A few years ago, Fuller Seminary hosted a public screening of the Sundance award-winner The Birth of a Nation. Afterward, a handful of faculty and students gathered for dinner to reflect on the film and engage in a conversation about racial dynamics in our country, city, and seminary.
As we went around the table and shared our various experiences with race and racism, I voiced what I thought at the time was a fairly “woke” perspective regarding my growing awareness of racial inequalities. I admitted that I would never be able to know the true depths of the black experience in America. I confessed that, on a conceptual level, I was able to recognize the daily struggle of my sisters and brothers of color, but I would never be able to know it on a visceral level.
My friend and colleague, Joy J. Moore, an associate professor of biblical preaching at Luther Seminary, was clearly frustrated with my comments and pressed me to consider the deeper implications of what I was saying. For example, she asked if, since I, as a male, could never fully know what it meant to encounter the world as a woman, but then witnessed a woman being assaulted, would I hesitate to intervene because I couldn’t understand? She pressed further: Would I be incapable of knowing that it was wrong for a woman to be treated unjustly and be able to respond accordingly?
Through her analogy, Moore not only reframed my understanding of a movie but fundamentally altered the way I see the world. I experienced a similar kind of paradigm shift when I first watched the newly released film Burden, which debuted at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. I wasn’t alone. The film won an Audience Award that year, along with a number of lengthy standing ovations for its depiction of love prevailing over the most insidious kinds of hate.
Inspired by the real-life story of Mike Burden (played by Garrett Hedlund), the narrative begins in 1996 with Mike and his fellow KKK members opening a Klan museum and neo-Nazi merchandise store in Laurens, South Carolina.
Judy, a young, white, single mother who wagers on loving Mike in spite of his racist ties, eventually gives him an ultimatum: Choose between her or the white nationalist family who adopted him as an orphan. In response to his girlfriend’s prompting, Mike chooses to leave the Klan. Shortly thereafter, the Rev. David Kennedy (Forest Whitaker)—who had been organizing and leading peaceful protests of the KKK museum—discovers that the Klan has driven Mike, Judy, and her young son to homelessness and hunger. In what can only be described as a radical and daring act of love, Kennedy is filled with compassion for their plight and invites them all to live in his home.
By telling the story of a hate-filled white nationalist and the African American reverend who chose to love him, Burden bears witness to the gospel writ large. It’s the kind of good news that traffics not in power or privilege, but in something that looks a whole lot like weakness and vulnerability. Indeed, some might even call Kennedy’s actions toward Mike Burden utter “foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:25). After all, what husband, father, or pastor in his right mind would allow a member of the KKK with a history of violently assaulting people of color to live in his home, eat with his family, and sleep in his son’s bed?
Yet, in more ways than one, Kennedy is simply doing what Jesus told his disciples to do:
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Luke 6:27–35)
It’s all fairly straightforward and simple. But that doesn’t make it any easier. In real life, Kennedy’s decision to provide food and shelter for a KKK member was not condoned by everyone within the African American community in Laurens, and the relational fallout the reverend experienced by caring for Mike Burden continues to this day.
Likewise, in the film, Kennedy struggles to convince members of his own family that what he is doing is right or even necessary, much less something that Jesus would ask of him. Frustrated and bewildered by the sudden appearance of a Klan member in her home, Janice Kennedy (Crystal Fox) offers a brutally honest assessment of her husband’s actions: “I share your faith in God, but I don’t share your faith in man.”
It is hard to have faith in humanity when there is so much evidence suggesting that we shouldn’t. For instance, after a recent Reel Spirituality screening of Burden, Andrew Heckler, the film’s director, shared a particular anecdote that was as sobering as it was unsettling. According to Heckler, during the movie’s filming in 2016, numerous strangers would daily appear on the set of Burden to check out the neo-Nazi merchandise store that had been created as part of the film’s set. These interested shoppers weren’t curious to learn more about the inner workings of film production. They came because they thought it was a functioning retail store and were hoping to purchase KKK memorabilia.
Stories like these reinforce the fact that the primary reason Burden is a challenging movie is because it is about current events. It isn’t a film about slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries, or the civil rights movements of the mid-20th century—rather, the film takes place in 1996. As both Burden and the story upon which it is based make painfully clear, it’s one thing to accept that America has a racist past. It’s quite another to acknowledge our racist present.
Before it is anything else, Burden is a film about the here and now. As such, it lays bare the dark heart of contemporary racism in America and asks us not to look away, even when our first instinct may be to flinch.
I know from personal experience what it means to flinch when confronted with the depth of one’s blindness. As I left dinner with my colleagues that night, I wondered: At what point did I communicate that I thought racism was acceptable? Admitting that I could never experience the world as a person of color or, in Moore’s example, as a woman, surely didn’t mean that I somehow thought sexual assault or racial violence were acceptable.
I was wrong.
What Moore helped me realize is that acknowledging the ghastliness of racism on an intellectual level is something altogether different from actually feeling it in your gut—being moved with compassion as Jesus was (Matt. 9:36), having your “bowels yearn” to such a degree that you have no other choice but to respond, to engage, and maybe even to disrupt.
In other words, my sincerity was not enough. Even worse, in the face of the brutal reality of racism, my well-meaning intentions were simply serving as cover for a much deeper and more sinister form of hypocrisy. As a fellow follower of Christ, my colleague was urging me to move beyond acknowledging the horror of racial injustice to recognize that the ongoing racial violence perpetrated against people of color in America today had made a claim on my life—one that demanded from me an urgent, bowls-yearning, drop-everything-I’m-doing-and-engage kind of response.
Burden possesses that same sense of urgency that demands a response. Whatever form our concrete actions take, it’s important to note that learning to respond to racial injustice in an urgent and timely way is not first and foremost about racial reconciliation. Rather, as my friend Phil Allen makes clear in his new documentary Open Wounds, it’s about racial solidarity.
Pursuing racial solidarity is especially critical for anyone who is a member of the living, breathing organism known as the body of Christ. For as the apostle Paul reminds us, “If one part [of the body] suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Cor. 12:26). To pursue racial solidarity just is to suffer with those who suffer. That’s how Kennedy responded to the demand placed on him by the gospel. It’s also what Judy did. And eventually, it’s how Mike Burden responded too.
It’s impossible to say what the pursuit of racial solidarity will look like for each of us. But one of the final scenes in Burden provides us with a fairly compelling possibility, one that involves repentance, baptism, and new life.
What might it look like for the American church to undergo a similar sort of baptism—a collective and public commitment to live differently in light of the gospel? While a religious ritual could never fix racism, we remain in desperate need of something more than what contemporary society currently has to offer. In pursuing racial solidarity as the blind and broken people we are, nothing short of death will do.
We need to be buried with our sins so that we might walk in the newness of life. We need to be baptized. But that’s actually the easy part. The real challenge is what comes next: Living a resurrected life.
Kutter Callaway is associate professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary and co-director of Reel Spirituality. His most recent book is The Aesthetics of Atheism: Theology and Imagination in Contemporary Culture.
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