Christian violence and pacifism in three upcoming films

Christian violence and pacifism in three upcoming films August 13, 2016


My friend Alissa Wilkinson interviewed The Birth of a Nation director Nate Parker for Christianity Today this past week. Parker has been dealing with some controversial things in his past lately, but his chat with Alissa focuses on the religious elements within the film itself, which concerns Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in 1831.

Specifically, Alissa and Parker talk about how the film shows everyone — slave owners and rebel slaves alike — quoting the Bible to justify their various agendas:

When you think about Nat Turner and what he did, if you’re able to view this film without the baggage of racism, then it’s very clearly a story of someone that was compelled by his faith to act as the hand of the God through his interpretation. There’s black people killing white people, but with [Turner] very, very explicitly saying, “I have to cut the head from the serpent. I have to kill the evil. I have to destroy the evil that is subjugating us.”

One thing that really struck me as I was watching it at Sundance is how much Scripture is in the film—wall-to-wall Scripture.

More than any film that’s ever been made, from my research.

That was striking. It shows how Scripture can be used to oppress people or to liberate them.

That’s exactly right. . . .

I scoured the Bible for specific instances of characters or people who were outnumbered, who were oppressed, who were enslaved, who were subjugated, who were manipulated. Then I looked for instances when those very people became radical, in the sense that they decided that they wanted their freedom then. We think about David, or we think about Jericho, or we think of any of these situations where reality was bent toward the people of God for them to achieve his will. You can call them miracles. Those are the times that I used specific Scripture for his motivation.

At other times, I looked very specifically for instances in the Bible, for instance in Ephesians, where [the text] seemed to validate slavery. I used it in the same way that people of the time would’ve used it to keep people in chains—literally, figuratively, and psychologically. . . .

I ask your readers or ask my supporters, What kind of Christian are you? I asked that at Sundance: Are you a Nat Turner Christian, or are you a Christian like those who hung him and decapitated him and skinned his body and crushed his flesh to grease?

The striking thing about that last question is the way it almost assumes that violence is a given, and it’s only a question of what kind of violence a Christian will commit: either a Christian will be an oppressive tyrant, or a Christian will be a freedom fighter who kills the tyrants. I find myself wanting a third, more Christlike option.

I have not seen The Birth of a Nation for myself yet, but a colleague of mine who saw it at Sundance did not like it at all, precisely because he felt the film came down firmly on the side of religiously-motivated violence — the violence of the slaves rather than the violence of the slave-owners, to be sure, but violence just the same.

The rest of us can interpret the film for ourselves when it comes out October 7. But I find it striking that a film about the biblically-driven leader of a violent uprising would be coming out at almost the exact midpoint between Ben-Hur and Hacksaw Ridge, two films that, by all accounts, embrace a more pacifist form of Christianity.

Ben-Hur opens next Friday, and the clips we have already seen show Judah Ben-Hur getting caught up in a vicious cycle of revenge and reprisals, all of it due to a Zealot who shoots an arrow at Pontius Pilate from the roof of Judah’s house; this same Zealot will apparently end up being one of the two “thieves” crucified next to Jesus.

In previous film adaptations of Ben-Hur, Judah raised armies to fight back against the Roman oppressors, or at least he talked about doing so, similar to how Nat Turner fights back against the slave owners. (Judah is a slave himself for part of Ben-Hur.) But one of the points of the story is that Judah turns away from violence after his final encounter with Jesus, and it sounds like that’s how the new Ben-Hur will end too.

Meanwhile, Hacksaw Ridge opens November 4, and that film is about a Seventh-Day Adventist named Desmond Doss who refused to carry a rifle into battle during World War II but risked his life to save his fellow soldiers. Again, there are very few people who would say that our side in World War II was not “justified” on some level — certainly compared to other wars fought before and after it — but the person that that story is based on believed that, as a Christian, he could not justify killing anyone.

Ben-Hur is fiction, but it’s a story about oppressed people — enslaved people, even — learning to respond to tyrants with something other than violence. (Of course, the original novel was written by a former Civil War general, so, hmmm.) Hacksaw Ridge, meanwhile, is a true story about a man whose pacifism was anything but cheap; it came at great cost, as he put himself in harm’s way repeatedly to save others.

Both films could offer a stark contrast to the violent, vengeful Christianity depicted in The Birth of a Nation. Like I say, I have not seen Parker’s film and I have no idea to what degree it will embrace Turner’s pro-violent interpretation of scripture. But the fact that it’s coming out between two high-profile films that focus on Christian pacifism and the need to forgive one’s oppressors is … interesting, to say the least.

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