October 8, 2016 by DKC
My wife and I saw ‘Birth of a Nation’ last night within a predominantly suburban white community. The theater was filled with black folk–sold out. Nate Parker, the screenwriter, director, producer and star gave this movie some real flesh. The story was told as a historical biopic should be told, with nuance and layers. There were several things about this movie that caught me off guard emotionally. First, the use of scripture throughout the film put a very important issue on the table for those who preach and teach different communities. Does your social status impact the text of Scripture that you utilize or reference? I believe that an individual cannot separate their social status from textual interpretation. My view of scripture draws me to various passages that speak of liberty and equality, rather than others that speak of obedience and compliance. As I have said previously, this is not a negative. Nat Turner preached from the bottom while many of those preaching in pulpits in the oppressive South preached from a position of dominance.
A second observation of this film centers around how preachers can influence for good and for evil. As a preacher, I carry the weight of preaching the whole counsel of God and on top of that utilizing Jesus’ words as a guide for my preaching. I am referring to His inaugural address in Luke 4:18-19–both my preaching and my Christian activities must be bathed in this particular mission statement. There is great hope in good preaching. No doubt preaching has been used to subjugate and oppress others throughout history. There is a difference I believe between preaching for repentance and preaching to oppress; some might find preaching that challenges others to turn from a sinful lifestyle repressive. The gospel is never intended to oppress but instead to free us from the shackles of this world. To be clear, I’m still learning about my blindspots, but it must be said that preaching is the wrong profession to enter into if one has no stance on what thus says the Lord on how we ought to live in community with God and mankind. There were several exchanges in this film where the holy writ dominated the dialogue-just the richness of scripture flowing through a visceral response.
There is a great deal of preaching that is used to trap folk in their condition. In regards to social justice issues facing the US there are preachers who’ve used their pulpits to put folk to sleep. They hand out sedatives designed to indoctrinate parishioners to only consider personal salvation and inward holiness at the expense of addressing the fullness of the gospel and the expansion of kingdom ethics. ‘Birth of A Nation’ illustrates this kind of power and opens a door of church history that is swept to the side by seminaries looking to Make the Church Great Again.
The last observation from this film was actually not in the film. The theater was filled with black people within a predominantly white community. My wife and I drove about 40 mins to get to the theater. History helps us change, in my humble but informed opinion, one can not talk about social justice or be a champion for the “least of these ” without some understanding of context. History allows us to connect the dots and hopefully helps those who look at oppression develop some sympathy for others who’ve been created in God’s image. The film ended with applause and as the theater emptied the attendants cleaned up and we stayed behind just taking the film in. We overheard a comment made by a white theater employee. It wasn’t an offensive comment, but rather one that showed the contrast between black and white existence. He asked a couple sitting a few rows in front of us if they liked the film and they responded, “yes” to which he responded, “it looked really sad, it just looked really sad.” The couple responded, “but its reality”. My wife and I quietly added, “It was also redemptive.”
Someone’s sad film is another person’s triumphant retelling of a much maligned narrative. Nat Turner is a real life black hero and some simply have no desire to understand his life and more importantly why he rebelled. Nate Parker took the title of a horrible movie made as propaganda for the KKK at the beginning of the age of film and redeemed it in the retelling of a preacher who believed the words of scripture. Nat Turner lived a cruciformed (the sacrificial life of Jesus) life and should be included in the telling of not just black history, but church history as well.