The Theology of Suspicion: What ‘Get Out’ Can Teach White Christians | Sojourners

The Theology of Suspicion: What ‘Get Out’ Can Teach White Christians

Image via "Get Out"/Facebook

To tell the story of black photographer Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) on a visit to her family’s suburban home, Get Out director Jordan Peele doesn’t need to venture into the supernatural to dredge up terror: America’s history offers more than enough material. Throughout the film, Peele invokes haunting racial symbols of slave auctions, black thralldom, and white social fear around miscegenation. The result — a hypnotic thriller, and Peele’s directorial debut — powerfully uses the medium of horror to leverage a searing critique of post-raciality highlighting white America’s ongoing complicity in anti-black violence.

The monster here isn’t a dark beast with glistening fangs — it’s white people themselves. Get Out specifically echoes critiques of white liberals made by Malcolm X, James Baldwin, and others, calling into question the very idea of the “Good White Person”(™), whose basic politeness toward black people — or preference for having sex with them — supposedly mitigates their participation in white supremacy.

In this sense, Get Out resonates with black liberation theology’s contention that white Christians are uniquely disfigured by the violent logics of race. That is, whiteness has so powerfully marred the vision of white Christians — distorting ancestral legacies and narcotizing conscience — that black people must approach the white Church and its demonic legacy of racism with vigilance.

“All I know is, if I’m around too many white people I get nervous,” Chris admits. But like any good horror lead, Chris swallows his intuition, leaving moviegoers shouting at the screen. Chris’ best friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), a TSA agent, bluntly channels the audience’s frustration at Chris’ inability to detect the danger around him (“Bruh, how are you not scared of this, man!?”). Rod’s work in airport law enforcement has trained him to carefully scrutinize the familiar — and, more seasoned to deception, Rod is far more prepared than Chris for the possibility of betrayal at white hands (“I told you not to go in that house!”).

The “well-intentioned” microaggressions to which Chris is subjected at a family party take on more sinister overtones when we eventually discover the root of the partygoers' fascination: their unspoken claim to Chris’ black body. Amid their polite laughter, Get Out suggests we consider carefully what malice might be lurking behind those pearly whites. Viewers are encouraged to pay attention to exactly what its lead ignores: that chill along your spine, that lump in your throat. Viewers who have been previously lacerated by white society are already aware of this.

Philosopher Paul Ricœur coined a phrase that captures this sense of caution — “hermeneutics of suspicion.” That is, that critical interpretive lenses can help reveal hidden meanings in seemingly-benign surface presentations. Ricœur argued that approaching culturally dominant ideas with a posture of distrust was crucial to dismantling systems of power. He argued that threading together the work of thinkers like Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx was a spirit of skepticism — one that allowed them to transform society by questioning inherited traditions around psychology, religion, and capital.

This idea has since taken on an afterlife in the fields of liberation theology and postcolonial biblical studies. Feminist theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza argues that peering at historical Christianity through a hermeneutic of suspicion places “a warning label on all biblical texts: Caution! Could be dangerous to your health and survival.”

Blogger Lawrence W. Rodgers suggests applying a similar lens to what we hear in church: “Does this theological teaching bring further oppression to myself…or does it bring liberation?”

That such interpretive frameworks are not often applied to mainstream American culture – or American religion – may help explain the massive perception gulf in our society that clings tightly to ethnic lines. White people tend to report that more anti-white racism exists in the U.S. than anti-black racism, and white evangelicals believe that Christians face more discrimination than Muslims in America. Claiming that no biases cloud their vision has only equipped white people to more effectively ignore the racism in their midst. And so “colorblind” ideology reproduces racial fable.

Get Out invites us to peer into another looking glass, reflecting a warped world queerly our own. In Chris’ world, as in ours, every shadow may conceal fresh danger. You don’t have to go searching for monsters in the deep, dark woods: by all accounts, they will come to you. They may claim your body while you are visiting a significant other’s family, smoking a cigarette, changing lanes … or playing in a park, buying Skittles, sleeping, selling CDs, entering a darkened stairwell, attending Wednesday night Bible study.

And so Get Out encourages people of color to filter white folks through a steady lens of suspicion. This is, at its core, a survival tactic. Approaching white people with a deep awareness of the harm they are prone to inflict can better prepare people of color to resist all manner of physical and psychological violence.

In the film’s final act, Chris takes bloodied flight from an assailant dressed in colonial hunting garb. But here, Peele turns typical horror logic on its head. The black man isn’t immediately devoured. This time, the prey fights back. It is this sort of weathered, reckless hope that accompanies Chris and Rose’s unfolding ballad of racial dread. In meeting his girlfriend’s white family, Chris chooses to risk for love, convinced he can bear all the wounds that will follow. And Rod imperils life and limb to help his best friend, enfleshing commitment and friendship in the midst of betrayal.

Yet we are not left with a cheery resolution, à la Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Get Out is particularly well-suited for the snarling political moment in which we find ourselves. The film would not have hit so hard had Michael Brown’s blood not run through the street in 2014 — and had white nationalism not reclaimed the White House this November.

Liberation theologians have often sought to balance accurately diagnosing white barbarity with a firm commitment to hope, aware that abandoning all trust can ultimately yield only nihilism and despair. As social critic Michel Foucault wrote, “If you are suspicious, it is because, of course, you have a certain hope.”

We can hope, work, and pray for the day when Christians of all colors might be reconciled to one another in peace. In the meantime, Get Out reminds us that white people, especially those who claim to love us, must do better.

Like Chris and Rod, we will hold them to it, or get far, far away — by any means necessary.