What have we done, and why would we do it? That’s the pair of questions that kept going through my mind as I sat in a theater in Rogers, Arkansas last night as we watched Lee Daniels’ The Butler. The synopsis is:
As Cecil Gaines serves eight presidents during his tenure as a butler at the White House, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and other major events affect this man’s life, family, and American society. (via IMDb)
I’ve always been a Forest Whitaker fan, and he out-shined all previous performances in his role as Cecil. Oprah was equally magnificent in her role as Cecil’s wife, Gloria. As far as movies go, it was stellar. The acting was superb, the storyline strong, and the emotions deep. It’s a must-see on that level, but it’s also a must-see on a deeper level.
I was born two and a half years after the fall of Saigon, which ended the Vietnam War. While that war happened over there, another war was taking place on American soil – a civil war of sorts, between ethnicities. History is replete with humankind’s inability to get along with each other, especially across ethnic and cultural boundaries, but as Whitaker (as Gaines) says in his narration, while we are shocked at the atrocities of the Nazi’s in the concentration camps of Europe, we tended to ignore the same plight domestically for large number of African-Americans.
People. Human beings. Who happened to have dark skin, were murdered, hung, burned, bombed, beaten, shot, falsely accused, jailed, tried, and executed for crimes such as hoping to be served a sandwich outside the “colored” section or riding near the front of a public bus. A few fought back in hate while many fought back with love and on a large scale, America has repented of its racist past. One of the sweet moments in the film is the reaction of Cecil and his family to the election of the nation’s first African-American President, Barack Obama. We’ve come a long way.
Racism still exists. It exists in places where communities find creative and legal ways to sustain an informal version of segregation using private schools. It exists in churches that refuse to embrace members of every tribe, tongue, and nation (literally ethnicity). And it exists in the heart of anyone who minimizes and ignores the past conditions under which our ancestors placed their brothers and sisters.
And that’s why you need to see this movie. You need to be aware of the potential for evil of depraved humanity. You need to see, from the perspective of one who lived through it, what the civil rights movement was really like. You need to feel the emotion of one who is slapped, spat upon, and thrown in jail for sitting at a lunch counter ordering a sandwich.
And if you’re a Christian, you need to see your responsibility in the reconciling of all people to each other in Christ. It saddens me that Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in American life. It broke my heart the day a Deacon in one of my early pastorates looked with disgust at a picture of African-American children and proclaimed, “They have their churches, and we have ours.” And it stings when I hear the “N” word, with which I would have hoped my children would never become acquainted.
Remember that famous quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. from his “I Have a Dream” speech?
I have a dream that one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls.
His dream is being fulfilled in many ways, but for certain segments of American society (including the church, on the whole), it’s still a reality that lies slightly beyond our grasp. Unless we repent. Of our intentional arrogance. Of our willful ignorance. And of our unwillingness to openly receive the entire human family into God’s family, the church, with open and outstretched arms.