03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Avatar: An Anti-War Film Challenges Us to "Be All That You Can Be"

To tell the truth, I didn't want to see Avatar. The film's trailer promoted it as another action flick, albeit with stunning 3-D graphics. The clips were about making a difference by being in a para-military group on another planet. It was advertised as one of James Cameron's action films, just like Terminator, Terminator 2, Aliens and True Lies, and as a major blockbuster like Titanic. I wasn't interested.

However, my movie-wise friend, Reba Vanderpool of The Visionary Edge, encouraged me to see it. And I heard that the movie was breaking so many records for attendance in Russia, China, and throughout Europe, as well as in the U.S. that -- worldwide -- it was now the second-highest grossing film of all time, surpassed only by Titanic. The film was quickly becoming an international cultural phenomenon. I wanted to know why, so last night I went to see it.

First, I had to sit through a trailer for the upcoming film Pacific and its grand pronouncement that "War is part of the human condition." Before I could consider the assumptions behind that statement, a very long and graphically violent National Guard recruitment music video, titled "At This Moment," powered onto the screen. Ironically, these previews highlighted the urgency of Avatar's message.

Despite the film's initial hype, and despite being preceded by trailers that glorified war, Avatar turned out to be an anti-war film that reminds the world of what it really means to live with integrity and "be all that you can be." No wonder it is sweeping the international stage.

The plot, which James Cameron wrote 15 years ago, is as current as our daily news: A rapacious American corporation/para-government agency innocuously titled "Resources Development Administration/RDA" (Halliburton/KBR) is bound and determined to please its stockholders by extracting the valuable mineral unobtanium (oil) from foreign soil (Iraq, Afghanistan) with the assistance of a paramilitary group (Blackwater). It doesn't matter how many of the local inhabitants die (they are demeaned and depersonalized -- the first necessary step towards wrecking violence on others) or how much local culture is destroyed, as long as the mineral is extracted and the shareholders reap their dividends. Corporate greed is reframed as a "war on terror." The ends justify the means. And the military machines glorified in the previews are the tools the American invaders use to achieve those ends.

The majority of the American invaders have clearly lost their moral compass. But one Marine Corps veteran has the integrity and the courage to refuse to participate in this spiritual bankruptcy. His soul is not worth any amount of money, or even the promise of reconstructed prosthetic legs.

All it takes is one Avatar to inspire more.

An avatar is a being of matchless integrity, that inner and outer coherence of resonating truth. Every culture has its great avatars: Noah, Abraham, Moses, Miriam, Zoroaster, Rama, Sita, Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, Mary, Mohammed, Fatimah, Chief Joseph, Nan'yehi. Over millennia, the stories of the avatars have defined human moral character. They are our saints and spiritual leaders. Their stories fund our own sense of "heroic imagination,"* that larger worldview that encourages us to take risks beyond our small selves for the greater good of all. Their examples help us "develop the personal hardiness to be 'different' or 'difficult'"** so that we are able to take a stand when we encounter injustice and oppression. The Avatars remind us that our spiritual life is our "real" life.

While taking risks for justice may seem to be a daunting proposition in our time, there are many s/heroes among us who are doing so on a daily basis. In their book, Standing Against the Madness, Amy and Dan Goodman profile librarians in Connecticut who took on the PATRIOT act, neighbors in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, students at Wilton High School and Jena High School, service members of Appeal for Redress, and numerous others who have refused to let the ends justify the means. We need to hear these stories because every act of integrity matters. We need to hear these stories so that we have the courage to act with integrity ourselves.

Avatar has taken the importance of integrity to the worldwide stage, where it is being applauded. The movie does what American politicians fear to do: it identifies the profound spiritual bankruptcy that underlies our financial insolvency. And it reminds us of the antidote for our ailment: like the avatar, we must have the courage to make new choices for the greatest good of all.

*Philip Zimbardo, "For Goodness' Sake," The Oprah Magazine, April, 2007: 202. See also The Lucifer Effect (website and book).
**Ibid., 200-202.