“God’s Mandate is to Love One Another”
Macky Alston’s father was a Presbyterian minister who fought for five years to deny the fact that his son was gay. When, finally, his heart softened, and he accepted his son, he went before his congregation preaching a message asking for acceptance and inclusion. “Within a week, he had lost half his church,” Alston says.
Alston sat down with 1More Film Blog to discuss the new film, Love Free or Die, which profiles Eugene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, and chronicles the debate in the Episcopal Church of America as it prepares to vote on whether or not to accept the ordination as Bishops of people who are currently living in same-sex relationships.
One of the more striking features of Alston’s film is the way that it presents those within the church who are against Bishop Robinson and do not support the ordination. While many gay-rights or gay-history themed documentaries focus almost exclusively on the most hateful and intolerant examples of those who opposed to same-sex unions as a means of conveying the emotional scars such vitriol can leave, Alston said, “I wanted to make a film that humanized religious people, not just gays and lesbians.” Citing the memory of his father, the director spoke of the his desire to illustrate the fact that while scorn, ridicule, and violent threats are common experiences for gays in the church, he also sees many who struggle to (or ultimately cannot) accept same-sex unions but nevertheless try to affirm that “God’s mandate is to love one another” and that there is “no space for hatred” in the church.
In part because of its refusal to demonize all opponents of same-sex unions, Alston’s film has even drawn positive comments from those outside the gay community. Bishop Edward S. Little, told me he thought the film accurately portrayed and reflected the general tenor of the Episcopal Church during and after the 2009 vote that forms the film’s climax: “Sadly, there are some in the church who label anyone who cannot affirm same-sex blessings or the ordination of persons living in same-sex partnerships as homophobes, or as opponents of ‘justice.’ Love Free or Die does not do that, however, nor do most of my liberal colleagues.” Bishop Little also stated that while he could not, as a matter of theological conviction, support the blessings of same-sex unions, “I am committed to maintaining relationships with people with whom I disagree,” and “Gene Robinson is my friend and brother in Christ.”
Yet for all his attempts to frame disagreement more charitably and to insist Love Free or Die is as much a profile as a polemic, about a man whom he admires as much for his courage in making himself “utterly vulnerable” as he does for his stand for gay-rights, Macky Alston is cognizant that some viewers will only be interested in further debate, not in a film that shows how a community of believers handled and continue to handle its seemingly intractable disagreements.
In discussing whether it was even possible to change the minds or hearts of such people, Alston hearkened back to a moment during filming when a single protestor disrupted a service at which Bishop Robinson was invited to speak. As the man’s taunts became threatening, Alston noted that his hand was wrapped around or inside a motorcycle helmet. Fearing the man had a weapon, Alston, who was filming from the balcony, said he realized there was no way that he or anyone could get between the man and the Bishop in time to stop an attack if one were forthcoming. After several terrifying moments, when a few men were able to lead the man out of the church, the shaken and dazed congregation instinctively turned its attention back to Bishop Robinson, who offered the only acceptable answer any Christian could in such a situation. “Pray for that man,” he asked of those who would be led by his instruction.
Perhaps his own prayers for those who see him as their enemy or who have or would persecute him are misguided and, hence, doomed to failure, but like Eugene Robinson, and, most importantly, like his own father, Macky Alston has to try.
This interview was originally conducted for Christianity Today as part of its coverage of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.
Link to 1More Film Blog’s review of Love Free or Die.