The movie “Selma” opened across the nation last week, anticipating Monday’s Martin Luther King holiday. Featuring David Oyelowo as The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon B. Johnson, a star-studded cast enacts the wrenching circumstances and political wrangling that resulted in the historic 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
The film focuses extensively on the contentious development of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that removed impediments to Black voter registration. Like the Voting Rights Act itself, which continues to shape American society and generate debate even 50 years after its passage—it recently has echoed in several states’ voter identification initiatives and been eroded by Supreme Court rulings—the movie has not been without controversy. Critics complain that the filmmakers set up a degree of conflict between Dr. King and LBJ that does not square with the memories of observers of their conversations. The failure of the film to secure extensive nominations for either the Golden Globes or the Oscars has raised questions (again) about bias in the film industry.
These are the sorts of things that always swirl around historical dramas and contentious award seasons. They didn’t dull my desire to see the film last weekend, familiar though I was with the general historical and political sweep of its narrative. From the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 to the bombing a decade later of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, the film harkened back to a history of violent racist oppression and nonviolent protest that hummed through my childhood in a small, all-white town in Pennsylvania. Seeing the movie was an invitation to re-member a story that was always somewhat distant from my life, however much I memorized its details growing up. And, like most of the people in the theater with me, I was deeply moved, profoundly shamed, and almost inspired.
I say “almost inspired” because I saw something in the movie that may not have been as significant to most viewers, especially given the filmmakers’ clear intent to stir audience members’ thought and action regarding the recent rollback of voter protections in states like Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia, where pre-1965 restrictions most egregiously disadvantaged black voters. The political aims of Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were, after all, formulated in the service of unvarnished religious ideals. Many leaders of the Civil Rights Movement called for freedom, equality, and justice not simply because any human has the right to expect these, but because these are promised by God and are the mark of God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven.
As I watched “Selma,” it certainly was devastating to see four little girls blown up in a church and wrenching to watch the beatings and shootings of protesters. But what truly made my heart weep was the movie’s depiction of people of faith of all colors marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in March of 1965 . . . and the nagging sense that many Christians today would be unlikely to give up their time, let alone risk their safety and their very lives (as James Reeb did), to bring about God’s justice.
Now, surely this may sound hardhearted. Many in the Church are active in various ministries of compassion, justice, and peace. Many leaders in ministry marched with occupiers on Wall Street and elsewhere. Many joined in protests of police brutality in Ferguson, New York, Chicago, and all too many other cities. I know this.
But I also know that these are not average churchgoers or average ministers. Most average Christians, regardless of political orientation, are what sociologist Nancy Ammerman refers to as “Golden Rule Christians” : practicing believers across Christian denominations and ideological spectrums who take the scriptural teaching that one should “do unto others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12) as the core Christian value. In her research, Ammerman describes these mostly suburban, middle-class Christians in this way:
Most important to Golden Rule Christians is care for relationships, doing good deeds, and looking for opportunities to provide care and comfort for people in need. Their goal is neither changing another’s beliefs nor changing the whole political system. They would like the world to be a bit better for their having inhabited it, but they harbor no dreams of grand revolutions. . . . The emphasis on relationships among Golden Rule Christians begins with care for friends, family, neighborhood, and congregation.
“Friends, family, neighborhood, and congregation . . .”: Ammerman argues that Golden Rule Christianity results in “a certain narrowing of the circle of care” that can prevent serious or sustained engagement with larger, more distant or distributed problems in the world. Like in Selma. Or Ferguson. Or wherever God’s justice, equality, and peace are under attack. As I watched “Selma,” my heart wept to think that there was a moment in American history when religious people in their thousands rose up to stand with those who were suffering, risking bodily harm right alongside them.
Of course, “Selma” is but a dramatization of that historical moment. Only two years earlier, King himself had railed against the indifference of clergy(men) who failed not only to join but to support efforts to end racial injustice. In his scorching 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King wrote:
The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter 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 often vocal sanction of things as they are.
“Of things as they are . . .”
King wondered if he had expected too much of fellow clergy, of moderate churchgoers, of people of faith in general. But ultimately—after many more beatings, many more deaths, many more people cheated of opportunities, wages, and dignity—a swell of religious participation in the civil rights movement grew. I know this not because of the images in the film, or the histories I have read, but because it filtered down to my own little white town. A kid from the neighborhood who was in seminary at the time marched with King. My older brother got involved with a group that invited white families like ours to host black intercity kids for summer vacations. And, on a trip to visit an uncle in Texas, my mother marched my tow-headed sister and me up to a “colored” fountain in Texarkana, Arkansas for a drink before she pulled the signs off both fountains, tore them up, and threw them in the trash.
There was a time, deep in my memory, when faith looked something like that. If there is a church in my corner of the world where faith looks anything like that, count me in. But I haven’t found it.
In the meantime, I hope that “Selma” wins best picture and that Common and John Legend nab best song, too—the only Oscar categories in which it was nominated. But, more than that, I hope all of us will see the movie—twice, three times, even—and that we will see ourselves in it. Not, mind you, our historical selves, but the selves who will march God’s justice into the present day, widening rather than narrowing the circles of care that define the reach of our faith.