Yesterday (Friday) my wife Margaret and I had a “date night.” We attended the 4 PM showing of “Selma” at our local mall at what I presumed to be seniors prices, shopped for a new infant relative, checked out a pizzeria we have passed hundreds of times before (I liked the owner’s meat lovers special) and returned home before 9 to curl up with our latest books. The irony was not lost on me that the younger generations don’t start social evenings before 9 PM.
As you might expect, “Selma” was by far the most captivating part of the evening, and our date night conversation kept returning to the events, the people, the cause, the sins, and the redemption of sorts. I don’t want to summarize here everything that has been written or spoken, good or bad, about the movie, from Oscar snubs to the portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson.
Rather, I cannot help but feel that as religious educators and faith formation ministers we are sometimes the lucky recipients of that gift of gifts, “a teachable moment.” The release of “Selma”, coming as it did shortly after the painful events of Ferguson, Missouri, and the national demonstrations shortly thereafter, almost screams out a need for those of us of the Christian faith to respond in some way.
How does the catechist manage a moral analysis of civil rights and human dignity in any forum of church ministry? For starters, I would say that one does not undertake such a venture alone but as a member of the parish team. Thus, the question becomes, how does the parish staff—pastor, associates, deacons, religious educators, Catholic school personnel—capitalize on the national consciousness of the matter of race and the dignity. Official Church teaching on the dignity of the human being has long been on the books. It is not something we need to (re)learn, but rather, to make concrete. The right of 1960’s Negroes to vote was already federal law before Selma, but in a shocking scene from the movie we see in stomach turning detail the incredible web of dehumanizing strategy executed by a Selma office of elections bureaucrat to prevent an older woman from voting (exquisitely portrayed by Oprah Winfrey.)
So what does a local Catholic Church say to this? How does a pastor address this? How does a catechist foster educational reflection? It is a happy coincidence that “Selma” was released in the Liturgical Cycle B, the year of St. Mark. In this weekend’s Gospel Jesus calls the Twelve; later, he would have to tell them what discipleship is all about, carrying a cross and dying. The Markan portrayal of Christ prefigures the ministry of Dr. King in many respects. When the civil rights preacher proclaimed relentlessly that he had a dream in which the status quo would be turned upside down, making enemies right and left, he was echoing Jesus’ constant proclamation that the Kingdom of God was almost within sight. Jesus’ miracles, signs of the Kingdom in Mark, so angered his own coreligionists that Mark records the plotting of Jesus’ death as early as chapter three!
The pastoral judgments of each local church must determine how we “seize the moment,” and I pray that every church does. “Selma” reminds us that there is an almost insurmountable gap between the talking and the doing. There is a disturbing lesson plan in itself.