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Don't Look Away

Updated: Apr 20

My husband invited me on a date today--he asked me to go see the movie Civil War with him. Despite his questionable notion of what qualifies as a romantic night out, I said yes, although I rarely take an interest in politics. But hey, it was a Sunday, it was raining, and we were practicing empty-nesting, with our youngest child away at a school conference, and it was a chance to hearken back to an era when it was just us two.

I left the movie shell-shocked and sobered. Yet, I think it may be one of the most important movies for every person in our country to see right now. I can't put my finger on exactly why yet, but hopefully, sharing my experience will help us both figure it out.

This movie felt different. From the moment this story began its unfolding, I was riveted. Fair warning, there is a LOT of graphic violence and warfare, and definitely not in a Marvel-verse make-believe kind of way. It's not apocalyptic fantasy, in the vein of Armageddon or Blade Runner. It's gritty and realistic, partly because of the brilliant choice to narrate the story through the lens of embedded photojournalists, but it's not realistic in the sense of portraying the senseless tragedies of past wars. It also wasn't a documentary, biopic, or based on true events. There was a gravitas to it – because I realized that I wasn't watching a genre, I was watching something prophetic.

Some have leveled the criticism that Civil War doesn't seem to have a point or a clear message, a critique with which I'd completely disagree. Like a good journalist, the movie doesn't end with tying up all the loose ends and a simplistic moral spoon-fed to us with a pat on the head. Like the main characters, it's there to document the truth and hope that someone will be moved – shocked, even – enough to stop the madness. The movie requires us to think for ourselves and to take a closer look when everything in us wants to turn away from the horrors, much like the small-town shopkeeper in the movie.

I'm sure there will be audiences who will see and hear what they want – perhaps another reason to buy more guns and rations to prepare for impending battles or a celebration of nationalistic or extremist values. But, in my opinion, there is, in fact, a glaring and obvious message and it is disturbing: if we don't do something and do it soon, THIS is what our future reality as a country will look like.

Many of the grisliest scenes echo famous journalistic images we've all seen on the covers or pages of publications such as LIFE magazine or the New York Times: a man lit on fire while still alive, battered bodies hanging like human pinatas, lifeless bodies covered in blood and lime piled up in open, gaping graves. They're reminders of the abominations from wars all across the globe – except the United States.

And that is the point, isn't it? All the atrocities we have seen in the last century from Germany, Vietnam, Bosnia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, and an endless laundry list from virtually every country but our own – we will no longer have the luxury of being tucked away in our comfortable bubble, far from the grotesque realities of war, because those realities will have finally come to our doorstep. The worst part of it is, they won't have been delivered by some villainous foreign government or dictator, they will be homegrown and served up in our own backyard by our neighbors. Actually, no, perhaps the worst part of it is that we HAVE been here before as a country...yet we're allowing it to happen again.

The reason it can be difficult to discover this message is because the movie refrains from leaning on propaganda. It doesn't give us the backstory of who is on which side and how they got there, because director/writer Alex Garland understands that is irrelevant. Instead, you'll see the heartbreak of a journalist/director/screenwriter putting truth down on record. You'll see the lament of someone who knows we have been better and can be better as a country and as human beings...and it has absolutely NOTHING to do with what political party you side with. You'll see the terror of what is coming our way if we cannot find a way to remember that we are all not just Americans, we are, first and foremost, human beings.

There's another message tucked away, even more camouflaged, and I'd argue it's even, dare I say it, a Christian one. Not a "Jesus is my homie"-emblazoned-t-shirt-kind-of message, but a subtle, subversive one – the way Jesus was. When two of the journalists are being held at gunpoint by rebel militia, the remaining four members of their group debate how to rescue them. Joel tells Sammy, an aging, obese, and handicapped veteran journalist, in not so many words, "You stay here...because you're old." 


Ironically, it is Sammy who becomes their salvation and he delivers it by sacrificing himself. Lee, Sammy's now-seasoned and calloused protégé, eventually cracks open her protective shell of self-preservation and follows suit. Both Lee and Sammy recognize the only way to continue their mission of bringing truth out of the shadows to save the world they know and love is not to continue pursuing their own careers, but to train, nurture, and protect those coming behind them, to the point of selfless sacrifice. 

In this way, Civil War conveys not only the absolute necessity of altruism for a functional society, it also highlights that the lack of selfless leadership is what has gotten us to this desperate place. Like Jesus, Sammy saves not by being strong and powerful, but through suffering sacrifice; Lee, his disciple, follows his example to do the same. And we, as disciples of Jesus, don't help his cause or ours, by publicizing his name – we actually hinder it, unless we stop pursuing our own self-interest and learn to lay it down in the interest of others. Unwittingly (or not), Garland, a self-avowed atheist, is simultaneously condemning the Church while concurring with its Founder, who invoked John 15.13 as a way of life.

When we are overwhelmed or feel powerless, it's instinctive to look away. Civil War challenges us to have the courage to do just the opposite – to take a hard look at our shared future reality and to come together to create a better, alternate one. Obviously, this isn't an easy task and it's difficult to know what steps to take to get there. But as followers of Jesus, I invite you to go see the movie, look hard, and listen for an invitation from God, because it's there. Then let's begin to find our way towards the middle and each other. By doing so, we'll be able to look each other in the eye, rather than looking away.

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