Changeling and the Spirituality of Activism

By Becky Garrison 10-15-2008

Clint Eastwood's latest feature Changeling (opens October 24) depicts the real life story of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a working class single mom living in Los Angeles circa 1928. She confronts the corrupt Los Angeles police department after they return her missing child because she insists the boy is not her child.

While the story is told through Christine's perspective, when I saw the film at the New York Film Festival, my eyes were drawn to the Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malcovich). This Presbyterian minister and community activist champions her cause, and, in the process, he plays a vital role in exposing police corruption and ushering in new laws promoting the dignity of all. In an era that produced religious charlatans like Aimee Semple McPherson, Briegleb shines as a positive example of putting one's faith into practice.

What struck me about Briegleb's battle was that he was one of the few men who treated a woman as an equal during an era when the weaker sex were not afforded the same rights as men. When a woman proved to be "difficult" (meaning they stood up for their rights), the police could issue a "Code 12," an order that would enable them to house such a woman against her will in a psychiatric ward.

While I'd want Briegleb as my advocate, I'm not sure how he'd fare as my pastor. Malcovich's multilayered performance reveals a lone wolf crusader, whose penchant for seeking out the media and brash personality could indeed be off-putting. He seems to be more committed to delivering his radio broadcasts and fighting City Hall than tending to the pastoral needs of his congregation.

Given I never saw him stop to pray or read the Bible, I wondered how Briegleb found the fuel to keep his ministry in motion. Since the story is told from the Christine's viewpoint, our knowledge about Rev. Briegleb is limited to his interactions on her behalf. But he seemed to be so much on the go that I wondered how he tended to his inner life. I could easily see an activist minister like Briegleb burning out from his battles unless he found a way to refuel himself.

In Tony Campolo and Mary Albert Darling's book The God of Intimacy and Action: Reconnecting Ancient Spiritual Practices, Evangelism, and Justice, they offer this timely reminder about the need to balance one's inner and outer lives:

When you are committed to evangelism and justice, it will not be long before you see how much needs to be done, how urgent those needs are, and how few are really doing anything. We can then easily fall into temptation of working to compensate for others' lack of loving action: so much that we do not take the time to strengthen our own inner lives in Christ. Worse yet, we may not even recognize the need for inner spiritual renewal. But if we do not take the time to nourish our lives in time with Christ, our capacity for effectiveness will decline and our ability to long endure in our efforts will fade.

As we move forward towards a tumultuous election, I find my e-mail inbox flooded with e-mails from across the faith and politics spectrum from fellow Christians that seem to be more vitriolic than virtuous. I confess that my response at times to such faith fights over theological turf must make Christ cringe. Upon reflection, I realized that when I let my anger get the better of me, my prayer life was out of sync. I pray that we can all find the balance between putting Christ's teaching into practice and following his example to retreat to the desert and take time for reflection and renewal.

Becky GarrisonBecky Garrison is one of the many voices featured in the documentary The Ordinary Radicals.

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