In 1984, a young attorney heard the terrifying testimony of a twelve-year-old rape victim and was inspired to write a novel exploring what might’ve happened if her father had killed her attackers. He labored every day for nearly three years, and in 1987 finished it. However, it was rejected by virtually every potential publisher. Wynwood Press finally agreed to take it, but only published a modest 5,000 copies in 1988. After all, the subject was racism. Who wants to read a book on racism?
After his second novel, THE FIRM, and subsequent novels, THE PELICAN BRIEF and THE CLIENT (each of which became bestsellers and hit motion pictures), there was renewed interest in A TIME TO KILL. Now one of America’s most prolific and popular authors, writing a new novel every year, his books selling over $400 million, JOHN GRISHAM saw his first novel republished by Doubleday in hardcover and later, Dell Publishing released it in paperback. It became a bestseller. Turns out people were interested after all.
In 1996, the novel was made into a movie starring Matthew McConaughey, Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacey, Donald Sutherland, Kiefer Sutherland, Ashley Judd and Sandra Bullock, earning over $152 million at the box office. The story takes place in the fictional town of Clanton, Mississippi, where a ten-year-old African-American girl, Tonya Hailey, is viciously raped and beaten by two white men. She’s later found and rushed to the hospital. Her distraught father, Carl Lee Hailey, played by Samuel L. Jackson, seeks out Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey), a young, white lawyer.
Carl Lee is afraid the men might be acquitted because of the deep-seated racism in the Mississippi Delta area. They even discuss a case further south in which four white teenagers were acquitted of the rape of a black girl. Jake admits there’s a strong possibility the rapists will walk free in this case as well. So Carl Lee gets an M16 rifle, goes to the county courthouse and waits for the opportunity where he guns down both men who assaulted his daughter. Carl Lee is arrested without incident and Jake defends him.
In the movie, the closing argument made by Matthew McConaughey has been called “the most persuasive closing argument ever.” [You can watch the actual clip here.] In it, he challenges the jury, judge and everyone in the courtroom to see what happened from another perspective. And no one can escape what happens in your heart and the chills you experience when he asks us to imagine a completely different point of view. “Now imagine she’s white.” It changes everything. The argument Jake makes is that if the jury would be compelled to spare the life of a white man for a vengeful murder, then they must be able to do the same for a black man.
Truth is, we will never be able to fix something we refuse to face.
John Grisham said one of the influences that helped shape what he wrote in A TIME TO KILL was Harper Lee and her book, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. One of the statements made in that book is, “You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
How can we know what someone else is feeling or thinking unless we talk to them and listen to them? How can we live our whole life and never confront the prejudices in our own hearts. And, by the way, we all have prejudices – every one of us. Prejudice is “an unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought or reason.” Another definition says prejudice is “having unreasonable feelings, opinions, or attitudes, especially of a hostile nature, regarding an ethnic, racial, social, or religious group.” Let that sink in for a moment.
How can we allow a society to exist where any young man walks out the front door of his own home with fear and anger in his heart? Or where any parent has to fear whether or not their children will come back home safe? If someone wonders, "who thinks like that?” it’s obvious they haven’t talked to the people who feel like that, and they need to have that conversation. Rather than making blanket statements backing up our limited perspectives, or telling people to “just get over it,” we need to have some compassionate conversations which may enlighten all of us and help us find a solution. Anger that results in anarchy, such as we have seen this week in Charlotte, is never the answer. Ignoring the problem is not the answer either.
Truth is, we will never be able to fix something we refuse to face. And if there is anyone on earth who should face racism and take on the task of fixing it, it’s the church of the Lord, Jesus Christ. We should not only have the conversations, we should be willing to have the confrontations, when necessary, and refuse to allow it.
Without question, everyone must respect the rule of law and submit to the authorities in our world, whose positions and tasks have been ordained by God (Romans 13:1-7). The majority of people who serve in positions of authority here in America are good people, trying to do their best to uphold the law and treat their fellow man with decency and respect. I believe the same can be said of the majority of people who are Americans, regardless or race, religion or economic status. It’s sad so few bad apples can drag us into a food fight.
We must also be willing to admit the injustices in our world, wherever they occur and whoever is responsible for them, and we must seek justice for everyone. Not just us. The Bible says, “The Lord demands accurate scales and balances; he sets the standards for fairness” (Proverbs 16:11/NLT). And “an unjust man is an abomination to the righteous …” (Proverbs 29:27).
Sometimes people will say, “Just trust the process.” But what if the process isn’t fair or equal? Who’s going to make sure the process is right and fair and equal for every man, woman, boy and girl? If those who claim to be the followers of Jesus Christ don’t do it, who will?
I’m not naive enough to believe one blog can adequately address the problem of racism or suggest all the solutions. We can’t solve the problem of racism all over the world. But we can start to solve the problem of racism in our own hearts. Even if we presently believe we don’t really have that problem.
What can we do? Here are a few suggestions:
- Ask God to remove even a hint of racism in our own hearts.
- Go out of our way to love our neighbor as ourselves, especially our neighbors who don’t look like us.
Mark 12:30-31, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
- Stand up and speak out against racism, whenever and wherever it rears its ugly head.
- Start having conversations and genuinely try to find out what’s really in the hearts and homes of others.
- Be an example, wherever you are, of what it looks like to live and love like JESUS did.
- Don’t just be a gentleman or a gentlewoman to others, especially those who don’t look like you, but be a Christian gentleman and a Christian gentlewoman to everyone.
- Respect authority and the rule of law at all times and in all places, making sure those who make the laws and enforce the laws follow them as well.
- Refuse to accept the narrative that says, “this is the way it’s always been and this is the way it’s always going to be.” Do whatever you can to make things different and better and right.
- Watch the movie, A TIME TO KILL. (It is rated R and has adult content and language I don’t endorse or approve, but honestly confronts the issue of racism.)
The church ought to be the starting place, where people come together from every nation, tribe, people and language, and show the world the difference JESUS makes. That’s what Heaven is like (Revelation 7:9-10).
In the final scene of the movie, A TIME TO KILL, it ends with Jake Brigance and his family going to Carl Lee’s house for a cookout. Carl Lee is surprised they came. After a couple of uncomfortable moments Jake explains …
“Just thought our kids could play together.”
© 2016. Barry L. Cameron
Barry L. Cameron has been the Senior Pastor of Crossroads since 1992 when the church was averaging 188 in morning worship. Pastor Cameron and his wife, Janis, have three children and two grandsons. He’s the author of the bestseller: The ABCs of Financial Freedom, Contagious Generosity, and The Financial Freedom Workbook. The Cameron family has been completely debt free since November 2001.