I recently saw one of my favorite movies on TV the other night-A Time to Kill. It stars Matthew McConaughey as the bright, young attorney who defends Carl Lee Haley, played by Samuel L. Jackson, as he faces trial for killing two men who raped his daughter.
There’s a wonderfully poignant gut-check that happens toward the end of the movie. Just when the bright attorney, Jake, realizes that he’s out of legal options to get Carl Lee acquitted for the crime, and he’s at the jail explaining this to Carl Lee, he gets a good dose of reality from Carl Lee in return. “Don’t you see, Jake? You’re one of them. That’s why I got you to defend me. If I have any chance against all of them I need someone who’s one of them to help me.” Carl Lee goes on to say, “You’re one of the bad guys. You don’t mean to be, it’s just how you were raised. I’ll never be just a man to you. I’ll always be a black man.” Jake tries to protest, “we’re friends Carl Lee.” “We ain’t friends, Jake. You may eat in black restaraunts but I’ve never seen you in my part of town. Our daughters don’t play together.”
And who can forget that gripping closing argument Jake gives after his encounter with Carl Lee? He vividly recounts the rape of Carl Lee’s daughter as the jury and everyone in the courtroom closes their eyes to visualize it. As he goes through the painfullly graphic details you can see the tears begin to flow down the cheeks of many of the listeners. And then, Jake turns it on them, “…can you see her? Now imagine that she’s white.” And with that, mouths fall open. The conscience of the people were exposed live and in living color in that courtroom. All of the supposedly hidden prejudice is just left out in the open for all to see.
The movie ends with Jake’s transformation culminating in his surprising Carl Lee and his wife by bringing his family to a celebration cookout Carl Lee and his family were having in light of his acquittal. The wives greet one another and the two daughters are introuduced. And we’re left with Jake’s words, “I thought out daughters could play together.”
These scenes depict a rich and often overlooked aspect of what it means to live and love in a faith community. So often, our communities of faith are homogenous bodies where everyone looks, talks, acts, and dresses just alike. We’re so good at matching new people up with others who we think would “fit” with them. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s actually a wildly successful way of growing communities.
What we often fail to recognize is the negative by-product of such a successful community building project. The realities of our world is that homogenous communities can’t sustain themselves. Life requires that we all have to encounter people who are vastly different from us. That’s why truly vibrant communities consist of people who are not always alike. This doesn’t have to simply boil down to race or social class. It can include belief, background, values, or anything else that makes us different. Community building cannot simply seek to build a community of identical clones. It must also go further than merely recognizing that we’re different. What makes a community truly vibrant, is when members of the community can somehow, by the grace of God, see themselves in the faces and lives of those who are strikingly different from them-“the other.” When this happens, we’re able to open our lives and learn to love all people just as God loves us. This the truest test of our humanity. Strike that. It’s actually the truest test of our faithfulness to God.