I’m not surprised that I hadn’t heard of Dan Merchant’s documentary Lord, Save Us From Your Followers. It wasn’t reviewed on NPR or in the New York Times; it didn’t open in many theaters. It’s a film that asks uncomfortable questions – one that people don’t want to deal with – and offers equally challenging answers. Netflix gave me the chance to see it. (Movie trailer is at the end of this post.)
Tired of the unending culture wars, Dan Merchant traveled America dressed in a crazy-looking white jumpsuit covered with bumper stickers, trying to engage Americans in conversation about Christians. People were puzzled – his suit had bumper-stickers that would delight and anger people of all beliefs and ideologies – but willing to talk because he was willing to listen.
“What comes to mind when you think of Christians?”
He heard an earful: stereotypes about Christians and non-believers, plenty of judgmental views, and an equal amount of hurt about being on the receiving end of judgment. Attending rallies, he saw first-hand the ways in which groups, seemingly without awareness, revved up opposition from the other side. Sociologist Tony Campolo said, “You can have a movement without having a clear goal, but need an enemy to get people involved.”
Unraveling the Dynamic of the Culture Wars
In spite of their negative opinions of Christians, plenty of Americans had strong positive images of Jesus. In fact, their biggest complaint about Christians was that they seemed to be so different from the person they tried to follow. While non-believers had plenty of defenses against Christianity, it wasn’t about Jesus. Merchant was forced to ask himself: what was so different about what Jesus did and the way Christians – in his case, Evangelical Christians – went about trying to follow him? The answer? Putting other aspects of the religion before the Gospel of Love.
“Who are we going to be in this life,” Merchant asks, “and when are we going to start doing it?”
The last part of the film involves some experiments in radical compassion. Dan Merchant was impressed and inspired by Pope John Paul II’s apology for the sins of Christians, issued on Good Friday in 2000. He wondered what it would be like if an everyday Christian carried that apology into a setting where people have often experienced judgment and rejection. He set up a Confessional Booth at Oregon’s Pride Festival, invited people to hear his confession – his apology – for the times that gay and lesbian people had experienced hatred and rejection at the hands of Christians. Friends told him that it was a stupid or weird idea, and that he would be reviled. He took the chance anyway – and some of the results were amazing.
The film ends on an uplifting note, as several instances of radical compassion speak to the hearts of non-believers. One homeless man, asked why volunteers come to help those who live under a bridge, said, “Well, they’re Christians, they have Christ living in them.”
Would this end the culture wars?
Merchant’s film poses a dilemma. Christians have been fighting a culture war – being vocal and firm about life issues, pornography, the sanctity and importance of the family, and dozens of other issues. Should we give all of that up? Merchant is silent about that. What his film points to, though, is what we see in Christianity from the time of the earliest Church forward: what is persuasive is Christ’s love, not a set of beliefs. When the message of believers is ideological, rather than love, it loses.
This is a movie that will stay with me – and that challenges each of us to answer Christ’s call with renewed love, with radical compassion.