A Few Thoughts on Selma (Part 2)

Last week, Walter Strickland gave his thoughts on the movie “Selma” and especially the historical and cultural impact of Christianity in the civil rights movement. This week, Nathan Finn gives his take, part 2 in our reflections on the movie.  

From the moment I watched the first trailer for “Selma,” I knew this was a movie I wanted to see as soon as possible. To have the opportunity to watch it with my colleague Walter Strickland and some other friends from Southeastern Seminary was a rare treat. We watched the movie together and then enjoyed dialoging about it over coffee afterwards. (To put aside this particular movie for a moment, I’d encourage readers to watch a good movie with a group of friends and then discuss the film’s implications from the perspective of a Christian worldview.)

I admit up front that I did not come to “Selma” as a casual moviegoer. First of all, I am a Gen-X American who was raised on “this side” of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. I was taught in school that Martin Luther King Jr. and his colleagues were right and that their vision for our nation was a good one. However, that does not mean I was “post-racial” or “colorblind” in my views. In recent years, God has increasingly shown me many ways that I have personally benefitted from structural racism and (often implicitly) embraced ethnocentric assumptions. I am a white southerner, and my world is still shaped by racial realities.

I am also a trained historian and an elder of an urban church. As a historian with expertise in twentieth-century American Christianity, I have read widely about the Civil Rights Movement; it is, in fact, a favorite topic of study. In my church, my fellow pastors and I regularly wrestle with how our predominantly white, educated, and affluent congregation can better reflect the diversity of God’s kingdom—and of our neighbors. This is especially important because the neighborhood in which we gather is predominantly African-American, less educated, and less affluent, though gentrification trends are gradually altering the demographics.

History Coming Alive

I really appreciated how “Selma” brought history to life. Yes, I know that some folks are exercised that the movie misrepresented Lyndon Johnson’s views on the March on Selma and the Voter Rights Act, ignored Malcolm X’s conversion to Islam, and made progressive white clergymen sound like evangelicals. I’m not really bothered by these historical errors. Movies—even those rooted in past events—are primarily works of art, as director Ava Duvernay has rightly pointed out in interviews. I expect inaccuracies in any historical movie, and in this case, they did not blunt the impact of the film for me.

Like probably many readers, I have watched lots of archival footage of Martin Luther King’s speeches. I have read many of his writings. I have watched numerous documentaries, including the award-winning PBS documentary “Eye on the Prize” (highly recommended). But none of that was quite like watching “Selma.” In a very real sense, I felt the impact of structural segregation, individual racism, civil disobedience, and faith-inspired activism in a way I never have before because of the power of the medium of film and the high quality of the product itself. The cast was outstanding, especially David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo, who play Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, respectively.

As a historian, I appreciate the sympathetic, but not hagiographical portrayal of King. “Selma” depicts King as a man driven by faith, but struggling with personal doubts. He is a man whose life was saturated with the biblical worldview, but was also marred by moral failure. In both of these respects, he was not unlike many biblical figures such as Moses, Abraham, David, and Paul. Furthermore, the movie helpfully shows that King was not a solitary prophet; others surrounded him and played crucial, if lesser-known roles in the movement. Coretta King, Ralph David Abernathy, and especially John Lewis receive well-deserved attention in this movie.

I also appreciate that the movie does not depict a uniform Civil Rights Movement. As Walter pointed out in his earlier review, there was tension and competition between groups like King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and other organizations not mentioned in the film. The Civil Rights Movement further fractured in the years following the March on Selma and especially King’s murder three years later, and not all of the fractures were as influenced by Christianity as the SCLC was during King’s lifetime.

This White Man’s Burden

Few films have moved me emotionally as much as “Selma.” The fact that I watched the movie in a theater that was predominantly filled with African-Americans moviegoers contributed to my emotions. They laughed during lighter moments. They wept when Jimmy Lee Jackson was murdered and when marchers were beaten unconscious by state troopers. They “talked back” to the movie. And they applauded when it was all over. I fought off tears throughout the whole film—and lost that particular battle several times.

I think white southern evangelicals should watch “Selma” for the same reasons I think they should watch “The Help,” another relatively recent movie that focuses on the theme of race in the mid-20th-century South: the struggle for racial equality is as much a part of our history as it is that of our African-American friends. Of course, society in general was segregated because of white supremacist assumptions. But we need to remember that white believers were complicit in that structural racism—even if implicitly. Too many of us have continued to embrace a thin view of the gospel that is blind to some of the ways that our black friends continue to struggle with racial equality. It’s easy to argue for a colorblind society when most of the blinders are painted white.

When we watch a movie like “Selma,” it reminds us why so many of our black neighbors respond the way they do to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner. It reminds us why so many of them are pro-life and pro-traditional marriage and voted joyfully for Barack Obama. It reminds us why phrases like “reverse racism” and “Welfare Queen” are so profoundly offensive and why affirmative action is so appreciated. It reminds us why they think Fox News is anti-Christian propaganda. Neighbor-love demands that we hear people’s hearts, try to understand them, and meet them where they are—even when we may never reach total agreement on all of the issues that separate us.

To be crystal clear, the gospel is most definitely the solution to racial strife in America. But let’s not kid ourselves, my fellow white evangelicals. If we appeal piously to the gospel without committing ourselves to the hard work of authentic cross-cultural friendships and open dialogs, policy debates, social justice ministries, intentional outreach, and repentance, prayer and service to those in need, then our gospel is a slogan that deflects rather than a truth that transforms. There is no gospel when there is no change. “Selma” reminds me of how far we’ve come, and how far we still need to go—how far I still need to go.

I am thankful for the life and witness of Martin Luther King Jr. and those with whom he partnered, both famous and unknown. And I am thankful that “Selma” is in theaters at this particular moment in our nation’s history. Please, go and watch this movie and then wrestle with all the emotions it evokes—it will be good for your soul.

 

Recurring Themes in Baptist History

Nearly every semester, I teach a course at Southeastern Seminary titled Baptist History: Heritage, Identity, Polity. Like any subject that you study historically, Baptist history is characterized by a number of recurring themes. Some of these themes represent perennial debates among Baptists, while others speak to historical developments that continue to influence Baptists to the present day. I try to highlight these themes during the course of the semester in my lectures and in our class discussions.

While there are no doubt other themes that could be highlighted, I point to six as being particularly important. These topics come up in class again and again because, well, they come up among Baptists again and again!

1. Reform vs. Restoration: Some historians interpret Baptists as a reform movement that arose among English Protestants, while others see them as a restoration movement that sought to bypass earlier movements and return to the purity of New Testament Christianity. Furthermore, how Baptists themselves have understood their own identity as reformers or restorationists has varied at different points in history. How one approaches this issue necessarily affects his or her understanding of Baptist identity.

2. Calvinism vs. Arminianism: From their earliest days, Baptists have enjoyed no consensus on doctrines such as predestination, the extent/intent of the atonement, the relationship between divine grace and human belief, and the eternal security of those who believe. Some Baptists have been strong Calvinists, while others have been convictional Arminians. Many Baptists (including most Southern Baptists today) have attempted to argue that a position between Calvinism and Arminianism is the most biblical position. While this is an important topic that should be considered first and foremost from a biblical perspective, historically, there is no such thing as “the Baptist view” of the doctrines of grace.

3. Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Church Membership: While all Baptists affirm believer’s baptism, there is no unanimity in terms of how baptism relates to the Lord’s Supper and church membership. Historically, most Baptists have argued that believer’s baptism is prerequisite to church membership and participation in the Lord’s Supper. However, many Baptists believe that believer’s baptism should not be prerequisite to communion. A small but growing minority of Baptists believes that believer’s baptism should not be a requirement of church membership. This spectrum of views was already present by the middle of the seventeenth century.

4. The Relationship between Church and State: Baptists have historically championed full religious liberty and church-state separation. However, Baptists have frequently disagreed about the implementation of this principle. Some Baptists want religious liberty within the context of a broadly Christian nation, while others want the state to take a secular (though not secularist) approach and remain neutral on religious matters. In America, this particular theme has been a point of tension from the 1960s onward. Some Baptists accuse the Supreme Court and sometimes legislative bodies of advocating secularism while other Baptists accuse political conservatives of rejecting, or at least downplaying, the importance of church-state separation.

5. The Centrality of Missions: From the eighteenth century onwards, missions has been arguably the defining theme in Baptist history. Nearly every theological and methodological debate among Baptists has been related in some way to the desire of Baptists to obey Christ’s Great Commission in Matthew 28:18–20. As much as any denomination, Baptists are a tradition defined by a high level of commitment to evangelism, discipleship, and church planting. We have certainly witnessed this theme play in some of our family discussions in recent Southern Baptist life.

6. Increasing Denominationalism: As Baptists became more committed to missions, they were forced to develop increasingly elaborate denominational structures to better facilitate cooperation for the sake of missions. Sometimes, denominationalism has served as a catalyst to missionary efforts. At other times, denominational structures have arguably hindered effective missionary advance due to alleged bureaucratic expansion. For some Baptists, their denominational identity is part and parcel of their wider Baptist identity, while other Baptists see themselves as only partially—perhaps even peripherally—part of a Baptist denomination.

Again, I have little doubt there are other themes that could be highlighted, but these are the ones that stand out to me. To my thinking, it is impossible to understand Baptist history—or contemporary debates about Baptist identity, denominationalism, etc.—without some familiarity with these six recurring themes.online games

Martin Luther’s Rendition of “Let it Go”

Translator’s note: On August 1521, Martin Luther was called before the Diet of Worms and asked to recant of his views. After taking a night to consider what he’d do next, Luther was brought before the Diet the next day. While there, he sang the most famous ballad in Protestant history. I have transcribed it below, from the original German, and translated it into English.

My tonsured head glows white at the Diet tonight
Your reflection, could be seen
The Church has isolated me,
Cajetan was really mean

The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside
Couldn’t keep it in, Karlstadt knows I tried

Don’t let them in, don’t let them sense
You’ll go to heaven if you buy an indulgence
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know
Well, now they know

Let it go, let it go
I’m justified by faith alone
Let it go, let it go
To act against my conscience would be wrong

I don’t care
What they’re going to say
Let this Diet rage on,
The Pope never bothered me anyway

It’s funny how the Scripture
Makes works-righteousness seem dope
And the fears that once controlled me
Are the fault of the Pope

It’s time to tell them what I learned
To test the limits and hope that I don’t burn
No Popes, no bulls, no canon law
I think James is an epistle of straw

Let it go, let it go
I won’t recant what I believe
Let it go, let it go
Last night I drenched the Devil in ink

Here I stand
And here I’ll stay
My conscience captive to the Word

My writings spread to German villages all around
The peasants love me, though I’ll burn them to the ground
And one thought festers in my constipated bowels
I’m never going back,
They’ll have to kill me now

Let it go, let it go
I’ll be starting my own church
Let it go, let it go
I’ll have to hide out for some time first

Here I stand
And here I’ll stay
I’ll marry my Kate
The Pope never bothered me anyway