Justice and mercy: A comparison of The Birth of a Nation and Hacksaw Ridge

November 4, 2016

This fall movie season Hollywood offers up the stories of two little-known American heroes from two controversial filmmakers. In “The Birth of a Nation,” director and star, Nate Parker, tells the story of Nat Turner, a slave who longs for justice and leads a bloody rebellion. Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge” recounts how Desmond Doss went into the terrible Battle of Okinawa in World War II offering mercy as an army medic and saving many of the wounded without ever carrying a gun.

Both films are based on true stories and are unflinching in their depiction of violence. Both feature protagonists who are strong Christians. And yet the fundamental difference in these films lies in the way each of these characters interprets Scripture. One story depicts a man who believes he should lay down his arms; the other, a man who takes up arms.

The Birth of a Nation

Nat Turner is a Virginia slave who becomes literate at a young age and is only allowed to read the Bible. As such, he becomes a preacher, encouraging his fellow slaves to take heart and trust the Lord. However, in order to earn more money, his master begins using him on other plantations to preach a message of subordination and obedience to masters, even to those masters who are harsh. At one point, his wife is raped by white men. In anger Nat wants to avenge her, but she reminds him that those who take up the sword die by the sword (Matt. 26:52).

After seeing the suffering of his brothers and sisters on different plantations, Nat begins seeing visions and believes he is being called upon by God to free the slaves, murder their masters and exact justice. The passage he uses as his basis for this comes from 1 Samuel 15, where Samuel gives Saul God’s instruction to punish the Amalekites for their treatment of Israel, sparing no one. Nat holds meetings rallying more slaves until finally, they rebel. The insurrection is short-lived, but in its wake are scores of lives lost, both white and black.

The beginning of “The Birth of a Nation” shows white men and women twisting Scripture to justify slavery. By the end of the film, Nat has also used Scripture to justify his fight against injustice as he and his fellow slaves take up arms.

Hacksaw Ridge

“Hacksaw Ridge” tells the true story of another Virginian, this one white. Desmond Doss was a Seventh-day Adventist who joined the army during World War II. While Nat Turner believed God wanted him to fight and kill, Doss believed God wanted him to lay down his arms and save lives as a medic on the battlefield.

His ideals and convictions are put to the test upon his arrival to boot camp. He is, at least according to the film, quickly singled out as a coward and a man who cannot be trusted to have your back in the heat of battle because of his refusal to even touch a rifle. Of course this couldn’t be further from the truth, as Doss hates the pain and suffering he sees and desires to save life as opposed to taking it. Once he and his division hit Okinawa in the midst of battle, his true mettle shines through as he tends to the wounded and saves the lives of many men. Upon his return home, Doss is awarded several honors including the Medal of Honor, the first of only three conscientious objectors ever to be given the award.

Neither of these films shy away from the faith aspects of their main characters. In both, the Bible is read, quoted and revered. The faith elements never play out in a ham-fisted manner, which is truly refreshing. So how, then, do these two stories that both revere the Bible have such differing views? Nat Turner ends up believing he is an instrument of God’s wrath upon the unjust, and Desmond Doss believes in a turn-the-other cheek meekness that seeks to love the enemy that is mowing down his fellow soldiers. And what, then, does that say about his comrades who are fighting and taking life?

These are the questions I’ve been pondering after seeing these movies two weeks apart. And I don’t have the answers. Instead, I think I’ll pose a new question. How then shall we live? In one story, I see a man who hates injustice and fights for freedom and for the oppressed. In another, I see a man who values every human life, even that of his enemy.

So perhaps my best takeaway from these films is doing what I do with everything I watch, and that is simply to look at it through the lens of the gospel. The gospel offers up so many of God’s attributes, such as justice, forgiveness, love, mercy and grace, to name a few. I’m reminded of Nat’s longing for justice and his sacrifice, and I’m reminded of the mercy Doss offers to those who mistreat him and his forgiveness of the ones who hate him.

These stories are important because they inspire empathy for our fellow image-bearers and inspire us, the audience, to think deeply about complicated issues. But, of course, they are mere shadows of the greater story—the story of a simple man who knew when to turn the other cheek and when to turn over tables. This is the story of a God-man who sacrificed everything for us at the cross, where justice and mercy perfectly coalesced to save sinners.

Erik Parks

Erik Parks is married to author Catherine Parks and has two children. He is a Nashville filmmaker whose debut feature film, “Why We Breathe” is currently in post-production and will be released in 2019. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24