Two films I've seen recently connect the themes of peace and violence, love and justice in a powerful way, and they have prompted me to ponder the nature of power in movements for social change. The first film is the current hit Selma, director Ava DuVernay's stunning interpretation of the dramatic and bloody civil rights marches in Alabama that helped drive passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, directed by Justin Chadwick, which we finally rented and watched on DVD. The latter film is a fine piece of work -- not as compelling as the former, perhaps, but still well worth watching.
Aside from the desire simply to understand some of the most monumental social justice struggles in the 20th century, there are many reasons for Christians in general and theologians and ethicists in particular to watch these films and ponder the questions they raise. Religious themes are more latent than explicit in Mandela. (Though this issue doesn't emerge in this work, Protestants in particular would do well to ponder the ways in which Kuyperian Reformed theology was co-opted to legitimate apartheid ideologically -- a linkage which the Africaner "Belhar Confession" , adopted by Reformed churches worldwide, radically redresses). One interesting point that comes to light in the film, though, is the claim that President F.W. de Klerk, the last white President under apartheid before the African National Congress came to power, was a staunch Calvinist who saw his mission to help end white rule as a special divine vocation. Of course, in the case of Selma, the importance of Martin Luther King Jr.'s vocation as pastor and theologian and the role of the African American churches for organizing, training and deploying non-violent protests is quite explicit (issues that are examined in depth by such scholars as Talyor Branch and Charles Marsh).
The question that keeps hitting me, though, as I reflect on these films is the always thorny issue of how violence relates to movements for radical social change. I don't want to rehash old debates around the question: Is the use of violence justified in the struggle to end oppression and rectify injustice? King, student of Gandhi, as everyone knows, was a firm advocate of non-violent social protest, while Mandela and the ANC only officially endorsed a peaceful end to apartheid after the combined forces of violent protest in the townships added to domestic and international political and economic pressures had made regime change virtually inevitable. In this case the actuality of violence and the threat of even worse bloodshed to come helped force the issue and pave the path to the transfer of power.
What is the key to the power behind a regime of violent repression? Arguably, more than sheer force itself, it is the power of fear that makes subjects docile. If this is true, the path to conquering such a regime will entail de-toothing it of the ideological force of fear. From a Christian perspective, the power that destroys the reign of fear is the power of love -- more specifically, agape. One of the key lessons these two films teach us is the truth that the path to sustainable love, justice and reconciliation entails the conquest of fear as the pathway to personal and social transformation.
Selma shows how King (David Oyelowo) and other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, having been invited by local activists to organize and heighten the national profile of the voting rights struggle there, trained marchers to anticipate and endure the scorn and savagery they would almost surely face in the marches. (For an enlightening retrospective analysis of these events, check out this inteview with U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who, as an an organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Selma, was one of the principal leaders of the Selma campaign; the part of Lewis in the film is played by Stephan James). Indeed, the activists counted on this repressive reaction as a way to garner sympathy and support for their cause from the broader American public.
By casting their hopes on a greater reality, a divine realm of love and peace that ultimately transcends and defeats the evils of racist oppression, protesters were able to assume the risk of intensified suffering and even death in the short term. This conquest of fear is not about detached equanimity but, rather, involves a self-reflective struggle for individuals and communities. It is about grasping courage as an existential and social reality, a course of action that imbues struggle with deeper meaning. Watching Selma brought back to mind this piece by HamdenRice, who argues:
They [civil rights organizers] made black people experience the worst of the worst, collectively, that white people could dish out, and discover that it wasn't that bad. They taught black people how to take a beating—from the southern cops, from police dogs, from fire department hoses. They actually coached young people how to crouch, cover their heads with their arms and take the beating. They taught people how to go to jail, which terrified most decent people [emphasis in original].
In the film, the fears of many of icons of white power in the film emerges in stark contrast to the African American protesters and their white allies. President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) -- who, it seems to me, is depicted in a more complex and sympathetic way than some critics have argued -- fears a revolt from the Dixiecrat power base of his party and, moreover, worries that failing to win the support of King and non-violent Civil Rights leaders will open the door for more "militant" groups (particularly, the Nation of Islam). Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) is a virtual archetype of fear, as is Sheriff Joe Clark, shown at one point huddling in his squad car clutching his rifle.
In Mandela, as pressure rises to free the political prisoner and open rebellion rocks the segregated townships, operatives from the white government hold secret meetings with Mandela (Idris Elba) to try to find a peaceful way to end the conflict. An equal vote for people of color, at least at first, is off the table: What would they do to us if your people come to power? the incredulous government officials ask, all the while violent protest is escalating. Mandela comes to the wise recognition that, if the ANC achieves rule through violence, without any protections or power sharing for the white minority, the cycle of violence will only be perpetuated in recrimination and retribution under the new regime. He tells his government interlocutors that he and his people cannot bear to live in the hellish prison of fear that entraps the white oppressor perhaps even more than people of color under apartheid.
A scene near the end of the movie has de Klerk (Gys de Villiers)and other nervous leaders watching a televised address by Mandela. "I have forgiven them," the aging ANC leader says of his former oppressors. "We can't win a war, but we can win an election." "So it begins," de Klerk observes. The scene cuts away to Mandela's militantly radicalized and estranged wife, Winnie (Naomie Harris), who glowers in disapproval of these words. The takeaway for me here is not some platitude about the inherent moral superiority of nonviolent to violent protest: As Reinhold Niebuhr recognized, even the nonviolent resistance of King and Gandhi entails a form of coercion. Nor is this an admonition for the oppressed to submit to injustice for the sake of some higher calling. Nor am I proffering any simplistic apologia for parliamentary democracy as a superior vehicle to armed revolution under in and all circumstances.
It is important to stress that Mandela was able to make this pronouncement from a position of hard won political strength -- from four decades of struggle, suffering and blood. My point again, simply, is that Mandella's strength flowed from a conquest of fear, which stands in stark contrast to the fear-driven reactionary politics of the white minority.
What truths from the films Selma and Mandela might help illuminate the gospel? From a Christian perspective, Christ's death on the cross destroys the power of death but not, this side of the resurrection, its existential reality. How can we begin to experience this, even now? It is the clear testimony, I think, of the New Testament and the early Christian movement before Constantine that the victory that Christ offers his followers in this life is not a deliverance from suffering -- at least, not usually -- but the ability to transcend, at least a little, the paralyzing fear of death -- the ability, even, to rejoice and mock death, facing its horrors squarely in the face.
If this is true, then the admonition for disciples to take up their crosses may be seen not as a form of masochism that glorifies suffering in and of itself but in being reconciled to the fact that it will actually increase if we challenge oppression openly. To face the forces of death squarely -- not superhumanly, but precisely in our ambiguous and vulnerable humanity -- is to begin to experience freedom from its vice grip of fear. How might our families, or churches and our civic society be different if more of us began to grasp this truth?