By Fr. Linh Hoang
I am not a person who goes to horror movies. The reason is that I am never sure of their message besides just wanting to scare the living daylights out of people. Like most people, I don’t think being scared is entertaining. With that dismissive attitude aside, I decided after persuasion from friends to see Get Out, a movie written and directed by the comic writer/actor Jordon Peele. This cleverly made horror film unmasks racism through the place of tranquil suburban America. The film opens with a black man walking at night in the neatly manicured sidewalk of a dimly lit leafy suburb. He is stalked by a white man in a slow-moving vehicle who then attacks, drags him into the car, and drives him away. This jarring opening scene sets the stage as the movie breaks open the unsettling reality of the appropriation of black bodies and identity in the most tranquil and safest of places—the quiet suburbs. Place becomes an important feature in this film because what is considered safe and comfortable for white America becomes a nightmare of racial violence for blacks and other minorities.
This really made me reflect on how important “place” is for theological discourse. Some may say that place is so common that it loses any distinctiveness or specialness; it is part of the everyday fabric. We are anchored to a place by the sheer fact that we are embodied and limited by time. We express places as a private place, a work place, or a safe place. It is tangible or intangible; open or closed; spacious or confined; decorated or unadorned, and more. Place has all of these attributes. Place is also where the most destructive and challenging aspects of human interactions are exposed and cry out for attention. It is also where the issues, concerns, and struggles of human interactions must occur. Among them, the scourge of racism in American life needs to be worked out in place.
Racism is also part of the American religious experience. “Racism is a faith,” states George D. Kelsey, a prominent black theologian who mentored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Kelsey, 1965, 41). “It is faith in race—the religion of separating human beings into racial groups” (Roberts, 2011, 80). Racism describes the feeling of hostility to the stranger or other, and it denotes the existence of an unequal distribution of power and privilege based upon race. Race uses the characteristics such as skin color people to classify others with unsubstantiated scientific findings. The process of defining race is contested, but it definitely has contributed to racist attitudes and violence. Racism has stymied the quest of minority groups for justice, acceptance, and equal access to the opportunities afforded to those in the place of the United States of America.
The main action of Get Out takes place in and around a house removed from other houses with a path to a tranquil lake. A young black man, Chris, the main character, is invited home by his white girlfriend to meet the family. They happen to have a gathering of friends and neighbors on the same weekend. This turns out to be an auction for Chris’s body. The grotesque reality of appropriation is the fact that black people are not being eliminated, but rather, they are being repurposed. Chris’s brain will be replaced by that of the highest old white bidder who has the luxury to buy physical longevity. This harkens back to Antebellum America where slavery involved the buying of black bodies prized only for their physical productivity. Chris is unaware of this and meanders through the crowd of mainly older mature white men and women. As he does, he encounters the only other young black man and an older Asian male.
This part of the movie is interesting to me because the lone Asian character in the movie asks Chris an awkward and revealing question: What is the experience of being African-American? He does not get an answer but just a surprised, awkward expression on Chris’s face. The person who poses the question is an unnamed Asian man who straddles the divide between the dominant white culture and the minority world. He is the “model minority” who has been assimilated and appropriated into the white culture but who also stands painfully outside of it. He speaks with a strong accent, which affirms the stereotype that Asians are “forever foreigners” because their language and skin color are different no matter how much they have assimilated. This is even true for those Asians born on American soil. The Asian character highlights painfully that even though Asians are an accepted minority in the U.S. their own struggles and achievements overwhelmed by the much broader reality of racism in the U.S.—the unresolved black and white struggle. This horror of being Asian in America was captured so poignantly in the movie that it made me think about my role as an Asian American theologian in a Church and society that accepts me but still sees me as an outsider.
What is important about Get Out is the reality that black and white lives are intertwined in America and that there is no way to break this entanglement. Added to that mixture is the reality of Asian, Latinos, and other minority lives. While the Asian may stand on the outside of the black and white struggle, he or she must be included in the conversation about racism. It may be easier for Asians to walk in the white world, but it is necessary that they trek through the black neighborhoods as well, because it is in such places in the United States where racial negotiation happens. The place of racial divide must become the place in which the move toward racial reconciliation takes place.
Place has not been a specialized concept in academic terminology but rather a word used in everyday conversation. It is a word wrapped in common sense, making it easier to grasp because it is familiar. In another sense however, this makes it even more slippery as a subject of scholarly discussion. Since we may think we already know what it means it is hard to get beyond the common-sense level in order to understand it in a more developed way. Place, then, is both simple (part of the appeal) and complicated (draws many conclusions).
In the Christian world, the role of place is overshadowed by the overwhelming sense of time. The Biblical concept of time is captured in the early chapters of the Book of Genesis where the creation of the world in six days sets the constraint of time. Thus, time becomes an important first step in the creation of the world, and it sets the stage for a dramatic presentation of the linear unfolding of the world in time and space. Here space, however, is not nestled in a particular location but provides a sense of an all-encompassing concrete presence. It does not provide a foundation but rather a transitional reality.
This transition of space and time affected the way early Christians reflected on preparing for eternal life and in so doing shed the idea of creating any permanence in this world—in this place. For instance, Hebrews 13:14 states, “for here we have no lasting city; we are seeking one which is to come.” Also relevant is the Johannine concept of the world, especially from 1 John 2:15 and 5:4 where the author warns that loving the world may win the praises of other people, but in the process, one loses the love of God. However, this perspective, unbalanced by the rest of the biblical testimony, overlooks the importance of place in the Bible. Place is where God came to meet humanity. Place is where humanity also prepares itself for God. Place is where both God and human beings dwell together.
The Bible also reveals a more grounded sense of place. It started with the Garden of Eden where the first humans were able to dwell with God. Eden provided everything that human beings could need and desire for their livelihood (Gen. 1:28). Following the expulsion, humans were given another chance in the Promised Land. God brought Abraham and his household across hundreds of miles to settle there. Ultimately, the promised place would become a fruitful dwelling for Abraham’s children and his subsequent generations (see especially chapter 12 in the Book of Genesis, where God speaks to Abraham about go forth into new lands and God will be with them). God is with them as they journey across the lands into Canaan where God promised them this new land to dwell (Gen. 12:1-20; Gen. 17-20; Gen. 21:2-10). The vicissitudes of dwelling in the land of the Old Testament confirmed the relationship between God and humanity. Place was where the Divine and human forged their relationship as well as negotiated the terms of that difficult and mysterious tension. The place of Israel endured across the generations, and Israel’s wars, exiles, and the triumphs gave rise to a new understanding of place with the arrival of Jesus.
In the New Testament, Israel and its immediate environs were the locus of the ministry as well as the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. At the forefront, Israel was the place that sustained and maintained the formation of disciples unsure of their task of how to carry Jesus’ legacy forward. The place not only gave Christianity a foundation but then also provided elements, which would give it a particular identity. As Christianity grew, it spread to different regions of the world and claimed its place in Europe and then eventually across the entire globe. In this expansion, this movement also accumulated cultural elements from Europe and elsewhere that would eventually inform and transform the practice of Christianity.
In Christian history, place was admittedly important, but it did not receive serious consideration or discussion. It was overshadowed by other concerns such as claiming superiority over against an oppressive political order, especially as Christians moved to new lands. The writings of Saint Paul encourage believers to accept no authority except God’s authority, especially when earthly rulers have limited power. (Rom. 13:1-14; 1 Thess. 4:11-12). Then as Christianity began missionary campaigns into Africa, the Americas, and Asia in the late fifteenth century, place functioned unconsciously in, for example, expecting newly Christianized areas to conform to the Christian “place” of Europe. Europe was known into the fifteenth century as “Christianitas”—surely a vision of “place” if there ever was one!
These early forays into place in the Bible provide for us now a theology of place—a theology that reveals the way God operates through our bodies and in a particular place. We are bound by our physical nature but also by the locations in which we settle. We can move from place to place learning to navigate through the many different religious, cultural and societal expectations. As the character Chris reveals in Get Out, places can be intimidating and destructive for many people of color in the United States. It becomes the task of theology to help society engage in the conversation about racism and race in our society. The first place to start is the location that theology is located—the Church and the society.
Fr. Linh Hoang is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies of Siena College in Loudonville, NY. He teachers courses on World Religions and Globalization.
George D. Kelsey. Racism and the Christian Understanding of Man. New York: Charles Scribner’s. 1965.
Dorothy Roberts. Fatal Inventions: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-First Century. New York & London: The New Press. 2011.