Kevin Miller, Writer/Director/Editor
Hat Rock Capital LLC and Kevin Miller XI Productions Inc., 2020
I’ve watched Kevin Miller’s documentary J.E.S.U.S.A. twice now. The first time made an immediate impact on me, but the second time made me want to watch it a third time. Multiple views are needed to absorb, internalize, and process its rich content and dueling expressions of ugliness and beauty. Impressive in his dialectical interplay of complementary and expanding ideas, Miller has created a thoughtful, sometimes distressing, utterly engaging visual triumph that I’ve always wanted to see but could never find.
About the first half of this gem of a documentary explores the pervasive American Christian fixation on violence and militarism cloaked in an insular nationalism, but then gradually deploys this unfortunate pathology as a case study of a much broader exploration into dehumanizing, othering, mimesis, and scapegoating in our conscious or unconscious attempts to ignore commandments of Jesus that He meant for us to take seriously. As David Bentley Hart remarks in the film, we’ve “been inoculated against the Gospel” — given just enough to make us immune to the fulness of the Christian faith that includes nonviolence.
That a documentary of this calibre on this important topic finally exists is a welcome development for those of us who desire a way to more assertively tear back the veil on the fear and hate of enemies that drives the American (and indeed many countries’) addiction to militarism. Christian peacemakers should therefore applaud Miller’s attempt to shed a brighter light on Jesus’ commandment to love our enemies, so that more Christians can not only finally realize that Jesus actually meant what He said, but can also gain a clearer understanding of how Jesus’ commandments should be applied consistently, relentlessly, and courageously in our world of division and suspicion. As the film so vividly depicts, this includes avoiding the various forms of scapegoating in our world — from racially motivated violence (systemic or direct), to war with perceived threats, to national security — as an ongoing reflection of the scapegoating that killed God incarnate.
J.E.S.U.S.A. begins by exposing the uninspiring yet disturbing militaristic tropes shouted from pulpits and political podiums with equal enthusiasm, as if both congregants and congressmen share the same kingdom and the same violent means with which to usher it in. The fusion of church and state and its many pitfalls are laid bare for all to see, and the grotesque (dare I say, amateurish) theologies of the likes of Sean Moon, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, Jimmy Meeks, and Carl Chinn induce near debilitating lament if nothing else. It’s difficult — but necessary — to watch. And if it appears that the examples near the beginning are exceptions to the rule or extreme examples, it’s worth noting that the percentage of Christians who wouldn’t see a problem with these examples — even if their own expressions are more sanitized and palatable to mainstream sensitivities — is high enough to unreservedly support a military that accounts for about 40% of the entire world’s military expenditures last year. And this is supposed to be a Christian nation. Lord, have mercy.
After setting the stage so that Christians who embrace the way of nonviolence can see and feel what we’re up against in such vividly unsettling detail, Miller weaves together an ecumenical mix of thoughtful and nuanced voices, mostly Evangelical and Protestant (broadly speaking), but also Orthodox and Catholic — from Brian Zahnd, Preston Sprinkle, Father John Dear, Steve Watkins, Rev. Dwight Ford, and Kit Evans-Ford, Chris Hedges, Suzanne Ross, Gareth Higgins, and Diana Butler Bass to David Bentley Hart, Greg Boyd, Sigve Tonstad, Osheta Moore, Josh Porter, and Derek Flood (with appearances by Shane Claiborne, George Paz Martin, Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Jr., and Lisa Sharon Harper) — who do their best to lead us back to Jesus’ commandment to love our enemies in Mt 5:43–48, the passage of the Holy Scriptures that the church Fathers quoted the most in the first three hundred years of our history.
Each of these prophetic voices offers a unique dimension, either as a pastor, theologian, ethicist, ex-military personnel, political or social commentator, Girardian anthropologist and exegete, or peace activist, all coming together to offer their complementary perspectives in this well-crafted, well-paced, crisp, high quality, and beautiful film and treatment of a very complex and controversial subject that should never have been controversial to begin with. It’s an exhilarating pilgrimage to the True Cross — led by faithful teachers and commentators who have arrived at a cruciform understanding of Christ (some of them after sojourning in the desert of dehumanizing militarism for a season of their lives) and away from the fraudulent religious and political leaders who seem hellbent on broadcasting their thinly veiled desire that Jesus should have fought back and obliterated His enemies when they arrested Him and led Him to the cross (or in the very least sought retribution after His resurrection).
“Nonviolence is actually the way the world works,” Gareth Higgins reminds us near the end of the film — an almost self-evident observation given that most of us act nonviolently most of the time since we’re mostly not engaging in direct physical violence with others. But it’s also a reminder to Christians to be consistently faithful to the patterns and rhythms of this harmonious created order — the shalomic relationship among God, humans, and all of creation — that God originally intended regardless of the self-sacrifice that might be involved in renouncing violence. Love of enemies isn’t a commandment we should follow only when it’s convenient and easiest, but is instead a commandment that we should follow even when its cross becomes heaviest…and J.E.S.U.S.A. guides us in this scandalous and foolish-to-the-world cruciform direction.
But much like another one of his documentaries on a controversial subject, Hellbound?, Miller isn’t interested in presenting a sensationalist partisan exploitation of ideas by bending them to his will — in this case, the way in which Christianity and militarism have fused to create a new American civil religion underpinned by patriotism, nationalism, and the myths of manifest destiny and American exceptionalism. The bare facts and unfiltered words and thoughts of everyday misguided preachers and pseudo-theologians in this film are already troubling enough on their own. Instead, Miller gradually leads his audience from the warped desire by many American Christians that Jesus should have been the warrior Messiah who defeated His enemies with human weapons rather than the kenotic Christ who was enthroned on a Roman cross after He stopped St. Peter from fighting off the Roman soldiers with a sword (Mt 26:52), told Pilate that His Kingdom is not of this world (Jn 18:36), and “He had done no violence” (Is 53:9).
J.E.S.U.S.A. is therefore an invitation to stare directly and unflinchingly into the depths of the violence of the institutions and countries we enthusiastically venerate at the expense of our allegiance to the Kingdom of God that’s built on repentance, mercy, and meekness. “Every line on a map tells a bloody tale,” Brian Zahnd observes in the film to invite us into a dialogue with each other about our addiction to violence and how it prevents us from following — or even trying to follow…or thinking that we even should follow — the commandments of Jesus to love our enemies, repay evil with good, and absorb the violence of others when they drag us to our own crosses, “leaving [us] an example, that [we] should follow in his steps” (1 Pt 2:21). Martyrdom is, after all, an act of nonviolence in the face of violent threats. This dialogue is therefore a support group for addicts of violence and militarism — or those who have succumbed to the egoism that prioritizes our comfort at the expense of the lives of our enemies, who seek worldly power that mocks Christ’s surprising and counterintuitive kenotic kingship, and who have capitulated to the fear that elevates our safety and security above compassion and forgiveness towards even the worst offenders, the gravest threats, the most foreign and unpredictable Other — anyone we can think of who doesn’t even come close to the height of evil when we killed God, which nevertheless elicited His forgiveness even then.
Throughout J.E.S.U.S.A., Miller raises urgent questions: Should our allegiance be to the kingdoms of this world or to the Kingdom of God? How does bad theology — especially bad atonement theology — deform our actions and behaviour, and do we really want to be a part of this inch-deep pseudo-theological justification for taking the lives of divine image-bearers? Do we really value the virtues of humility, patience, self-control, peace, mercy, and compassion, or do we only value these virtues when it’s not too difficult to do so? What does war do to the soul and psyche of a solider who’s been asked to kill? What does the early history of Christianity and patristic witness tell us about how our default psychological addiction to violence developed? What is the character of God and how does He reveal Himself…and how does our violent behaviour violate this full revelation of God?
Defenders of the legal use of state-sanctioned violence (as if that makes a difference on a cosmic level) whom Miller interviews are clear that their main justification for the use of violence is to protect the innocent in a fallen world. There’s something commendable about this, to be sure. But what J.E.S.U.S.A. does is to ask whether or not it’s appropriate to use the same outcome of this fallen world (violence) as the means to protect the innocent from this fallen world; should we compound the expression of this fallenness and nevertheless somehow expect less of it in our world?
This is ultimately a decision between faithfulness to the commandments of Jesus, even if they don’t make sense by the world’s logic, and a reliance on natural law that persuades us to prioritize our safety, security, comfort — everything that the cross inverts and dismisses. If we embrace lethal violence of any kind, are we really salt and light or are we simply the bland darkness that surrounds us? Are we really “doing more (Greek, perisson) than others,” or do we just love those who love us and greet only our own people like everyone else (Mt 5:43–48)?
This is, for example, David Bentley Hart’s primary question in the documentary, as is why Christians today would treat as venerable those expressions that early Christians viewed as “an unfortunate provisional reality of a fallen world:” patriotism, human rule, economic competition. Those who wish to protect the innocent (including themselves) — which is noble on its own — often reach the conclusion that violence is necessary for this first for psychological, emotional, and material reasons, after which they introduce a vastly impoverished faith perspective by selectively proof-texting from the Holy Scriptures as a way to justify their preconceived embrace of violence for this purpose — which is ignoble. This isn’t faithfulness, and J.E.S.U.S.A. does a tremendous job of parsing the differences between the two approaches.
For Orthodox Christians living in the United States or in any of its Western allies (or any country that preserves its security and wealth with the use of violence), if we eschew Jesus’ clear commandments to love our enemies and repay evil with good — even, or especially, when we have a lethal weapon in our hands on the battlefield — and trivialize the near consensus of the church Fathers against participation in the military in the first three hundred years of Christian history (and beyond in the many faithful and prophetic voices that emerged after), we’re simply importing the pseudo-theologies that Miller’s documentary highlights especially near the beginning of the film as much as we’ve already imported the pseudo-theologies of political leaders throughout the centuries whenever Orthodox Christians are persuaded to take up arms.
J.E.S.U.S.A. is therefore an antidote for our collective amnesia by inviting us to consider how our own history reveals when we’ve sometimes forgotten crucial, even foundational, dimensions of our own theology enough to convince us that in some cases it’s alright to destroy icons not made with human hands. It’s an invitation for Orthodox Christians to resolutely and consistently embrace the theologies, social teachings, and practical actions that haven’t been disfigured by the deficient, distorted, and inferior priorities of nation states and empires — Orthodox or otherwise — throughout the centuries up to the present. It’s an invitation to consider anew how much nationalism, war, and militarism completely undermines and bastardizes the virtues that Orthodoxy holds so dear, tricking us into fearing death enough to compel us to use violence against any physical threats rather than always having death before us, beginning with our death to the world, dehumanizing those we kill as less than image-bearers and therein performing the most egregious form of iconoclasm (no matter the excuses we use to justify this), somehow valuing death rather than Life, indeed replacing Christ’s death that trampled down death with the death of others that we cause and therein multiply the death that Jesus trampled down. It’s an invitation for us to overturn the tables of greed, ego, and fear in the temples of our hearts, so that our inner transfiguration may give us the humility, patience, self-control, and obedience to pass through Gethsemane and Golgotha, so we too can taste resurrection and shalom. It’s an invitation to repentance.
Meanwhile, the way that the immoral false theologies of the likes of Moon, Grossman, Meeks, and Chinn made my blood boil reveals who my enemies are, who I need to pray for, who I need to love. Lord, have mercy!
Despite the few reductionistic sound bites here and there in the film (especially when examining the role of Constantine and the early Church’s views on Christian participation in the military, for which David Bentley Hart provides a helpful corrective context), it’s still more often the case that the more thoughtful pastors, theologians, and ethicists in Miller’s film can invite Orthodox Christians to actually feel the dilemma that competing loyalties create. They invite us to consider afresh the scriptural source, narrative trajectory, and surprising revelation of a nonviolent kenotic King when a warrior Messiah was the predominant expectation.
Father Alexander Men of blessed memory once wrote,
Only near-sighted people can suppose that Christianity has seen its time. Christianity has only taken its first, I would say timid, steps in human history. To this day many of Christ’s words are incomprehensible because we are still moral and spiritual neanderthal men. The gospel arrow is aimed towards eternity, and that which we call Christian history is in many ways a series of clumsy and unsuccessful attempts to bring Christianity about.
Orthodoxy is very good at diagnosing why we often don’t act in ways that match our deep and rich theology, and in this case, Father Alexander’s words show us why we have such a difficult time comprehending the teachings of Christ that appear so counterintuitive to us as spiritual infants. My hope and prayer is that J.E.S.U.S.A. will act as an impetus for some of us who fall into the “yes, but…” trap when reading the hard commandments of Jesus to draw from Holy Tradition and our rich ascetic sensibilities so that we can really, truly, sincerely acknowledge that the Christian life is difficult, hardship is inevitable, and we shouldn’t try to escape the challenges our corporeal limitations afford us — just like in the hard work and sacrifice of nonviolent peacemaking — but glory to God for all things nonetheless.
If you’re reading this review and you’re not convinced that Jesus taught the way of nonviolence or that the problem of American exceptionalism as preserved by a robust militarism is as pervasive or relentless as this review presents it, watch the documentary. It’s as eye-opening and deeply convicting as a St. Basil the Great quote on our responsibility to the poor. And then supplement Miller’s documentary with the three articles below:
Orthodox Perspectives on Peace, War and Violence by Father Philip LeMasters
Nonviolence and Peace Traditions in Early & Eastern Christianity by Father John McGuckin
Finding a Friend in Father “Sophrony” by Father Seraphim Aldea
To buy or rent J.E.S.U.S.A. see A Special Offer for Orthodoxy in Dialogue Readers for exclusive pricing.
See also our Confessions of a Catechumen and Ex-Marine.
Andrew Klager is a core faculty and the director of the Institute for Religion, Peace and Justice at St. Stephen’s University in New Brunswick, and sits on the Advisory Board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. He holds a PhD in Religious Studies from the University of Glasgow and is widely published in a number of peer-reviewed journals and academic books. He also writes regularly for the Huffington Post, Clarion Journal of Religion, Peace and Justice, and the IRPJ Blog. For a more comprehensive articulation of Christian nonviolence, see his Is Nonviolence Naïve? …and other questions about Jesus’ most controversial teachings in Sojourners Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @AndrewPKLager.