Shortly after Kathryn Stockett’s novel, The Help, came out, my wife Genie read it. She passed it on to me, but I was not excited to read it. A story about maids in Jackson, MS in the year that Medgar Evers and President Kennedy were assassinated did not sound compelling. After hearing several other enthusiastic reviews, I picked up the book and started reading. I was totally absorbed, and finished the book in a couple of days.
Since then we have been waiting expectantly for the movie to be released (see the trailer here). We went to see it this week. It is an incredible movie. It brought tears to my eyes.
I am a son of the South. I grew up in Atlanta in the 1950s and ‘60s, when discrimination was the cultural norm. I remember the “colored” water fountain at the Sears in Buckhead. I pestered my Mama, because I wanted to see the colored water come out of the fountain. She did not much want to explain that one.
My parents had both grown up in California but settled in Atlanta after the war. My father’s family was from Dodge County, in middle Georgia, so he had Southern roots, and he quickly adapted to the culture. We had a couple of maids during my childhood, but they only worked part-time. We were strictly middle class and lived in an apartment until I was nine. So, I never had a sense of being reared by our maids.
I did, however, get a sense of the hypocrisy in the white church of the times that is so prevalent in the movie. I grew up seeing people dress up all nice and head off to church on Sunday mornings. The trouble was, I never saw that church changed these people during the week.
I spent my whole life in Atlanta, living in a very diverse city, with plenty of transplants from up North, which caused some of the overt racism to recede from public view. I worked in a family business selling construction equipment. My first territory was northeast Georgia. I was selling tractors to good old boys, and frankly, for most of my 25-year career, very public expressions of racism were more the norm than the exception.
A fairly popular governor was voted out of office after he took the Confederate stars and bars off the state flag, and the old conservative Democrats who ran the state for over 100 years were replaced by Republicans in one election. No matter how much people try to dress up the flag issue as a “cultural” thing, it really is a strong symbol of the times when anyone who wasn’t white knew their place. And the white pastors did not easily confront these issues in church.
I think of my own attitudes until I went to college and began to think for myself. I have nothing to be proud of in my own behavior and attitudes. I did not get all excited about the Civil Rights movement. I never marched in the ‘60s. I did not question the Southern cultural assumptions until my adult years. And anyone who has read Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink” will know that deeply embedded racial feelings often operate at a subconscious level.
I think there is a wonderful message for us today in this movie and book. I hear many people, particularly those who sympathize with the Tea Party, wax nostalgic about the time when America was a Christian country. There is a real yearning to go back to those simpler times of “Leave it to Beaver.”
Then a book like “The Help” comes along, and we see that grave injustices were institutionalized in our culture and, in many ways, co-opted the Gospel in the Southern church. “The Help” is a help in terms of cracking the rose-colored glasses that many look through when they look back at these times of a Christian America.
We in the South are not alone in creating a redneck culture. I spend half my time in the mountains of Colorado, and we have our version of redneck out here. They shoot guns, ride four-wheelers destroying pristine meadows, mine and prospect, and show very little respect for the environment or our government.
My eldest granddaughter was adopted from Guatemala. She’s Mayan Indian with jet black hair and eyes, and beautiful brown skin. She started kindergarten in Fort Collins last fall. Fort Collins is a college town, with a good bit of high tech industry. It is considered a pretty liberal and progressive place. Yet, through her whole school year, she had kids tell her that her skin was ugly and wouldn’t play with her. To see my granddaughter experience discrimination breaks my heart. Are we really going to live with racism for another generation? I could hardly believe that people are still rearing their kids to be mean to those who don’t look like us.
I see a whole swath of our political class pandering to a movement that disdains education, immigrants, climate science, care for the environment or the poor. They do this in the name of making America great again. This movement has brought our economy back to the brink of recession by manufacturing a debt crisis and insisting on cutting spending in a faltering economy.
I see people wanting to go back to a time that I consider to be a stain on our American culture. I think there are plenty of white folks in our country who are not interested in living in a multi-cultural, pluralistic society. They would like to go back. Unfortunately, to me this is a reactionary stance, tainted by racial undercurrents, that needs to be named for what it is.
What completely turns me off is to see politicians weeping and exclaiming their faith in Jesus, while completely disdaining Jesus’ politics. It’s no wonder we have become a post-Christian culture, when people like this make up much of the public face of religion in this country. I, for one, have no interest in going back to this ugly past.
Recovering our past is not a vision for the future. My mentor Robert Fritz would say, making a problem go away is not the same as a vision. Much of our political class, and especially those in the Tea Party movement, would point us towards the past, not the future. Problem-solving is like demolition, removing an unpleasant current reality. Vision is like architecture, building something new.
So, please quit trying to convince us that the past was something beautiful, while you ignore the scars that many carry from growing up in those very imperfect times. I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the anxiety of growing up under the threat of nuclear war. We practiced walking home from grammar school by the quickest route in case of nuclear attack. I lived through the assassinations of two Kennedys, Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, Jr. Jewish children were killed in the bombing of a synagogue in Atlanta. Black men were still being lynched in the South. I knew a man who actually witnessed a lynching during those times.
I graduated from High School in 1969. Over the next few years, I became convinced that our system and society could not endure the chaos that was breaking out everywhere. Do we really think things were better in the mid-’60s, as we were ramping up our involvement in Vietnam and laying the groundwork for Watergate?
One of the elements that is necessary for our enjoyment of movies is the suspension of disbelief. If we look at the unfolding events too closely, we won’t enjoy the story. I think it takes an incredible dose of suspension of disbelief to really embrace the movement back to these “glory days when we were a Christian country.”
The reality of the changes our culture has seen was brought home by an article I saw in USA Today entitled Minority Infants Almost Majority, where I saw this factoid:
Only 50.2% of babies under age 1 are white and not Hispanic, according to the 2010 Census — a sharp decline from 57.6% just 10 years earlier. We are almost at a minority-majority infant population," says Brookings Institution demographer William Frey, who analyzed the latest Census data. "We probably have passed it since the Census was taken" in April 2010.
Toto, we aren't in Kansas anymore. The changes we are experiencing are unavoidable. The pace of change has quickened over our lifetimes, and it is not likely to slow up. I get that people are overwhelmed. But, it seems to me that those who trust God would get comfortable with the fact that change is an integral part of following Christ.
I thank God for a book and movie like “The Help,” because they can help shape our cultural narrative in ways that don’t let us forget and ignore the sins of our shared past. I am hopeful that churches will use this book and movie to help them look at ways in which our culture co-opts the Gospel. And I would ask this question in such a discussion: In what ways is the gospel being distorted today in our church because of the cultural assumptions that are so deeply embedded as to not be questioned, even in church?
For further development of these thoughts see Mike Breen’s blog post: Don’t drink the water: How culture has corrupted the American Church. For another powerful exploration of these cultural issues and the Tea Party movement, take a look at Brian McLaren’s response to some good questions from a Tea Party supporter.