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Unleashing “Django Unchained”: Epiphanies for White America

White Guilt won’t solve anything. Neither will White Denial. Trying to figure out where one sits on that spectrum is a distinct privilege for white people, like me. People of color don’t have those moments of luxury, those moments when they get to pause and wonder about all the complexities of a social and political system designed to favor white people and white communities.

As I sat in a dark theater watching Django Unchained last week I was glad for little light. What I watched belongs in shadows and in dark corners and all those places where human beings rightly cower in the face of horror. Watching that film I felt assaulted by violence, torn by conflicting loyalties, wrenched by poignant moments of tenderness, amused by reversals of fortune, and appalled by the human capacity to act with unspeakable cruelty. Yet none of that compares to what African Americans feel when watching the same film. Of that, at least, I am certain.django

I’m eager to learn from my African American colleagues and friends about their responses to that Quentin Tarantino film. It is of course quintessentially Tarantino – ridiculously violent, comically absurd, and horribly distasteful. For all its excess, the film prompted me to discern anew how to live as a white person in a society still reeling from the legacy of racial brutality.

I worry and I fret that even half of the violence or even a portion of the denial of human dignity portrayed in that film captures the historical reality of institutional slavery. But that’s White Guilt talking and it’s not helpful. Equally unhelpful is to suppose that all that horror is neatly sequestered in the shrouds of history and has nothing to do with us today. That’s White Denial talking.

If Djangodjango2 Unchained is going to contribute anything more than Oscar-worthy performances all of us will need to unleash its dangerous message. And Django is dangerous in the same way the Christian Gospel is dangerous, and for this reason: flesh matters.

Tarantino would seem to elicit precisely the opposite as we see flesh flayed, beaten, punctured, ripped apart, bleeding, and generally abused in nearly every manner imaginable. Perhaps that’s the wake-up call Christian communities need if we’re going to take our incarnational faith more seriously – to take human flesh more seriously.

epiphany_magi2I saw Django in this Christian liturgical season following The Epiphany – the feast of the manifestation of God’s Word made flesh. This season in concert with that film poses some gut-wrenching questions for white Christians like me. What kind of “flesh” do we mean, really? How is my white flesh consistently considered better than other kinds of flesh, not just abstractly or theoretically but concretely, in the communities where I work, worship, and play? What can and what should I do about that?

This liturgical season began with the story of the Magi traveling far from home, asking questions, and offering gifts when they arrived. White people committed to dismantling systemic racism can follow that same pattern by leaving our comfort zones, learning what we need to know by asking uncomfortable questions, and then offering ourselves to the divine mission of respecting and celebrating all and not just some flesh.

Regardless of the cinematic merits of Django Unchained, unleashing its insights in this season following the Epiphany and leading into Lent could provoke some profound conversations and conversions. I like to remember that those words – “conversation” and “conversion” – come from the same linguistic root. Engaging in genuine conversation makes us vulnerable to life-changing insights, exactly what all of us need in a society built on white supremacy. (One of those insights might link the portrayal of violence to the problem of violence, though Tarantino himself rather testily disagrees.)

At the very least Django beckons white people to consider why and how our white flesh still matters more than any other kind – and that would surely be an epiphany worthy of this peculiar season.

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The Privilege of “Non-Violence”

A small group of “agitators” disrupted an otherwise “peaceful” demonstration and general strike in Oakland this past Wednesday with moments of “violence.” The swift disavowal of that violence by just about everyone but the agitators themselves raised some red flags for me. (Read about what happened here, and especially the remarkable notion that shutting down a commercial port qualifies as “peaceful” protest.)

We don’t know exactly who those agitators were. We don’t know precisely why they engaged in vandalism or why they incited the police. But apparently that doesn’t matter; their violence was wrong. The violence of the general strike itself, however, is perfectly acceptable. Why? What’s the difference?

Among the many peculiar stories in the gospel accounts, I can’t stop thinking about the one so often called the “cleansing of the temple” (see Mt. 21:12-13; Mk. 11:15-19; Lk. 19:45-46; and Jn. 2:13-16).  Whatever Jesus did that day – overturning tables, driving people out, whipping bad religious bankers with a cat-o-nine tails – whatever it was, he disrupted a corrupt system and he got into a lot of trouble for it. And let’s be clear: what he did was violent. I mean, don’t you think it was? If not, what counts as “violent” for you?

There are lots of squishy words running through our public and private speeches these days, whether in Congress or at the water cooler or in our living rooms. “Anarchists” is a favorite one of late as it lumps all those people together who don’t behave in public the way the rest of us would prefer. “Wealth” is another notoriously squishy word. Compared to the vast majority of people on this planet, if you don’t worry about where your next meal is coming from and you have a roof over your head, you are wealthy.

“Violence” is just as squishy. We use it in all sorts of ways, as if they all mean the same kind of thing. We “do violence” to a text by misinterpreting it. We “do violence” to ideas when we misrepresent their meaning. If you eat meat of any kind, you are responsible for doing violence to an animal. We “do violence” to humans in all sorts of ways as well, some horrific and physical, others far more subtle, emotional and relational.

So what counts as acceptable and unacceptable violence, and who decides, and why?

I don’t know. But I’ll offer two observations, though I’m not sure yet how to connect these to my peculiar faith in the supposedly “non-violent” Jesus.

First, a “general strike” is not an instance of non-violent protest. A general strike, if successful, disrupts the economy of an entire city, and that hurts both businesses and people. Sure, the hurt is temporary, but let’s not pretend that a general strike is merely “harmless” protest. It is, in my view, a form of violence. Both the religious and civic authorities in Jesus’ day apparently thought so, too. Disrupting systems of monetary exchange is a violent act – and those first century authorities responded with violence in return; they crucified Jesus.

Second, the privilege I enjoy because of my class, race, and gender makes it very unlikely that I will ever engage in acts of vandalism. My comfortable job and cozy home blunt what would otherwise be a far sharper disgust and anger toward the corruption of both our financial system and politicians.

But if my house had been foreclosed on by a bank that was later charged with fraudulent mortgage practices and that reaped huge profits without paying hardly any taxes at all – well, I’m not so sure I wouldn’t be out on the streets smashing that bank’s windows.

In short, I worry that even defining what counts as “non-violence” is yet another realm that belongs to the privileged.

I’m thinking about this at all because something is going on in my own backyard – not because of the decades-long struggle in Israel/Palestine, not because of the conflict between China and Tibet, not because Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square in much the same way that my own neighbors are gathering in Oakland – and that speaks volumes about the privilege I currently enjoy.

I wonder how long that privilege will last. I wonder how that privilege shapes my reading of the Gospel. I wonder if I would care so terribly much about defining “violence” so precisely if I lost my job, my house, my health insurance, my credit cards, and the ridiculously easy access I have to food at the local Safeway. The definition of violence varies, I should think, depending on whether you’re defining it next to a cozy fireplace or seeking shelter beneath a freeway overpass.

These are peculiar quandaries for a peculiar faith. At the very least, I think they ought to lead Christians beyond our usual comfort zones and into something like “transformation.” What will that look like? Offer your suggestions here…please.