Theme: The Dignity of Man
and the Glory of God
Selma opens in a setting of beauty and intimacy. A handsome man and his beautiful wife are getting dressed in elegant attire to attend a glittering ceremony. While the wife ties his ascot the husband shares his dream. “I am going to be a Pastor, somewhere small; a college town where I can teach.”
The man is Dr. Martin Luther King who with his wife, Coretta, is in Norway to receive the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. He is being honored for another, much larger and more public dream, that of bringing justice to the American Negro who has systematically been denied his right to vote and his dignity as a human being.
This opening scene is vital for grasping the deeper message in the movie Selma. Yes, at one level Selma is about the loss of civil rights for the American Negro and one of the key battles to restore those rights. Dr. King’s private dream will have to be sacrificed for the larger dream and eventually so will his life. But this is not the only story in Selma; the battle for civil rights is a lens through which an even larger dream and story can be seen. Selma tells the story of the dignity of man created in the image of God, created as reflectors of God’s glory. It tells of the loss of the original dignity and calling of human beings through the entrance of death, the sacrifice required for redemption and the vision of glory fully restored.
Seen through this lens, this opening scene is Edenic in beauty. Man and woman, husband and wife, dignified, honored, esteemed, have a dream of life to be lived in its fullness to the glory of God. And as Dr. King makes his speech in Norway, beautiful little girls looking as if they could be the progeny of this noble couple descend a staircase in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama.
The shock of the blast and the timing of it literally shake the viewing audience. This is as it should be. Not only has the filmmaker caught the unbelievable horror of the bombing, but here again has captured something transcendent. This is a way of seeing the Fall of Mankind and the horror of death. Everything in God’s beautiful creation, all which God said was good including his beloved children, now broken and shattered into fragments beyond counting.
After the slow motion photography of the disintegration of beauty, holiness, and innocence, the film becomes still before a pile of rubble. Looming over the remains of church and bodies are two beams in the shape of a cross. So too with the Fall of Man and the destruction of the Edenic temple; from Genesis 3:15 on the shadow of the cross looms over the unfolding story of God’s grace and salvation.1
These two stories, civil rights for the American Negro and dignity for humankind, are inextricably linked throughout Selma. They both begin with denial. American Negros have been denied individually (e.g. Annie Cooper registering to vote) and corporately their civil rights by systematic use of fear and intimidation. The ultimate end of this denial has been death, death to the psyche and often times to the body. They are still in bondage to those who exercise dominance over them.
Humanity denied its union with God by the Fall lives in a state of bondage to fear, suffers the loss of true identity, and is subject to death.
The first step in righting the wrongs of this systematic denial of civil rights is for someone to acknowledge the human rights and human dignity of the American Negro and expose the injustice of those who perpetuate their bondage. Martin Luther King is that voice; from pulpit to prison, from White House to Selma, he never stops proclaiming the righteousness of his call for justice and equality for all. Like a Biblical prophet he listens for the word of the Lord (“I need to hear the Lord’s voice”) and then proclaims it knowing full well the opposition which will come.
The battle in Selma is portrayed as a multifaceted one including politics, culture, economics, race and the legal system. Underneath the visible aspects of the campaign, however, is the invisible yet real spiritual warfare. Hatred, violence, cruelty, bigotry and death have a source. In the Bible this source is referred to as the “Adversary”, “Accuser of the Brethren”, and“The Devil”. In Selma the enforcers of evil are named Hoover and Wallace.
The battle in Selma is won by two things: word and sacrifice. Martin Luther King’s pencil proves mightier than Wallace’s billy clubs; and the blood of martyrs black and white, male and female proves mightier than Johnson’s hesitations.
The battle for the restoration of original glory to human beings was also won by word and sacrifice. The Word of God, Jesus Christ became flesh and gave his life as a ransom for many.
“Since then the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil; and might deliver those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.” Hebrews 2:14-15
A benediction is the bestowing of a blessing especially at the end of a religious service, and in many ways this is a fitting word for the end of the movie Selma.
The film opened with an intimate moment, the surrender of a private dream to a greater one and a public proclamation of the great dream. Selma concludes in the same manner. Martin Luther King confides to a government man trying to protect him that he is no different than any other man and wants to live a long life. However, he cannot focus on what he wants; he must focus on what God wants. He has been called for a reason: to bring light into the darkness even if it costs him his life.
The final scene is of Dr. King’s speech at the Alabama State Capitol on March 3, 1965. He recounts the long hard journey to overcome society’s distortion of the American Negro. He concludes his speech by quoting from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, written by Julia Ward Howe.
“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord . . . glory Hallelujah . . . His truth is marching on”.
These lyrics penned during the Civil War transcend emancipation and civil rights. They look forward to the glorious Coming of Jesus Christ (Revelation 19) when all evil and death will be destroyed and God’s dream of restoring His creation and His children to their original glory will be accomplished. This is the greater dream Dr. King gave his life to; for he understood the dignity of man is the glory of God.
Note 1: Eden was considered the first temple in the Bible.