"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


save each one's pride

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
And we pray that all unity may one day be restored
And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
They will know we are Christians by our love
-Peter Scholtes

Last night I saw K. Ryan Jones' incredible documentary, Fall from Grace. Jones is a senior at the University of Kansas; the film was a project for his junior intermediate video production class. If this is what he can do as a student, he's in for a great film career.

Fall from Grace tells the story of Topeka's Westboro Baptist Church and its pastor Fred Phelps. I'm sure you've heard of them; they're the fundamentalist group that belives American soldiers are dying in Iraq becuase the U.S. is a pro-homosexual country. The film explains how the church (which consists entirely of Phelps' family; he and his wife have 13 children, more than 40 grandchildren, and a few great-grandchildren) came to this conclusion, and follows their obsession, protests, and history. Some of his children are lawyers; they speak about the group's mission and right to share their views.

The film also talks to those on the other side of the debate; a pastor, a theologian, Topeka's former police chief, and a civil rights attorney who opposes Phelps all offer their perspectives. One of the hardest scenes to watch in the film is an interview with Kelly Franz, an Iraq war widow who had to deal with Phelps' family protesting at her husband's funeral. "The color drained from the world," she says of her husband's death.

The film raises all kinds of questions about church and state, the place of homosexuals in our society, and, most significantly, free speech rights. I could definitely see using it in the classroom to provoke all kinds of discussions. Should people like Phelps have unlimited free speech rights to propagate such messages? Ordinances have been passed to limit Westboro's ability to protest at soldiers' funerals by requiring the family to maintain a certain distance from the cemetery. The ACLU came to Westboro's defense over this, arguing that this constitutes an unconstitutional breach of their free speech rights. Should the state step in to stop this church from protesting? If so, does that diminish our free speech rights elsewhere? It's hard to agree with the ordinances when you see the pain in Kelly Franz's eyes.

The film also explores Phelps' character, noting that he was an attorney who was disbarred for intimidating a witness and slandering judges. Four of the Phelps children have left the church and the family; the two interviewed for the film spoke of his anger, which they claim was expressed in physical abuse of his children and, one daughter thought, is now being channelled into his rage against homosexuals and the U.S. His daughter spoke of how terrified of God she was growing up, and how she always believed that she was going to hell based on what she was taught.

What's most disturbing about Phelps, of course, is that he genuinely believes he is doing God's work. Rev. Jeff Gannon, the pastor interviewed in the film, speaks of the corruption of the Christian faith that is presented in Phelps' message, and how his hate speech detracts from the gospel of the Jesus who taught that we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Phelps' family members wholeheartedly agrees with the interpretation of scripture he has taught them, and these people, who by all accounts are bright and friendly, are entirely committed to living their version of the truth.

The film is beautifully put together, using music from The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War. It's well shot and it is hard to believe it was student-made. The concluding montage is one of the most moving and frightening things I've ever seen in a film. Rev. Gannon, musing on what motivates Phelps, says that he thinks Phelps is a very fearful man, and then points out that 1 John 4:18 says that fear, not hate, is the opposite of love. "The opposite of love is fear," he says, " and fear will always become an expression of hate, sooner or later." Fred Phelps, he says, "is an example of someone who needs love the most, and who deserves it least."

A few seconds later the dialogue starts, and the faces of the film's subjects stare into the camera - the preachers, the lawyers, the bystanders. Over this, and soon, over images of Westboro's hateful signs, plays Jars of Clay's version of "They'll Know We are Christians By our Love." It is unbelievably powerful, making you wonder just who is a Christian, whether there's room for someone like Phelps in God's abundant love, whether we will one day "work side by side," if I really believe that guarding Phelps' dignity and saving his pride is worth it.

I just don't know.

We will work with each other, we will work side by side
We will work with each other, we will work side by side
And we'll guard each one's dignity and save each one's pride
And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
They will know we are Christians by our love
By our love, by our love


Blogger Kevin Bussey said...

I would love to see this film. I interviewed Shirley Phelps-Roper last summer in Greensboro. What a misguided woman. I really felt sorry for her.

Thursday, March 15, 2007 11:47:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Kevin, that's amazing. You definitely get the same sense from the film, that these are decent people who are horribly deceived. I'm planning to keep an eye on the film and will post if/when it gets to DVD.

Thursday, March 15, 2007 5:39:00 PM


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