Selma (2014) is one masterful movie. Stirring, patient, and relevant, Selma manages to resurrect a small, yet vital, sliver of the Civil Rights Movement and make it feel like it happened only yesterday. Then again, in many ways, it did—yet somehow amidst all the recent doubt, outrage, and controversy this film shines, capitalizing on its moment in the sun and leaving me deeply impacted. Selma is a hard film to criticize, but an easy one to be inspired by. So, given what today is, I think I’ll depart from precise analysis and go right where my mind has been since viewing the piece (often a dangerous thing).
It is fitting that I saw Selma during Holy Week and find myself sitting down to write on Good Friday. No matter how many sermons will hide from this today, Christians like myself worship an unjustly incarcerated, even executed, Lord and Savior. In a beautifully haunting moment of the film, King visits the grandfather of young man murdered by a riot policeman in the very mortuary where the body is being prepared for burial. In words I’ll never forget, King looks at the man and tells him that, when his grandson died,
God cried first.
Well, God is still crying.
When racism and discrimination claim lives and breed despair, Jesus weeps. The power of Selma and the movement it so poignantly reveals is that of the martyr—the one whose body becomes a proclamation of the death of the powers that killed. Much like Jesus or the Apostle Paul, MLK is seen in Selma journeying from place to place, inspiring but also invading local movements, drawing attention with prophetic signs, declaring an apocalypse, and end of the times that we know. In Selma, standing together meant witnessing publicly, being beaten by day instead of by night.
Fifty years later, some have been looking around and wondering if Malcolm X was more right than MLK. A newcomer to race politics (since Selma, I keep putting more emphasis on the final word of the title “Civil Rights MOVEMENT,” something I never did from just a textbook education), I defer to others on analyzing that question. What strikes me today, however, is that just as we’re not sure how racism is still so entrenched fifty years later, I’m constantly struck by how little like the Kingdom the body of Christ looks. But I know how powerful it is to dwell on the death of Christ, a martyrs death, a death that proclaimed the emptiness of the Jewish society. Today, Christ’s death is still present as far as his people are enacting its remembrance in liturgy, reminding us of the emptiness and death of our own societies, including the Church. As the Church is buried with Christ, let her remember that justice and peace are the constant struggle of the Christian life and that, at the end of days, it is those from every tongue, tribe, and nation who will kneel before the throne.
As if we needed a further challenge, let us also remember that it was Jesus who, from the cross, prayed for the forgiveness of those who had crucified him. To proclaim the death of our oppressors, it is we who must die, in order that all of us may live.
The Christian vision is scary, so it’s a good thing Easter is right around the corner. Still, most days, it feels like a million years away.