by Scott Rice -
SGN Contributing Writer
Good and evil, like most binary systems, is a fallacious construction to begin with. Other than Hitler, Charles Manson, and Ann Coulter, pure evil is fairly rare. Likewise, pure goodness is also a rarity.
All this good and evil stuff is on my mind because I recently screened Lord Save Us from Your Followers, a documentary by Dan Merchant, a devoted Christian himself, that is a call to action aimed squarely at the Christian community and asking them to be a bit more like Jesus and a bit less like Pat Robertson (the particulars of this hypothetical directive are mine, not Merchant's).
In the documentary and the interview, Merchant keeps going back to his central question: literally, "What would Jesus do (or say)?" It's almost comedic at this point because of all the T-shirts and bumper stickers, but it may be the most important question asked today and it may be the only question that can save the American experiment from the Christian masses.
Would Jesus go to the Pride parade? I think he would. He might not be so enthusiastic about greasy-haired Lesbians simulating oral sex on the hood of a Jeep, but I think he'd enjoy Drag Queens belting out gospel tunes, Trannies singing "Jesus Loves Me," and naked bicyclists.
Would Jesus talk like George W.? I don't think so. But in all fairness, Jesus wouldn't run for president, either.
The most powerful moments come when Merchant sets up a confessional booth in the middle of Portland's Pride celebration and proceeds to apologize one-on-one to any Queer person who enters. It is amazing to watch personal walls tumble under the pressure of honest communication between two souls looking to open a door that's been closed a very long time.
Merchant's take on Christian sensibility is unique in that he finds Christianity at least somewhat culpable for treating the Queer community poorly. This is a refreshing change from the "victim becomes the perpetrator" game we're accustomed to. You know, the game when the preacher says, "If Johnny weren't Queer, we wouldn't have to beat him," or something to that effect.
But I must take care not to let my dialogue become as polarizing and dogmatic as "theirs." And Mr. Merchant is one of the most rational (this is intended to be amusing) and caring (this isn't) Christians I've had the pleasure to chat with in quite some time. It was a good reminder that religion can be a positive force in the hands of nice people.
Lord Save Us from Your Followers opened Friday, September 25 at the Regal Cinemas Everett Mall Stadium 16. Merchant is hoping for a wider release in October, but that is not guaranteed. If you want to see this fascinating and powerful documentary (and you do, trust me) you should see it sooner rather than later - even if that means driving to Everett.
Scott Rice: Who do you want to see this film?
Dan Merchant: Everyone. I come from a television and advertising background, and one of the first things you learn there is to know your target audience. I really hope my audience is anyone and everyone between, say, 13 and 70.
Rice: That's a broad demographic.
Merchant: Exactly. My usual joke is, everybody breathing.
Rice: Who's going to benefit most from seeing it?
Merchant: I think the people who are willing to look in the mirror are the ones who benefit the most.
Rice: The movie seems to have a message of conciliation. My question is, is that a realistic goal?
Merchant: Yeah, I think it is. I've seen enough weird, crazy stuff happen when people are willing to love each other and take care of each other. I've just seen walls come down where you wouldn't think possible. So, I guess I've already seen lots of impossible things happen. I'm just crazy enough and faithful enough, let's say, yeah, that is possible.
Rice: I tell you, I am a fan of you in particular, and I think the whole idea is admirable but I think for the Queer community the question we have for you is how do you take this message to the Fred Phelps of the world or folks who may not be acting particularly Christ-like? Or not even that extreme, how do you take this message to more mainstream figures like Rick Santorum, Dr. James Dobson, and Ann Coulter?
Merchant: Fred Phelps is just crazy. It's unfortunate that when people look at somebody like Phelps, if they would lump somebody like me in with him then they aren't paying enough attention. So that guy's just a whack-job.
Rice: How about Ann Coulter?
Merchant: Moving to the left of Phelps [Laughs.], I think it's just a simple reminder that if you're a Christian you have to go back to the words of Jesus and you have to consider what he meant by "love one another."
Rice: I've often said Jesus wasn't a bad guy; it's all the people who came after him that screwed things up.
Merchant: Gandhi would agree with you, as well. He said something to the effect of, "I very much like your Christ, but I don't care for Christians because they don't remind me of Christ at all." So you're in good company with that sentiment.
Rice: Why do Ann Coulter and her ilk insist on using the language of war?
Merchant: I can't speak for Ann Coulter or any of those folks, but I would guess they're trying to sell books, you know? I mean, she's an entertainer.
Rice: Good point.
Merchant: She's a very successful author. White hat verses black hat, that's the easiest form of storytelling.
Rice: Let's talk about separation of church and state. Is it important?
Merchant: Yeah, I think it is. I think it's fundamentally misunderstood. Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists, where the wall of separation is referred to, was written to the Baptists to assure the Baptists that the Anglican Church was not going to become the state religion as it was in England. So the idea that there's a secular, completely non-religious government that exists over here, and then there's everything that exists over here that's religion, was not at all, as I read it, what Jefferson was talking about. That being said, we live in a pluralistic society, we live in a country where many faiths are represented, and where people without faith live. So clearly one shouldn't be foisted on the other.
Rice: It's interesting that you go back to the Jeffersonian letter and that you don't really believe that Jefferson was dictating a strict separation of church and state.
Merchant: I don't think he was - at least, not in that letter he wasn't. In that letter, he was assuring the Baptists to settle down, that they wouldn't have to become Anglicans or Catholics.
Rice: Within the Constitution, do you think there is a clearly stated separation of church and state?
Merchant: Look, I'm a filmmaker, no constitutional expert here. But, I think & I guess I'm trying to read between the lines to see what you're really asking me.
Rice: I'm only asking because questions about the separation of church and state are important to the Queer community right now because I think trying to couch Queer marriage, or even Queerness in itself, as being a moral issue or ethical issue brings religion into government. So I think the Queer community is invested in understanding what a right-wing government would look like and what the goals of the really conservative part of the Republican party are.
Merchant: I wouldn't worry about the right-wing conservative Christians, they had their chance, you know? I see your question and I think the constitution is the guideline for America and the Bible is not the guideline for America.
Rice: I love that one of your methods [in the film] is to put bumper stickers all over yourself and talk to people. I think that illustrates a problem we have in that we like messages that can be distilled into bumper stickers or sound bites. But that leaves us - people like you, or the Queer community who have a little more complex message - that makes our job to get our message out a lot more difficult. How do we get people to listen to a more complex message?
Merchant: It's a good question, and I'm not sure if Twitter is helping or hurting. [Laughs.] You're talking about a human nature question there, I think. I don't know, I don't have the answer to that one. I'm trying to encourage people in my little way with a movie. Take a deep breath, look around, and if you're someone who believes in God, remember that God made the person sitting next to you and he loves that person just as much as he loves you. Take a breath.
Rice: I'm not sure why Christians fear Queers so much, but I am sure why we in the Queer community fear Christians. I think you can look at history and see that it is rife with proof of scapegoating and the vilification of the Queer community. What's your advice to Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered people on how to come to terms with the larger Christian community?
Merchant: I guess the first thing I'd ask for is to be patient with us. We're flawed human beings just like you, and we're trying to figure out the best path through this life for us, just like you're trying to figure out your best path through life.
Rice: I really loved the scenes near the end of the movie where you set up the confessional booth at the Portland Pride event, and I thought that was a lovely moment and gesture on your part and very powerful and meaningful for every Queer person who sees it. No matter how much we may have found a way to live through the rejection and pain that we dealt with in childhood, for those of us who were raised in Christian homes - as I, for one, was - that there is still that need, that desire to re-connect to those roots in some way, and that being given the opportunity to listen to a Christian person apologize became a very powerful moment for the people in the film and for me watching the film. Thank you for that, and the question is, what surprised you most about the moments inside the confessional at Portland Pride?
Merchant: First off, thank you for being open to it and before I answer that question and as an adjunct to your preceding question and to that comment, that scene in the movie is as impactful for every Christian who's seen it as for every Queer person who's seen it. So take some encouragement from that, that we're not trying to be narrow minded.
That confession booth is a real big look in the mirror for so many Christians who, through arrogance, through ignorance, through cruelty, through whatever, aren't paying attention to how we sound and how we're hurting other people, intentionally or not. And a lot of times it's not intentional, and that's every bit as shameful and embarrassing. The experience in the confession booth was remarkable because I was prepared to go in there and get yelled at all day. I wasn't sure about what was going to happen, but I sort of had to resign myself to the fact that that's quite likely what would be. [Laughs.] I understand, you know? I've been looking around. I've seen what goes on and it's not good.
So what was astonishing to me, again being a Christian guy, I'm going to tell you I felt the hand of God move that day. And what happened was that those people that were willing to come into the booth - and we could only accommodate, maybe, I think we talked to 26 people that day, and there were probably another, I don't know, 40 or 50 or 60 that I couldn't visit with because I'd end up having these great conversations with people [because] I'd give the apology and then we'd start talking. And some, we'd talk for five, six, seven, eight minutes, and some it was 10 or 20 minutes. We could have done it for a week, probably.
But a couple of observations: I was grateful that there are people that had been so hurt by Christians and so hurt by the church that were still willing to accept my apology, to hear my apology, and then just to be open to the possibility, like you were just describing in your life experience, and it sickens me and it breaks my heart that there are Christian people who, regardless of their intentions, have chased people away from God. That is a heartbreak. That is the last thing that I want to be responsible for. And if I can in some small way be responsible for [saying], hey, you know what, I'm sorry you were treated poorly as a kid and I'm sorry you had a backwards church that was horrifically cruel to you. They got it wrong. God made you, too, and he loves you, too. And they got it wrong.
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