I went to the movies in 2019. Here’s the rest—and best—of what happened.

If you missed the first part of my 2019 list, you can read it (including all of my disclaimers about not blaming me for whatever you decide to watch) here. Now for my top twelve and some other scattered thoughts on what I saw last year.

After 2016 took my love for movies to another (diagnosable) level, 2017 and 2018 came up a little short for me. This past year was another one for the books, packed with so many good (and several great) films. I’m pretty iffy about assigning rankings to…well, almost anything, but I’m going to dig deep and rank my top twelve. I’ve tinkered with the list all year, and as always, if I wrote this next week there’s a good chance I’d shuffle many of them around. So again, this is nothing more than my own subjective, subject-to-change ranking of my favorite movies from 2019.

TOP TWELVE

12. Dark Waters

Procedurals like DARK WATERS are not going to garner a lot of attention or praise at this point, but this is one of a couple of 2019 movies that embraced a traditional genre most are ignoring and excelled. Based on a 2016 New York Times Magazine article by Nathaniel Rich, DARK WATERS chronicles the years-long effort of attorney Rob Bilott to expose layers of malfeasance by DuPont, whose production of Teflon products was responsible for all sorts of illness and death. Mark Ruffalo, who embraces his inner anti-Hulk in playing Bilott, offers one of the most under-appreciated performances of the year. It’s a relatively subdued role, the pace of the film is purposefully measured, and there’s a sort of muted grayness to the look throughout. That’s tough to market these days, but this is a powerful telling of an important story. // Trailer; watch: streaming/rental on March 3, looks like it may stream on HBO like other Focus Features films.

11. Amazing Grace

I’d rather not write a lot about this one and instead just urge you to make time to sit quietly in its presence. In short, this is 90 minutes of footage from the live recordings of Aretha Franklin’s 1972 gospel album, Amazing Grace. There are multiple stories about why it didn’t see the light of day until last year, but I’m sure glad it finally made its way to us. It’s like someone buried a treasure five decades ago and we just dug it up by accident. It’s transcendent. // Trailer; streaming on Hulu and rental services.

10. The Peanut Butter Falcon

This is where I remind you that this isn’t a list of the twelve best films of the year by some consistent critical standard; these are my favorite movies of the year. There were a thousand reasons for THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON not to work, but it does work, silly moments and all. And it works not in spite of a lead with Down Syndrome but because Zack Gottsagen is so darn perfect carrying the story alongside Shia LaBeouf. He’s not good in a sappy, “we all feel better about ourselves for loving this guy with Down Syndrome” way. He’s at home and thoroughly human in the way actors get paid millions to try to be. If you do a little reading, you’ll find that Zack and Shia became very close during this project, and Shia shares openly that their friendship profoundly shaped his life, including his faith. Dakota Johnson, who I also like a lot in this role, has echoed those sentiments. The script is a little goofy at times, but there’s something deeper happening that’s bigger than the typical sum of a movie’s parts. I dare you to watch and try to pretend to be unaffected as Zack expresses his deepest affections (or anger) by inviting (or uninviting) people to his birthday party. As a side note, Bruce Dern is terrific in his relatively minor role, something he pulled off twice in 2019. I failed to mention it before, but he was my second favorite part of ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD. // Trailer; watch: widely available for streaming rental.

9. Avengers: Endgame

If you’ve followed the Marvel storyline to this point and you don’t find Endgame satisfying, it’s possible that life in general is going to be pretty disappointing for you. It’s not perfect, but it’s hard to ignore that I walked into a theater confident that a movie couldn’t possibly survive the weight of its own expectations and walked out thinking about when I could carve out another three hours to see it again. I laughed. I cried. I cheered. (Really.) // Trailer; watch: streaming on Disney Plus and rental services; content: lots of people get beat up real good.

8. American Woman

Like DARK WATERS and a few others on my list, this is another case of a great film flying under a movie industry radar that’s more tuned to marketing budgets than to excellent art and storytelling. I could make this plea in several spots, but I’ll make it here: If you find yourself regularly complaining that most movies are terrible these days but you enjoy good stories and characters, dig a little deeper. You’re right, Hollywood produces soul-rotting eye candy by the ton, but the good movies aren’t gone; they’re often just harder to find. Sienna Miller is a force in this story about a mother desperately searching for her missing daughter while also coming to terms with her own identity and decisions about the value of her life, whether or not she finds her child. // Trailer; watch: streaming on HBO and rental services; content: domestic violence, attempted suicide by car crash, lots of language and discussion of sex, one or two sex scenes that I don’t recall being terribly graphic, but this is rated R for a reason.

7. Wild Rose

Somewhere in Hollywood someone is pitching a Mr. Belvedere movie. I’m sure of this because the train of recycled ideas is clearly not slowing down despite the fact that we’ve nearly scraped the 80s clean with unnecessary and uninteresting remakes. But whatever is driving that (spoiler alert: it’s money and cynicism), the problem isn’t a lack of writers capable of creating original content. I know this because a woman named Nicole Taylor who none of us have ever heard of wrote a script about a young Scottish woman fresh out of prison who is desperate to move to Nashville and become a country star, and it’s great. WILD ROSE is gritty enough to be believable, sweet enough to be rewarding, and brave enough to let the story find meaningful resolution in a space you don’t quite expect. Jessie Buckley (who you’ll know if you’ve watched Chernobyl) crushes the part and, like Sienna Miller, should have been in the conversation for the year’s best performance. // Trailer; watch: streaming on Hulu and rental services; content: rated R mostly for language, one not-terribly graphic sex scene that I recall.

6. Parasite

It seems kind of silly for me to write a lot about PARASITE at this point given the amount of virtual ink spilled over it in the last month. It isn’t my pick for the top film of the year, but I was happy it won Best Picture; only one other nominee lands higher on my list. The penultimate act is all that kept me from joining the most ardent of PARASITE fans, as I still don’t quite get the need to steer a methodically-mapped plot (and social statement) into total cacophony. Otherwise it’s nearly perfect, masterfully written and directed and packed with brilliant actors. // Trailer; watch: still in some theaters after the Oscar push but also streaming on rental services and will land at Hulu on April 7; content: once it gets violent, it goes full Tarantino, a good bit of language (transcribed in the English subtitles) and a sex scene between a husband and wife that doesn’t include actual nudity but is fairly, um, specific.

5. Knives Out

Man oh man, I love this movie. I promise you there was a long list of people in Hollywood scoffing at the prospects of an old fashioned murder mystery, even with Rian Johnson at the helm. KNIVES OUT has now made more than $300M worldwide which is, um, a lot for any kind of movie. I’ve written and deleted several sentences here because I don’t want to spoil it in any way for those who haven’t seen it. If that’s you, try to avoid knowing any more than you already know (it’s safe to finish this paragraph and the next), but put this one on your list. If you’ve seen it once, this is one I recommend seeing again because there is so much genius to the unfolding plot you simply don’t remember by the time you get the full picture the first time.

I’m blown away by what Johnson created, both in his writing and his direction, and the cast is stellar. Daniel Craig is the obvious star, and he is indeed great, but the detailed work by so many of the supporting cast members is exceptional. Consider how many lines Michael Shannon delivers in a falsetto, how steadily authentic-to-character Jamie Lee Curtis is with her expressions (and so forth). And gosh, “I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you,” is the most pitch-perfect 2019 line I can imagine. Mostly this movie makes me ask the question: Why aren’t there more smart, fun movies like this? // Trailer; watch: still in a lot of theaters, but also streaming on rental services as of today. The dvd/blu-ray looks to have quite a bit of extra content, which seems likely to be fun for a movie like this. I’ve noticed Redbox physical rentals contain the bonus materials more frequently than in the past; content: an apparent suicide scene (or was it?), on the high end for language for a PG-13 movie.

4. Honey Boy

2019 was quite a year for Shia LaBeouf. He was good in THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON, but this performance is a whole ‘nother thing. He wrote HONEY BOY in rehab as he was doing the very hard work of reckoning with his chaotic life to that point. Though the characters have fictitious names, this is essentially the story of Shia’s life, alternating between scenes from his childhood and scenes from the season he spiraled toward and worked through rehab. The bulk of the movie focuses on his bizarre journey through the distorted reality of child fame while still living essentially poor with his deeply broken father. The real power here is that Shia plays his own father, an idea that could have been a total disaster but instead is one of the more powerful and obviously cathartic performances I’ve ever seen. He balances honesty about and love for his dad in a way that is excruciating to watch but still deeply humanizing and empathy-evoking, something he talked through with his dad before making the film.

Man, Lucas Hedges is everywhere. // Trailer; watch: streaming on Amazon Prime and rental services; content: some trigger warnings for verbal and physical abuse and generally a lot of really painful parent-child moments, lots of language, discussions of some level of past sexual assault.

3. The Last Black Man in San Francisco

This was at the top of my list until the last two weeks of the year. Again I find myself reluctant to write much because I don’t want to try to describe what is better seen. It’s different, sometimes odd and abstract, and my exhortation is let it be what it is and engage it on its terms. It might feel a bit like you have to earn the story, but it comes if you wait for it. There are so many layers to what’s happening, but I was all the way in on it.

Identity. Place. Boyhood. Manhood. Masculinity. Race. Gentrification. Family. Truth. I was amazed by the ways an unorthodox movie managed to so deftly slice into all of these themes. And I can’t recall a more moving look into male friendship than this one.

The score is unlike anything I’ve heard before and part of what stitches together such an unusual film.

Danny Glover and Rob Morgan are terrific, but Jonathan Majors’ (HOSTILES) and newcomer Jimmie Fails’ (who developed the story loosely based on his life) performances are two of my favorites in a long time. It’s silly that Majors wasn’t an Oscar nominee. // Trailer; watch: streaming on Amazon Prime and rental services; content: one scene of male non-sexual nudity, some language.

2. Little Women

I made no effort to avoid spoilers on this one, but it’s Little Women, so you’ve had a few decades to catch up on the plot. I’m at risk for writing too much here, but I won’t apologize for that likelihood. I love this movie. Let me count the ways:

• Writer/director Greta Gerwig took on the task of retelling a story so well-known that it’s nearly impossible to create something that feels necessary. Any filmmaker in this role risks either clinging too tightly to familiarity or wandering too far afield and alienating the audience. Gerwig works true magic in keeping faith with Alcott’s original text while infusing it with new life and immediacy.

• Equally challenging is inviting and keeping an audience’s interest in a family whose enduring nature is warmth and goodness. Gerwig’s take on the March family is bursting with energy and life, and only the most determined cynics will refuse to be affected.

• Florence Pugh turns in my favorite performance of the year in her role as Amy, earning a Best Supporting Actress nomination from a rather unlikely role. Part of the brilliance of her performance is that she’s so good without consuming any of the space the other sisters’ characters need to flourish. Gerwig wrote Amy’s character from a different perspective on purpose, and I’ve rarely seen someone ease into a role with so many subtle perfections: the obsession with her nose, “you could be pretty if you tried,” her room-filling laughter at multiple turns, her doe-eyed, “I’m Amy,” when meeting Laurie, her face when Marmie asks them to give away their breakfast, her intonation in moments like, “Now my foot is stuck I can’t get it out!” It’s just one simple turn after another, many of them outstanding but none of them upstaging in a cast where upstaging would be a true shame. All of this builds to two masterful scenes between Amy and Laurie, one as she paints in the studio and the other a bit later on the lawn where, in her rebellion to Laurie finally articulating his feelings, she reveals she has “…spent my entire life loving you.” The electricity between Pugh and Chalamet in both moments is exactly as it should be for two people pretending not to be in love.

• …which brings me back to Gerwig, who deftly weaves this story between two timelines, and in this case cuts directly from Amy’s tearful confession/rejection to (years ago, when Laurie and Jo are inseparable) Amy making a mold of her foot to remind Laurie that she has nice feet. The brilliance of Gerwig’s parallel timelines is maybe most evident in the resolution of Beth’s two seasons of illness. I’ll admit I had to work a bit to keep track of where we were in time on first watch, but I was able to do it, and it’s all much cleaner and clearer (and even more ingenious) a second (or fourth) time around.

• I also became a fan of Emma Watson’s work here. The first time I saw it, the scenes between Meg and John felt a bit too much like stage acting, but that changed in subsequent viewings (yes, I’ve seen it enough to use the phrase “subsequent viewings”). Watson captures Meg’s sincerity as she slowly discovers the beautiful surprise that simple love is deeper and richer than whatever high society offers. As with Amy and the others, the direction and editing are key in Gerwig’s telling of Meg’s story. In the past timeline, Meg is offended by Laurie telling her he doesn’t care for her dress, but is later quick to forgive and essentially ask him for one night’s reprieve from being Meg March, promising she’ll return to herself for the rest of her life. We then cut to the present timeline where Meg and John argue about money and she describes her desire for things he can’t give her. “I’m tired of being poor,” she admits. Those sentiments exposed, Meg senses her deviation from true north, and the two of them spend the balance of the movie exchanging selfless gestures and finding joy in that way of living, embodying the words Mr. March speaks at their wedding.

• Timothée Chalamet is on the verge of superstardom (if he’s not already there), but he fits in here as one piece of a bigger picture with ease. He captures the duality of Laurie well, alternately leaning into privilege and bad behavior and vulnerably exposing his insecurities in the one safe place he finds: life among the March family. At times he seems to see the uncommon gift the sisters have been given better than they do, like when he rebuffs Amy’s defense of marrying for money as, “odd coming from the mouth of one of your mother’s girls” and when he tells Meg, who has been dressed up by wealthier friends, “I don’t like fuss and feathers,” then later in an apology, “I don’t like your dress, but I think you are just splendid.“ Laurie is unsettled by seeing “home” (for him the March way) distorted into the image of the world around it – the world he’s seeking refuge from in the Marches.

• I could write a paragraph on each of several other stars who are terrific, but I’ll abbreviate: Chris Cooper strikes a perfect middle ground between his classic hardass roles and his more endearing characters. Laura Dern is the antithesis of her Oscar winning divorce lawyer in MARRIAGE STORY, but I think she’s every bit as good here. LITTLE WOMEN is not overtly a religious story, but it is in very many ways an ode to virtue, and Dern’s Marmie is a stirring revelation of Christian virtue. She embodies kindness but admits her perpetual anger, only converted to something good when it is confessed and acted upon by something outside of her. She is ever urging her girls to love and forgive one another and to embrace a way that insists they always “help each other,” even when helping the one who has injured you is unimaginable. Meryl Streep is, well, perfect as Aunt March. Tracy Letts is one of my favorite actors working right now, and he’s very good here.

• There is a lot going on here in dealing with the realities of life for girls and women (in the 1800s and now), and I’ll limit my male input on that to this two-cents-worth: I think Gerwig does something fairly brave and important in this script by both dealing honestly with many of the impossible difficulties of being female and rejecting oversimplifications and miscorrections.

Jo: Women have minds and souls as well as hearts, ambition and talent as well as beauty and I’m sick of being told that love is all a woman is fit for. But… I’m so lonely.

…a moment which finds resolution when Jo, who had forsaken writing as not having the power she wanted it to have, lights a match, lifts her pen, and starts writing.

And when she tells Friedrich: I wish you would stay.

And when she tells Dashwood: I’ve decided. I want to own my own book.

• These wide shots of Jo and Beth at the beach. Mercy. This is why you should still see good movies with no CGI or big effects like LITTLE WOMEN at the theater. And why when America shifts all its movie-watching to lesser venues like phones and teevee screens, I’ll move to whatever part of the world hasn’t caught up so I can keep going to the movies.

• Maybe my favorite part of the film is the sequence in which Jo declares, “I can’t believe childhood is over,” and Meg (on her wedding day) answers: “It was going to end one way or another. And what a happy end.” Then we cut to the garden outside the home for the wedding and Bob Odenkirk somehow gets perhaps the most beautiful lines in the whole script as he officiates Meg and John’s wedding:

What excessive promises, giving yourself away to get the other. What a thing, what a gift, always given before it is known the cost or the reward.

• I love the time and attention given to the physical building of a book. 

• Each time I’ve seen the movie, I think I’m done crying, and as they’re printing the first copy of LITTLE WOMEN, they flash back to them as truly little girls, and I go full #girldad and lose it again.

• This conversation with Greta Gerwig about developing the script and making the movie is well worth your time. // Trailer; watch: still in theaters, scheduled to stream April 7; content: all the goodness.

1. A Hidden Life

God help me as I try to offer some words about a film about which I’d rather say, “Please choose a day when you’re rested and able to engage, carve out three hours, and watch A HIDDEN LIFE” (when it’s available at home on March 3).

So I’ll keep it simple, as most of what I’m tempted to do is quote several gorgeous parts of the dialogue that you should experience as they were written to be experienced. This is Terrence Malick’s most accessible film in a long time, as it moves away from the non-linear structure he began using in THE NEW WORLD in 2005. But it’s otherwise Malick through and through, brimming with stunning imagery and spellbinding light. I use snobby words like cinema sparingly, but this is cinema.

The story is a true one, and Malick’s telling is clear and straightforward: Franz and Fani Jägerstätter live and raise their girls in a remote Austrian village in the 1940s, when they decide Franz will not swear loyalty to Hitler when he is conscripted into the army and compelled to do so. The Jägerstätters live a simple but sublime life, and Malick is meticulous in documenting the wonder and purity of the natural world around them and of their family way. In some ways this is the film Wendell Berry would make if he didn’t categorically reject screen-as-medium.

A HIDDEN LIFE is not dialogue-heavy for a three hour film, but it manages to righteously sift beauty and virtue in so many spaces: simplicity, ordinary love, soul-committed marriage, conscience over and against all logical and unbearable pressures, forgiveness, freedom, and on and on. This is history to be sure, but it is as relevant to this moment as any film I’ve seen in many years.

Malick derived the title from George Eliot’s Middlemarch:

For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

A HIDDEN LIFE is the celebration of every uncelebrated, unknown, undocumented life of every man, woman, and child who faithfully bear the burden of choosing each day the life they’ve been given. Franz and Fani and their children — this film is about a marriage and family, not just a man — embody the intrinsic value of those lives, even when they are lived in obscurity. This is, of course, the beginning of the good news, and thanks be to God for this telling of it.

Anyway, please choose a day when you’re rested and able to engage, carve out three hours, and watch A HIDDEN LIFE. // Trailer; watch: streaming on March 3, though if by some miracle it reappears at a theater near you, go see it on the big screen.

SOME MISCELLANEOUS SUPERLATIVES

My favorite performances, big and small:

• Florence Pugh in LITTLE WOMEN
• Jonathan Majors and Jimmie Fails in THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO
• Shia LaBeouf and Noah Jupe in HONEY BOY
• Song Kang-ho and Cho Yeo-jeong in PARASITE
• Jessie Buckley in WILD ROSE
• Bruce Dern in THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON and ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD
• Adam Sandler in UNCUT GEMS
• Sienna Miller in AMERICAN WOMAN
• Brad Pitt in ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD
• Archie Yates in JOJO RABBIT
• Daniel Craig and Michael Shannon in KNIVES OUT

My favorite scenes and moments:

*I won’t describe these so as not to spoil them for those who haven’t seen them. I’m also including this with some reluctance because this is the area where I’ll later realize how many of my favorites I’m forgetting as I sit and write this.

• Mr. Rogers praying for people by name (this is a perfect movie scene, by the way) in A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
• Jo and Beth on the beach (the second time) in LITTLE WOMEN
• Tracy Letts and Matt Damon in a race car together in FORD v FERRARI
• Mont’s play performance (so much emotional weight laid bare in such an unexpected way) in THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO
• Mont haunting the old house in THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO
• Jo watching her book being printed in LITTLE WOMEN
• The singing soldier in 1917
Lost in the Woods in FROZEN 2 (don’t miss Weezer’s send-up)
• Brad Pitt fights Bruce Lee in ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD
• Several from A HIDDEN LIFE, but I need to see it again to pick one or two.

My favorite scripts:

• A HIDDEN LIFE
• LITTLE WOMEN
• KNIVES OUT
• THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO – People aren’t one thing.
• PARASITE
• A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD (We watched this as a family since I wrote Part 1 of my 2019 review, and I’d definitely bump it up my list at this point.)

2019 movies I still want to see

…if only to prove I don’t see everything.
• LIGHT FROM LIGHT
• EVERYBODY KNOWS
• ONE CHILD NATION
• HONEYLAND
• FOR SAMA
• BIRDS OF PASSAGE
• ASH IS PUREST WHITE
• HIGH LIFE
• TRANSIT
• RAISE HELL: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MOLLY IVINS
• RICHARD JEWELL
• THEM THAT FOLLOW
• PETERLOO
• HER SMELL

Short films you should see

These usually can be found online, if not immediately, fairly soon after Oscar season.
• HAIR LOVE (animated)
• THE NEIGHBORS’ WINDOW
• NEFTA FOOTBALL CLUB
• SISTER (animated)
• SARIA

Five movies I wish I hadn’t seen (that I’ll admit I saw)

• MONOS
• ROCKETMAN
• THE GOOD LIAR
• GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS
• THE MAN WHO KILLED HITLER AND THEN THE BIGFOOT (I’ll pretty much watch any Sam Elliot movie.)

Decorating the monuments of the righteous: A post-MLK Day confession

I share a few thoughts here, but as on every MLK Day (or the day after…or the 364 days after), my true desire is for anyone who would read my words to read Dr. King’s words. So if you’re choosing, please skip mine and read his Letter from a Birmingham Jail down below.

Last year to honor the legacy of Dr. King and to acknowledge the many lingering gaps in justice, I marched across our town with brothers and sisters of all colors and creeds in the morning and sat in on a panel on race and the Church with some pastors who are also friends in the evening. Yesterday I did neither, partially because of unavoidable schedule conflicts and partially because I’m in a generally reflective season these days. So I chose to quietly consider the life and death of King at home with my family.

My Day After MLK Day confession is I’m perpetually tempted to prefer the relatively benign symbol of human goodness and hope we’ve molded out of fragments of King’s words to the reality of a man who was unrelenting in his insistence that America was a republic not yet reconciled with its professed ideals and in his prophetic challenge to nearly every existing conception among white Americans of “good Christianity.” What we’ve created is a peace-keeping MLK who soothes our conscience in place of the true peacemaking Martin King whose appeals to conscience ran—and still run—far deeper than being sure we aren’t as racist as folks were 60 years ago.

My capacity for self-congratulations in this area is still quite high, and it’s not liberal hooey or social justice warrior propaganda that prompts me to seek humility and clearer vision. It’s Jesus. He walked among religious folks who weren’t the creepy villains the cheesy Bible movies and bad sermons have conjured in our imaginations. They were just like us: God-fearing people of deep religious conviction who loved the scriptures and were committed to the Truth. And still Jesus looked them in the eye and declared, “Woe to…” them for various ways they were more committed to their truth than the Truth, their way than His way, which is utterly indifferent to our preferences and cultural norms. Buried down in the woes, beyond the ones we more comfortably wiggle out of, is this punch in the face:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.

When I came across those words in Matthew’s gospel not long ago, I was also reading Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, a book I implore you to read, full stop. (The movie is good but captures only a tiny fraction of what’s essential in Stevenson’s writing and work; even if you see the movie first, I assure you the book won’t be a letdown.) That intersection in my reading produced a picture in my mind that I don’t believe was of my own making. It was something like this:

I’m confident I’m not the first to consider the intersection of these words and the MLK monument or dozens of other similar monuments to men and women whose legacies we carefully curate for our own comfort, but the imagery was new to me.

And I want to listen, both to the words of Dr. King and the words of Jesus.

I want to acknowledge my own preference for ease and peace-keeping.

I want to confess my arrogant confidence that ten years before I was born I would have listened to Dr. King with the same rapture, that I would have agreed with him with the same ease that I do 44 years after my birth until I hear him “remind America of the fierce urgency of now” and insist this is “no time to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” Then I’m not so sure, particularly as I consider my slowness to understand and amplify the realities still endured by my brothers and sisters who are not white and my stubborn hesitations to live in solidarity with them.

I want to repent of ways that my cognitive and spiritual dissonance leaves others alone in the still unfinished work of liberty and justice for all.

I want to refuse to cause others to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.

I want to live in the light that reveals my self-interest—our collective self-interest—and illuminates the way, not of guilt and shame, but of freedom, where true life is found not in telling others we’ve done enough but by embracing the endless well of cross-shaped living that can never give too much or serve too much or love much.


Letter from a Birmingham Jail

In April of 1963, twelve years before I was born, Dr. King wrote me a letter. That is to say he wrote a letter to white moderates and white clergy who either opposed the movement or were uncertain about how to respond to it and to him. He wrote that letter from jail to (mostly) white men who would offer theoretical support for civil rights but criticize King’s assertive, entirely non-violent means of working for those rights to become reality. Every time I read the letter, I see myself in it. I see myself in the white moderates he addresses who did not like hate or oppression but who lacked the understanding and sometimes courage to support the movement to undo them. I see myself in King’s hope for a better day and better way, and I pray I’ll have insight and guts to be a small part of bringing those to pass. I pray I’ll believe that this part of God’s Kingdom coming on earth is more important than comfort or money or familiarity and that my kids will believe that more than I do. 

Today, I pray you’ll read Dr. King’s letter to me and you. 


16 April 1963

My Dear Fellow Clergymen:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.” I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Frequently we share staff, educational and financial resources with our affiliates. Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here. I am here because I have organizational ties here.

But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation.

Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham’s economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants–for example, to remove the stores’ humiliating racial signs. On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained. As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?” We decided to schedule our direct action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for Christmas, this is the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic-withdrawal program would be the by product of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time to bring pressure to bear on the merchants for the needed change.

Then it occurred to us that Birmingham’s mayoral election was coming up in March, and we speedily decided to postpone action until after election day. When we discovered that the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, had piled up enough votes to be in the run off, we decided again to postpone action until the day after the run off so that the demonstrations could not be used to cloud the issues. Like many others, we waited to see Mr. Connor defeated, and to this end we endured postponement after postponement. Having aided in this community need, we felt that our direct action program could be delayed no longer.

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.

One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: “Why didn’t you give the new city administration time to act?” The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?

Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber. I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.”

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as “rabble rousers” and “outside agitators” those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies–a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides -and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too few in quantity, but they are big in quality. Some -such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle–have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms. Others have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy, roach infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as “dirty nigger-lovers.” Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful “action” antidotes to combat the disease of segregation. Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. I am not unmindful of the fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue. I commend you, Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand on this past Sunday, in welcoming Negroes to your worship service on a nonsegregated basis. I commend the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Spring Hill College several years ago.

But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”

Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation -and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands. Before closing I feel impelled to mention one other point in your statement that has troubled me profoundly. You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping “order” and “preventing violence.” I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.

It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather “nonviolently” in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany, Georgia, but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice. As T. S. Eliot has said: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

I wish you had commended the Negro sit inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy two year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: “My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.” They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’ sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,

Martin Luther King, Jr.

I went to the movies in 2018. Here’s what happened.

For a record-breaking second year in a row, I’m going to write about my favorite movies from the last year. First, my standard context and disclaimers:

• This is a true mashup of serious film appreciation and me being surprised I didn’t hate someone other than Harrison Ford playing Han Solo. I strongly discourage you from viewing this as a list of the objectively best films of the year or from trying to make any sense of it at all.

• At 42 43 my instinct for what I should and shouldn’t put in front of my eyes is pretty sound. You should be intentional about developing that instinct for yourself. I’ll try to mention any more extreme content that might be a problem, but do your homework and be discerning. Don’t blame me if you watch something that offends you just because you noticed I saw or liked it. (Though you’re certainly free to ask me if you’re wondering why I was okay watching something that offends you.) I see a lot of movies, but I don’t see everything, including certain popular or critically-acclaimed movies that I know just aren’t wise choices for me. Even “mindless entertainment” isn’t value neutral. One example: I generally steer clear of raunchy comedies because my spirit revolts at such cynical treatments of sex. There are others, but the point is me seeing (or liking) a movie isn’t necessarily an endorsement. Be wise and thoughtful, even (maybe especially) about what you laugh at.

• I’m writing about these films all at once, and it’s been many months since I’ve seen some of them. That means I may not have a lot to say about a few, but they make the list based on my memory of what I felt or thought about them when I saw them. I also don’t plan to try to summarize the movies and instead just share some of my reasons for including them. This is exactly how real movie critics work, I’m pretty sure.

• I kept closer track of what I watched this year than ever before, and if you have any interest in doing that, I recommend letterboxd, which has been a fun discovery for me. For the two of you interested enough in my movie opinions to track them more than once a year, letterboxd has a social component that allows you to follow what your friends are seeing, liking, hating, and various lists they make. You can follow me here.

• Publishing this the night of the Oscars is only a mild form of protest for how bored I was by the overall list of the Academy’s nominees and winners this year.

• I’ll try to mark any major spoilers, but you know, no promises.

• I’m going to rank my top 15 16 (I had a late addition after I started writing this), though if I made the ranking next week there’s little doubt I would shuffle many of them around. This is just my personal mixed-up ranking of the movies from 2018 I loved and/or appreciated based on how I’m feeling today. Before I do that, I’ll ramble about some other movies I kind of liked, really hated, or just want to tack on a comment about. If you think you’ll get bored with those, feel free to skip down to the numbered list. I’ll never know.

2017 Addendum: Hostiles
I saw this in early 2018 and didn’t have it on last year’s list, but it was actually a 2017 release that just didn’t make it to our theaters for a while. I’m a sucker for period movies set in the American west dealing with the usually tragic complexities of the frontier. Hostiles is exactly that, forcing a white soldier who spent his career hating and brutalizing native Americans to reckon with his past and decide whether he wants to locate his lost humanity. It oversimplifies and fast forwards through that story, but it still manages to have something to say about evil, repentance, forgiveness, and the excruciating realities native Americans had to endure while trying to cling to their own humanity. Content warning: a good bit of brutal violence, including an attack in which children are killed, and an off-screen sexual assault of multiple women.

Green Book
I originally left this one out completely, but I’m adding it Monday morning since it won Best Picture. Green Book was sort of obviously made with an Oscar-inducing formula. It has been polarizing on several fronts, most notably due to the way it approaches the racial dynamics between the main characters. I confess I don’t completely know how I feel about it or how to sort out the various perspectives on it. Even before I knew there was controversy, I was uncomfortable with what felt like the kind of movie about race we would have seen 25-30 years ago. Then I discovered there was significant pushback in the areas that seemed off to me. I honestly haven’t taken the time to read how the cast and crew, including co-star Mahershala Ali and executive producer Octavia Spencer, are responding to the questions.

Those significant issues aside, I thought Green Book was just okay. It definitely wasn’t the best film of 2018, but the Academy isn’t actually that interested in “best,” it turns out.

The Sisters Brothers
My junior high/high school buddy Scott and I met up in Dallas this fall and saw this before it was released widely. Neither of us knew much about it going in, though I was hopeful since I’m always eager for quality westerns and since the cast is so darn good: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Riz Ahmed. Scott and I talked about the movie for an hour afterwards, and the longer we talked, the less we liked it. I later discussed it with a couple of others who also disliked it, and I was content to kind of hate it. About six weeks later, I found myself thinking about it more than most movies I don’t like, so I gave it another shot. I was surprised to find I liked it a lot more the second time around. It’s still morally problematic for me in its portrayal of violence and in its (lack of ) resolution. It’s still confusing and, at times, absurd. But I found the strangeness more endearing and the unpredictability more interesting. Mostly I just loved John C. Reilly’s portrayal of Eli Sisters, and as I’m writing this I’m having a hard time thinking of a character or performance from the 2018 list I liked more. Reilly has spent a lot of time on silly roles, but he’s a brilliant actor.

Vice
I’m not going to comment much on this year’s Academy Award nominees except to say that, with a few notable exceptions, it’s the least interesting or inspiring group of nominees I’ve seen in years. Vice, with nominations in six(!) major categories, is exhibit A. I loved Adam McKay’s work on The Big Short, which was my favorite film of 2015. That’s part of why I found Vice difficult to watch. I’m otherwise very interested in these kinds of stories, this particular story, and these particular characters, but McKay mostly applied the same formula to a different story with far less interesting results. The approach and script just didn’t work for me, and with the exception of Christian Bale, who was outstanding as Dick Cheney (think for a minute about that transformation), the performances ranged from flat to painfully awkward.

First Reformed
I’m supposed to love this, I guess. I mean it’s kind of become a darling of the thinking crowd, and after all it’s about a pastor (Ethan Hawke) struggling with his faith and calling. My kind are generally not represented with much accuracy or care on screen, so I was intrigued. The more elemental parts of the movie worked for me, and the complicated emotional and spiritual landscape of Hawke’s character made sense to me as a pastor. Gosh, we even get a healthy dose of Thomas Merton. Yes please. I just couldn’t hang with some of the extreme turns in the plot building to an ending that went from weird to really weird. Sometimes I see people gush about a film and think they either watched it while they were high or they’re pretending to get and love something because they know they’re supposed to. That’s how I feel about people who claim to get or love the last 15 minutes of First Reformed. And it definitely has to be one of those two options since it seems so unlikely I’m just not smart enough to get it myself.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Over time this collection of Coen-Brothers-create-Flannery-O’Connor-stories-as-Westerns might move its way up my list. I’ve only seen it once, but it’s the kind of work that I think needs multiple visits. Content warning: lots of people die in lots of really awful ways, and the Coens are happy to show it all to you.

BumbleBee
I don’t have much to say here except that I went and saw a Transformers movie for the first time, and it was a lot of fun. (That doesn’t mean I want to see any of the others.)

The Favourite
And then there’s the one where everyone gets what she deserves.

This is a beautifully made film about a lot of human ugliness and debauchery with masterful performances and no likable or admirable characters. I’ve grown weary of that routine, even when it’s done this well. Content warning: there’s some brief nudity, and a lot of the dysfunctional relationships are sexual in all kinds of ways and directions.

Eighth Grade
I was never an eighth grade girl, but I’m pretty sure this is exactly what it’s like, at least for many. The father-daughter dynamics are often uncomfortable but ultimately significant and sweet.

Solo
As much as I liked the idea of building Han Solo’s backstory, I was supremely skeptical that I’d be able to tolerate anyone other than Harrison Ford in the role. I was surprised how well Alden Ehrenreich pulled that off. The story was just okay, but I enjoyed it more than most, I think.

They Shall Not Grow Old
Peter Jackson set out to bring new life to hours and hours of existing film and audio from and about World War I. I would do a poor job of explaining all the unprecedented ways he and his team did this, but the result is remarkable. The narration is completely composed of audio interviews with veterans of the Great War, and the footage is colorized and presented in 3D (I’m normally not a fan of 3D, but it was terrific). The storytelling manages to capture both the spirit of that era when most common men were eager to serve in the war and the day-to-day horrors they lived once they got there. I caught one of only four local screenings [on the first run; it since returned for a few weeks], which also included an introduction from Jackson and an extra 30 minute doc after the credits about the making of the film.

Be sure to watch for this guy, who reminded me that people are made of the same stuff even when separated by the centuries:


Top 16 of 2018:

16. The Hate U Give

In terms of importance, this one is in my top ten for the year. It’s a mainstream movie about the realities of being black in America that generalizes real stories of police shootings into a particular fictional story. It’s a movie I think white people should watch, not because it’s the best film of the year or because it perfectly captures all the nuances the black experience, but because I think it’s an accessible look into a reality we just don’t know first-hand. It operates in stereotypes at times, sometimes awkwardly, but I think it does so for the sake of telling a broad story and not with malice. A better script would have made a big difference, and I’m a little confused that someone didn’t insist on that. Still, it’s an important movie, and I’m a big fan of Amandla Stenberg’s performance.

15. A Star is Born

[Spoilers live here.] I’ve gone back and forth a few times in my feelings about this one. The music is terrific (oh hi Jason Isbell) and I basically loved the performances across the board. Gaga is kind of great. Sam Elliott is one of my favorite actors on the planet, and he’s right in the pocket in this role. His Oscar nomination is one of only a few that I care anything about this year. Dave Chappelle also nails it; his part is relatively small, but his character is one of my favorites of the year. And then there’s Andrew Dice Clay, who had me thinking “Is that Andrew Dice Clay? It can’t be. But it is. Wait, maybe not,” as I watched. (It is.) I have issues with some of the turns in the story, but that’s almost inevitable for a movie like this. Even though I saw the end coming, it was still a gut punch. Suicide has so marked my life over the years that I struggle even with fictional stories about it. Still, this was such an ambitious undertaking for Bradley Cooper, and it’s hard to look at it as anything but a success. It’s the kind of effort that could have been a total flop for any number of reasons – bad script, bad music, disappointing results from taking a big risk on Lady Gaga, etc. But it sufficiently checks all of those boxes for me and in some cases goes well beyond.

14. The Rider

I didn’t put these two back-to-back on purpose, but I guess it’s fitting since they’re total opposites. A Star is Born could have been terrible by going big in every way and failing; this could have been terrible for completely different reasons. You won’t recognize anyone in The Rider because it’s a feature film (not a documentary) about true people in which the actual people play themselves. It’s unorthodox, but it works. The focus is Brady, a talented bronc rider searching for identity after a head injury makes continuing to ride a really bad idea. The story is slow and quiet, and though the perspective on Brady’s struggles is sometimes uncomfortably intimate, I haven’t often seen this kind of realism work on screen in a non-documentary format. I was particularly moved by his interactions with Lilly, his special needs sister, and Lane, his bull rider best friend who is living with profound brain damage. This is one that could slide toward my top five pretty easily on any given day.

13. Beautiful Boy

David Sheff’s memoir about living with and through his son’s battle with addiction is the source for this movie, and it has been on my “to read soon” shelf or my bedside table for a couple of years now. For some reason I kept bogging down and still haven’t finished it, but I was too interested in seeing Steve Carrell and Timothée Chalamet handle this story to put off watching it any longer. Though I’m still scrubbing my mental association of Chalamet with Call Me by Your Name (my disdain for that film explained here), he’s a gifted young actor. And, well, Steve Carrell is just terrific, and I’m so glad he continues to tackle dramatic roles (some better than others) instead of just setting up shop in the realm of absurd comedy where he could cash obscene check after obscene check, but where the well of truly funny roles runs dry in a hurry.

Beautiful Boy isn’t the most powerful or revealing movie ever made about addiction, but I think it’s better than it gets credit for if you remember that it’s intended to be the dad’s story, not the son’s. My friend Scott pointed out that a lot of the less than stellar reviews seem to misunderstand the perspective. No, you don’t get a deep dive into the addict’s gruesome realities, but that wasn’t the point. We’re looking into the pain and hope and exhaustion of the father. I’ve seen both active addiction and recovery up close. I’ve accompanied someone we love to AA meetings and experienced family night at rehab. Those rooms are full of people who have lived a dozen lives just trying to stay in the fight with and for their son or daughter or sister or father. Telling their stories doesn’t minimize the addict’s story; it completes it.

12. Isle of Dogs

My girls (13 and 11) who love dogs and still dig animated movies are totally creeped out by every poster, trailer, or mention of Isle of Dogs. Even when I remind them how great Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson’s first go at stop-motion animation) is, they still think something is wrong with me. And maybe they’re right. Something is probably wrong with most of us who continue to love Anderson’s work. I know a goodly number of folks who are more loyal fans than me, but I’ve been in since Bottle Rocket, and I’m still here. Isle of Dogs is not his best film, but it’s smart and sweet and funny. It also has something to say while not seeming burdened by the obligation to be sure you understand what it’s saying. Anderson’s tendency to be obscure at times does not make him unique, of course, but my sense is that most filmmakers taking this path are trying really hard to make sure you know they don’t care whether or not you get them. Wes Anderson is certainly trying really hard in many ways (no, no, we’ll need the deep burgundy smoking jacket that was only made in east Bombay in 1971), but I’ve never had the sense that he’s trying to be hard to understand. He’s just a quirky fellow trying to make really good films, and he almost always succeeds.

11. First Man

First Man wasn’t originally in my list, but I was a lot more affected by it watching it a second time. When I saw it at the theater, I realized about halfway through that I’m typically not as drawn into movies about the space program as a lot of folks are. Maybe my problem is I never dreamed of being an astronaut or wanted to go to Space Camp. It looked terrific on the big screen and I appreciated that the story was as much about the people as the drama of the moon landing, but I just drifted in and out of being engaged. That was apparently about me on that particular day, because the emotional arc was powerful as I watched it again. Gosling’s work here is excellent, tapping into the quiet depth of a man whose work requires such constant mental intensity that he simply can’t always be present in other parts of his life, even the parts that are most important to him. I’m never going to the moon, but I may or may not be able to relate a little. I’m also a fan of Jason Clarke, who I think is very good as another intense guy forced into multiple emotional moments with Armstrong. Mostly Amy and I were struck by how well the cast and crew seemed to see and convey the way the loss of a child marks every moment that follows for a husband and wife. (Which is not exactly what you expect to say after a movie about the first man to walk on the moon.)

10. Minding the Gap

This was the late entry that jumped into my list and pushed it from 15 to 16. Wow. First-time filmmaker Bing Liu has created a heartbreaking and deeply personal portrait of the particular and collective histories of his childhood circle of friends, now adults but not all grown-ups. I am astounded at his vision, heart, and skill. He not only made a stunning first film, but he did it by gently and honestly documenting the sin and pain and struggle of his closest friends, his family, and his own story. This is tough to watch at times because it is so intimate and revealing, but Liu’s love for the people whose stories he’s telling–even the ones who are least lovable–is never in doubt. Content warning: the language is intense throughout, and there is a lot of explicit discussion of domestic violence.

9. BlacKkKlansman

I just rewatched this last week wanting to be sure I remembered it well enough to place it among a lot of films I’ve seen more recently. I bumped it up several spots after the second viewing, mostly because I think Spike Lee’s direction is so very good. This is a (true) story that easily could have been fumbled if the approach was too serious or too humorous (the true story and the movie are definitely both), but Lee and the cast find just the right tone from start to finish. The primary storyline has no trouble as a feature film plot, but Lee manages to explore a number of related complexities of racial struggle without getting too bogged down in any of them. Content warning: the n-word is used A LOT, along with other racist language. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s authentic to the story, and it would probably seem pretty sanitized without it. There is another content warning in the spoiler section below.

[Spoilers from here on]: Once the movie itself concludes, we’re quickly jolted into the present with footage from the August 2017 protests and violence in Charlottesville. This is one of the reasons I wanted to take a second look. The first time around, the transition was jarring to the point of disorienting me. I think I expected more of a punch in the face from the movie itself than I felt, so that punch coming from news footage made me less certain about the power of the scripted film. The second viewing didn’t feel that way at all. Some of that was probably me picking up more of the nuance of the script and some was probably time and perspective to see the two pieces as a coherent whole. Content warning: I assume most have seen the Charlottesville footage by now, but it is brutal and includes the murder of Heather Heyer.

8. If Beale Street Could Talk

James Baldwin is a tragically under-read American truth-teller, and I think I Am Not Your Negro, the 2016 documentary riffing on Baldwin’s life and work, is one of the most important films of the last decade. If Beale Street Could Talk, based on a Baldwin novel, is a gorgeous and completely different take on his writing. Beale Street takes us into a specific story of innocence and love ultimately scarred by the crushing realities of a very broken system riddled with very broken people. I was floored by the portrayal of lifelong affection and budding romance between Tish and Fonny and can’t recall a gentler, more believably idyllic picture of young love on screen. My reaction to it left me wondering whether it’s a subtle, surgical excavation of some of my own lingering prejudice or if the fact that I think that exposing my prejudice even crossed Baldwin’s (or director Barry Jenkins’) mind is the real revelation. Either way, that’s the kind of conversation I think Baldwin wants me to have with myself. Content warning: there is a fairly long sex scene that I don’t quite know how to describe. I’m pretty careful about putting my eyes on this kind of thing, but I confess I was just excited we got this film in town, wasn’t sure it would be here more than a week, and ran out and saw it as soon as I could without doing much homework. Anyway, I say I don’t know how to describe it because the innocence and gentleness I describe above is almost the point of this scene; it is not at all “dirty” and is in fact purposefully the opposite. But it’s sex. And people are naked. And I always want to mention that and, again, suggest everyone exercise real wisdom in their movie-watching.

7. Free Solo

I honestly don’t know whether this will translate as a top ten film on a small screen. It was breath taking on the big screen. It’s also a marvelously crafted documentary about climbers and climbing, effectively telling Alex Honnold’s particular story while also introducing us to the fascinating world of absolutely insane people who climb tall things, often without any kind of safety net, and often until they eventually fall off something tall and die. I can’t imagine this will hit theaters again for any reason, but if it does, by all means, go see it (in IMAX if possible). It was one of my favorite visual experiences in a theater in the last several years.

6. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Yes, this is the third documentary in my top ten and the fourth on the list overall.

Was this a relatively weak year for feature films?

Was this just an exceptional year for docs?

Am I a nerd?

Yes.

What can I say about this beautiful look into the life and work of Fred Rogers other than it is exactly the film we need right now? If you haven’t seen it, please change that. Content warning: You’re probably gonna cry.

5. Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse

Gosh I love this movie. We’re firmly into territory where I could rearrange the order of these films on any given day, including putting this one at the very top of my list. It’s fun. It’s ground breaking. It’s exciting. It’s hilarious. It has heart. It looks great!

And I just wrote all of that about an animated comic book movie. I don’t see animated comic book movies. That’s worth noting so that I can urge you not to skip Spier-Verse just because you’re someone who doesn’t see animated comic book movies. Aiden and I took Amy and the girls back to see it and they all loved it. Of all the movies on my list, this might be the easiest one for me to universally recommend to pretty much anyone.

4. A Quiet Place

[Minor spoilers live here.] I don’t know what I loved more, seeing this in the theater for the first time and enduring the glorious silence and jump-out-of-your-seat terror or taking Aiden (16) back and watching him have that experience. I mentioned last year when I included Get Out in my top ten that I see very few horror movies these days, and A Quiet Place is only on the outskirts of the horror genre. But it will sho ’nuff scare you in all the best ways. Emily Blunt is fantastic, and the bathtub scene alone is Oscar-worthy, not that the Academy would notice when, you know, there’s a really unlikable Glenn Close character to celebrate or Amy Adams is making sure we know how hatable Dick Cheney’s wife is.

What was I talking about?

Oh yeah, Emily Blunt just SILENTLY gave birth in a bathtub while blood-thirsty creatures are roaming through the hallway and no one in Hollywood cares because she wasn’t wearing an 18th century gown.

Ok, I’m back. John Krasinski chose brilliant material for his first film, and I really mean it when I say he deserves the Best Director nomination that Adam McCay got for being Adam McCay and making a cartoonishly anti-Bush/Cheney movie. Many will think that’s silly, but I contend it’s not only okay but good to reward filmmakers who find new ways to make movie-going fun, and few movies did that better last year than A Quiet Place.

3. The Old Man & the Gun

Robert Redford says The Old Man & the Gun is his last film. While I certainly hope that’s not the case, Forrest Tucker feels like a fitting final Redford gentleman rogue. This film sitting in my top three is telling for my tastes in this season of life. It is patient in its storytelling, well-written, complex enough but not opaque, beautiful on the screen, and overrun with great actors at their best.

Though I did not get A Ghost Story at all, this is the third of director David Lowery’s four major works that have really landed for me, including Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Pete’s Dragon. I’m consistently drawn in by Lowery’s eye for light and landscapes, and composer David Hart’s scores are stunning at every turn.

This was easily my favorite cast of the year. I mean, I could watch Redford and Sissy Spacek on screen together for two hours without interruption. If Lowery had made that film, it might still be in my top three. But he somehow found a way to give Casey Affleck, Danny Glover, and Tom Waits memorable roles without stealing any thunder from his two legendary leads. This may be my favorite Affleck role to date, Glover is quietly perfect, and man oh man, I just don’t know what to say about Tom Waits except: “And that’s why I hate Christmas!”

2. Black Panther

I’m all in on Black Panther at every level. As a next piece in the expansive unfolding Marvel universe, it is right on point. But it’s so much more than than another superhero movie, though I won’t try to recreate what others have covered quite well. I’ll just say that it’s a remarkable thing to make a thoroughly entertaining action movie and next piece in a blockbuster franchise that also has something profound to say and show us. If you struggle to see the beauty and power in a film full of smart, noble, and strong characters who are also black, make an effort to watch Black Panther through the eyes of girls and boys—and girls and boys who have lived decades and become women and men—who have never in their lives seen a film like this full of people like this who look like them telling stories that feel like their stories. Like I said, I’m all in on Black Panther at every level.

1. Leave No Trace

I honestly don’t know how to write about Leave No Trace except to say it’s one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen in years. There is a quiet simplicity and depth to this story that needs to be seen rather than read about. I saw it at The Angelika in Dallas this summer and immediately knew it was going to be my favorite of 2018. I wish everyone could see it on the big screen. I mean, just look at that photo above.

Even more compelling than the lush Pacific Northwest scenery is the story of a father and daughter whose love for one another is as pure as it is complicated. I can’t recall a movie that offers a more affecting picture of a child learning to embrace her identity apart from her father while still loving and accepting him in all his damage.

As a dad of three (and two daughters) I’ll never ask my kids to live in the woods with me, but I hope they find what Tom finds in this story: a true sense of identity apart from me that includes a deep well of grace for the ways my mistakes and brokenness have become part of their lives.

Anyway, this was the best film of 2018 whether you know it or not. But now you know.

On voting and following Jesus (in 2018)

Some voting thoughts for my Christian friends, particularly those for whom political decisions remain relatively simple:

A lot of your brothers and sisters are deeply conflicted. I’ve been voting for 25 years and paying attention to politics for longer than that, and I’ve never seen anything quite like this among generally theologically conservative Christians. What has long been obvious to most is not longer obvious to many. (This may confound or anger you, but ignoring or despising the truth won’t move us forward, so we have to find a way to engage and understand it.)

votedThe Cruz/O’Rourke race in Texas is the clear case in point here. I do not think O’Rourke will overcome the inertia of the consummate red state and unseat Cruz, but the final numbers will be interesting. Every day I see or hear another few people defect from the Republican base (official or assumed) and declare they’re voting for Beto. Many have never voted for a Democrat for national office and aren’t that excited about doing it now, but they’re just done with the alternative – done enough to make a decisive statement against it. Others I know are disillusioned with Trump and Cruz and Republican politics, but they can’t stomach voting for Democratic candidates whose politics violate so many of their deep and sincere convictions.

I understand and empathize with both groups. My goal isn’t to justify or criticize either choice.

Instead I want to plead with those on either side who don’t relate to this dilemma and for whom this choice (or other similar ballot decisions) are obvious: Kill your condescension. Stop shaking your head and wagging your finger at people who don’t find this as easy as you do. Quit sharing memes and posts that call Beto a “dumbass” or reduce Cruz to evil incarnate.

What are you doing? What Kingdom is this that needs your candidate so badly that it justifies such nonsense?

To the liberals who have emigrated out of conservative Christianity and now find it repulsive and obviously broken: Have you really forgotten that five minutes ago you shared these convictions? Can you not find humble, gracious ways to make the case for your new beliefs? You ought to be the most compelling witnesses for your side, but you win no converts to a kinder, gentler way by savaging your former kinsmen and women, especially those trying to find their way through a new kind of disorientation and uncertainty.

To the conservatives who find any support for liberal candidates laughable and absurd: Are you sure everyone tiring of the Republican act is an idiot? This is a fairly dramatic exodus from the current state of conservative politics, and if you choose to believe it’s populated by only gullible, ignorant folks, you choose gullibility and ignorance for yourself. Some of the smartest, most pro-life people I know – people who have adopted babies who otherwise might have been aborted or raised in state-funded systems, people with lingering resistance to big government – are leaving the fold. What if instead of dismissing them as fools you asked why and actually listened?

To both sides: The choice to condescend and ridicule is self-defeating, both pragmatically and spiritually. If your goal is to advance the cause you believe in, rolling your eyes at those who don’t see as you see is wildly counterproductive. I’m continually bewildered that as these races grow tighter, so many of the true believers on both sides resort to more extreme ways of communicating that only alienate the people they need to persuade. It would be laughable if it weren’t so sad, this inherent foolishness in trying to demonstrate your own wisdom and “rightness” by calling people stupid. This is the fast track to losing the undecided middle. If I’m unsure or on the edge, dismissing my confusion or uncertainty as silly just pushes me further out of the boat.

More importantly, if you identify yourself with Jesus and are therefore alive to be an ambassador of His Kingdom, you are compelled to live and breathe and embody the way the of the cross. The flourishing of the Kingdom is evident in love for others, even in political disagreement. No political end justifies the means of pretending you’re exempt from the explicit, essential command to let your love and gentleness be evident to all. God literally says he hates that noise. We should try not to make noise God hates, yes?

I do not believe this means always remaining silent about politics. I reject the notion that any and all political expressions are sinful disruptions of our call to unity. There are crucial issues at stake, and since we’re here to be ambassadors of the Kingdom, we sometimes must speak the Kingdom’s words into these political moments. Discerning how to do that with the spirit of the King is the Kingdom’s difficult demand.

So advocate for your convictions. Do it boldly and clearly. I’ve done more of that in the last few years than in many years prior, sometimes well, sometimes poorly. But let’s not make it so tough for people to find in our words the message of the cross, through which God has chosen the wisdom of the weak to shame the strong – chosen the triumph of sacrifice and love over human wealth and power.

“Don’t let selfishness and prideful agendas take over. Embrace true humility, and lift your heads to extend love to others. Get beyond yourselves and protecting your own interests; be sincere, and secure your neighbors’ interests first.

In other words, adopt the mind-set of Jesus the Anointed. Live with His attitude in your hearts. Remember:

Though He was in the form of God,
He chose not to cling to equality with God;
But He poured Himself out to fill a vessel brand new;
a servant in form
and a man indeed.”
“Shoulder each other’s burdens, and then you will live as the law of the Anointed teaches us. Don’t take this opportunity to think you are better than those who slip because you aren’t; then you become the fool and deceive even yourself.”

White Humility Matters

In recent years I’ve made no secret of my interest in the conversation about the way folks of different colors view and relate to one another. I’m particularly concerned with how this is going in the Church and with what Jesus and his Good News have to say about our pain, our sins, and our hope for healing and growth in these areas.

My personal history here is without a doubt a mixed bag — part typical white guy and part kid permanently rattled in fifth grade when C.L. Armstrong told me about Martin Luther King and why he mattered to black people. And a lot of other parts generally fitting one of those two categories.

But the gist of my more contemporary engagement has been the realization of how little my life and surroundings have changed, despite my sincere decades-long concern for racial reconciliation. In that awakening I began to hear the Lord ask me — yes I’m one of those; no, it was not an audible voice — if this was all about passive enlightenment for me (something I do quite well) or if I was going to be intentional about altering my life and relationships. In response to that, I decided I can’t get to the end of my days and find I never changed this part of my life. So far that has mostly meant seeking new voices and friends and just sitting, listening, and learning. I still give myself a C-minus in actually doing what I want to be doing, but I’m determined. 

Though both my life and my learning are works in progress, I have taken hold of one clear conviction which has led me to make one specific request of others who look and generally believe like me. The conviction: Humility is always the right posture for me in this conversation. The request: Just be willing to listen and learn before you speak. I’ve made my case for that in a few ways, perhaps most clearly in a sermon I preached last January on the words of Jesus about peacemakers.

My prompt for writing today is to give attention to and commend what I believe to be a helpful model for this kind of listening and learning. Andrew Peterson, a singer/songwriter I’ve long admired who is also now a friend, last week released a video for the song “Is He Worthy?” from his upcoming album, Resurrection Letters, Volume 1. You can watch the video here:


Soon after the video released, some observed that all the faces in the church are white, an unintentional but noticeable visual juxtaposition with these lyrics:

From every people and tribe
Every nation and tongue
He has made us a kingdom

I wasn’t in this corner of the internet when the video released, and I did not observe any of the reaction until Andrew wrote about it today. Here are some of his words (I’ll link to his full piece at the end):

If I could go back in time I would tell the Andrew of a month ago, “Don’t assume. Make sure that this video is a true reflection of the Kingdom. Make sure it paints a glorious picture of the promise in Revelation that every people, tribe, nation, and tongue will sing (indeed, already sing) of the worthiness of Christ, the Lamb who was slain to free the captives. Think about the subtext, about what this video will say, wordlessly, to your friends of all colors.”
– – – – – –
So, as a white American singer/songwriter whose only hope is Jesus, I’m asking forgiveness of the friends and listeners to whom this video brought any measure of grief. I’m also asking the good people who have come to my defense to refrain from using social media to do so. Be silent long enough to really listen. And then, if the Spirit leads, engage with love and patience and humility. As I said, the only way to learn something is to screw up. What was only a small voice in my head a few weeks ago will, I assure you, be a loud, clear voice of wisdom in the future. I’m sure I’m going to make a mountain of mistakes in the days to come, but, Lord willing, this won’t be one of them.

When I aim to be humble, and when I ask fellow white Christians to assume a listening posture when these conversations arise, this is the kind of thing I have in mind. I am convinced the cross compels us to believe we have nothing to lose and everything to gain in selflessly placing the experience of others above our own but the cross itself to lose in dismissing others for the sake of self-preservation and self-defense.

Andrew has a lot at stake here. This song is part of a decade-long gathering of creative and spiritual energy, and the video has to feel like part of his soul’s work coming to life. I can imagine that releasing it into the world and quickly receiving negative feedback is awfully painful. I’m not suggesting it’s equal to or greater than anyone else’s pain. I just know Andrew well enough to understand that he cares about his work pointing to the reconciling mission of Jesus, so the realization that it did something else for someone couldn’t have been fun for him.

And because I know his intentions were good, I know how easy it would have been to respond with self-defense or to try to excuse the situation with explanation.

It would have been completely natural to just say, “Of course I didn’t mean to be hurtful. Could everyone just cut me a break here?” After all, he certainly didn’t intend to be hurtful.

It would have been simple to insist, “Let’s all just focus on the point of the song and video — Jesus — and not get distracted by silly little arguments.” And focusing on Jesus is, of course, important. 

But the way of the cross is:

Deny yourself

and

If your brother has something against you

and

Don’t think of yourselves more highly than you ought

and

In humility value others above yourselves

and

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being.

This is not about shame or guilt, white- or otherwise. It is not about political correctness or safe spaces or anything of the sort. It’s about coming to terms with how we obey the directive to think like Jesus.

He was always right, but he didn’t cling to that. He instead gave up his privileges and served those of us who are often wrong.

He was God, but he didn’t stay separate from us or above us. He instead put himself in our skin, saw the world through our eyes, and suffered the pain we created.

Do that, the Bible says as clearly as it says anything. Do it for the people you don’t understand, don’t like, and don’t think are right. Do it and discover that real victory comes from selfless sacrifice, not superior arguments or standing your ground or trying to force God back into spaces he never left.

So when brothers and sisters say to us: “This part of what you do and how the world works is hurtful to me and to my children,” or ask us “How natural is it for you to think about how your words or work or life impact me and people who look like me?” our response ought to be to listen and consider how we might value and serve them rather than to leap to a posture of self defense or bemoan the demands to be fully inclusive all the time.

For the record, in my experience, the people I talk to aren’t asking for total inclusivity all the time. They’re asking me, as a person, to consider them, as a person, in the way I think, talk, and live. That request ought to be easy for me to honor because Jesus called me to that way of life long before any person of color ever asked it of me.

But of course it is not always easy for me. I don’t hold any high ground here. This requires death to self and to long-held points of view and to comfort and convenience, and I still resist all of that at every turn. But I’m convinced it’s the way of Jesus, and the promise is that it’s the death before the resurrection — the way to the life that is really life.

One last word: Sometimes in these moments we go a step too far in making heroes out of people for just doing the right thing and owning a mistake. That’s not my desire. Andrew is admitting an error that matters, and I’m sure part of him would rather no further attention be drawn to it. But I think his confession is one many of us need to join, acknowledging that we still aren’t as inclined as we should be to pause and consider how our words or lives impact people who aren’t like us. We don’t mean any harm, but we also don’t “value others above [ourselves]” in areas where doing so is completely reasonable and attainable.

So this isn’t about heroism; it’s just about seeing signs of the way forward and acknowledging them. This strikes me as such a sign.

There is longer, harder, deeper work to be done, but it will only be possible if there are beams of simple, sturdy humility to hold it up. Let’s build.

Andrew’s response in its entirety: Waking Up to “Is He Worthy?”: An Apology

Call Me By Your Name: Even without Spacey and Weinstein, Hollywood is still impressively tone deaf to #MeToo

Over time, my feelings for the movies — or for film, when I’m feeling pretentious — have morphed from common enjoyment to personal sanity hobby to deep appreciation for filmmaking as an art. I am still an amateur movie-watcher in every respect, but my perspective on movies and the ways I engage with them have evolved significantly. I pay attention to and appreciate smaller details and very specific elements of filmmaking that I never noticed at all in the past. I think about the intentions of the writers and directors and actors and can find value in their work even when I don’t particularly enjoy it or share their point of view. I’m even doing some research for a story a friend and I hope will eventually become a script, so I’m now watching movies with a deeper appetite for learning and understanding than ever before.

The most important part of that information for the sake of this piece is this: I see a lot of movies, including movies I’m confident I won’t like very much. So in recent years I’ve made a point of catching a greater number of Academy Award nominated films. My skepticism of these awards runs deep, but I’m interested in what kind of work the people who are making our movies value and celebrate. If nothing else, the Oscar-nominated films give some rough estimate of that.

On Tuesday, this year’s nominees were announced, and as I always do, I began to make a mental note of which nominated films I haven’t seen, particularly in the major categories. There were only two Best Picture nominees – The Shape of Water and Call Me By Your Name – that I hadn’t seen. I had already decided to pass on Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water because it’s a fantasy love story about a woman and a sea monster and, well, no thanks. I don’t see everything.

I knew almost nothing about Call Me By Your Name, but it also received nominations for Best Actor (Timothée Chalamet) and Best Adapted Screenplay (James Ivory). As a writer I have a particular interest in the screenplay categories, so I skipped around the internet and read a summary, a review, and excerpts from several other reviews. Here’s what I assume is the studio’s summary:

It’s the summer of 1983, and precocious 17-year-old Elio Perlman is spending the days with his family at their 17th-century villa in Lombardy, Italy. He soon meets Oliver, a handsome doctoral student who’s working as an intern for Elio’s father. Amid the sun-drenched splendor of their surroundings, Elio and Oliver discover the heady beauty of awakening desire over the course of a summer that will alter their lives forever.

The reviews I skimmed revealed that Oliver is 24, which caught my attention because, you know, it’s 2018. And:

metoo

Despite my deepening appreciation for out-of-the-box films, this is one I normally wouldn’t see. I still make decisions about how I spend my time and money, and art romance films just don’t check many boxes for me. But I kept thinking about this one, bothered by the possibility that Hollywood might be shamelessly celebrating the kind of story this seemed to be even while the crescendo of outrage over sexual harassment and abuse is still building. So today I went to find out for myself.

Frankly, it’s as bad as I feared it might be. A 24 year-old man begins and carries on a sexual affair with a 17 year-old boy. And that’s the story.

Before I address the obvious, let me add: This is not a deeply textured love story. The affair is characterized mostly by sexual desire, briefly repressed, then turned loose with no looking back. Age aside, to characterize it as a love story is to accept a relatively low definition of love, where sex takes the lead, emotional intimacy is secondary (at best), and concern for the best interests of the other is acknowledged only to be bulldozed by lust. The attempt to persuade the viewer of a deeper connection or care between the two is feeble and disingenuous. We’re never given any true reason to believe that the older Oliver’s attraction to the teenaged Elio runs deeper than sexual attraction. Indeed, Oliver ultimately confesses to Elio that he first attempted to make his interest known when he put his hands on Elio just a day or two after they met.

Let’s deal with the facts first. Though both Oliver and Elio are Americans, the movie takes place in Italy where the age of consent is 14. In much of the U.S., the age of consent is 16 or 17. In a number of states, including New York, Florida, and (ahem) California, the age of consent is 18.

So technically speaking, the relationship depicted in the movie isn’t illegal. But it’s a movie about a 24 year-old man in a sexual relationship with a boy who still has a year of high school left. It’s a movie about a sexual relationship that would be illegal in Hollywood.

I won’t belabor the details, but Oliver plans and initiates the first true sexual encounter between the two. Both before and after that event, Oliver engages in several weird psychological and sexual tests that anyone even a little familiar with predatory behavior would identify as manipulation and grooming. The two have sex multiple times before Oliver leaves Elio to sort out the aftermath of his affair with a grown man, a thing I suppose we’re meant to see as a normal way for Elio to spend his senior year of high school.

I also can’t shake a subplot in which Elio deals with his mounting sexual interest in Oliver by having sex (at least twice) with a teenaged girl who clearly cares for him and thinks her love is reciprocated. Once his relationship with Oliver turns physical, he ignores the girl completely since he no longer needs her body as an outlet for his pent up sexual energy. When she confronts him and asks, “I’m not your girl?” he simply shrugs. She leaves on her bicycle, devastated. This storyline finds “resolution” at the end of the movie when the girl, for no particular reason at all, tells Elio, “I’m not angry at you. Not at all. I love you.” And then asks, “We can be friends?”

So, to summarize: A 24 year-old man grooms and teases a 17 year-old boy. The 17 year-old boy uses a girl as an outlet for his sexual frustration until the 24 year-old man finally has sex with him, at which point he ghosts the girl. The consequence for the 17 year-old is a “no big deal, I’m not mad at you, let’s be friends” response from the girl whose body he used without any apparent remorse. The consequence for the grown man is a free pass on any emotional aftermath and a return to America and his heterosexual relationship. Cue three major-category Oscar nominations.

Frankly, I don’t care that the relationship depicted is legal in Italy or in Texas, and neither should anyone else. It’s creepy as hell to watch, not because it’s a relationship between two males, but because it’s painfully tone deaf in a moment when the culture in general and Hollywood in particular is facing such a messy reckoning over the willingness to blur sexual boundaries and overlook sexual power dynamics. How can everyone from the production house to the cast and crew to a long line of critics fail to see or refuse to acknowledge what a bad time it is to romanticize sex between an older, powerful man and a teenager — sex that would be prosecutable in Hollywood, Manhattan, or Miami?

Think I’m being dramatic? Ask yourself how the folks heaping praise on this movie will respond if tomorrow’s headline reads: “Kevin Spacey defends relationship with high school boyfriend, 17.”

See?

I’ve paid close attention over the last several months as the downfall of Harvey Weinstein cascaded into a courageous movement of women—and some men—who have suffered and survived the painful wounds of sexual abuse and manipulation. I’m grateful for the unearthing of buried secrets as some of our crueler demons have been named and brought low. This is progress.

But we have a long way to go, and the collective cheers for Call Me By Your Name are a frustrating reminder that an unprincipled morality and selective outrage will not get us where we need to go. As long as we celebrate stories about grown-ups sexually “educating” teenagers as “coming of age love stories” and wink at depictions of teen boys using teen girls as “authentic tales of sexual awakening,” we are enabling a sexual ambiguity that empowers predatory behavior and shrugs at the real emotional and spiritual damage both kinds of stories produce.

But, you know, who wants to see that movie?

 

Let the ancient prophets speak: Frederick Douglass

The history of my faith, by which I mean both the people of my faith and my personal faith, is to readily see the errors of the history of my faith while insisting we have moved beyond those most egregious evils.

This is a centuries-old habit of self soothing. We recognize the wayward ignorance of our ancestors and venerate the prophets they rejected while doing exactly as they did: We resist suggestions of defects in our cherished ways, defend the infallibility of our certainties, and scoff at living prophets who name our faults.

But if our finely tuned capacity to dismiss and discredit our contemporary critics numbs us to their corrections, the prophets of old still see, still speak.

The ones who decades and centuries ago saw and named this repeating cycle of soul-destroying religion,

this refusal of even the possibility of systemic sins,

this resistance to the disruption of treasured “institutions,”

and all of this under the cover of false unity and so-called standing up for God and country,

those prophets whom we celebrate now that they are safely dead and unable to see us as we are,

still they see us, still they speak to us.

Frederick Douglass in a speech at Finsbury Chapel, May 12, 1846:

But you will ask me, can these things be possible in a land of professing Christianity? Yes, they are so; and this is not the worst.

I have to inform you that the religion of the southern states, at this time, is the great supporter, the great sanctioner of the bloody atrocities to which I have referred. While America is printing tracts and bibles; sending missionaries abroad to convert the heathen; expending her money in various ways for the promotion of the gospel in foreign landsthe slave not only lies forgotten, uncared for, but is trampled underfoot by the very churches of the land.

What have we in America? Why, we have slavery made part of the religion of the land. Yes, the pulpit there stands up as the great defender of this cursed “institution,” as it is called. Ministers of religion come forward and torture the hallowed pages of inspired wisdom to sanction the bloody deed.

I have found it difficult to speak on this matter without persons coming forward and saying, “Douglass, are you not afraid of injuring the cause of Christ? You do not desire to do so, we know; but are you not undermining religion?” This has been said to me again and again…but I cannot be induced to leave off these exposures. I love the religion of our blessed Savior. … It is because I love this religion that I hate the slaveholding, the woman-whipping, the mind-darkening, the soul-destroying religion that exists in the southern states of America.

WAR AND CONFLICT BOOK
ERA:  CIVIL WAR/BACKGROUND: SLAVERY & ABOLITIONISM

Blessed are the people from $*ithole countries

Eight years ago today a devastating earthquake split Haiti open, a disaster whose impact blew my mind when I saw it a full 16 months later. My words below were shaped by my trips to Haiti, by the strong people I’ve met there, and by my friends who live among and for the Haitian people. And by the words of Jesus.

H2

In recent months I’ve commented on only the silliest Trump moments, unwilling to be baited into the muck. But I know and love too many people in and from Haiti and Africa to just roll my eyes today. The spirit in the words spoken by the President about these people is an anti-Christ spirit. This is not surprising. It’s the same spirit that inhabits many of his words and actions over many years.

I’m not easily offended by bad words or frank talk about third world countries. I’m just sure of this: It’s not the spirit of Jesus who grows angry when people around him are concerned about caring for people from “$*ithole countries.”

It’s not.

My feelings aren’t hurt. This is just Sunday School 101. The spirit that births anger at compassion for people from lands scarred by poverty and war and exploitation and disease – the spirit that curses the presence of the vulnerable and the unclean is another spirit, and it’s one that opposes Christ.

There is no left-wing conspiracy here. I’ve not been hoodwinked by fake news. I’m a conservative-by-the-standards-of-the-world Christian pastor who simply believes Jesus when he tells us that Donald Trump’s mouth speaks the overflow of his heart. If I’m judging, I’m judging as Jesus told me to judge. I’m judging the plain fruit, not anyone’s interpretation of it.

I’m not seeking converts to my opinion, and I’m not shaming anyone for their vote. I am, however, indifferent to the ongoing protests that there is some truth other than the one that is in plain sight. And what an age of absurdity we live in that it feels odd to comment on what’s in plain sight because it so often seems like trying to apply reason to insanity.

So tonight I’m just voicing my small resistance to the insanity, if only to remind myself that sanity still exists. And to say out loud that the people from $*ithole countries are my people. And more importantly, they’re God’s people.

Bondye wè. Bondye tande. Bondye Bon.

H1 H3 

Buechner on X-mas and “your own business”

X is the Greek letter chi, which is the first letter of the word Christ. Thus Xmas is shorthand for Christmas, taking only about one-sixth as long to write. If you do your cards by hand, it is possible to save as much as seventy-five or eighty minutes a year.

It is tempting to say that what you do with this time that you save is your own business. Briefly stated, however, the Christian position is that there’s no such thing as your own business.

-Frederick Buechner
from Wishful Thinking

Romans 13: You keep using that text. I do not think it means what you think it means.

“Respect Authority. Romans 13.”

This has to stop. As a blanket, dismissive response to any and all protest or critique of government, king, and country, it has to stop. When you pull that reference out of context and use it to label as sinful anyone who doesn’t bow to a given authority or symbol of authority, you do violence to the text and to God’s people.

If you disagree and insist on holding to that generalized understanding and use of Romans 13, consider and be prepared to reconcile it with the following:

  • Paul himself, the author of those words, resisted government authorities and defied Roman and religious laws often enough that he wrote words that you probably have on your mirror or desk or bumper sticker or living room wall from prison. You don’t author four books of the New Testament behind bars if the intention of seven verses you wrote to folks in Rome was to require unqualified yielding to all laws and customs of king and country.

  • Jesus violated the patriotic, legal, and religious norms of his day so frequently that he was rejected and despised and, well, killed for it. You can’t strip Jesus down to a spiritual fairy tale and remove him from the legal and patriotic context in which he lived. He was a real man angering real people by not following their customs – customs which existed primarily to show respect and submission to human authority.

  • Exactly no one I know when having this conversation has ultimately held to this position: “Yes, I believe we should always respect and submit to and obey ruling authorities no matter what they do to, ask from, or demand of us.” There is a line of conscience and injustice for all of us; the appropriate drawing of that line is a matter of reasonable debate, but this haphazard invoking of Romans 13 suggests that any such line is sinfully rebellious. I don’t think most who use it that way actually believe that, and I don’t believe such a claim holds up to the weight of the Bible as a whole.

  • This broad application of Romans 13 has been one of the primary weapons against the growth of self-determining government (democracy) for centuries, because such a reading of Scripture easily dismisses even non-violent resistance of human authority (read: voting against an incumbent power) as rebellion against God.

  • We all look around at various ruling authorities in the world every day and hope and pray good people can resist them and free themselves from such oppression. We thank God for and sing hymns about successful revolutions.

  • The flag at the center of our current controversy and the government for which it stands came to be because a group of people decided to no longer be subject to their ruling authorities. We now call them our Founding Fathers. The original American heroes. Celebrating their decision and its successful implementation by means of war is the center of all American patriotism. That it happened a long time ago makes it no less subject to Romans 13. Now we turn around and accuse people who do not appropriately honor on our terms that authority-rejecting revolution and the nation it birthed of not respecting and and being subject to God-appointed authorities. This is a blatant inconsistency.

King George

After the Declaration of Independence was read in New York City for the first time, a crowd of budding Americans headed for the statue of King George in Manhattan. They pulled it down and later melted it into 42,088 musket balls to shoot at British authorities.

  • The flag at the center of our current controversy and the government for which it stands actively defies this universal application of Romans 13 and has done so for well over 100 years. Right or wrong, regime change is central to U.S. foreign policy, and the heart of our approach to regime change is encouraging, funding, and arming local peoples to resist, oppose, and overpower their governing authorities. We’ve done it on every continent but Antarctica and Australia. Recently. To assume Paul’s words uniquely apply to U.S. citizens but not others is not only ethnocentric, it is a terribly poor interpretation of Scripture.
  • Because of that last fact, demanding that people submit and show respect to that flag and the government for which it stands in uniform ways that you approve of actually demands they show allegiance to an entity actively defying the very principle that compels you to demand their allegiance in the first place. (I know, writing that makes my head hurt too, but it has the doubly painful quality of being true.)

I’ll stop there, though this list could continue. None of this means Paul’s words in Romans 13 (or other biblical instruction about governing authorities) are wrong or useless. It means they have a context and meaning that fits in the big picture of Scripture and isn’t determined by our current patriotic sensibilities. The Bible always demands a level of understanding and care that simply isn’t present when we turn texts into oversimplified weapons against those with whom we disagree.

One of the particular errors involved here is that we are allowing the human authority itself (and popular opinion that human authority has helped shape) to define respect and submission instead of letting the full counsel of Scripture and the lived examples of Scripture’s players form our understanding of those concepts. The assumption that the Bible’s and the world’s definitions of respect and submission would be the same or that the Bible is demanding we swallow whole the definitions of submission and respect given to us by human authority runs counter to the clear teachings of the Bible (instructive and modeled) in numerous other texts.

This isn’t an invitation to debate any particular protest, so please don’t do that here. This is a plea to use real care when handling the Scriptures – care for the Bible itself and care for the people you are using the Bible to accuse and dismiss. I know (almost) no one is purposefully misusing the text, but this is dangerous ground for people who love the Scriptures.