Cinema Faith Grade

I first went to see Selma on the weekend prior to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this past year. The theater was packed – sold out in fact – and several of the friends I was going with were unable to get seats. We packed in together, elbow to elbow with strangers, the theater a smattering of skin tones and backgrounds giving the appearance of Dr. King’s famous dream realized.

We waited for the for opening credits to roll, each passing second filled with tension. The Ferguson protests had simmered down scarcely four months prior, and in our own community we were fast approaching the one year anniversary of the death of Dontre Hamilton – another unarmed black man whose life was cut short at the hands of law enforcement. The lights went dim and my eyes instinctively locked with the glowing screen. A black man walked in, and sat on the stairs. There were no seats left for him in the theater.

When the Samaritan Looks Away

From the get go Selma is a gripping film. I’ve read plenty of books on the civil rights movement, I wrote papers on it in high school, but seeing events played out on the screen hit me on a whole other level. I’ve often admired the civil rights leaders, placing them on pedestals and poring over their lives as though to gain wisdom and reconciliatory properties by osmosis. I’d never stopped to consider the abject horror of their lives. The day to day wondering, genuine wondering, “Will I die today?”

selma 3 resize finalWithin the first fifteen minutes of the film, I was jarred by images and events I could not even begin to expect. Selma invokes images of physical lives cut short to call attention to the emotional and psychological lives also being violently disrupted by Jim Crow and institutionalized racism in the 1960’s. For some reason, empathy is easier to come by when witnessing the physical assault of life than when the quality of someone’s life is threatened.

This summer, after the massacre in Charleston, South Carolina (which could have been a scene in Selma) a blog post entitled “I, Racist” swept through social media like wildfire. In the post, John Metta calls to mind the story of the Good Samaritan – a passage learned and studied in most churches from kindergarten Sunday School onward.

Metta writes: “This is why I don’t like the story of the good Samaritan. Everyone likes to think of themselves as the person who sees someone beaten and bloodied and helps him out. That’s too easy. If I could re-write that story, I’d rewrite it from the perspective of Black America. What if the person wasn’t beaten and bloody? What if it wasn’t so obvious? What if they were just systematically challenged in a thousand small ways that actually made it easier for you to succeed in life? Would you be so quick to help them? Or would you, like most White people, stay silent and let it happen?”

Raising the White Consciousness

As I watched Selma again this summer I thought of Metta’s words. Some scenes in the movie were nearly impossible for me to watch, the gruesome display of racially motivated force too painful to look at, perhaps though only because lives were on the line. Perhaps I was so moved because there were bloody noses and concussions, broken bones and swollen eyes. I have no inclination to look away from the systemic injustices which keep poor black children in failing schools; which keep black men locked up longer and at much higher rates than their white counterparts.

Over and over again this past year, I’ve become aware of how often I look away. I turn off the news. I block out the stories. All because “I just can’t deal with it any more.” My black brothers and sisters, though, don’t have the option to look away or turn it off. They stare down systemic racial injustice and it’s life-threatening implications every day. One way this changes is for those of us in the majority to stay conscious to the hardships of those around us.

King employs this strategy in Selma, sighting his intention to “raise the white consciousness” by making sure their marches and sit-ins make newspaper headlines and are featured on the evening news.

It’s a Scriptural mandate as well. Aside from the parable of the Good Samaritan mentioned above, Paul admonishes the church in the book of Philippians: “Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others” (Phil. 2:3-4).

As a follower of Jesus and a white American, listening to the stories of my black brothers and sisters as they would tell them (which may or may not be the same way my history book would tell them) is a great first step in watching out for what is better for others.

Final Curtain

The screen went dark. Common began to sing out:

“Hands to the Heavens, no man, no weapon
Formed against, yes glory is destined
Every day women and men become legends
Sins that go against our skin become blessings…”

The audience began to clap. A few rose to their feet. I’d never been to a movie screening ending in a standing ovation.

Justice is juxtapositionin’ us
Justice for all just ain’t specific enough
One son died, his spirit is revisitin’ us
Truant livin’ livin’ in us, resistance is us
That’s why Rosa sat on the bus
That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up”

Arms at sides, we began to shuffle out. A smattering of people looking like Dr. King’s dream realized, but more similar to Langston Hughes’ dream deferred. Raisins shriveled and ticking time bombs.

“Selma is now for every man, woman and child
Even Jesus got his crown in front of a crowd
They marched with the torch, we gon’ run with it now…
One day when the glory comes it will be ours.”

A choir swelled through the loudspeakers.

“Glory. Glory. Glory. One day”

And we all just keep waiting for that glorious day, but in the meantime let us follow the admonition of Scripture and the example of Dr. King, and look not only to our own interests or what brings us benefit, what makes us feel good. Let us look first to the interest and benefit of others.

  • I’ve been thinking a good deal about Jesus’ teachings on hierarchy. Like us, Jesus lived in times where society and culture were controlled by the rules of might makes right. The powerful set the rules and organize a system of domination and control. It often works because we don’t recognize the subtle ways in which we are complicit. Or, if we do, we find the whole thing so overwhelming that we become cynical or quit…….What’s interesting to me about Jesus’ teachings is that he seems to flip the paradigm: It isn’t the powerful who will bring change, it’s those at the bottom. In the Civil Rights movement, we can study how change came about from the community of the oppressed. Jesus teaches (in the Luke version) “blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” We tend to interpret this “kingdom” as being given to the poor by the powerful, or by God. But what if “the kingdom of God” is something that is uniquely available to those who are oppressed? What if those who have experienced the blunt, brutal edge of domination and control are actually in the best position to lead us out of the whole system of injustice and hierarchy? It seems to make sense, from Jesus’ other teachings, that he would flip the way we tend to think of things. The Civil Rights movement and other liberation actions seem to demonstrate the truth that the power for true social change comes from the grass roots.

  • It’s almost as if God plays favorites. He’s always picking those at the bottom to carry out his mission. He lifts up the weak and condemns the powerful. He turns away those on the inside and welcomes those on the outside. But we have verses that specifically say “God does not show favoritism,” and we’re of course commanded not to show it to others. I think it’s more that God’s spirit is most compatible with the lowly. He loves the powerful and weak alike, but he can’t work with people who are proud and self-sufficient. They don’t jive with him. The poor and the marginalized, on the other hand, are humble. They have no problem receiving help. They receive God’s love with open arms and embrace his Kingdom as good news.

    I was listening to a sermon this week that talked about how Jesus is in the process of making all things new and redeeming everything wrong with creation. He said a common response to sermons like that in America is “Ok, what’s the takeaway? How does that affect my life?” But in poorer countries, people get excited instantly. They’ve already received the takeaway. God is making all things new? I won’t always be poor? I won’t always be suffering? God’s Kingdom is innately exciting to those being trampled on by worldly kingdoms, but not so much to those benefiting from those worldly kingdoms.

    The latter are the kind of people who told Martin Luther King Jr. to calm down and stop rocking the boat. They’re the kind of people today that believe racism doesn’t exist. God can’t do much with those people. He wants to, but they’ve already received their reward in full. Those on the bottom know things aren’t okay the way they are. God can empower them to stop evils like slavery and racism, and bring about God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven.”