Here we go again. “God’s Not Dead 2” is soon to hit theaters. As a minister, some people expect me to eagerly expect its release, and to encourage people to see it.
I might tell people to see it, but not for reasons you might think. I urge Christians to see it so that you will look at it from a different perspective than your own. Look at it through the eyes of all those yearning to know God, to be forgiven, to belong to a community characterized by compassion.
Compassion is what was sadly lacking in the first version of this movie, at least in the principle plot. A professor whose belief had been shattered by tragedy in his life was degraded in front of his class while a student mocked him for his world view. The audience in the theater applauded the student’s “win” in the debate, while disregarding the pain that this man was suffering from. In addition, the movie was so rife with stereotypes of Christians, seekers, and atheists that it made me despair of the state of “Christian” screenwriting.
“God’s Not Dead” unfortunately gave credence to widespread complaints against evangelical Christianity in the U.S. because it fortified the “us vs. them” mentality that has not only alienated millions of people but also serves nicely as political rhetoric. Many Christians of all stripes do not have this attitude, but this comes across far too often in the media and in our own public relations as representative of Christianity itself. Hence the sweeping dismissal of faith in Jesus Christ by millions in our country. We cannot blame them for missing the point if we are missing it too.
A few thoughts to explain my reaction.
When we sense a challenge to our faith that makes us fearful, the “fight or flight” response is too often our gut reaction. But this is not the way of Jesus. Jesus railed against the religious establishment of his day for their defensive stance against his message about the kingdom of heaven. The Law of God that had been gifted to the people to make them a beacon of love and compassion to the world had, over the centuries, become a handy tool for judgment and self-righteousness, and thus enabled the elite to wield power over the masses. Yet God’s chosen people were originally called to show the world that a compassionate, life-giving God is the sovereign one who does not keep score or take revenge as do the gods of the pagans’ making.
Human nature compels us to find the right way and follow it, but in the process of sorting this out, we think we must condemn those who don’t play along. Religion that serves only to make us feel good about our beliefs vs. those of the “other” is not a religion that transforms us or seeks renewal and peace in a world gone bad. Instead it is prone to moral outrage that condemns what we do not understand. Violence against the perceived enemy is the inevitable result. Movies such as “God’s Not Dead” foster this kind of suspicion and superiority. Forgive me, but I have to ask, “What would Jesus do?”
What Jesus did was to reach across the lines so carefully drawn by his society and by the temple system. He reached out to the untouchables, the unclean, and to all those who actually suffered from exploitation by the religious establishment. He spoke gently but clearly to those who didn’t understand God’s ways. And when asked what really matters, he stated it succinctly: “Love God and your neighbor.” As his disciples, we, too are directed to reach out to those whose ideas contradict our own, to understand and love them. Even if they are mortal enemies, Jesus commands us to love them and pray for them.
That kind of self-giving love is the essence of the gospel we proclaim to a hurting world, yet I had a hard time seeing it in “God’s Not Dead.” There are those who will say that godly love is not mushy; it has boundaries. True, but those boundaries are not about being right. They are about protecting the vulnerable ones. Love does not demonize those whose beliefs differ from ours; it engages and seeks common ground so that we can share in the abundant life God offers. It suffers when persecuted. It seeks not to win, triumphing over our opponent in terms of proving who is right. It strives to win them over with love and compassion. As we continue through the season of Lent, I hope you might recognize Jesus doing exactly this when he suffers torture and death for our sake in spite of our violent tendencies.
The resurrection of Jesus we will soon celebrate shows us that God is not dead. How good it is to know that God’s love cannot be killed by a cross or anything else! God loves us all, in spite of our self-righteousness, unbelief, and ignorant killing. God calls us beloved, and asks that we spread the message of this good news to all the world. God does not ask us to hit people over the head with correct doctrine. Doctrine takes care of itself when we let Jesus Christ show us how broken we all are, and how great is the living God who loves us always.