Lenten Reflections for Film Lovers: Part 3

We continue our Lenten journey in film and Scripture. 
The last two meditations will be added later today.
There are embedded links in most of the titles that 
will take you to a full review of the film.

March 17, 2nd Sunday in Lent.

Selma    

But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness

like an ever-flowing stream.

Amos 5:24

When the days drew near for him to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.

Luke 9:51

Luke expresses Jesus’ great determination to go to Jerusalem when he uses the phrase “He set his face.” And so begins a long section in Luke ((9:51-18:14), referred to by scholars as “Jesus’ Journey to Jerusalem,” describing some of the events during that road trip. Jesus did many things in Galilee, Samaria, and other regions, but he decided he must go to the capital city to confront his enemies and die at their hands because that city is central to the prophetic tradition. Here his enemies were entrenched; here were those who manipulated the Jewish religion for their own profit. Nineteen hundred years later Martin Luther King, Jr. and hundreds of black and white citizens from Selma and all over the nation, set their faces to go to Montgomery, the seat of political power in segregated Alabama. Their five-day road trip was afflicted with violence and the scrutiny of a semi-police state, but they reached their goal and lay their demands for justice before the powers that opposed almost everything for which they had marched. Fortunately for our nation, the leader of the march did not there, but lived for three more years of great work before being murdered in another city.

Almost fifty years after the Selma March prejudice has been beaten back, but by no means defeated. It is no longer proper to talk in public against or legislate against African Americans, but prejudices against blacks, Jews, Muslims, gays, and immigrants is very much alive, but evoked through coded language rather than overt insults and slurs. It is still necessary for people of faith to speak and act out the love that Christ taught and lived. We must turn away from leaders who would make the faith merely into an escapism centered on heaven, rather than on love and justice. Our faces too must be set toward those centers of power where our laws are enacted. The Drum Major for Justice, as he once referred to himself, may be gone, but his words and example live on. And they can inspire us until at last the prophetic quotation that informed his ministry—”But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”—will be enacted in our laws and our customs.

 March 18

Loving

From one human being he created all races of people

and made them live throughout the whole earth.

Acts 17:26 (GNT)

It is so fitting that the name of the couple that desired only to be allowed to live together as husband and wife is also the title of the movie about them. Mildred and Richard Loving were simple people living in a small town in 1950s Virginia. But Jim Crow laws were still in effect, and one night after bedtime the pair were arrested by the sheriff for violating the miscegenation law. As we see in the scene, the racist cop enjoyed breaking into their bedroom and humiliating them as they were hauled away like criminals. The movie tells the story behind the 1967 US Supreme Court decision of “Loving v. Virginia,” a momentous decision that swept aside the numerous state laws, mostly, but not all, in the South. Racial intermarriage could no longer be made a criminal offense.

It is hard for those of us who attend churches where God and neighbor love are proclaimed each Sunday to understand how people could use religion to keep lovers apart simply because they are of different races. We see just this in the film, even a judge claiming that “Almighty God” created the races white, black, yellow, Malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. If men had not upset his arrangements to keep the races geographically separate, he states, there would be no need for such a law, one that clearly is in accord with his desire to keep the races separate. Wow!

Today, over fifty years after the Lovings were allowed to live together without fearing arrest, there are still many who disapprove of interracial marriages. Thus, we need to always be ready to speak out and share the good news that God created and loves all races. White Christians were slow to support their black brothers in the Civil Rights Movement, but this must no longer be the case. May we always support the brave souls who find love across human-erected barriers and assure them of our support.

March 19

Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

Hebrews 13:2

Entertaining Angels…pays fitting tribute to Dorothy Day, a passionate crusader for social justice in the early 20th Century. Once a journalist whose concern for the poor led her to embrace Communism, she turned to the Catholic Church when she witnessed a nun feeding the poor at a soup kitchen during the Depression. She saw her Communist friends railing against capitalists and poverty, but it was the church that was actually feeding them. She spread her ideas through the newspaper she founded, The Catholic Worker, thus inspiring millions of people around the world to follow her example. Challenged to open up her own home to the homeless, she found great inspiration in the quote from the Letter to the Hebrews in which the author taught hospitality to the faithful by reminding them that the patriarch Abraham had once entertained three guests without knowing that they were angels sent by God to bring him and Sarah a message. Dorothy’s guests were unwashed, often smelly, and not always smiling and grateful, but she strove to see the angelic in them. This passage is akin to the words of Christ himself, who said to the faithful who had served the poor and needy, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Matt. 25:40)

As believers in the same Christ who inspired Dorothy Day to come to the aid of the hungry and the homeless, what can we do to carry on her mission? First, by seeing on our street corners the “angel” in the ragged person holding out his hand for a dollar or two, rather than a lazy beggar. Or if we can volunteer in a soup kitchen or food pantry, may we see the “Christ” in the person we are serving. By countering the slur that the poor are useless and deserve to go hungry. By writing letters and urging our politicians to fund programs designed to benefit the needy. There is so much to do. Prayers, of course, will help, but prayerful acts will accomplish more.

 March 20

First Reformed

The Lord is near to the brokenhearted,
and saves the crushed in spirit.

Psalm 34:18

  In director/writer Paul Schrader’s dark film Pastor Ernst Toller would not be able to affirm the Psalmist’s claim. The minister is brokenhearted, living alone ever since his wife divorced him following the death of their soldier son in the Iraq War. He is guilt-ridden because he encouraged the boy to enlist. His Dutch Reformed congregation in upstate New York is about to celebrate its 250th birthday, which means that the usual half-dozen present on a typical Sunday morning will be joined by a crowd of public officials and the wealthy benefactor of the church. Mary, a pregnant parishioner, asks Toller to counsel her environmentalist husband Michael, who is against bringing a child into a world bent on destruction. The despairing husband wants Mary to abort the child. Even more worrisome, she has found Michael’s explosive-laden suicide vest in the garage. She turns the vest over to Toller. The pastor finds his God-talk makes no impression on the distraught man. Shortly after their meeting, Michael commits suicide by shotgun. Shocked and awakened to the degradation of the land around him by the chemical company owned by the church’s benefactor, Toller injects new life into his sermons. And he also decides to take out the polluting industrialist at the service. Warning Mary not to attend the celebration, he dons the suicide vest beneath his robe as he prepares to enter the church. When he sees that Mary has come, he retreats to his nearby quarters and replaces the vest with barbed wire. He starts to do something else, drastic, but not as drastic as his first plan. (In case you have not seen the film, I will leave this for you to discover.) Before he can act, Mary appears. They embrace, kiss, and the screen suddenly cuts to black.

This strange, unexpected ending leaves us questioning what is going on. Even more so than an earlier non-sexual scene in which Toller lies atop Mary’s prone body and the two levitate a few feet off the ground! We are confused, though clearly Schrader has not created one of those light and fluffy God-will-always-take-care-of-you faith-based films, but instead one that probes the darkness of the world to ask if there is any light out there. He does not answer by the old bromine that we must light one little candle. The filmmaker is not even certain of the traditional view of Providence. But he does suggest that love and grace are real and operative. The world is harsh, and events turn tragic all too often, but there are those who care. Sometimes, when we are at the end of our strength and about to give up, grace intervenes. As the great hymn puts it, “I once was lost, but now am found.” There is no reveling in Toller’s being “found”—and indeed, the ending is so ambiguous that my belief that he is “found” might well be disputed. But that’s the kind of universe we live in, not one where God and things of the spirit can be proven by “facts,” but accepted only on the basis of faith. This is a film that demands seeing more than once. In a seemingly hell-bent world is God really “near to the brokenhearted”? The answer to such a question resides more in the heart than in the mind.

March 21

Final Solution

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

2 Corinthians 5:16-20

 Gerrit Wolfaardt, like Saul (the apostle Paul’s preconversion name), does regard people from “a human point of view.” As a white citizen of apartheid South Africa, he was taught white superiority from birth, and in his teens Hitler’s Mein Kompf became his favorite book. He has joined a militant group and training to become a sniper to take out a black antiapartheid leader. Then on the campus where he is a college student, he meets Celeste and is charmed by her. She urges him to read the book she is studying in her Literature class, but he scoffs, claiming that Alan Paton’s antiapartheid novel Cry, the Beloved Country is “Communist rubbish.” However, after he meets her friend Pastor Peter Lekota, his racist belief that the Bible says that blacks have no souls is challenged. In his bedroom one night Gerrit looks at Hitler’s book alongside Paton’s novel, and decides to read the latter. Also, as a result of the pastor’s challenge, he goes to the library, discovers a Bible concordance, and tries to find the passage declaring that the blacks have no souls. Of course, he can find none, but he does find many affirming the unity of a humanity created by God. Slowly his racism is washed away by the two new books that have entered his life, the novel and the Bible. By film’s end he no longer looks at blacks “from a human point of view.” He is becoming Paul’s “new creation.”

I hope that Gerrit’s story is as much yours as it is mine. I can relate to it because of being raised in a home and a culture that used the “N” word and feared that “they were moving too close” so that “they” would take over a nearby public park. Only after becoming involved in a church was the dirt of racism washed away. What has your experience been? Or were you one of the fortunate ones born into a home and church where Christ prevented the racist “human point of view” from polluting your mind? Whatever the case, may we all join in prayer and action to put to rout the sad racism that still infects some of our fellow citizens.

 March 22

Places in the Heart

 the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
Isaiah 11:6-9

I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins…”          The Apostles Creed

This is a marvelous film for a mainstream one in that it concludes with all of the characters gathered in a small church in a Communion Service. Much of the audience left the theaters puzzled as to the meaning, so bizarre was that service! But first, for those who have seen the film, a few notes about the plot. Edna Spalding is left as a widow with two young children when her sheriff is accidentally shot by a drunken black teenager at the beginning of the film. To help keep their cotton farm she hires a black itinerant named Moze, and also, forced by the bank holding her mortgage, takes in the blind Mr. Will. Also, her sister and husband are alienated from each other when he commits adultery, but out of necessity the sister says she will not divorce him. Overcoming many obstacles, they all join at the end of the summer to harvest the crop and get it to market first, thereby earning the bonus necessary to pay the mortgage. Through all of this struggle Moze has been the guiding light, even helping Edna negotiate a fair price for her crop from the mill owner who would otherwise have cheated her. However, because of this, the KKK show up one night, beat him, and order him to leave town. He leaves with the gratitude and assurance from Edna that he made all the difference in the world for her and her children. The film ends with the Communion Service, and as the trays of bread and wine are passed we see that the sister reaches over and takes the hand of her alienated husband, signaling her forgiveness. In a series of medium shots the camera follows the trays being passd along, and we are surprised to see Moze. MOZE! But didn’t he leave town? And then in the back row, Edna receives the elements, passes the trays along to her children, and they…Wait a minute!! It is he husband who receives the trays—and he passes them to the person sitting beside him, the black youth who had shot him! But didn’t they both die at the beginning of the film?!

When I first saw this film, I lingered in the lobby afterward to catch some of the remarks being made by the obviously confused audience. And were they ever! My admiration for director/writer grew because it was obvious that he was a Christian affirming a basic tenant of the Apostles Creed and of the Communion Prayer found in most liturgies. He was visually affirming, “I believe in the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints…” He was taking a risk that many in his audience would not “get it,” but relying on the fact that the Christian members would. This is the most beautiful and moving assurance of this reality, that the faith held by all believers unites them in a bond that not even death can sever, that each time we gather to celebrate the Lord’s Supper we are surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses.” And in addition to this, in the scene in which the wife forgivingly touches the hand of her husband, Mr. Benton, teaches that Communion is also a “means of grace.” Pretty good for a Hollywood film!* Think about this the next time you celebrate the sacrament at your church. You are never alone when you are in the faith.

*  Mr. Benton, basing his plot on a real incident in which his grandmother had been helped by an itinerant black man harvest her cotton crop, won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and Sally Field won her second Best Actress Oscar.

A guide for this film is in my book Films & Faith: Forty Discussion Guides.

 March 23

The Saint of Fort Washington

And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.”

Luke 9:58

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God…

To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:

Romans 1:1, 7

This powerful drama about two societal rejects shows us what it means to be homeless and how street people try to cope with its terrible conditions—and also suggests what a saint is. The Fort Washington of this film is an armory in northern Manhattan turned into a large dormitory for homeless men. Because the place is dominated by a resident thug, it is more dangerous for some than are the streets. The saint of the title is the young schizophrenic Matthew, thrown into the street when his slumlord tears down the old building he had been living in. While waiting in line to enter the shelter, Army veteran Jerry befriends Matthew, later showing him how to survive during the daytime when the shelter is closed to them. In return Matthew is able to ease joint pains with his hands, much to the relief of the pain-wracked Jerry. For too brief a time the two share an abandoned building with three other homeless people. “Spits” is an old African American shoe shiner whose hands are so arthritic that he can no longer practice his trade. He would like to give the young couple, the pregnant Tamsen and Rosario, about to be married, a wedding gift of shining their shoes. When Jerry tells them about Matthew’s gift, they persuade the reluctant youth to touch the old man’s hands. After a few minutes Spits can feel the healing taking place, so he joyfully shines the couple’s shoes. Taking rain water, Jerry gratefully anoints his young friend as “The Saint of Fort Washington.” I wish I could say that the touching story of this humble pair had a happy ending, but the filmmakers are too honest to do so, a cross awaiting one of them at the end of the film.

Unlike some of the other meditations in which you are called “to do something,” this time I suggest you reflect not upon “the problem of homelessness,” but the concept of sainthood, and how in your baptism, you also are called to be a saint. Matthew is very much a wounded saint, afflicted with his mental problems, and thus not like the famous saints whom the church celebrates. Yet he has a gift, and he uses it to benefit others. Jerry is right in his assessment of his friend, and I suspect that when he anoints him, he is doing it to build up Matthew’s damaged psyche. If you scan the openings of several of the letters of the apostle Paul, you will see that  he addresses the recipients as “saints” or “called to be saints.” These were ordinary people, but they had responded to the call of an extraordinary Christ. Jerry probably is not aware of this, but he is certainly in agreement with the apostle. Matthew, “The Saint of Fort Washington (and each of us too) might not have done heroic deeds in the service of God, but he is nevertheless a saint in his small way. Reneging on my statement about calling you “to do something,” I suggest that you go on the Internet (actually, you’re on it now if you’re reading this!) and Google Lesbia Scott’s delightful hymn “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.” The first two stanzas reflect the traditional view of a saint as accomplishing some great act of faith, but the third verse applies to you and me, with the phrase about meeting them “In church or in trains, or in shops, or at tea, for the saints of God are just folk like me.”

 A guide for this film is in my book Films & Faith: Forty Discussion Guides.

 

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