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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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Viagra and Liberal Christianity: An Agenda for 2013

Happy New Year and many thanks to the readers and followers of “Peculiar Faith”! I’m grateful for your engagement with my attempt to chronicle, nudge, describe, and construct a truly lively Christian faith and practice for the twenty-first century. I started this blog with the hope of contributing to the vitality and resurgence of a socially- and politically-engaged Christian faith that takes seriously the importance of critical and constructive theological work. Your comments, re-posts, and shares have been wonderfully encouraging.

The data crunchers at WordPress offer a great statistical snapshot at the end of each year for their bloggers and while I’m sure my stats are quite modest compared to most other bloggers, I’m pleased with the number of views and the quality of comments in 2012.

Here’s an excerpt from the year-end report:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. “Peculiar Faith” had 26,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 6 Film Festivals

(If you’re interested in more fun stats, click here to see the complete report for this blog).

More than numbers, I’m intrigued that men messing with women’s bodily integrity and a robust liberal Christianity appear to have been the topics of most interest to readers of “Peculiar Faith.” I take this as at least one indication of the passion and concern many share for the broad intersection of social justice and Christian faith. That’s what I’ll keep writing about in 2013, including a two-part post coming soon on my own religious resolutions for this new year.

For now, may the peculiar light of the Incarnate Word continue to shine in a world that so desperately needs it. And many blessings in the weeks and months ahead!