Birth of a Nation: Facing Our Different “Christian Histories”

The Formations of a “Christian” Nation

When I heard of the opportunity to screen The Birth of a Nation, I jumped. I knew this film was important because of its narrative, celebration of blackness and its timing, especially in this election season. This film comes at a kairos moment. At a time when racial tensions are peaking and the election polls are looming, The Birth of a Nation invites us to consider our past anew, as we look towards the future.

You see, many of my friends of color and I have long discussed what it means for our voices to be heard around the faith-table. Issues of immigration, mass incarceration, gun control and the value of women are not hot button topics that surface around elections, they are issues that shape our everyday lives. These conversations are well worn to us, as we figure out how they inform and shape our faith. And so I offer this: I think the film Birth of a Nation gives us another story of how faith has influenced our nation.

I ask you to consider joining me in what I believe to be a vitally important conversation in light of our nation’s racial climate, upcoming election, and the watershed moment we find ourselves in. Birth of a Nation gives us another story of how faith has influenced our nation. Click To Tweet

Decolonizing Our History

In his film, Nate Parker presents a divergent narrative to the one that gave power and fortitude to the KKK. Some may not know that the title “Birth of a Nation” is a play on words. It comes from a 1915 film, originally called The Clansman and later retitled and released as The Birth of A Nation. Its author, Thomas Dixon Jr. believed that America really started and was reborn after the Civil War. This film (and novel), though highly controversial, paints the KKK as a heroic force in the era of Reconstruction.

The original story depicts two families at odds during the Civil War which results in an uprising. This uprising, in response to racial integration, leads to the formation of the KKK. In this film, the KKK is portrayed as heroic, establishing a nation that is truer to its original intent of unity.

Beginning with the use of the title, the 2016 Birth of a Nation, challenges the narrative we hold about the formation of our country at a pivotal time of evaluating our rights and the abolishment of slavery.  It reinterprets the themes of the original film throughout the Civil War, this time by decolonizing the narrative and centering the experience, uprising, and heroism of an event that is significant for Blacks: the slave uprising. Nate Parker inverts the narrative that gave power and virtue to the KKK.

The Narrative of Whiteness and American History

It’s no secret that a main narrative of our nation has been the centrality (supremacy) of whiteness. We celebrate white presidents, victories of battles that expanded the ownership of land for white people, and most importantly proudly exclaim how these acts were driven by Christian values. Consequently, we have conflated nationalism and Christianity in deeply flawed ways. This has produced a Christian nationalism that is deeply coded for people of color. We have conflated whiteness, nationalism, and Christianity in deeply flawed ways. Click To Tweet

Faith and religious freedom are a significant source of pride for the United States. These freedoms, however, are also intertwined with a history of oppression and pain, much of which was enacted in the name of Christianity. People of color carry the burden of knowing that our nation’s freedom came at a real cost: of our traditions, cultures, and communities.                   

Birth of a Nation forces us to look at the roots of our faith from all sides. As we follow Nat Turner’s journey we get a retelling of the Christian legend. We see this tension of faith play out through Turner: faith can be a powerful tool to oppress or free depending on how we use it. We see him journey through using Scripture as he’s told—to preach a justification of slavery over his people—to being woke and using it to free the oppressed. He’s painted as a strong Christ-figure as we watch this transformation.

Through the Birth of a Nation, we also see an awakening. Nat’s journey is a process of finding a faith in God that identifies with his struggle, hope, and need for redemption. He needs a God who sees his pain and identifies with his suffering.

Acknowledging the Competing Historical Narratives of our Faith

Even though we may condemn and distance ourselves from the narratives of the KKK and other extreme interpretations of Christianity, we need to acknowledge that they are latent with the misuse of Scripture. And to some, this is the only interpretation of Scripture they have seen or experienced embodied in our culture. This election has brought to light the roots of our history and its complex ties to faith. Whether or not we want to claim a political party, cast a vote or just hide under a rock for the next month. The narratives of faith, oppression, injustice and race in The Birth of a Nation have surfaced again and are echoing as we look at the polls.

This election has brought out the extreme voices of white supremacy in the KKK as well as exposed other kinds of “extremism” embedded in the Religious Right more generally. We must acknowledge the implicit racial tensions that fuel these conversations. While these racial tensions manifest themselves in certain ways on the political left, they are perhaps most evident in xenophobic statements about building walls and deporting Muslims. And while this article is not about varying political issues, the way these comments have garnered and monopolized attention are telling of the racial climate of our country.

Furthermore, when such statements are also supported by prominent faith leaders, Christianity becomes easily conflated with racism. These statements then function as modern day rhetoric, equivocal to the faith-based narratives used in The Birth of a Nation, to oppress blacks and perpetuate slavery.

So where does that put us today? As Christians, we want to do much to love each other and follow the path of Christ. We’ve taken strides in how we’ve integrated justice and mercy and placed equity into our theology. It makes me excited to know that we are talking about the Imago Dei in ways we haven’t before.

We cannot authentically do justice without knowing history. We must acknowledge that while our faith calls us to ‘free the captive and bind up the broken hearted’, it’s also been misused to oppress and enslave people. These narratives of history aren’t limited to African Americans. We must too, learn the histories of the indigenous people groups who lived in this land, as well as Mexicans and other people groups who have been oppressed by the way our faith has been used in the name of conquering and colonizing communities. We cannot authentically do justice without knowing history. Click To Tweet

As Christians, part of the harsh reality is that we have frequently articulated and embodied an imperial gospel, one that aids in the oppression of the least of these, rather than liberating them. Christianity more often bears the legacy of the empire than the oppressed. And the undergirding of this legacy has been one fueled by the influence of Christian Nationalism in the United States.

The Birth of a Nation is an opportune moment to listen to the voices of people of color among us. It is an invitation to better learn black history. We need to see our American history in a different light–through the eyes of the oppressed–and learn how triumphalism has produced marginalization. It’s an opportunity to repent for the way our faith was used oppressively and to acknowledge the ways that this has continued to form the world we live in today.