October 16, 2017

Movie “Fences” Points to Answer for Racism and True Nature of Ethics

The NFL anthem protests have highlighted how racism is still considered an important subject and the unassuming movie “Fences” (2016) produced by Denzel Washinton, and starring the same, offers some insights on the subject of racism and, more importantly, raises important questions about the nature of valid and reliable ethics in society.

Denzel Washington's and Viola Davis' acting were top-notch quality in this movie and worthy of academy awards in my opinion. The film has some serious adult-life themes in it, so it's probably not a good family movie for young children. But for a family with a mature teen, it seems like a helpful family movie. The family lessons are good for both parents and children. Though the underlying belief of God is evident in the family interactions and this belief culminates with a sense of conviction that God is truly alive and interacting with them, the sense of family redemption in the conclusion ultimately does not mention or do justice to the more important biblical personal redemption defined by Jesus in scripture.

Though racism is not the main theme of the movie, it's the foundation of Troy's bitterness, and serious unhealed wounds from this form the basis of the entire movie plot. The film shows how Troy's racial bitterness negatively influences himself and, therefore, has a negative influence on his family and their future. A portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. hanging in their home hints at the true path towards addressing the problem of racism.

Apparently as a means of retaining some sense of meaningful morality outside of a full and wholehearted commitment to God, and as a protective mechanism to avoid further personal pain in life, Troy identifies a basic rule for his life and family that he strictly lives by, and that is simply to provide food and take care of the family's basic physical needs. However, as the movie progresses, it becomes obvious that this rule is enforced with a sense of strict and cold legalism and as an unwritten contract of required obedience within the family.
In contrast to Troy's bitterness and icy legalism, his wife Rose is willing to forgive even the most palpable sins through a sense of God's powerful grace, and to show God's unconditional love in seemingly impossible circumstances, without giving too many of the details of the film away. The following are the main morals and themes of the movie that came to me:

1) Strict legalism in relationships mortifies the soul and spirit of the enforcer and harms the recipients.

2) Racism is not overcome by bitterness or by reverse racism, rather, biblical principles shown by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. underscore that altruistic love overcomes hate even as light cancels out darkness.

3) Unconditional love and truth together can overcome even the most difficult obstacles in life.

4) Open communication, joy, and nurture are important in relationships.

5) Even when it seems that our deepest dreams and hopes are being outright blocked, it's good to remember that God is good and is working out his highest purpose for his highest glory.

6) No matter how messed up a person's life may seem, we should never give up on anyone and we should show love in truth through God's grace and power.

7) It's important to have an accurate understanding of valid and true ethics and what this is based on.

There's a lot of ground covered within these seven points, but after you've seen the movie I believe you'll understand how each of these relates to characters and situations in the film. The one point that I believe deserves the most attention and exploration is the subject of valid ethics. A warped sense of ethics was developed based on racism in the life of Troy and this was contrasted with a healthier sense of ethics by Troy's wife Rose.

I grew up in the church and I'd never heard one sermon addressing the logical basis of ethics and only recently, through studying apologetics, have I come to realize how extremely important this subject is. Rose, who played the wife and mother in the film, was not highly educated but practiced powerful true principles of ethics based on a simple application of scripture reflecting God's perfect nature as the standard. Troy, on the other hand, was correct in understanding that his authority as the father and husband was important, however, he did not understand that unconditional love and mercy are aspects of God's nature that govern God's authority and actions, as God's character and nature form the deepest foundation of all ethics.

The NFL anthem protests and teachings by various popular Christian teachers are not in keeping with the most logical and correct application of scriptural ethics and this causes misunderstandings and harm. To put it simply, ethics are all ultimately based on God's prime altruistic and unchanging nature and God's prime authority. The verse “God is love” sums up God's altruistic “agape” love that is not selfish or self-seeking but is mainly benevolent towards others. God is also perfectly just and cannot lie because it is against God's perfect holy nature. God's authority reflects God's altruistic nature in the example of Christ who demonstrated leadership as a servant of the people rather than as a dictator over the people. All authority is based on hierarchy and all valid and true hierarchy is ultimately based on the valid and true nature of God as the foundation of God's authority and principles.

One of the reasons Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was so effective in addressing racism is because he had an understanding of true spiritual principles that form the basis of a truly civil and healthy society. King was not merely a reactionary bent on stirring up unrest, he had productive and practical goals and milestones in mind in order to address racism. The following quote is an example of his insight:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Racism is based on a slavery of the mind to false concepts. However, bitterness from racism can also enslave a person, as was the case with Troy in this film. When pure selfishness or reactionary legalism are placed at the core center of ethics, then there is a net-deficit outcome. This is shown in marriage relationships when two people have these types of attitudes. There's no doubt that enjoyment is important in all relationships, but it is actually self-defeating to try to exploit another person mainly for one's own gain because this is simply against the manner in which the universe and all relationship principles are wired by God. Trying this will ultimately bring a negative outcome.

The futility of a purely humanistic view of ethics is shown in the self-destructive life of Ayn Rand based on her “virtue of selfishness” philosophy. And when one closely examines the doctrine of John Piper's Christian Hedonism and compares this with scripture, this is also found wanting. Jesus, our example, showed a sense of altruistic benevolent love throughout His ministry work and on the cross. Matthew Henry's commentary outlines that the joy that was set before Jesus Christ as he endured the cross was not a mere feeling that He was seeking after for himself, rather, it was more the altruistic purpose that he was fulfilling and the tangible relationship within the Trinity and with us that he was looking forward to.

God is not acting good in order so as to feel happy and satisfied in a selfish sense, rather, God is satisfied because God always acts in accordance with His fixed loving and holy nature and can do no other. This is an important difference between humanistic feelings-based ethics and biblical ethics based on God's fixed and objective holy nature. The latter is the true basis of altruistic ethics that form a strong foundation for any family and any society. As the wife Rose demonstrated in the film, you don't have to be a philosophy buff or theologian in order to simply put into practice what the Bible shows with simplicity and clarity. On the other hand, if you have not thought the question of ethics through carefully, then it's easy to be led astray by poor examples in society and by faulty Christian teaching. A quote by Francis A. Schaeffer from The God Who Is There is poignant:

“Regardless of a man's system, he has to live in God's world.”

The main fault I would offer for the film is the implication that trying to be a good person is enough to please God and to "go to heaven" as it were. The Bible teaches that to know Christ personally is eternal life and that this occurs when a person repents of their sins, receives Christ's atonement on the cross for our sins, and becomes born again spiritually. Jesus said in the book of John (3:3) that we must be spiritually regenerated and born again. This is the most important type of redemption. A major 'crossing of the fence' occurred when the Lord of all creation stepped outside of his comfort zone and entered the time-space continuum in order to redeem us. And another major crossing of the fence was made possible when Jesus gave His life on the cross and the wall of separation between sinner and savior was removed.

Update: A recent article about Denzel Washington outlines how he was not invited to parties by Barack Obama, as was the case with many other Hollywood stars, based on a mutual sense of distrust. Washington highlighted the lack of honest journalism today for the ignorance most people continue to suffer from: "Once upon a time this is what investigative journalists at the big newspapers would be determined to find out. Now you have all been co-opted. You defend the crooks."


Truth is Made Perfect in Love 

NFL Hypocrisy and the Warped Ethics of the PC Anthem Protests

Learning Christ's Communication and Trust in Relationships

Tags: movie review of Fences, true basis of ethics, answer to racism, Denzel Washington film about black family and racism, Christian film, basis of salvation 

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