By Bill Mefford
I believe the film, Hacksaw Ridge, might be one of the most theologically significant films that has come out in some time. It is, at least, for me. It’s the story of Desmond Doss who served in the army during World War II, but who refused to carry or even touch a gun because of his belief that Jesus has called us not to kill anyone ever. I have mixed feelings about Mel Gibson for what he has said and done in the past, but he has made one of the best films of the year by far, and one of the most powerful films I think I have ever seen. Right off, it was refreshing to see a war film where the hero was not some Rambo knock-off, blowing away everyone in sight. You know what else was nice to see? A Christian who had a sense of humor. He was actually kind of goofy; more like an unRambo.
But it was the deeper meanings in the film that profoundly moved me. Desmond had enlisted in the army as a Conscientious Objector (CO), but he didn’t use his CO status as a means to evade the brutality and violence. He wanted more than anything to serve alongside the men in his combat unit. He did not want to stay out of the fighting; indeed, he wanted to be directly in the thick of it. He just did not want to fight back. He wanted to serve, but not harm anyone.
This was so foreign to everyone around him and the military systems in place that Desmond had to overcome enormous obstacles to be able to a member of his combat unit; to be incarnated among his fellow soldiers. Some of those obstacles included being beaten by men in his unit who believed him to be a coward and even a traitor. He endured personal hatred and violence. He refused to comply in the face of institutional repression and ostracism. I was most struck by the fact that he refused to bend even as he was misunderstood by those closest to him, his own family. None of this could stop him from pursuing what he knew – what he absolutely knew to be true; that as a follower of Jesus he could not kill or even touch the instruments of warfare.
Man, I gotta tell you, I was pierced to the core of who I am as I realized the powerful strength of his commitment to be faithful; to be true to himself and to what he believed in.
Even during the film I was reflecting on how easy it is today to take a stand for something you believe in. It’s too damn easy to be “prophetic.” You just need a cool website, maybe a couple of good graphics or pictures, a knowledge of how to sound smart in 140 characters or less, do some longer posts for your Facebook page, and then just rail away at the “powers that be.” Viola! You’re a full-fledged prophet!
But next thing you know, a couple of family members will disagree with you and make you feel guilty for being too provocative, or you will be ostracized from your friends you went to seminary or college with because you said something a little too strongly (and God knows, for your friends from college or seminary, the last thing they want to be riddled with by the time they get to middle age is guilt or conviction), or you will be forced out of a position or job you love because you held to what you believed in more than the company line, or your family will lose faith in you because railing against wars, racism, and oppression is hardly an adequate way to provide a livable wage or affordable health care. Maybe when the shit hits the fan, just maybe, you will begin to realize a little bit of what being “prophetic” really is.
I have always felt a little uneasy when I have worked in organizations in or associated with the church that were called (or even worse, called themselves) “prophetic.” My main problem is that our institutional allegiances seemed to outweigh the allegiances to the people experiencing injustice. We don’t want that to happen, but it just does. We were too distanced from the people who were experiencing the real suffering, the real persecution, the real oppression and we were too tied to ensuring institutional survival. Hell, even the board meetings took place oftentimes in 5 star hotels, eating the richest food, sleeping in the most comfortable beds, all the while we “worked” hard word-smithing empty and shallow statements about justice while the people directly impacted by the injustice were quite literally worlds away. Sitting at a safe distance and issuing statements or action alerts is simply not prophetic work. Too much of the work of institutional or what I call prophetic-industry organizations simply boils down to busy work, designed to keep afloat our agendas (even our “liberal” agendas). Our work can look and sound prophetic when we learn to always add a thin layer of prophetic-sounding liberalism, but it isn’t rooted among people experiencing injustice. It just ain’t prophetic.
The simple truth is that we are not prophets unless we are incarnated among those directly impacted by injustice. Come up with all of the really cool statements you want. Hell, tweet ‘em out, stick ‘em on Facebook, do a YouTube video in hopes of it going viral, make ‘em into t-shirts or bumper stickers; write some books and get your niche in the ever-expanding prophetic-industry. But prophetic agency is first and foremost about truth and truth cannot be acontextual. It is entirely about relationships with people who are suffering and it is located in the lives of those who live directly in the path of impending danger and evil. This is where we must go. This is where we must run towards, as Desmond did, time and time again. Otherwise, our prophetic pronouncements are just bullshit.
A biblical passage that kept coming back to me throughout the film comes from Jeremiah. And it should be noted that Desmond was reading his Bible throughout the film. Say what you want about the historical accuracy or the inconsistencies of Scripture, that book needs to be read y’all. Jeremiah was the weeping prophet, a man who was well-associated with grief, so much so that he was a bit morose. But this passage never leaves me:
But if I say, "I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name," his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot. (20:9)
Indeed, I am weary of trying to sound prophetic, of making sure I am liberal enough, or provocative enough, but not too edgy that my seminary friends don’t get freaked out. I am tired of making sure what I say doesn’t offend, or fits nicely into 140 characters. I am tired of worrying if what I say is ill-timed or mean-sounding or too personal.
I really just want to be true.
Jesus came to this earth for the purpose of incarnating himself among the poor, the reviled, the hated, the oppressed, the persecuted. A helluva lot has changed in the world since he walked among us. But one thing hasn’t. If anyone wants to follow him we must too incarnate ourselves among the poor, the reviled, the hated, the oppressed, the persecuted. If we do, I doubt Mel Gibson or anyone else will make movies about us. But that’s cool. I don’t wanna be prophetic. I don’t wanna be heroic. I don’t wanna be famous. I really just wanna be true.