June 1, 2015

A Comparison of Religious Perspectives on Social Action

A view of the perspectives of Emma Watson and Cesar Chavez, from these two videos:
Emma Watson's talk at the United Nations on why gender equality is necessary (normaljean2, 2014), and Cesar’s Last Fast (Perez & Parlee, 2014).
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Emma Watson’s speech at the UN served to introduce a new campaign for gender equality, the #HeForShe initiative. Watson described why she identified as a feminist and went on to say that the term (feminist) has become a negative term abandoned by most women and that it had also become, mistakenly, synonymous with hating men. This is where she said that she felt compelled to do something, because there was no way to work towards gender equality if we ignored the gender biases that disserve men and if we didn’t include nearly 50% of the population in the conversation. Watson extended an invitation for men to be involved in the work to provide equal opportunities, to provide equal pay, education, to promote a society in which women can be strong and men can feel free to be sensitive without defying gender stereotypes.
Cesar’s Last Fast is a documentary that tells the story of the life’s work of Cesar Chavez through the lens of a 36 day fast her undertook in 1988 to call attention to the health hazards farm workers and their children face because of their exposure to pesticides. Family members and other leaders who worked alongside Chavez in organizing the labor movement for migrant farmworkers tell the story of the fast and describe Chavez’ fast as penance for having not accomplished more to help the children suffering from cancer and dying of other maladies caused by exposure to toxics. Chavez’ son states: “Penance is a personal act. You’re not acting for someone to forgive you, you’re doing something to make up for your own personal shortcomings” (Perez & Parlee, 2014). Through the story of the fast, we see how Cesar Chavez was influenced by his roots in a migrant farm-working family during the Great Depression and how his family’s working conditions led to him attending 27 different secondary schools and dropping out to work in the fields, suffering discrimination for being Latino, and becoming a social organizer and the leader of organizing labor for farm workers and creating the UFW. The story of Cesar’s work to improve the lives and working conditions of farm workers intersects many times with other notable figures in social activism and civil rights, including Senator Robert F Kennedy, the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Martin Sheen (legally named Ramón Estevez) (Kupfer, 2003). Cesar Ended his fast after many leaders in civil rights and social justice movements convinced him that they could preserve his life and expand the movement of his fast by creating a rolling fast where people would fast for 2-3 days and then pass along the gesture to the next person in a chain.
Why I chose these two stories:
I found both of these stories to be personally compelling because of my familiarity with the movements but lack of depth about the backgrounds of the people behind them, let along how their religious beliefs might shape their perspective and approach to change. From this documentary, I learned how much of Cesar Chavez’ shaped by his Catholic faith and how devout he was. He was also influenced by his native ancestry and felt personal responsibility for the people he was influencing. Chavez’ son described how the Mayan traditions of bloodletting and self-sacrifice on the part of Mayan leaders was an important part of the spiritual tradition and how that influenced Cesar’s ideals. I also saw ways in which he was able to utilize his faith in his approach to problem-solving the barriers to the social movement he was undertaking. At one point when he was at a loss on how to reach workers of a large remote ranch that they couldn’t access legally, he thought of the idea to create a type of shrine and chapel in the back of a car that eventually became a gathering for thousands, which provided a way to have legitimate traffic flow in the area, unite large groups with authentic religious services and be able to talk to the workers in the area about their working conditions. Chavez also turned the 400-mile march through the central valley, to the state capitol in Sacramento into a procession for Easter and was able to draw on the shared faith of the many migrant workers to increase the depth of the movement and to sustain the long fight for workers rights.
I am also always moved to learn more about what compels a person who seems to hold a place of relative privilege to take risk to advocate for social change, when they don’t need to take the risk. This is part of what I find so fascinating about both Emma Watson and Martin Sheen. Learning more about Sheen’s background, he has several commonalities with Chavez and was born to immigrant parents and a father who is Spanish, but Sheen is also a self-described devout Catholic and his presence in Cesar’s Last Fast is quite striking. It also reminds me of how art imitates life through the role created for Sheen in the West Wing and particularly the themes presented in The Two Cathedrals, when Sheen’s character grapples with the role of God in the injustices of recent events and defies Catholic tradition because of the deeply conviction he feels that God has been unjust towards those who have been harmed. (kireon1, 2012) Sheen also has been so personally involved in social reform work that it has gotten him arrested over 60 times and when asked what drives him to be so active is social justice and peace issues, he’s said: “I do it because I can't seem to live with myself if I do not. I don't know any other way to be. It isn't something you can explain; it is just something that you do; it is something that you are” (Kupfer, 2003).
Common ground between the two perspectives
The main commonality I find between the work of Cesar Chavez and the approach to gender equality by Emma Watson is that of extending their movement and their ideals beyond their own group.
Chavez did this by working with other religious civil rights leaders and by tackling worker’s rights issues regardless of ethnicity, culture, religion or race. Jesse Jackson is shown many times in the film with Chavez as an integral part of the movement in the 80’s and although he is Baptist and is known for being leader for other types of rights. (Purnick & Oreskes, 1987) Jackson also worked with Chavez to extend the reach of the movement and to support him during the fast, even though the idea of penance has firmer roots in Catholicism than Protestantism. Chavez also showed how much he was willing to extend his ideals towards other groups by deciding to support the Pilipino workers who went on strike, even though his community felt they were no where ready to take such a measure, they felt it was only right and effective to stand in solidarity with the Pilipino workers and unite causes. His union also fought for the rights of Islamic immigrants and showed respect for their religious traditions.
Similarly, Emma Watson is working from the perspective of a female and a self-proclaimed feminist, but she acknowledges the need for male involvement and actively seeks out male representation in the process of feminine equality. Watson also extends the need for equality to be inclusive of men and addresses the areas where men are marginalized by societal expectations and how that effect can be seen in Briton’s incredibly high suicide rate (normaljean2, 2014).
Differences in the perspectives
Most obviously, Emma Watson addresses her approach to social reform by acknowledging her place of privilege and the benefits given to her by educators and parents who instilled as much effort and faith in her abilities as they would have if she were male. She also is only shown in the early stages of addressing the issue, whereas we can see the culmination of nearly 40 years of Cesar’s civil rights work represented in the film on his last fast. This shows us much greater diversity in the approaches and sacrifices made by Chavez in order to maintain momentum for his movement and to creatively find ways to involve new people and create genuine change.  
Also, notable is how Chavez’s early life of poverty and being a child laborer is far different from the social reality of Emma Watson’s childhood. It could be argued that they both were different from typical children, in that they both were working at a very early age, in a way that can critically interfere with healthy development.
Lastly, Emma Watson is humble in her approach to the work and her ego, similar to Chavez —but Watson doesn’t come from a specific or strong religious background, nor is she working with a group that is likely to be predominantly from one, specific religious background. Emma Watson describes herself as someone who is obviously more spiritual than religious and says that: “I had a sense that I believed in a higher power, but that I was more of a Universalist, I see that there are these unifying tenets between so many religions" (Huffington Post Religion, 2015).

Works Cited
Huffington Post Religion. (2015, March 25). Emma Watson Is A Spiritual Universalist Who Believes In A Higher Power. Retrieved June 1, 2015, from Huffington Post Religion: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/25/emma-watson-spiritual-universalist_n_5023862.html
Jackson, J. (2015, June 1). Shrinking middle class squeezes African Americans, Latinos. Retrieved June 1, 2015, from Chicago Sun Times: http://chicago.suntimes.com/opinion/7/71/652824/jesse-jackson
kireon1. (2012, August 18). Two Cathedrals Rant With Translation. [Video File} Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fYcMk3AJKLk
Kupfer, D. (2003, June 31). Martin Sheen Interview. Retrieved June 1, 2015, from The Progressive: http://www.progressive.org/mag_intvsheen
normaljean2. (2014, September 21). Emma Watson UN speech. [Video File} Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p-iFl4qhBsE
Perez , R. R., & Parlee, L. (Directors). (2014). Cesar’s Last Fast [Motion Picture].
Purnick, J., & Oreskes, M. (1987, November 29). JESSE JACKSON AIMS FOR THE MAINSTREAM. Retrieved June 1, 2015, from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/1987/11/29/magazine/jesse-jackson-aims-for-the-mainstream.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm