I rented a great film by accident.
Standing at Redbox, I chose what turned out to be a really good film. “About Time” has a corny time travel premise. But like “Groundhog Day,” it tells a delightful, insightful story. I recommend it.
Clicking through my Redbox options, I suddenly felt someone’s eyes on my neck urging me to check out quickly. As I swiped my VISA card, I noticed another movie in my Shopping Cart: “Belle.” I didn’t remember choosing it. But the guy behind me was rattling his keys. And so it happened that I rented a great film by accident.
I enjoy true stories.
“Belle” tells the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a biracial woman played beautifully by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Dido’s mother has died, and the Crown has ordered her father, naval officer Captain Sir John Lindsay, on a mission. So he leaves Dido with his uncle, William Murray, Earl of Mansfield. And thus Dido begins a late 18th century aristocratic upbringing.
The Earl and his family raise Dido together with her white cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, in a social setting full of social rules.
“What is right can never be impossible.”
A second plot line runs parallel to the story of Dido growing up, falling in love (it’s a movie, after all), and finding a suitable marriage partner in a highly-regulated society. The Earl, it turns out, is not just any aristocrat, but the Lord Chief Justice.
And he’s presiding over a landmark slavery case.
The Earl will rule on a 1783 case about the massacre of slaves on the slave ship Zong. The crew of the Zong murdered the slaves simply by throwing them overboard. Returning to port, they claimed they lacked drinking water enough to save both slaves and crew. And so they sought insurance money to cover the value of the “cargo” they lost.
The case came down to this: Would Mansfield force the insurers to pay that claim?
Given the times, to rule in favor of the insurers, and to find the ship owners guilty of murder and fraud, seemed impossible. London, after all, was built on the slave trade.
But Captain Sir John Lindsay uttered the theme of the story: “What is right can never be impossible.”
What’s impossible today?
We celebrate at Christmas that God crossed the thin space between heaven and earth. The incarnation is, in fact, a cross-cultural journey. It feels ironic, therefore, that we are as Christians still conflicted about the cultural divides that show up when we discuss Ferguson or Staten Island.
The only undisputed fact regarding Ferguson, it seems, is that an officer killed an unarmed citizen. In the case of Staten Island, video shows that the facts are not disputed.
Yet even about Staten Island, attitudes conflict. I feel we need better discussions of this issue. Too often we just don’t understand others’ perspectives.
I do respect that these complex cases have many sides. On the one hand, I deeply respect our law enforcement officials. They perform a tough job. Most police officers do their difficult work, and with excellence, for far less pay than they deserve. As a society, we must empower them with the legal right to reasonable self-defense.
On the other hand, I also feel deep empathy for my friends of color. I’m white, and I’m keenly aware that I can avoid issues that my friends encounter each day. Feeling threatened, or at least suspected, by cops is one of those. My son said one day, “Being white is like playing baseball for the first time and suddenly realizing you get to start the game standing on third base.”
Christ came to bridge all kinds of chasms—the gap between us and our Creator being the most important. And Christ also came to bridge divides between the tribes—the groups—with which we identify. Shalom is the word that describes the result of those bridges being built. And bridge-building starts with seeing another person’s viewpoint.
As I watched “Belle,” I saw the crew of the Zong as murderers. I won’t spoil the story for you, but my sympathies did not lie with the Zong’s crew. I was hoping the Earl would do the courageous thing and rule against that crew.
But wouldn’t it be ironic if, in watching a movie about 1783, our sympathies lie entirely with the incredibly courageous people who fought slavery, while as we watch the news in 2015, our sympathies lie completely with a rogue Staten Island policeman who, it seems, is misusing a reasonable principle of self-defense to justify an act of injustice?
The Good News is for all people.
The angel said to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people” (Luke 2:10). If we’re ever going to start the conversations that bring “Good News for all people” into reality, the dialogues that bring shalom into being, we must exercise in our day the kind of courage the inspiring characters of “Belle” displayed in theirs.