Reel Theololgy: BlackkKlansman

Message for January 27, 2019
Speaker: Minister Vicki McPhee

1 Corinthians 12:12-13, 1 John 2:11

I have always loved going to movies. It was pretty special to go to the movie theatre when I was young. Once I started making money through babysitting and pedaling a bike for Dickee Dee – remember the ice cream cart that came through the neighbourhood? My problem with that job is that I ate most of my earnings during my shifts but when I could manage to take home some money, my priorities were to find the next books in the Sweet Valley High series and to go the movie on whatever weekend night I wasn’t babysitting. A pack of us would manage to get one of our parents to drive us downtown. And we had to go early to get in line to get tickets and find seats together. And to get popcorn. I was astounded when I started dating Christopher when we went to the movie and he declined to get popcorn. Like that was actually an option—to NOT have popcorn at the movie theatre. Obviously, it wasn’t a deal breaker. We managed to keep going to movies together. I get the popcorn, he gets the pop. The two weeks we waited for a very overdue first child to be born, we must have seen every movie nominated for the Oscars which took place a few weeks after Matthew finally decided to come. As our children grew, I appreciated being able to go the movies because the show couldn’t be interrupted like when the movies we watched at home on VHS and DVD always seemed to be by children asking for another drink, by bad dreams, by preteens wandering through the living room during awkward scenes, by the phone ringing, by being too tired to stay awake while being wrapped up nice and snug in an afghan on the couch.

Going to the movies always means we watch the whole thing from start to finish. And then we talk about how awesome the story was, how great the acting was or how poor the plot was, how terrible the dialogue. We make connections between the story and what’s happening in real life. We look for significance in the actions and language used by the movie characters. Movies are made for certain times and for certain contexts. There is often a subtext of social commentary happening in the storylines of movies, if only we pay attention. This is one of the reasons why Stephen and I have challenged ourselves to take some highly regarded movies from 2018 and look for the theological implications that are created in the themes which run through them. It is a theological and spiritual practice to take a story from a book, to take a movie plot line, to take a series of events happening in our society, to take a moment from our lives, to see where the biblical stories and teachings of Jesus intersect with these modern times. And, hopefully, in the process, the character and nature of our God is more fully revealed, more known to each one of us.

BlacKkKlansman, takes place in 1978 but, just as last week’s movie, The Green Book was about days gone past, the themes in both of the movies are still very much relevant today. And, just like The Green Book, the movie is based on real-life events, which causes me heartache, knowing that these are not fabricated, fantastical tales made up in a screenwriter’s mind. Racism and white supremacy are clearly the focus of this movie. Ron Stallworth is the first black police officer on the force in Colorado Springs. Because it’s a movie, it doesn’t take Ron long to become a detective and placed with an undercover team. In real life, Ron responds in writing to a newspaper ad placed by the KKK but movie Ron calls a number from the ad. One thing leads to another, as they do, and Ron ends up chatting with David Duke, Grand Wizard of the KKK. When push finally comes to shove, Ron must show his face at a Klan meeting. A fellow officer, Flip, is selected to go in his place as white Ron. Flip is Jewish by birth but not by practice. Everything about the meeting is anxious and tense but Flip manges to pass as Ron. Black Ron continues conversing with David Duke by phone and white Ron goes to meeting after meeting proving his worth, stating again and again that he’s not a dirty Jew. Over time, we see Flip move from being dismissive of his Jewish heritage to being very uncomfortable in denouncing Judaism so as to gain the trust of the Klan.

A sub-plot of the movie concerns the growing Black Power movement. Ron meets Patrice, one of the local leaders of Black Power and he finds himself quite smitten. On a date and not knowing Ron is an undercover cop, she speaks negatively of the police, calling them pigs. He tells her that he does not think poorly of the police. When she finally learns what he does for a living, she asks how he can be a cop and he tells her, simply, that he likes being a police officer. David Duke arrives for the ceremony installing Ron as an official member of the Klu Klux Klan. Through a series of rituals, playing on certain rites of Christianity, white Ron becomes a member. In a plot twist, black Ron is able to watch from a distance because of the death threats against David Duke, the police force assigned black Ron to protect him. Again, one thing leads to another, and both white and black Rons realize a terrorist act is about to be committed by the wife of one of the Klan members. Black Ron gets to the bomb site first and tackles the woman to the ground. As he’s trying to cuff her, a police car arrive and the two white patrol officers assume Ron is attacking the white woman. He tells them he’s a cop but they begin to beat him into submission. Flip arrives and sets things straight. The movie ends with footage from the white nationalist rally in Charleston in August of 2017 and shows the car plowing through the crowd, killing Heather Heyer.

Do you remember where you were when you first heard about Charleston in 2017? I first heard about five days after the event. I was in Livingston, at the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe. The youth group had visited Victoria Falls that day and had ridden on elephants. It had been a good day. We had internet for pretty much the first time in two and half weeks and I was checking out Twitter. There was a lot chatter on the feed about an incident in Charleston. I tried to Google details of what could have possibly happened but the internet let me down. When I phoned home for our scheduled check-in with Canada, I asked what was going on. To my dismay, Christopher recounted the details. But then he said, to make matters worse, Trump was not denouncing the actions of the white supremacists. The president of the United States was not speaking against modern day Nazis. White men, looking neat and tidy, marching with tiki torches, yelling Jews will not replace us. Have we learned nothing from the 20th century? From nations turning inward? From leaders of people creating an us and them and teaching that one should hate the other? Have we learned nothing from the type of hate that so dehumanizes another that killing factories can exist alongside society as do factories for industry and manufacturing? Have we learned nothing?

Our scripture reading today, from 1st Corinthians reminds us that in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. From words that were written thousands of years ago, written into a book that we Christians hold as canon, we are told that each and every one of us belong to one body of people. That each and every one of us is equally worthy to be of that that body. The Bible uses the most diverse sets of people of the time to contrast—Jews and Greeks, slaves and free—today we would say, billionaire or homeless, coloured or white—linking these wildly different groupings of people to show no matter our earthly differences, we are together in this business of living. The Roman Empire excelled at keeping people in separated from one another—by religion, by class, by colour, by job, by financial status. The Empire conquered and divided and in their dividing, the people being ruled from up on high had difficulty finding unity strong enough to stand up to their oppressors. But then along comes Jesus who tells everyone that God’s love is for all people, the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

We are some two thousand years further along in life on this planet and here we continue to find ourselves still be sorted into classes of people that we have no influence over—colour of our skin, first language we learn, what country we are from, what religion we are born into. These things we cannot control. But as we grow up and begin to make choices for ourselves, we begin to self-select into certain groups. By our very human natures, we seek to be a part of something, we seek to be welcomed, we seek to be needed and we desire to know that we’ve been missed when we have been absent from the group. To be human is to seek belonging. We want to be with people who understand us, who identifies with our struggles and with our joys. We want to be surrounded by folks that we don’t always have to explain ourselves to, who just get us. We join all sorts of clubs or organizations that we wrap up into our lives. We connect strongly with our professional identities, we pick up athletic activities that bond us to fellow athletes, Many people identify strongly with their faith traditions, whether it”s the one they are born into or one of their choosing, and find community there. We also belong to that those groups we have a keen interest in the topic, have some specific skill or have some special knowledge. To belong to these groups, to be members in these clubs or societies, encourage and inspire us to learn better our craft, to improve our skills and allow us to share that knowledge with others.

But then there are other groups that do not require you to be anything else than to look some certain way or to believe with certainty in something that has nothing to do with fact or truth. There are groups where inclusion requires exclusion, such as a religious organization that disowns the LGBTQ youth of their families or the Klu Klux Klan that very clearly wants nothing to do with people of colour or Jews—I bet Muslims are now on the list. In these groups, membership cannot be earned or achieved through accomplishment if you were created a certain way despite, I must say, these folks who believe so stridently in the Bible and that each and every one of is fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God, you cannot belong if your being is not of their approval and you certainly cannot belong if you believe in something they don’t agree with—disagreemnt or doubt is not permitted. And for these groups, an essential piece of belonging is you being against something. These yahoos from Covington High Scool in the States likely could not sit down with you and explain to you in a coherent manner what it is they DO believe in but by putting on those MAGA hats when they visited Washington—to march against safe and legal medical procedure abortion by the way—these boys were bused to Washington to weigh in on what adult women have the right to do with their reproductive health—these yahoos put on MAGA hats and are surprised when the public denounces them because in the wearing of those hats they are declaring they belong to a group of people who, at their foundation, are against immigration, against people of colour being treated with dignity, against women being self-determining, against any religion not evangelical Christian, against trans-people period. And yet, in John’s letter, we hear, whoever hates another believe is in the darkeness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go because darkness has brought on blindness.

The people portrayed in the BlacKkKlansman all wanted to belong. Ron to the police force. Patrice to a world that embraced her blackness. The men of the KKK wanted to be a part of something in which they felt powerful because they were their losing power in the wider world. Even white Ron, Flip, discovered he wanted to belong to his Judaism. By our very nature, we humans want to belong. But what is the cost of belonging? Is the cost of our belonging the dehumanizing of another? Is the cost of belonging denigrating and humiliating another? Is the cost of belonging causing emotional and physical turmoil? Our scriptures tell us unequivocally no, belonging is not built upon fear or hate or belittlement. Our scriptures tell us that we, though many, make up one body, so it is with Christ. Through the actions of the Ron, Flip, their team mates, their police sargent, through their respect for one another, their willingness to have each other’s back, through their determination to do right in the world, we see the body of Christ in motion. God loves all people. Not just white people. Or black people. For men. Or for women. All people. God wants justice for all people. God wants healing for all people. Ron Stallworth could not make this happen for the whole world, he made a start of it in and around where he lived his life. For his example and his courage and for God’s insistent love of the world, we give thanks.

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