Franciscan Spirit Blog

White Savior: A Look at Race and Religion

Stained glass window of jesus

Though keeping ourselves informed on the racial divide in this country is important, sometimes we can find information and inspiration along the pop-culture landscape. Here are four documentaries to stream.

White Savior: Racism in the American Church
Amazon Prime

“You and I did not start this system of race and white supremacy, but if we do not actively work at uncovering our own inherent bias—and tearing down this system—we are guilty still of supporting it.” These bold words frame Amazon Prime’s penetrative plunge into the roots of racism in our cultural, political, and religious foundations.

The following 55 minutes illustrate that position. It’s impossible to condense the sinful institution of racism in our country’s history here but know this: It is alive and well—and its roots go deep. Slavery predates the birth of our nation and was eradicated by the 13th Amendment in 1865. But the years following the Emancipation Proclamation—through Jim Crow and up to the Black Lives Matter movement—prove we are no closer to the promised land cited by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

The documentary covers a lot of ground in 101 minutes but really soars when it addresses the racist threads in our country’s religious tapestries. From the African American experience with organized religion to the forced conversions of indigenous people, the documentary uncovers ugly truths that we as Christian Americans are forced to confront. The Catholic Church is implicated as well. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued a papal bull called “Dum Diversas,” which authorized Afonso V of Portugal to consign pagans and Saracens to perpetual servitude, specifically to “capture, vanquish, and subdue the enemies of Christ.”

“That papal bull,” Rev. Joan Conroy, a featured expert in the documentary, says, “is the birth of [the] white Christian relationship to indigenous people. It allowed nonindigenous people to put themselves on a higher level in their relationship with God.” It took decades for the Catholic Church to remedy this. It wasn’t until 1537 that Pope Paul III released “Sublimis Deus,” a papal encyclical that forbade the enslavement of indigenous peoples of the Americas. Our own religion’s history, the documentary shows, is wildly uneven.

So, where do we go from here? The film offers no clear direction but says, flatly, that we are not OK. And perhaps that in itself is OK if we work together to move our culture forward. God, as one commentator in the film adds, cannot be limited to a single cultural expression. God is limitless. God is perfect. God’s followers are far from it.

A Further Look at Hate

American Experience: The Murder of Emmett Till
This award-winning documentary looks at the life and death of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American who was kidnapped and murdered in Mississippi in 1955. His murder—and the acquittal of the two white men accused of committing it—was the spark that started the civil rights movement. Unforgiving and unforgettable.

The Politics of Hate
Amazon Prime
At 16, Christian Picciolini became a leader of a Chicago-based skinhead group and later fronted a white supremacist punk band. But fatherhood forced him to rethink his ugly lifestyle. The Politics of Hate looks at Picciolini’s redemption journey and the rise of the alt-right movement in the United States that provides fertile ground for hate to grow.

Hello, Privilege. It’s Me, Chelsea.

Streamers beware: Chelsea Handler is an acquired taste. But this punchy documentary looks at how white privilege impacts our culture and, most tellingly, Handler’s own career. Funny, though at times profane, Hello, Privilege asks uncomfortable questions that penetrate the heart. It’s time well spent.

St. Anthony Messenger | Franciscan Media

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