When I saw the trailer for War Room, I knew I wasn’t going to see it. After seeing the heavy-handedness and over dramatization in Facing the Giants and Fireproof, I’d had my fill of explicitly Christian movies. I was also skeptical how a White male production company could effectively articulate Black religiosity. How could a production company who (correct me if I’m wrong) has not made a public statement regarding the unjust treatment of Black people accurately make a film with Black faith at its center? At the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, I couldn’t support voyeurism into the faith that is sustaining the mothers of Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Jonathan Ferrell and so many others as they live in an unjust world.
Aside the racial dynamics of the trailer that made me cringe, the plot itself was too dangerous to support. A woman is married to a jerk and she must fight for her marriage. So many women hear the “you got to plead with God so he can do what only he can do” and “it’s time for you to take off your gloves and fight for your marriage” messages and remain in abusive marriages, bruising their bodies and their spirits. When intimate partner violence- in all its forms- remains a conversation (Black) churches refuse to tackle with integrity, I couldn’t see supporting a film where the message is given to a woman that the onus is solely on her to fight for a partnership. We hear that too much for free on Sunday mornings to pay for it Saturday night.
And I remain increasingly uncomfortable with our language surrounding faith. Prayer as war, prayer closets as war rooms, reinforce our nationalistic obsession with violence. We make God and violence synonymous. We boast about beating children and say that we refuse to spare the rod and spoil the child. We shout over scriptures that suggest God chastens those who he loves. We sing songs and preach sermons about the suffering/beating/pressing/shaking leading us to greater. God is a lovingly violent God. God uses pain and violence to teach us lessons but it all works out, in the end, for our good. We sanction violence with our speech and negate its very real presence in lives of oppressed people. In a world where war and violence persist with wild abandon, can we not begin to think about God differently?
And so, after watching the preview, I decided that my time could be better spent. Yet, opening weekend revealed that my decision did not seem to matter. Problematic theology is big business. You couldn’t log on to social media without the Saints raving about the film. Pastors were telling their congregations to go see it, renting out theatres and holding discussions afterward. Celebrities were raving about how a movie about faith was the number one movie in the country. But, not everybody enjoyed the film. One review, in particular, confirmed that those of us who chose not to see War Room made the right decision. I posted it and, of course, those who loved the movie commenced to tell me how wrong I was about it…and prayer.
Folks blasted my critique, saying I needed to see it to form an opinion. Yet people didn’t need to see one episode of Black Jesus before they started a petition to have it cancelled. Before Sorority Sisters even premiered on VH-1, a movement galvanized to end it. Our hypocrisy, as is often the case, was hilariously disappointing. But this wasn’t about needing context or nuance for critique. It was about the fact that we are never to question religious messages, particularly evangelical/popular ones. We are to accept them wholesale. That is dangerous and God never called us to blind allegiance. We were given minds and the power of critical thinking for a reason. Every Christian message is not a good one. We can look at the span of American history and know that to be true. How can we say that “Black lives matter” consistently critiquing structures of racism and inequity but never critique the harmful religious messages that shape the way people understand themselves and God? These messages force many to believe lies about God and God’s best for them.
It is precisely our dependence upon these lies that made folks’ defense of War Room unfortunate. I was told that the movie would help women see how they were praying (or “fighting”) wrong. There were others who said that the world teaches us to give up too easily and this movie is a message about the necessity of Christians to endure hard times. We're often told that we're in negative or dangerous situations because we haven't prayed hard enough, fought long enough or that God is testing our faith. These types of messages are especially dangerous for women, particularly Black Christian women. We over-spiritualize pain and negative circumstances. Instead of telling people “you don’t deserve what’s happening to you…I’m sorry…this is wrong and it needs to stop”, we read God into people’s heartache and say “you’re not praying hard enough…God won’t give it to you if you don’t fight for it.”
Messages that tell vulnerable people to “pray and stay” always place the responsibility on the injured party to change their circumstances. When did Jesus ever advocate for that? And in their support of War Room, people dismissed the reality of this. They denied the existence of problematic prayer messages because, ultimately, we are not invested in truth. We are wedded to the notion that pretense is the best form of authenticity. And as such, we refuse to be honest about the times we believed that bad things were happening to us because we lacked faith. We don't talk about the times we used prayer as a bartering tool saying, "God, if you do this, then I will do this". We act like we don't know someone who rejected the doctor's report and believed they could pray it away. We don’t mention the times we heard that mental illness is present because one’s prayer life is absent. We pretend we haven’t heard messages about enduring suffering and abuse to get to our next level. We work really hard to hide our internalized insecurities as a result of these messages and deny that they exist.
But what about the times when prayer is going to chemotherapy?
What about when prayer is taking the antidepressant?
What about when prayer is walking away?
What about the times when these are the most necessary prayers we can pray?
And in addition to not being honest about our responsibility in prayer, we’re more dishonest about how God answers prayer. So many of us are told that, through the faithfulness of our prayer life, we can command God’s direction or that God will give us what we ask for because of how we pray. Millions of books and conference registrations have been sold with this premise. People post their Facebook statuses about an answered prayer and tell us that all you have to do is follow these simple steps and God will answer in your favor. But that’s not how prayer works…at all. Again, we fail to acknowledge the implications of these myths on the lives of people. What about the woman who has been praying for a child for years but to no avail? What about the brother who hits the floor every day praying for employment but is going into his third year without a job? What about the child who prays every night their bedroom door won’t open but it does? What do we say to people whose prayers seem to go unheard or unanswered? It’s all praise, glory and honor when you are on the receiving end of an answered prayer. But, for many- for some of us if we are honest- there are many times when God’s responses to our prayers didn’t go that way. And I’m afraid that we’re nurturing a generation who, indeed, sees God as a genie and is unable to handle it when God doesn’t grant one of their three wishes.
I believe in the power of prayer. I believe prayer changes things. I know that I am here because people prayed for me. I was raised in a home where prayer was important and it remains central in my life. I’m grateful for friends who pray with/for me and I’m honored to pray for others. At the same time, I also believe some of the messages regarding prayer are dangerous. Instead of denying this, I believe it is time to interrogate what we teach and why we teach it. We must count the cost we are asking folks to pay and recognize when it is too great. We must be honest about the ways we have suffered and had to fight- whether publicly or privately- against bad theology. We owe folks that truth.
There are those who will support War Room and the messages like it. There are others who support folks journeying away from the theology those messages promote. I choose to be in the latter camp. And I am not alone. Thank God I am not alone.