Christianity Today’s film This is Our City is provocative because of its gritty, grounded honesty. This is not a film about political pundits who banter back and forth exchanging policy talking points. No. This short film reveals the lives and thinking of two very ordinary people, their deep faith in Jesus, and how that faith is leading them to engage two of the most consequential grassroots movements of our time. These two movements share one beautiful thing in common; they are groundswells of ordinary citizens reengaging their democratic civic duty—to let their messages by heard and considered in the public square.
D.C. Innes rightly points out in his reflections that the film’s title, “Liberty or Justice for All,” and its structure seem to pit the virtues of liberty and justice against one another. Within the first minute of this nearly seven-minute film, liberty is clearly the motivation for Emmett Bailey’s Virginia Tea Party involvement, while the motivation for Pam Hogeweide’s Occupy Portland involvement is clearly “justice.” And both subjects say their involvement is an outworking of their faith.
In the first minute of the film Bailey reveals his understanding of liberty and law: “The founders’ vision (and God’s vision),” he says, “was that we would be self-regulated. When God is being honored, people are regulating themselves, not regulated from the outside with laws.” Soon we see him arrive at a Tea Party rally where machine-gun-toting “patriots” listen to a woman remind the crowd of something she says they are “very familiar with.” She launches into the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among them the right to pursue Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Then the woman twists history and identifies “tyrannical government” in general as the entity Americans must protect their rights from.
So much to say; not enough words. First, Bailey’s interpretation of the founders’ (and God’s) vision is idealistic, if not skewed. The founders were not against regulation. They were not against law. The founders’ first act was to create the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights; a set of regulations and laws. They understood regulation and law, not as an impingement of liberty, but rather as a necessary tool for the preservation of it. As for God’s vision, Bailey’s read of scripture seems to be rooted in fundamentalist dispensational soil. How else can one read the whole counsel of scripture and think God’s vision is the abolition of law? Consider the Ten Commandments, all of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, David’s Psalm 119 love letter to the law, all the prophets who called the Israelites back to the law, and the words of Jesus, himself, who declared in his Sermon on the Mount: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17)
Second, the Tea Party spokeswoman’s assessment that America’s Declaration of Independence was a call to protect oneself against government in general, which it is implied will always be tyrannical, is misguided. The Declaration of Independence was written by founders of a government who fought real tyranny—taxation without representation, imperial rule without democracy, foreign rule without self-governance. And that self-governance was not about an individual’s ability to self-govern. It was about the colonists’ lack of liberty to legislate and regulate civic life apart from the crown. The founders were not a band of individuals fighting the big bad monster called government. They formed a government to fight foreign rule. That was the context of our founders’ declaration.
Meanwhile, we see Pam Hogeweide writing her Occupy Portland sign for the day: “Corporate Personhood = Corrupt Government.” What fuels Hogeweide’s engagement? She reflects on her own desire to see revival in America.
“I’ve been one of those women,”’ she says, “who has been like, ‘Rain it down, God. Bring revival to America.’” Then she attended an Occupy march and scanned the crowd. It suddenly occurred to her: “What if this revival is not gonna happen inside of the church?”
I understand what Hogeweide means. Through most of my teens and twenties I sat in pews and prayed for revival. I prayed fervent prayers. I prayed with faith. I prayed the Holy Spirit to break out across this land and transform lives and hearts and bring people back to Jesus, their savior. But my sense of what that revival would look like was completely rooted in an individualistic, suburban, middle-class understanding of a faith that was, frankly, born in a communal, largely urban, politically and ethnically oppressed culture. My vision of revival was limited to individual holiness.
What I believe Hogeweide caught wind of in the middle of that Occupy rally was the vision of revival that Mary had when she sang her Magnificat: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53)
She caught the vision of revival that Jesus had when he proclaimed in his first sermon ever: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18a, NRSV)
She caught the vision of revival Jesus had in his instructions on how to pray: “Our Father in Heaven” (in other words, not our oppressor, Caesar, who calls himself the father of the people he oppresses) “Hallowed be thy name” (in other words, God, your name is the highest name, not Caesar who says his name is the highest name) “Thy kingdom come; they will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (in other words, we are your subjects, God, not Caesar’s. Subvert the will of our imperial conqueror and let your will be done, not his!) (Matthew 6:9-13)
And she caught the vision of revival that the first Evangelicals had when their faith led them first to the altar and then to the public squares of England and United States to call for the re-formation of society through changes in public law and the institutions of regulations to end slavery, exploitation of labor and animals, and gender equality.
My coauthor, Innes, minimized Hogeweide’s vision of revival, but in so doing he erased evangelical church history and the theology that birthed it.
Most striking to me is the fact that neither subject of this film ever mentions the “opposing” virtue, but one only has to look beneath the surface to find it dormant—not dead—to these faith-filled patriots. Bailey is African-American and values liberty above all else. Toward the end of the film, he says: “If you don’t have your freedom, nothing else matters.” I understand that. For Bailey, lack of liberty is injustice. I only wish he would seriously consider the lost freedoms of 99 percent of the population when corporations and the richest 1 percent are given complete, unregulated liberty. For Hogeweide, justice equals liberty from corporate tyranny.
This week Rep. Paul Ryan (Chair of the House Budget Committee) will submit his proposal for the Fiscal Year 2013 U.S. Budget. Most pundits predict it will be largely the same as last year’s proposal, which proposed to balance the budget on the backs of the poor. Two thirds of all proposed cuts came from programs that help the most vulnerable among us, while Ryan offered tax cuts to the richest 1 percent. When his proposal drops, I urge you to watch this film and consider for yourselves. Then let beauty have its way; engage democracy.
Lisa Sharon Harper is the Director of Mobilizing at Sojourners. She is also co-author of Left, Right and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics and author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican ... or Democrat.