Sermon for February 9th, 2020
11 You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, 12 so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Faith & Film VIII: Jojo Rabbit
Three Minute Film Synopsis
Jojo Rabbit is one of those movies that people either really love or really hate. Which is really ironic, since the entire premise of the film is about love overcoming hate.
I have to admit, I wanted to see this film mostly because it's about a 10 year old boy named Jojo. My 8 year old son, Jonah, has been nicknamed "Jojo" since he was a baby, and as he will tell you, he is the original Jojo Rabbit since he was born in the Chinese year of the Rabbit. I see a lot of him in the film's main character, Jojo Bexler -- a good-natured boy who passionately wants to belong to a group--that wears uniforms, goes camping, and looks up to a dynamic leader.
Unfortunately, that group is the "Hitler's Youth" in the final years of World War II, and the dynamic leader that Jojo looks up to is none other than Adolf Hitler, who in the film is also Jojo's imaginary friend, seen through the impressionable eyes of a 10 year old boy.
Jojo is a passionate young Nazi, but through the course of the film he begins to question his blind allegiance to the Fuhrer, especially when he befriends and then falls in love with a young Jewish girl that his mother (who is part of the German resistance movement) is hiding in the attic.
The film is a satire, and pokes fun at some Nazi ideologies that have, unfortunately, been making a comeback in our own time. Many people, while watching this film, are initially unsure whether or not it's appropriate to laugh at the humor, which can be very campy, over the top, and borderline offensive at times--but I think this is a film with great heart, and a great message. Laughing at absurdity, and even laughing at ourselves sometimes, is actually a great way to change the world. Of all the films we've talked about this year, Jojo Rabbit remains my favorite.
Heil me, man!
In the opening sequence, as he is about to join the ranks of Hitler's Youth, Jojo pledges his allegiance to Hitler, whom he calls the "savior" of his country. Some things to pay attention to in the clip: 1. Jojo's momentary uncertainty (which is the flip side of his blind allegiance); 2. Of all the animals he names, the rabbit is not one of them; and 3. The thing about the shoelaces.
You might recognize the song that was playing at the end of that clip, even though it's a bit anachronistic. It's the Beatles' "I want to hold your hand." As the song continues to play, we see massive crowds of genuinely adoring German fans mobbing Adolf Hitler in much the same way that the Beatles were mobbed by fans here in the United States. The Beatles song is sung in German, with the chorus, "Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand," which literally means "Come give me your hand," ...exactly what all of Hitler's adoring fans are doing, extending their hands in the infamous Nazi Salute.
The German word "heil" or it's English equivalent, "hail" is etymologically related to an older Germanic word "heilig" which, in English, means "holy." It is a term of reverence, a term of worship, and the way in which young Jojo worships his hero, Adolf Hitler is certainly worshipful. His mother, and other characters in the film are portrayed with having a problem with this kind of "blind reverence," and in fact they weren't the only ones.
When Hitler attempted to take over the churches in Germany during World War II, a small group of Reformed pastors banded together and produced a document known as the Barmen Declaration. Today, it is part of the constitution of the Presbyterian Church, and it speaks strongly against the notion that we, as Christians, owe allegiance to any earthly ruler who seeks to put himself in the place of (or above) God, and God's commandments.
To whom do we lift our hands? To whom do we give our allegiance? Both the film and our own Reformed tradition call into question what happens when we put our political and party affiliations over and above our faith, and our obligation to love and care for all of God's children, of any race or nationality.
Love Your Enemies
The first time I saw this film in the theatre, a well-intentioned theatre employee asked me what I thought about the movie as I was leaving. I said that I liked it, to which he responded, "Good, because the Nazis are making a comeback in our country today, and we need to kick the stuff out of them all over again!" (only he didn't say "stuff"). I think he missed the entire point of the film. It's not a film about defeating or hating Nazis, past or present. It's a film about finding something loveable, something redeemable, even in your most bitter, hated enemy.
Like Jojo, who is a self-professed Nazi, and Elsa, the Jewish girl hiding in his attic.
Jojo's perception of his Jewish enemy is formed mostly by false propaganda, and as his relationship with Elsa grows, those perceptions--not just of her, but of Jewish people in general--begin to evaporate.
Elsa's perception of her Nazi enemy is grounded in historical fact and personal experience. But even while she has the stronger justification to hate, she chooses to engage with him, to be patient with him and give him space to grow.
In our own polarized political climate today, this is something I think we have forgotten. Too often (and I see this on both sides of the political divide) we dehumanize those with whom we disagree. Jesus tells us in Matthew 5 to "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." That's a lot easier said than done, but I think it begins in relationship, in conversation, and in acknowledging that whatever issues or wars may divide us, that we are all God's beloved children--Jews, Christians, Republicans, Democrats, and yes...even Nazis.
Blue Butterflies and Bunny Rabbits
As humorous as this film is, it doesn't shy away from showing us the brutalities and the tragedies of war. There are scenes of people being mocked and bullied, frightening scenes of children losing their parents, and mass executions. But woven in between the images of horror are also images of wonder and beauty. Not grandiose wonder, but small things, like a little blue butterfly, or a frightened bunny rabbit -- things that remind us that beauty and goodness are fragile and fleeting...but still there, if you look for them. Even amidst the chaos and violence of war.
Of course, the rabbit also symbolizes Jojo, who is innocent but often reckless; brave, but often frightened. And the blue butterfly symbolizes Rosie, Jojo's mother, who is beautiful and bright, often wears a blue overcoat, and is always fluttering, dancing her way through life.
Do What You Can...
There's a scene where Jojo and his mother come across a row of people who have been publicly executed by hanging. He asks her what they did, and with a great deal of sympathy in her voice, she says, "what they could." This is a mantra for Rosie. In another scene, when Jojo misses his father, she dresses up like her husband and tells Jojo, "I need you to look after my Rosie--she's doing what she can."
And she does. She ties her son's shoelaces. She works to put food on the table. She takes a Jewish girl into her home, hiding her and protecting her. She secretly hands out pamphlets promoting resistance to the Nazis, which ultimately costs her her life.
Do what you can.
A lot of films in our culture like to focus on large, heroic, world-changing acts of bravery, feats of great skill and accomplishment.
But some--and this is a thread that runs through many of this year's films--focus on small and simple acts of every day kindness. Like Mr. Rogers taking care of a stranger in Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Or the March family sharing their Christmas breakfast with their neighbors in Little Women. Or Anna in Frozen singing about doing the "next right thing." Or Rosie in Jojo Rabbit, telling herself and he son to "Do what you can."
Here's a clip of Jojo near the end of the film. Gone is the Nazi uniform, the false confidence and bravado. Gone is the imaginary friend, but also his mother, as her voice, her philosophy becomes his own.
Dancing is another recurring thread this year...in fact it shows up in every single one of our six films:
- The Mr. Rogers song and dance at the beginning and end of each show.
- Jo and Laurie dancing with wild abandon in Little Women.
- Anna and Elsa dancing through the streets of Arendale in Frozen 2.
- Pope Benedict and Pope Francis doing the tango together in the Two Popes
- Ken Miles slow dancing with his wife in the garage in Ford v. Ferrari
- And of course, throughout Jojo Rabbit...
Why? Perhaps Rosie says it best:
Dancing is for people who are free, it's an escape from all this.
The picture that our films seem to be painting, the story they all seem to be telling, is of a world turned upside down and inside out. We may not be in the middle of a war-zone, but I get the sense that many people in our culture today feel overwhelmed and powerless in the face of things beyond their ability to control.
What do you do in a world like that?
First, you do what you can...which is always something, no matter how small. Second...you dance.
You dance in spite of danger and fear. You dance in spite of sorrow and loss. With someone else, or all by yourself, you dance. In whatever crazy, ridiculous way you know how, you dance. We believe in a God who turns mourning into dancing, who takes away our suffering and clothes us with joy. And so we dance.
In the final scene of Jojo Rabbit, the allies have liberated Germany, but Jojo at first lies to Elsa, telling her that Germany won the war. He does this because he's afraid she will leave him now that the war is over, and she is the only person he has left in the world. And then he pushes through his fear, bringing her out into the dangerous (but free) world...after tying her shoes, of course. You do what you can.