A Review of J.E.S.U.S.A.
J.E.S.U.S.A. is a documentary film that attempts to counter naive, militarist, patriotic American Christianity with a version of Christianity that is more peaceful and transformative. I paid four bucks to watch it on Youtube. Unfortunately the rental only lasts 48 hours and it expired in the middle of my second viewing, so this review is written mostly without notes and remains incomplete. The entire movie is clips from interviews interspersed regularly with what appears to be (often only vaguely relevant) stock footage. The first 13 minutes of the film consists of proponents of violence giving various Biblical justifications for their religion. The next 80 minutes is dedicated to several authors and pastors who give their nonviolent understanding of Jesus. None of the dozen or so interviewees are given any sort of introduction other than, briefly, their name and occupation appearing once on the screen during their appearance (and not always during their first appearance).
The film suffers from poor framing in general. Members of the first group of interviews are proponents of gun ownership and violent policing, and they seem ready to kill their neighbors at a moment’s notice, but they rarely if ever even mention the military or war. The second group, the nonviolent Christians — including a former SEAL, a former Marine, and a war journalist — focus their denunciations of violence mostly against national militarism and war, and at least two of these advocates of nonviolence make explicit exceptions for police and gun ownership. It’s a confusing disconnect.
The selection of the ‘pro-violence’ representatives is also confusing. The movie opens with a clip of a service at Sanctuary Church in Newfoundland, PA. It then cuts to an interview with the pastor, identified as “Sean Moon,” explaining how Jesus taught his followers to manufacture “assault weapons.” What is never mentioned in the film is that Sean Moon is the youngest son of Sun Myung Moon, the founder of the “Moonies,” a religious sect most famous for their mass weddings. Moonies view the late elder Moon and his wife as the True Parents, messiahs, who are continuing the work Jesus meant to do before he unexpectedly died. After his father’s death and a family disagreement about succession, Sean Moon started his church (and his “Rod of Iron Ministry”) as a Moonie splinter group. The young Moon’s church is even more anticommunist than his father’s, and uses pro-Trump rhetoric and outright worship of rifles in order to appeal to the conspiracy- and fear-addled minds of American conservatives. If J.E.S.U.S.A. is out to investigate the relationship between mainstream American Christianity and empire, using a small offshoot of a South Korean cult is not a representative example.
The other pro-violence Christian speakers featured in the film are mostly just ex-police grifters trying to sell defense services and training to churches. This includes Dave Grossman who shares his groundbreaking juridical expert opinion that the Bible is against “murder” but not against “lawful killing.” Not mentioned in the film is that Grossman is most famous for his controversial training seminars where he helps American police officers get over their hesitation to kill.
I don’t think Kevin Miller, the film’s director/writer/producer, set out to create an intentional straw man through his selection of Moon, Grossman, et al. I suspect the motivation was rather a mixture of spectacle (he wanted shots of people holding AR-15’s in church) and laziness (finding actual representatives of mainstream or even evangelical Christianity’s entanglement with empire would have required more work and subtlety).
Fortunately for the film and its audience, despite the framing, the heart and redeeming aspect of the documentary has nothing to do with the first group of interviewers or the U.S.A. About halfway through, the film pieces together several interviews which give quite a decent summary of mythic Christianity. The documentary’s theology is much more interesting than its politics. With a focus on a Girardian/non-substitutionary theory of atonement, the film presents Christianity as an evolutionary road toward a nonviolent society. In this view, Christianity with its Abrahamic roots reverses other ancient religions in its recognition of the victims of violence at the foundation and maintenance of society, and founds a nonviolent counter-society, a kingdom of heaven.
But then, in conformance to the gospel form, betrayal: Brian Zahnd, a pastor who is one of the main interviewees throughout the film, states that being against violence doesn’t mean he is against police (??). Someone else cites Romans 13 to similar effect. After explaining for an hour how Christianity exposes and works against violence, they find a little whitewashed urn to sneak it all back in. (To be honest, I was so disgusted at this point in the documentary that I’m not even sure if I watched the last few minutes. It’s possible these comments were clarified in that time.)
If God’s refusal to accept human sacrifice from Abraham founded a religion that exposes and rejects radical violence, and if the execution of Jesus at the hands of political and religious leaders clarifies the subversive road to the kingdom of heaven, then J.E.S.U.S.A, true to its mismash of a title, is stuck somewhere between Isaac and the cross.
For a more positive and complete review of J.E.S.U.S.A. see Andrew Klager’s review for Orthodoxy In Dialog (April 22, 2020).