Dale and I recently went to see the movies Unbroken and Selma, both based on true stories. Both have been criticized for the way they have retold history: Unbroken for leaving out a significant part of Louie Zamperini’s whole story, and Selma for inaccurately portraying President Johnson as being unsupportive of civil rights in general and the Voting Rights Act in particular.
Obviously, filmmakers have to make creative choices about what to include out of all the material that is available to them. It could be argued that it was a secular choice in Unbroken not to dramatize Zamperini’s Christian conversion at a Billy Graham rally as the ultimate reason he remained “unbroken” after everything he had been through. His conversion and healing from severe post-traumatic stress disorder, along with his decision to forgive the Japanese soldiers who had tortured him, are a significant part of his total story, so I understand why it is frustrating to many Christians that these details were relegated to a brief sentence on the screen at the end of the movie. But the movie still stands as a powerful testimony to the ability of one person to withstand great hardship and survive. Plus, to be fair, Louie’s conversion story takes up very few of the 528 pages of the original book on which the movie is based. (And yes, I highly recommend reading the book!)
In the case of Selma, I think it’s really important to recognize that this is history being retold creatively from the point of view of African Americans. I don’t know enough about the relationship between Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson to judge how accurately or inaccurately it is portrayed. However, I also don’t find it hard to believe that Johnson was not always as supportive and helpful in the moment in the civil rights movement as his significant role in ensuring passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Acts of 1965 would ultimately suggest. As I’ve listened to and read severe critiques of the movie for what is seen as an unfair distortion of LBJ’s record on civil rights, I found this perspective particularly helpful: “These critiques are part of a larger debate about who owns American history, especially the portions of that history that were led, organized and shaped in large part by African-Americans… . Selma is unapologetic in depicting the movement as one that was primarily led by black women and men” (from Selma Backlash Misses the Point, by Peniel Joseph on NPR’s website).
I can be as much of a stickler for historical accuracy as anyone, but I also know that American history has been recorded primarily by whites (actually white males), which is itself a distortion of certain truths. Rather than criticize the movie for retelling history a little differently than many of us in the dominant culture learned it or think we remember it, perhaps we ought to try to understand why it is being retold this way and how it helps enrich and enlarge our understanding of history.
It is difficult to view movies like these and not be reminded again of how cruel human beings can be to each other. Unbroken details the horrific torture meted out in Japanese prison camps during World War II and Selma reminds us of the awful violence the white majority inflicted upon African Americans during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. These days, as the news is full of beheadings, bombings, massacres, rape and torture happening with regularity in many parts of the world, I ask myself: “How can people do such things? Why? What creates the conditions that make it okay and even virtuous to treat other human beings like that?”
We might be tempted to dismiss the violence as being perpetrated mainly by radical religious fundamentalists/extremists (who are often but not always Muslim) and having nothing to do with those of us who are American Christians. But it’s not that simple. The U.S. Senate report released late last year documents the torture done by the United States in the aftermath of 9/11. Back in 2009 soon after I started this blog (but before anyone knew about it!), I posted a brief piece called “Whether Torture Works is Beside the Point.” I was reacting in part to a 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center: “White evangelical Protestants were the religious group most likely to say torture is often or sometimes justified — more than six in 10 supported it. People unaffiliated with any religious organization were least likely to back it. Only four in 10 of them did.” Following the release of the torture report in late 2014, a Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 69 percent of white evangelical Protestant Christians believed that the CIA treatment of suspected terrorists (using techniques that have been classified as torture) was justified. The numbers are even worse for non-evangelical Protestants (75 percent) and white Catholics (86 percent). I find this profoundly distressing.
Christians also have to deal with the history of the Crusades and the Inquisition, not to mention the slaughter of Native Americans, the racial violence perpetrated during slavery and into the present, domestic violence, and so on – all justified in part by various interpretations of the Bible. It is clear that being Christian does not always equate to a fundamental commitment to nonviolence.
In the middle of writing this, two items passed through my Facebook feed. One was a quote from Jiddu Krishnamurti, an Indian teacher and speaker with no allegiance to any nationality, caste, religion, or philosophy: “When you call yourself an Indian or a Muslim or a Christian or a European, or anything else, you are being violent. Do you see why it is violent? Because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind. When you separate yourself by belief, by nationality, by tradition, it breeds violence. So a man who is seeking to understand violence does not belong to any country, to any religion, to any political party or partial system; he is concerned with the total understanding of mankind.” The second was a cartoon published on January 17, 2015 in The Economist. The cartoon depicted two dogs standing in the middle of a bunch of dead bodies and piles of rubble. One dog says to the other: “It all started with an argument over whose God was more peace-loving, kind and forgiving…”
I confess first of all to not knowing what to make of either item, given my belief that following the Jesus of Christianity should make one less not more violent. Secondly, in light of the history of the world and what’s happening in many places right now, I have to admit that there is a whole lot of truth contained in the quote and the cartoon. I’ve been asking the question about what makes people able and willing to do such awful things to each other, and along comes the Krishnamurti quote offering an answer that makes a lot of sense but also upsets much of what I have always believed. Does being a Christian really make a difference?
Martin Luther King, Jr. believed it did, basing the movement of nonviolent resistance that is depicted in the movie Selma in part on the teachings of Jesus. So on this Martin Luther King Day, I’ll end my rather rambling and inconclusive reflections with this quote from his essay, “My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence”: “When I went to Montgomery as a pastor, I had not the slightest idea that I would later become involved in a crisis in which nonviolent resistance would be applicable. I neither started the protest nor suggested it. I simply responded to the call of the people for a spokesman. When the protest began, my mind, consciously or unconsciously, was driven back to the Sermon on the Mount, with its sublime teachings on love, and the Gandhian method of nonviolent resistance. As the days unfolded, I came to see the power of nonviolence more and more. Living through the actual experience of the protest, nonviolence became more than a method to which I gave intellectual assent; it became a commitment to a way of life. Many of the things that I had not cleared up intellectually concerning nonviolence were now solved in the sphere of practical action.”