trafficking in any age, much less in an age when it is happening out in the open, with the most recent examples being the crimes of Boko Haram and ISIS.
Laughing at the degradation of women is no different than laughing at the racist images of an earlier age. Disney itself won’t release “Song of the South,” its version of Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus stories, because the film carries so much cultural baggage. But when it has been suggested that the Pirates ride be modernized, one of the original Imagineers, Xavier Atencio, composed or the theme tune… “Yo ho ho ho, a pirate’s life for me!,” said they’d have to change the name to “Boy Scouts of the Caribbean.” There are these men cling so stubbornly to the power structure of the past, calling it tradition, yet they seem to choose modern medicine over blood-letting and leeches. Shocking! Shocking I tell you!
But I’m most interested in a larger question about those scurvy rascals sailing under the skull and bones, one that can be captured in a very different Disney franchise, Jake and the Neverland Pirates. Jake is a cartoon from the Disney Junior channel, so aimed at the youngest viewers, and a tie-in to the Peter Pan franchise. I recently came across a graphic of Jake and his pals with these words: “A good pirate never takes another person’s property.” Let that sink in for a moment.
Someone has turned the graphic into a meme, adding these words: “I feel like Disney doesn’t exactly understand how pirates work.”
The creator of the meme may have a point. Merriam-Webster defines piracy as robbery on the high seas, robbery of course being the taking of another person’s property through violence or the threat of violence. You are a good pirate, a successful pirate, if you take another’ property. That is the very definition of pirate. In fact, if you don’t take another person’s property, you aren’t a pirate at all, just a guy in a silly costume that could probably use a shower.
Disney has been trying to rehabilitate pirates for years. In 1968 they released the live action film “Blackbeard’s Ghost,” with Peter Ustinov as the title spirit doomed to wander until he performed a good deed, which he of course does.
Now, I love Disney, but history isn’t their strength. I mean, have you ever seen their version of Pocahontas? But piracy is still happening, so maybe they should open a newspaper sometime before they celebrate good pirates.
But, if we take cartoon Jake and his pals, funny Jack Sparrow and Blackbeard’s Ghost at face value, even a pirate can be redeemed. Which means there is probably still hope for me. And for you.
That is assuming, of course, that you are not already perfect. Me? Far from perfect. Despite my commitment to the Way, to justice, kindness and humility, I wish I was a little less lazy, a little smarter, and I’d ask for a tad more patience, though we know how that always turns out.
The biggest mistake in the reform tradition was buying into the idea that the church was made up of God’s elect. It contributed to the idea that we had no work to do on ourselves, that our job was to convert others, or even worse, to give them handouts so we could feel good about ourselves. Then even talk of conversion became shameful. Altar calls are so distasteful embarrassing, all that emotion.
But conversion is not a one and done, and the church is not a smug gathering of God’s elect. We are a boatload of sinners on a leaking vessel furiously trying to reach safety on the shore, and throwing lifelines to those still in the water. Not pirates, to be sure. Our boat may look pretty, but there are holes, and folks are going overboard. And every sailor will tell you, it is hard to control a boat that isn’t moving. Drift and miss your destination. Did I mention the holes in the boat?
Now I know sin is a trigger word for some, something we don’t like to discuss, associated with those Bible-thumping preachers who use sin like an assault rifle to gun down anyone who gets uppity, women who challenge male authority over their lives and their bodies, LGBTQ folks who just want to be left alone to live their lives, never mind those who challenge systemic racism and social Darwinism. The word sin used in this way is toxic.
Maybe we need to abandon the word completely, use some new fangled term like “sub-optimal being.” Even in the age of Jesus, as he taught and changed lives, the definition of sin more often than not had to do with violating a code that insured that the powerful remained powerful.
But that is not what the word was supposed to mean, not about preserving human power, not what it seems to have originally meant. Sin is simply disordered or failed love.
Love God above all things. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. That last one counts too, for while love of self is implied, not everyone loves themselves.
This is hard stuff. It requires teamwork. Love is a feedback loop. Dead to sin? Thanks Paul, but I’m not there yet, sin, sub-optimal love, is still alive in me, and Jesus tells me I still have to pick up my cross.
Our tradition has some words for this whole “being saved” thing, the redemption process, though those words are rarely use today. The Christ event, incarnation, proclamation, crucifixion, and resurrection, experienced in the person of Jesus, provides justification. This is the work God does to meet us where we are, in our sub-optimal existence, calling us to our better selves, to rightly ordered and bountiful love.
That’s only step one, God’s act of love. It isn’t the end of it all. Our redemption doesn’t end at justification. Oh how many have answered the altar call only to find themselves back in the swamp of sin!
The next part of the process is called sanctification or regeneration, becoming more holy, becoming renewed. And if it were a one time sort of thing, we might think of ourselves as the second person, the pre-salvation self and the saved self, but it isn’t that easy.
Christian mystics have often used the image of a mountain or a ladder, but that could be individualistic, so I’m gonna stick with that leaky boat.
The great Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck described the redemption process like this: “Regeneration, faith and conversion are not preparations for but the benefits of covenantal fellowship of believers with God in Christ imparted to us by the Holy Spirit.” He describes our work as “a lifelong path of growth in obedient discipleship.”
The concept of sin is not a cudgel with which to beat one another. It is an acknowledgement that we are more than we seem, that we can be better than we are, that we believe God dreams for us dreams we dare not dream for ourselves, lives that are both human, with all of the aches and fears that locate in these fleshy bodies, and lives that are spirit, explosions of love and creativity.
You are amazing. You are meant to be even more amazing. But amazing is on the other shore, and we are in a pretty but leaky boat, and there are people in the water around us.
I suppose you could jump off and swim for shore on your own, leaving the rest of us behind. Did I mention that sharks?
The last line of the Heart Sutra, the Buddhist text that declares inter-being and therefore calls the Buddhist disciple to compassion ends with the phrase “Gate gate paragate parasamgate bhodi svaha,” which means “Gone, gone, gone all together, gone to the other shore, enlightenment! Hallelujah!”
Seems like they are on a boat together as well. Who knows, it might even be the same shore.
We have squad goals, to use a popular phrase. We can’t be in it for ourselves, for that would be a failure to love our neighbor. The energy we put into securing our own salvation is energy we should be putting into getting us all there safely together. Church is a covenant fellowship, a school for regeneration, not a gathering of the elect or a celebration of our success. We are sinners in the hands of a loving God, created, not creators. Gift!
Today, I woke up sub-optimal, but with hope, with a promise that there is a shore, with crew mates and an imperfect vessel. It might not be as slick and sophisticated and some of the boats out there, but it is ours.
Today I woke up with the Holy Spirit, not the second man who died to sin one time, but the seven hundred and eighty second man who will need to die to sin all over again.
Sit still and we sink. If you go over, I’ll throw you a line. I hope you’ll do the same for me. We’re going home. Make sail.