Film Review: 'The Ordinary Radicals' challenges religious priorities
Written by Gregg Brekke
October - November 2008
"If the Christian faith is this 2,000-year-old perspective that's supposed to be all about the love of God and neighbor," begins Jamie Moffett, director and narrator of the documentary "The Ordinary Radicals," "just how did it get to the point that Christianity in America is stereotyped, somewhat accurately mind you, like this?"
What follows on the screen are the stenciled and printed words: unforgiving, hypocritical, homophobic, intolerant, fear-mongering, consumerism, preachy, anti-Semitic, televangelism, paternalistic, pedophile priests and bigotry.
Moffett, a self-described recovering Catholic, was co-founder of the Simple Way community in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. Along with Shane Claiborne, one of the featured personalities in the documentary, Moffett spent seven years living in this intentional Christian community that advocated and provided basic needs for the poor in north Philadelphia.
The film chronicles the 11,000-mile book tour that Claiborne and Chris Haw undertook in a vegetable oil-powered bus to promote their co-authored book, "Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals." Advocating a Christianity that is more concerned about God's people than doctrinal adherence, Claiborne and Haw spoke to rapt crowds at churches and assemblies throughout North America.
The book and tour's decided mix of social justice and Christian outreach form a new wave for evangelicals in the U.S., says Ron Sider, Professor of Theology, Holistic Ministry and Public Policy at Palmer Theological Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa., and founder of Evangelicals for Social Action.
"When I was in my 20s and 30s, the typical evangelical would say the primary mission of the church is to evangelize souls. We just focused on spreading the gospel. And the focus was souls, not the whole person … But now almost any major evangelical or Pentecostal leader you would ask would say that biblical Christians are supposed to care for the whole person. They're supposed to both do social ministry and share the gospel."
Zack Exley, writer and president of the New Organizing Institute, notes that a legion of conservative evangelicals grew up telling their kids "just read your Bibles."
"And those kids did read their Bibles and now they're saying, 'right here it says to turn your other cheek. Well, right here it says resist the empire. Right here it says don't idolatrize — your nation, your flag, you know — your president.' "
Pointing to the counter-revolutionary political arena that Jesus and the first Christians were thrust into, Hay says, "Calling Jesus Christ the Son of God meant in the first century that you were saying Caesar is not [the son of god]. And that's treason, so it is a very political statement to call Jesus your Lord and Savior."
"The Ordinary Radicals" also focuses its lens on activists who have worked to find common political objectives between more conservative and liberal Christian communities. Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo and Brian McLaren each make appearances. Known for their challenges to evangelical dogma and support for social justice issues, each contributes their perspective on the changing landscape of religious-political dialog in the U.S.
"When politics is broken, when it fails to resolve, even address, the biggest issues," says Wallis, founder of Sojourners. "What often happens is that movements rise up to change politics — and the best movements always have a spiritual foundation."
The documentary's journey through America and Canada offers fresh perspective into this new movement and shifting political-religious debate that had stagnated after a generation of Religious Right issues domination. Evangelical, mainline Protestant, Catholic and an assembly of unaffiliated voices are heard expressing similar cares for those Jesus considered "the least of these," and for equality in society based on the biblical example set by Jesus and the first Christians.
For those who have spent their lives working in social justice arenas — whether in poverty, homelessness, immigration reform, world hunger, environmentalism, HIV/AIDS care or peace advocacy — the religious motivation for these concerns is nothing new. What is new is that Claiborne, Haw and "The Ordinary Radicals" show a changing American religious landscape where Christians of many persuasions are uniting on core concerns of their faith.
Dates and locations for theater screenings of "The Ordinary Radicals" can be found at events.theordinaryradicals.com. The DVD can be purchased from Amazon.com and will enter Netflix distribution later this year.