Last week I wrote about my encounter with grace.
Today I want to talk about being drawn to a movie by its subtitle – how the church is better and worse than you ever imaged. Coming from Malaysia, I’ve had an excellent education in a convent school founded by an singing-Irish-nun. So I’ve already experience the church’s better side.
But looking at the ominous poster, I was frightened by what the movie might reveal. So I roped in a girlfriend to accompany me to the Adelaide screening of ‘For the Love of God‘. At least I could cry my distraught tears on her shoulder afterwards, if need be.
When we got there, we picked up feedback forms left on the red velvet cinema seats. From this I learnt that the movie was produced by the Centre for Public Christianity. I didn’t know such a centre existed.
I had thought that in Australia religion was a private matter. Not that private I suppose; the theatre was full, both young and old and in between, people in a good mood, as you would expect in a movie theatre.
Grace and disgrace, the movie: For the love of God
In the opening scene, historian John Dickson stands on the grounds where a Christian army slaughtered hundreds of Muslims in 1099. I knew about the Crusades, often mentioned in criticism of Christianity or even to point to a link between religion and violence.
What surprised me was to learn how the Crusades came about. In 1095, Pope Urban the second had decreed that if you go and fight against the advance of Islam in the Holy Land, all your sins will be forgiven.
I am incredulous: What? Violence for salvation? What kind of theology is that? Did Jesus Christ not say, ‘turn the other cheek’, ‘love your enemies’, and ‘pray for those who persecute you’?
Did Pope Urban honestly misunderstand Jesus? I don’t think there can be any reading of the Jesus’ teaching that would condone, much less order, such violence.
Violence in religion?
I gasped inwardly. As a person of faith, I completely reject the notion of violence in the name of God or faith or religion. But my role was chair, not speaker.
Psychiatrist Dr Sandy McFarlane took the question first. He said that institutionalised religion can be problematic, but stressed the ethic of love and care found in many religions. In essence, he said that we should not turn away from the light because of the shadows. (My metaphor, not his.)
Going back to the movie, as it whisked me through centuries of church history, I learnt about Father Damien. In the 1870s, Father Damien chose to work and live in a Hawaiian leper colony. There he not only preached God’s love, but also built houses, dug graves, tended wounds, and organised a choir. Father Damien himself eventually died of leprosy. Mother Theresa considered him a hero; that says something about sacrificial service.
Returning to the question about religion and violence, psychologist Gary Outten then gave his answer. He said that in his work counselling asylum seekers held in immigration detention on Manus and Nauru, he encourages his clients to hold on to their faith-belief, if they are people of faith. In despair and uncertainty, sometimes that is all they have left to hold on to.
Grace and disgrace in the public domain
On a societal level, if the public considers Christianity, it is usually by how Christians behave, not what they believe.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a Christian, has been ridiculed on national TV with a ditty containing the lines, ‘Jesus made the animals like kangaroos, and he also said to lock the kids up on Nauru.’
It is painful for me to hear the mockery because of my because of my faith. But it is also painful because the ditty highlights a discrepancy between belief and action.
Why would any follower of Jesus support immigration detention – where people are deprived of liberty not because of criminal convictions but because they do not possess a valid visa? Furthermore, if these people are unwilling to be deported to their home country there is no upper time-limit for the detention. It could be for the rest of their lives.
One reason given is that without such harsh deterrent, people smugglers will start up again and asylum seekers will drown at sea.
This is a great leap in logic: punish one group of people (asylum seekers) to change the behaviour of a different group of people (people smugglers). This is the complete opposite of grace. Not unmerited favour, but undeserved punishment.
After the movie
At the end of the screening, two of the movie presenters, John Dickson and Simon Smart took questions from the cinema audience. Dickson spoke of how difficult it was to film the opening segment about the crusades. Helping to organising the shoot for the day, was a Muslim lady standing just outside the frame of the camera. He tried to express his remorse to her, which she waved away.
People of faith have to decide how ancient faith finds modern expression. They have to interpret scripture, wrestle with history and respond to the issues of the day. The movie’s conclusion was that the church is at her best when she responds to others in sacrificial service.
I didn’t need to cry on my girlfriend’s shoulder after the movie, but it has given me much to think about. The church is better and worse than I ever imagined. The question for followers of Jesus now is what will her future be.
A half-hour version of For the Love of God will be shown on ABC’s Compass in Australia tomorrow, Saturday 6 Oct at 6pm.