Culture

Top 5 Resources for Community Dialogue on 'Selma'

Via Selma movie on Facebook

Via Selma movie on Facebook

Just as Selma opened in wide-release I began to receive requests for advice on how to lead churches and faith communities through discussions of the film. Years ago, I used to lead these kinds of dialogues in my capacity as the Greater Los Angeles director of racial reconciliation for a college-based parachurch ministry. Some of our most fruitful conversations came after we saw films like Selma or read a book together or had a common experience of racial injustice that we needed to process.

The film Selma is an incredibly helpful dialogue centerpiece at the moment. But like all things, other dialogue opportunities will rise and take center stage in the coming weeks and months. Other films will be released, helpful books will be published, and public events will provoke us to need to dialogue again. When those opportunities surface, I recommend using the format below as a template for similar dialogues moving forward. I’ve collected my Top 5 recommended resources to help guide your community dialogue on racial justice and Selma.

New and Noteworthy

Living God's Reign
In Witnessing: Prophecy, Politics, and Wisdom, edited by Maria Clara Bingemer and Peter Casarella, international scholars write on many aspects of Christian witness, including martyrdom (especially Catholic martyrs in El Salvador), personal narrative, the interlocking realities of God’s beauty and justice, and intercultural dialogue. Orbis

 Prophet at the Gates


Forward Together: A Moral Message for the Nation gathers the speeches of North Carolina NAACP president William J. Barber at the 2013 Moral Mondays protests and other progressive events in that state. Powerful God-rooted words, yearning for equality and justice for all. Chalice Press

Peace Adventures
Since nonviolently resisting a snowball barrage at age 7, Quaker David Hartsough (executive director of Peaceworkers and co-founder of the Nonviolent Peaceforce) has put peace into practice. His story, Waging Peace: Global Adventures of a Lifelong Activist, is both an optimistic memoir and a resource for activists. PM Press

 Lens of Creation 


The Salt of the Earth is a documentary following the cross-continental travels of photographer Sebastião Salgado over the past 40 years. The film is beautiful and jarring—a stunningly captured testament to the magnificence of creation and the waywardness of humankind. Directed by Wim Wenders with Salgado’s son, Juliano. Sony Classics

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Meet the New Boss (looks familiar)

Illustration by Ken Davis

IN MID-JANUARY, the gavel of power will change hands in the U.S. Senate. Mitch McConnell, in a touching act of cross-party reconciliation, will reach across the aisle and forcefully pry the symbol of legislative authority from the desperate grip of Harry Reid. Although the outgoing majority leader said after the midterms, “I have been able to strike a compromise with my Republican colleagues, and I’m ready to do it again,” Reid later clarified that what he meant was the compromise he would strike would be across the knuckles.

After warding off repeated blows, however, McConnell will be the new leader of the Senate, a massive change in political power that will go virtually unnoticed to the public, since he and Reid are both grim-faced, elderly white men whose rare smiles cause parents to cover their children’s eyes and bring their pets indoors.

Indistinguishable in their sour demeanors, they are like brothers separated at birth: two joyless Caucasian babies muttering in their hospital cribs, already soured by the knowledge their lives will be spent in fruitless conflict, the only bright spot being they’ll have comfortable leather seating at work.

Both men are well into their seventh decade, with most of their adulthood spent in politics, another reminder that the true power of incumbency is simply outliving everybody else.

You would think that the many benefits of longevity would include a lifetime of wisdom but, for these two men, sitting long at the feast of reason is no guarantee of peckishness. (Sorry. My router is down and I’ve been reading 19th-century English literature instead of streaming videos of cute animals. It’s the baby kangaroos I miss the most.)

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The Persistent Strain

THE WEEK leading up to the Michael Brown non-verdict was one in which race was at the forefront of daily life, at least as much as it was in the ancient days of my Mississippi upbringing.

You could say that week started with President Obama’s executive action on immigration. The next morning, I did household chores and listened to NPR coverage of the often-heated reaction to the president’s speech. The next day, my wife and I drove into Louisville to see Dear White People, Justin Simien’s devastatingly clever and thoughtful take on racism and identity politics among the Obama generation.

The movie made me laugh (at a volume embarrassing to my poor spouse) and even applaud in the middle of a crowded theater. It also left me pondering the persistence of the white supremacist virus in the American body politic. Over the past half-century, the film suggests, it may have evolved into a weaker strain, but it’s still lurking in there, and it can still make us sick.

A few evenings later, at the historically black college where I teach, my “Magazine and Feature Writing” class was discussing “Fear of a Black President,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which appeared in the September 2012 issue of The Atlantic. In his epic essay, Coates takes Obama to task for failing to follow up on his 2008 “Jeremiah Wright” speech in which he seemed poised to lead the U.S. in confronting its racial demons. At the same time, Coates also makes a fairly airtight case that, despite his efforts to not be the “black” president, opposition to Obama and his policies has often been motivated by fear and/or resentment of his race. Coates’ analysis centers especially on the right-wing firestorms that ensued when, in two famous racial-profiling cases, Obama acknowledged that he could identify with the victims because of his own race.

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Recharting Our Course

USERS OF MAPS—that’s all of us—may suppose that what we see is factual, accurate, bias-free. Of course location, distance, elevation, and comparative importance are reliably shown!

Not so fast, says social activist and pastor Ward L. Kaiser. A map may be “right” in some ways but still dangerous to the way we live in the world.

Why? Because maps are layered with meaning. Surprisingly, their most important messages may lie beneath the surface. In his full-color book How Maps Change Things, Kaiser helps the reader to dig in and discover some of those hidden, mind-bending messages.

As a college chaplain I am acutely, sometimes painfully, aware of the often-hidden narratives and symbols that define us as individuals and as a culture. This book has helped me analyze how maps—an increasingly pervasive form of symbolic messaging and storytelling in our time—connect us to power and privilege or consign us to society’s also-rans.

Examples make the case: An intriguing regional map developed for schools in Cuba raises the question of how this image contributes to that nation’s distorted view of the U.S. A secret map of Iraq drawn up in Washington so shifted our perception of that country that it lubricated the decision by the U.S. and other Western powers to go to war there. Several of the most popular maps of the world support a Eurocentric or North America-centered worldview, aggrandizing “our” place in the world and downplaying the importance of developing nations.

Kaiser’s point: Maps are always selective, often biased, constantly nudging us to see, think, and behave in particular ways. We shape maps; equally important, they shape us. Like the faith we hold, maps powerfully influence how we live in the world. And maps may work with our faith or against it.

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Tell Me A Story

PREACHERS, politicians, and other public speakers know that a story is often the best way to get a point across to their listeners. In his itinerant ministry, Jesus was no exception. Some of his most important teaching was contained in stories—parables. Yet often we do not take them seriously enough to seek what he was really saying. Two thousand years of Christian theology has also obscured his original intent, often by considering them to be allegories rather than stories.

In that process, anti-Jewish stereotypes and prejudices have too often come to dominate the interpretation of the parables. Any villain is seen as representing Judaism, while the hero or victim represents the church—and, of course, in this framing God is on the side of the church. This often-unconscious bias affects how we read and understand the story and obscures Jesus’ message.

Professor Amy-Jill Levine, in Short Stories by Jesus, aims to correct that. As a Jewish New Testament scholar teaching at a Christian divinity school, she is uniquely situated to place Jesus and his teaching in their historical and cultural context. Jesus was a first-century Jew speaking to other first-century Jews. If we do not understand that starting point, we cannot understand Jesus or his stories. In an introduction not to be skipped, she points out that the parables often echo themes that appear elsewhere in Jesus’ teachings: economics, relationships, and, most important, prioritizing life in expectation of the coming kingdom of God. To make his point, he uses common, everyday examples of real-life characters and situations his audience would recognize.

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A Year of Great Films

THIS PAST MOVIE year I’ve been delighted by, among other things, nonviolent resolutions, a guy talking in a car, an Irish priest trying to do the right thing, and a five-dimensional bookcase. Here’s my list of the 10 best films of 2014 (many more are worthy, but 10 are all that will fit).

10. Pride. A delightful and stirring celebration of marginalized people turning their woundedness into helping others, as LGBTQ activists support the Thatcher-era British coal miners’ strike.

9. The Lego Movie. This turned out to be both the most unpredictably fun and one of the wisest films of the year. A brilliant critique of consumerism and political tyranny, with an ending that inverts the myth of redemptive violence.

8. Love Is Strange. A lovely, mournful romance, as a couple forced apart by prejudice teaches us the meaning of commitment. John Lithgow soars.

7. Interstellar. Extravagant adventure cinema, misunderstood as sentimental. Looked at more closely, the exploration of time is an intelligent grappling with not just how things work, but what God might be—a transcendently loving consciousness wooing us into a rescued future.

6. Ida. A beautiful, aching film about the post-Holocaust transitional generation and the meaning of religion.

5. Birdman. Crazy and deep, Michael Keaton’s finest hour, and a wild ride into the soul of an artist: The vocation that causes its stewards to fly, or crash, or fly while crashing.

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Redemptive Verses

POET BRUCE WEIGL inhabits two places in his life, in his work. Two places that could not be more different. But in the course of our conversations, I come to think of them as a single place, the way two hands are part of a single body. One place is Lorain, Ohio. The other is Vietnam.

Ever since the Vietnam War ended, the life of this mill worker’s son has swung between those two far-flung poles.

I met Weigl at a Starbucks in Manhattan’s East Village. I was interviewing a friend of his, Adrie Kusserow, about her book of poems on South Sudan. Weigl was content just to drink his coffee and listen to us talk. He intervened only once, when Kusserow and I began decrying public indifference to South Sudan’s pre-independence history of slaughter, enslavement, and banishment by Sudan.

“If I may defend my fellow human beings here, there are so many places in the world today where there is suffering. It is understandable that people may miss one or two,” he said.

The suffering of the Vietnamese, and of soldiers like himself who fought in Vietnam, is still burned into his psyche like some gory tattoo. It is to be found in every one of his 13 books.

In his poem “Ice Storm,” from The Abundance of Nothing (TriQuarterly Books), short-listed for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize, he writes:

I got my own personal Jacob’s ladder,
buddy, reader, listener to this
sad song. I built a temple for the ghosts
because they just kept coming.

Weigl’s work is strewn with ghosts: ghosts of Vietnamese children hit by American fire (but also the cherished non-ghost, his adopted Vietnamese daughter, Hahn), the ghosts of a soldier’s legs severed by a Bouncing Betty, the ghost of his own lost self, inflicted miserably on bar girls. He constructs a stairway of ghosts that empties into a redemptive space. A space that has prevailed over the ghosts, while being unable to actually evict them.

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The Long March from ‘Exodus’ to ‘Selma’

Photo via Paramount Pictures / RNS

David Oyelowo plays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Selma." Photo via Paramount Pictures / RNS.

Here is one of 2014’s most enduring tips for budding filmmakers: Do not make films that are going to make developing countries angry.

First, North Korea went ballistic over “The Interview,” which contained a farcical plot to assassinate Kim Jong Un. And then, Egypt, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates decided to ban the new Ridley Scott biblical epic, “Exodus: Gods And Kings.”

Why? Egypt, in particular, is angry at the film’s historical inaccuracies. “Exodus” shows the ancient Egyptians hanging recalcitrant Hebrew slaves; hanging was never used as a punishment in ancient Egypt. Moreover, the Egyptians are upset because the film depicts the ancient Hebrews laboring on the Great Sphinx and the pyramids. They also object to the depiction of an armed Hebrew insurrection, which does not appear in the ancient biblical text.

The official statement claimed the film includes “intentional gross historical fallacies that offend Egypt and its pharaonic ancient history in yet another attempt to Judaize Egyptian civilization, which confirms the international Zionist fingerprints all over the film.”

Guess what? The Egyptians are right.

A Winter to Remember, Beforehand

Illustration by Ken Davis

AS WE BLITHELY head into what we assume will be another warm winter—given the effects of global warming denied only by the ExxonMobil wing of Congress—we would do well to heed the warning of the nation’s oldest weather forecaster. According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, the coming winter will be particularly cold, with deep December snows to write home about, if you can get to the mailbox.

I first heard this forecast on the radio, driving home from another of the many craft festivals we attended this fall. We enjoy the talented local musicians and artisans, the copious amounts of free samples, and the chance I get at every handmade soap tent to complain that their cheese tastes funny. (I love doing that. It never gets old.)

The only drawback to fall festivals is the unavoidable encounter with dulcimer players. I listen politely for as long as I can stand it, then cry out, “Can you play ‘Free Bird’ on that thing?!” I do this to restore my sanity, if only for a moment. With its gentle, bell-like tones, dulcimer music is like a droning mosquito that you can’t kill. (The main problem with a hammer dulcimer is the hammer is too small and not made of metal. And they don’t hit it hard enough. I would hit it much harder.)

The dulcimer makers are proud of their craft, and offer them for sale, stacked together like so much firewood, dried and waiting for some conscientious humanitarian with a match to put an end to the madness.

But I digress.

GRANTED, IF BIG snows bring Washington to a standstill this winter, nobody would notice on Capitol Hill. But I wanted to be ready at home, with lots of supplies and plenty of rock salt for the sidewalks. (Winter tip: The best way to get a car out of deep snow is to place a dulcimer under each tire.)

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