It's sometime in the not-too-distant future, and a good chunk of America has had it up to here with our whole freedom of religion thing.
Oh, sure, no one wants to completely gut the First Amendment. No one's forcing the founding fathers to leap out of their graves and shamble around the Capitol with picket signs. But many seem to want to tinker a bit, you know, fix it up for a new millennium. After all, religion can be uncomfortably controversial. So Sen. Donald Harrison has introduced a bill—the Faith and Fairness Act—that would make it a requirement for religious leaders to express their beliefs in a way that "permits equal time and respect to other systems of faith." He says, "This is the future of our evolution in this nation, ladies and gentlemen."
John Luther, though, isn't evolving. John's the leader of Truth, the largest Christian organization in the country, and a critic of the Faith and Fairness Act. Never mind that Sen. Harrison is a huge backer of John's ministry: The truth is the truth. There's only one road to heaven, and that road goes through Jesus, John insists.
Clearly, the guy's a serious troublemaker. So despite years of friendship, Don hatches a detailed plan to jettison John and squelch his salvation sermons.
Step 1: Have John pose for a couple of post-sermon selfies with an admiring 16-year-old girl.
Step 2: Kidnap John.
Step 3: Drug John.
Step 4: Stick John in a car with the girl.
Step 5: Take pictures of the girl getting physical with the passed-out John.
Step 6: Kill the girl.
It's hard to have much spiritual authority or political clout when you're in prison for rape and murder.
But John comes to in the nick of time and escapes. And while the not-so-good senator still holds the frame for John's new landscape picture, his dogged preacher friend-turned-foe is determined to smear all that fresh paint … by telling the truth.
John is a reformed drug addict who found Jesus and turned his life around. And he clearly has a great deal of affection for his wife, Monica, and his daughter. He tries to make up for missing his daughter's recital, and he apologizes to Monica for shutting her out sometimes. When he's at the end of his rope, John prays not for himself, but for the safety of his wife and child. For her part, Monica never loses faith in John's innocence, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.
John runs into various people who help him when he's in need—a charity worker who gives him water and lets him borrow a phone, for instance. "The arms of God aren't as far away as you think," she tells him, believing him to be a vagrant. John's father, Charles, is willing to go to extreme lengths to clear his son's name, as is Charles' young protégé William.
Philosophically, the movie compels us to grapple with what it looks like to have religious freedom in our modern world. It asks, Do we still have it in America? And it goes to some length, story-wise, to reinforce how important such freedom is. (I'll write more on how the movie handles this central question in my Conclusion.)
That topic of religious freedom triggers a cascade of spiritual concepts, ideas and images. Bibles are handled like treasured objects, brandished like weapons and thrown into puddles of mud. John carries his copy and reads from it in good times and bad. He quotes Scripture, prays and gets angry with God when things seem darkest. ("Are You not true to Your name?!" he hollers to the heavens.) And when he's told his spiritual commitment could send his ministry out into the proverbial wilderness—thus limiting its effectiveness—John reminds himself and his staff that another of God's servants also went into the wilderness … and then reached far more people than the Truth ministry ever will.
Charles Luther is an Episcopal priest who tells his son, "God will decide who's found wanting. They can't silence the truth." Ryan, John's second in command at Truth, may well be one of the "wanting," claiming that John's apparent cataclysmic backslide has shaken his own faith … while greedily taking over the ministry.
Others also end up either outright opposing John and his commitment to his faith, or snipe from the sidelines. Sen. Harrison at one point snaps, "Stop with the Lord!" He talks about how the U.S. is no longer a Christian nation (and, he adds, it never really was) and how his bill will usher in a time when people of different faiths can walk "hand in hand toward the light." He presses his case with John, saying that it's exciting to think of people of "all faiths on bended knees before the throne."
"What throne?" John asks.
While helping the senator frame John, the teen girl "makes out" with the unconscious pastor, embracing him, lying on top of him and pretending to lick his face. Pictures are later broadcast on television, and much is made of the girl being underage. "The public does not take kindly to a sexual predator on the loose," Harrison says. Ryan says that John might have solicited prostitutes in his past.
In John's absence, Ryan stops by to "comfort" John's wife. While he never does anything sexually overt, his actions leave the impression that he's trying to make a move on her.
Bad guys shoot a man in the head, then set up the crime scene to look as if it was a suicide. We see the hole in his flesh, the blood-streaked face and more blood pooling on the ground. Another person is shot in the forehead, still another in the knee. Bullets pierce chests and backs in other scenes.
John is rarely seen without blood on him. Sometimes it's from a stray branch raking him across the face. But other times the wounds are much worse: He's shot, for instance, and we see him clutching at his bloodstained shirt.
John confesses that he was "abusive" before he found God. In the present, he uses a gun to both intimidate others and to pistol whip a man. We see the teen girl get smacked across the face, and we hear that she was indeed killed to seal the dirty deal.
Crude or Profane Language
One "h---" and three questionable uses of God's name.
Drug and Alcohol Content
John was both an alcoholic and a drug addict before he was saved, and Ryan jokes that Truth is the only ministry that buys its communion wine by the keg. The underage girl takes some sort of drug before meeting John. (She's told she's about to go on a ride she'll never forget.) John is injected with a drug that renders him unconscious. A small group of twentysomethings seems to be high. Charles smokes a cigar.
Other Negative Elements
John appears to "borrow" a Volvo to facilitate his escape. And after he realizes he's being framed, he goes on the lam, running from the authorities who are now looking for him. It's an overtly illegal act in a country ruled by law and due process. But it's an action that's …
… spiritually excused in the context of this story by John reading aloud part of Psalm 7, a passage written by David when he was on the run from King Saul.
That sets up the pivot point for this taut (if sometimes inconsistent) spiritual thriller, filled with schemes and shootouts and bad behavior. As such, it's more problematic, content-wise, than many other contemporary Christian films. But it seems to deliberately use force to voice this urgent call: Be aware that your religious freedoms could come under attack.
"Persecuted imagines a world in which politicians essentially want to silence ministers by demanding that their messages about God be balanced by opposing points of view." writes former U.S. Senator Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), who plays Charles Luther. "There's no doubt about my politics, but in this movie the good guys aren't all Republicans and the bad guys aren't all Democrats. No, the good guys are those who love freedom and cherish the right to speak freely without any government interference."
Indeed, religious freedom is a very big deal. It is the bedrock upon which America was founded. And while the sort of vicious persecution Christians currently experience in some other countries is not a reality here in the United States, many American Christians already feel that their faith is under attack—citing such things as the removal of Ten Commandments statues in certain courtrooms and the eschewing of religious carols in malls and schools at Christmastime. And as the campaign for gay marriage grows ever stronger, religious leaders who believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman because God Himself set things up that way are feeling tremendous pressure to either change their views or simply shut up.
We live in a world that makes it simultaneously hard and easy to imagine something happening the way it does to John Luther. It seems both distant and close at hand. Which leaves us with lots of questions, questions the movie means for us to ponder:
Should we run when the heat is turned up, the way John does? Should we retaliate in the violent way John does? Or should we stand our ground and fight for freedom within the legal structure already established? What if that structure changes? And how much should it change before we act? When is breaking the law the right thing to do? Will it ever be?
For now, most of us can firmly stand on our beliefs and ideals while still being generous and open-handed neighbors. We can discuss differences in love and gentleness without ever letting go of our principles. John Luther says as much at the story's start. "If I thought for a second that I could look down on anyone for their beliefs, I wouldn't be sitting here," he says. And yet he insists that faith in Christ is the only way to salvation: "Not one of the ways. The way."
The same sort of absoluteness cannot be applied to Persecuted, of course. There is no one perfect way to feel about it or respond to it. It has its problems, both in terms of content and plot and even message. But its subject is a timely one, well worth putting much more thought into than most of us usually do.