Why Bernie Sanders’ Speech at Liberty University Matters

Preface: This does not constitute an endorsement for Bernie Sanders’ candidacy. While I like a lot of what he’s saying, I’m as yet undeclared.

On September 14, Bernie Sanders, the unabashedly liberal populist candidate for President, went to Liberty University, a bastion of conservative Christian thinking and teaching, to give a speech. One would think at first blush that there wasn’t much common ground, given his differing views on abortion, gay rights, and the role of government than most of the attendees. However, this speech is significant for a few reasons.

Sanders opens with stating what he believes that is different. He’s pro-choice and pro-gay marriage and doesn’t try to dissemble or make that palatable. He then follows with:

I believe from the bottom of my heart that it is vitally important for those of us who hold different views to be able to engage in a civil discourse.

The Fox News climate (which birthed the less blatantly partisan but still strident MSNBC response) leads to a framework where those who disagree with us are at best, deluded idiots, and at worst, enemies trying to destroy “our” America. For us to move forward, we’re going to have to acknowledge that people who disagree with us have something valuable to say.

As a liberal minded person, I enjoy how Sanders then unpacks the hypocrisy of the self-serving theology that the Republican party has taught. I want the government out of my decisions (unless it’s who I partner with or whether I have a child). I care about the rights of the unborn (but am indifferent their needs when they become children). I should be able to acquire as much wealth as I want without being taxed, and it’s your own fault if you can’t do the same, because you didn’t work hard enough or pray hard enough. Your mistakes should be punished to the fullest extent of the law; there is no mercy for the criminal.

In a gentle, non-accusing way, Sanders walks through how injustice permeates our country, largely due to the adoption of conservative ideology. He even asks at one point, encouraging the listeners to check their moral compass rather than their talking points, “You have to think about it and you have to feel it in your guts. Are you content?” He then reclaims the language of morality and family values that the Republican party has been so successful at appropriating and redirects it toward wealth inequality, health care costs and challenges, and excessive imprisonment.

So this is all well and good, but why does it matter? First, it’s critical that politicians (and their supporters) not forget that most passionate people believe they’re really pushing for what’s best for the most people. You can be misguided or base your position on an invalid premise, but that’s not the same as being willfully ignorant and hateful. We have to make arguments with people that we don’t agree with and meet each other on common ground. This means that both that I have to engage and consider conservative language and that conservatives arguing with me have to think about and respect my framing.

Second, the conversation Sanders is trying to have outlines the true complexity of the Christian message. Jesus spoke a lot about wealth inequality and caring for those who cannot care for themselves. He also said that he did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. I find that the Christians that are seeking hardest to meet and follow Jesus don’t fall neatly into conservative and liberal buckets. They mourn the loss of unborn life but work to create a world where abortion never needs to be the best available choice, and they care about children after they’re born. They don’t see a provision in the Bible for a spiritual marital covenant between gay people but don’t see being homosexual as inherently wrong either. Since these Christians know rules don’t save people and government marriage is a contract, not a covenant, they see no need to prevent governments from declaring people married. They personally give generously of time and money to help those that are struggling, whether or not they are in favor of higher taxation to help facilitate that.

For me, I think if you find Jesus easy to follow and everything makes perfect sense, you’ve missed something important. The political and theological intertwining that has taken place among Republicans leaves many of them far too certain, unable to “work out [their] salvation with fear and trembling” as Paul encouraged Christians to do, but expecting and insisting upon a “good life” by standards of the flesh, which involves pleasure, comfort, and self-serving rather than sacrifice for others and altruism.

If you believe in conservative politics and conservative Christian theology, I encourage you to look at the world, unfiltered. Look at inequality, injustice. For a moment, stop justifying and determining who deserves what for a moment, remembering what Jesus was willing to do for the utterly undeserving. Remember how you said you wanted to be more like Jesus. Then think about it, feel it in your guts. Are you still content?

Zoe as Nina and the Failure of Hollywood Imagination

I was reading this article from Shadow and Act and it made me think about something I’ve had a problem with for a while: the casting of Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone. Zoe says in response to criticism:

“I didn’t think I was right for the part, and I know a lot of people will agree, but then again, I don’t think Elizabeth Taylor was right for Cleopatra either… An artist is colorless, genderless… It’s more complex than just ‘Oh, you chose the Halle Berry look-alike to play a dark, strikingly beautiful, iconic black woman.’ The truth is, they chose an artist who was willing to sacrifice herself. We needed to tell her story because she deserves it.”

(emphasis above mine)

I think Saldana is a decent actress and don’t have any problems with her personally. Despite this being my second article in two weeks about Nina Simone, I’m not a fanboy either; in my Swiss cheese relationship with music, Nina’s discography is one of the larger holes. What I see in her casting though is a tone deafness, a biography team that learned the whole story but wasn’t paying attention.

While I would have been really excited to see Danai Gurira (Michonne from The Walking Dead and Adenike from Mother of George) in this role, I agree with Saldana when she says that it’s more complex than skin tone.  Throwing in some other mediocre actress who looked more the part would be equally problematic. However, if you look at who Nina Simone was, it’s important to recall her struggle with self-love in a world that said that dark was not beautiful, and her later speaking with an increasingly militant voice encouraging other black folks to love themselves as well. I think choosing someone who does not physically look like Nina Simone, particularly in complexion, is an insult to that particular legacy, and I have a problem with that in a way that I might not have for someone doing a biopic of, say, Donny Hathaway.

I understand that they wanted to make money and find an actress that already has appeal and will have “box office draw”. However, I see actors and actresses we’ve never heard of being elevated again and again by Hollywood until they stick, and I don’t see why we can’t find some talented dark-skinned, Nina-Simone-looking ingenue to do the same with for this role. I find it interesting as well, that movie casting teams can use their imagination to stretch a Zoe Saldana into playing Nina Simone (or for that matter Angelina Jolie as a multiethnic French woman) but they can’t imagine black lead dramatic characters in a mainstream movie. David Oyelowo, who is cast in the Simone biopic as one of her managers, stated in an interview once that when he was cast as a lead in one particular film and told his family about the new role, his young son asked him, “are you the main character’s friend?” He asked that because he had unconsciously internalized this belief that a black character doesn’t get to lead. That comment from an actor’s own son shows what a failure of imagination costs us, in lowered expectations, and down the road, in lowered achievement.

We owe it to our children, especially children from historically marginalized groups, to be imaginative. We say we’re post-racial and we live in a society where people are up in arms about the blackness (and in some cases, even the proposed blackness) of fictional characters, because even in a fantasy world with magic and bizarre creatures, we can’t imagine non-white people having roles of any importance. (Apologies to the article I cribbed that observation from, the name of which escapes me at this time but may have been over at Very Smart Brothas). If you think this is hyperbole, try performing a racial version of the Bechdel test on the next drama you watch. My proposed rules:

  1. There must be two black characters (okay, fine, even just one),
  2. who aren’t related to each other (if there are two),
  3. who have a function in their communication other than helping the white lead character on their journey or providing comic relief,
  4. [Edit courtesy of my man Damon Young‘s suggestion] and the movie is not primarily about race or “blackness”

You’ll be surprised at how many movies fail.

This isn’t really about Zoe’s fitness to play Nina, physically or as an actress. This is about our collective imagination being so weak, we can never find enough diverse talent out there, but can always find another slender, pretty white woman or handsome, wiry white guy to be the Next Big Thing.

Kim Davis and At Will Employment

I’ve refrained from posting any official commentary on Kim Davis because despite the hubbub, I don’t think it’s legally, philosophically, or theologically that interesting. Legally, she’s an elected official, sworn to uphold the law, and refusing to carry out that function when issued a court order. Since she can’t be fired outright, holding her in contempt is a legitimate alternative if she refuses to resign. Many think that she’s being punished with jail time instead of being fired, but the courts do not have the ability to fire her; she can only be impeached by the legislature. Philosophically, she has the right to resign and protest, exercising both free speech and freedom of religion, but I don’t think she gets to collect a salary from the government she’s protesting and not do her job. From a theological perspective, I don’t see the government as being the issuer or authorizer of sacred covenants, so even if you believe marriage is between a man and a woman, I don’t think you should get more angry about government recognition of same-sex marriage than you should about the government honoring power of attorney contracts between gay people. The covenant and the contract are completely separate, even in heterosexual marriages.

Where this gets interesting for me is when I juxtapose it with the notion of “at will employment”. Many states, including my home state of Georgia, have limited protection of jobs for employees. The employer can fire someone for pretty much any reason, as long as they are not stupid enough to make it obviously about race, gender, age, or other protected classes. The people I know who support Kim Davis, or at least her theological views, also tend to be people who think this is a good thing. They take the view that if you don’t like what’s happening at your job, leave and get another one. Conversely, if you get fired and you have value and cultivated skills, you’ll get another job. (The implication here is that if you aren’t able to get another job, something’s wrong with you because the market is efficient, but that’s a bit beyond the scope of this discussion).

Why, then, are the people who believe this not calling for Kim Davis to step down and get another job? If she doesn’t like what’s happening at her job, she should leave it.

What do you think?