The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew:
Matthew 26:14- 27:66
When my wife, Phoebe, goes out of town, I often take the opportunity to go see horror films. A week ago, Phoebe and our three children were in Victoria, British Columbia for spring break, and so I went over to the Hollywood Theater to watch the horror/comedy movie Get Out.
I enjoy being surprised by art – by movies, by plays, by paintings – and so I chose to go to Get Out entirely based on its genre, based on a broad understanding of its subject matter or plot, and based on the recommendation of a friend whose opinion I really respect who simply told me:
Go see this movie.
And so I didn’t watch the trailer or anything – trailers tend to give away way too much. I just went.
I’d like to preserve the surprise for you as much as I can. This will be a sermon as much as possible without spoilers: if you are thinking of buying a ticket to Get Out – and I would totally encourage you to go see it, it’s actually the kind of horror movie that even Phoebe would probably like – you don’t need to plug your ears or recuse yourself from the church.
What I’d like to talk with you about this morning are two broad, spoiler-free elements characteristics of this movie that caught my attention. The first is something that I have been fascinated with for a while, and that is the use of horror to talk about a serious subject. And the second – and I’m less sure how to categorise this idea – is about how audience reaction completes a work of art, about how an artist might plan for that reaction and actually build that reaction it into her art.
First, horror as a vehicle for talking about something important. Horror – and I hope that I won’t shock or offend anyone by saying this – is an intrinsically silly genre. We are drawn to horror in part because it is a safe way of encountering something dangerous, of exploring our primal fears of death and of the dark and of decay. But we are drawn to horror as well to because of its marvellous, over-the-top absurdity. Monsters in their lairs and people jumping out of closets and guys wearing masks running around with hatchets are equal parts fearsome and ridiculous.
Because of horror’s absurd element, I was surprised and fascinated when I first realised that a lot of artists have used horror to talk about really serious subjects. The 2005 movie, The Descent, is about the aftermath of trauma; the more recent Australian film, The Babadook, is about grief; and Stephen King has long used his books to explore alcoholism, faith, loneliness, healing, parenting, aging, and so on. To paraphrase the movie reviewer Glenn Kenny, there is a lot of horror out there that is using its ridiculousness in a remarkably purposeful way.
Get Out is part of this unexpectedly serious tradition. In many ways, it is firmly rooted in the “dangerous cabin in the woods” tradition: young people leave the city and go into the woods and there they encounter fear. But Get Out uses the trope of the dangerous trip into the countryside to explore the thoroughly serious subject of race.
Get Out is about being black in America. Its primary character is an African American man in his mid-twenties, the sort of person whom we know is disproportionately likely to have a bad experience with the police, to go to prison, to be turned down for a job interview. The film’s director and writer, Jordan Peele, has said that Get Out had its genesis in his childhood, in a public school experience in which he was required to fill out a standardised form and check a box indicating his race. And he understood that the box that he was checking marked him as an outsider.
As is typical in horror, the Get Out begins in a fairly realistic or naturalistic place – the racism and micro-aggressions that the young man encounters in the movie are based on reality, on a tragically commonplace story – and then the film accelerates into something more magnified or exaggerated or intense.
Because horror movies – like adventure movies and romantic comedies – invite you and me as audience members to identify really heavily with the protagonist, the overwhelmingly white crowd around me in the Hollywood Theater had the singular experience of accepting Jordan Peele’s invitation to spend two hours looking at the world through the eyes of a young African American man.
From the safety of our seats in the Hollywood Theatre, my fellow white people and I got to have the horror of racism directed at us.
And that leads me to the second thing that caught my attention in Get Out, and that is how audience reaction completes a work of art. Jordan Peele is a really smart filmmaker. And my suspicion is that, in this movie, he is using our heavy identification with the lead character to turn a mirror upon us. Yes, through this film, Peele hopes to build up empathy between white folks and people of colour. But I suspect that Peele is simultaneously interested in obliging white folks to examine the ways that we carry ourselves in the world, the way that we think, the way that we act, the stories that we tell about the world and about ourselves.
Get Out presents white people with a deep temptation. Having spent two hours having this intense vicarious or simulated experience of being black, the temptation is to say: I understand what it is to be black in America. The temptation is to say that, because I cheered for the hero, because in a way I was the hero, I am absolved of my complicity of racism in America.
Peele makes particularly effective use of the tropes or the rules of horror in shaping audience reaction. In many ways, Get Out follows the narrative arc or rules of horror really closely, including ending the movie with cathartic violence, with the satisfaction of revenge. And Peele seriously tempts the audience into assuming our pre-assigned horror role of cheering for this violence, of celebrating as the hero with whom we identify engages in violence. During the screening that I attended, there was actually applause during a moment of violence, during a moment when one of the villainous white characters was killed. I saw an interview with one of the actors in the film who said that this kind of cheering is commonplace during screenings of Get Out. Somehow, our absolution is tied up with our approval of the onscreen violence.
These are the moments when Peele turns the mirror on us hard, when challenges his audience, when he challenges us to ask ourselves:
Who am I watching this movie?
Who am I to imagine that two hours with a bag of popcorn in my lap somehow has allowed me to understand the African American experience and that it has absolved me of my participation in racism? I am walking out of the theatre as white as ever, as free from anxiety about being pulled over as I drive home as ever. Who am I to cheer for violence? Do I really think that redemption or justice looks like turning violence away from one person and onto another? Yes, Get Out flips the script from the movies of an earlier era, wherein the violence is initially perpetrated by a person of colour – think about Westerns, about Cowboys and Indians – and then the audience satisfaction comes when the white folks get revenge. In this case, it is the person of colour who gets revenge.
But does that reversal make the violence better? Does that make the violence okay? Is violence good or holy provided that the right person, the member of the right group, is its victim?
Maybe the reason that I am so drawn to this film, is that it seems to me that a lot of the strategies that Jordan Peele uses in creating Get Out are the very same strategies that Jesus uses in the last week of his life, that Jesus uses beginning today as her rides into Jerusalem.
So. Jesus is a member of an occupied and an oppressed people. He is almost assuredly poor – his parents can’t afford a room or a crib when he is born, his friends are predominantly subsistence labourers, fishers, and farmers, and tradition has it that Jesus himself has followed his Dad into the carpentry business. Jesus is a person of colour and the occupying soldiers are white people. The Son of God, in other words, lives on the margins.
But as he enters Jerusalem today, Jesus takes on the role of king, he – and could we think of Jesus as artist or director, in this moment? – he performs the role of king. His entrance into Jerusalem is an imitation of a royal procession, maybe a satire of a royal procession, in which a peasant rides into the city like a conquering hero. Jesus is seated not on top of a stallion – the budget won’t allow for Jesus to get one of those – but on top of a donkey or a colt or maybe, somehow, a donkey and a colt at the same time.
And you and I: Jesus’ audience. We stand on the side of the road and we shout Hosanna, we shout our adulation. Somehow, this brown-skinned peasant, this impoverished member of an occupied people has become the hero of our story. On this day, it is easy to see the world through his eyes. It is easy to imagine ourselves elevated high into the air, seated on the donkey above the crowd.
In less than a week, Jesus will be elevated high into the air again.
This time as he is nailed to the hard wood of the cross.
Jesus will be sent to the cross by another crowd, a crowd that is hungry for blood, a crowd the celebrates violence, a crowd that shouts Crucify him!
Scripture doesn’t tell us how many people are in both crowds, how many of us shout both Hosanna and Crucify him! But my guess is that a good number of us, to our shame, are in both places.
And through his action, through his sacrifice, Jesus invites us, challenges us, to ask ourselves:
Who am I watching all of this? Who am I participating in all of this?
What does it mean to see the world, however fleetingly, through the eyes of one on the margins? What does it mean to be passive when violence is done to that marginalised person? Maybe even to facilitate and to benefit from the systems that do violence to that marginalised person? What does it mean when, as Jesus tells us in this story and throughout actions and his parables, the one on the margins, the one to whom the violence is done, is the Christ himself?
Great stories change us. A movie like Get Out changes us. And the greatest story of them all, the story of the Gospel, changes us. These stories of solidarity with those on the outside, with those who endure violence, change us not because the two hours of Get Out or the 28 chapters of Matthew magically eradicate our privilege and make us completely understand what it is to be black or poor or gay or live under occupation.
That’s way too simple, way to neat, way too easy.
These stories change us because they show us injustice. Because they invite us into empathy for and solidarity with the one to whom the injustice is done. Because they turn a mirror on us and show us our passivity or our complicity in injustice. Because they invite us to have the deep and humble curiosity to ask: Who am I watching all of this? Because they invite us to change. To participate with Jesus in grace and love and hope and life. To participate in resurrection.