Seeing human dignity in the “The Peanut Butter Falcon”

The inherent worth of those with Down syndrome

September 16, 2019

When we first meet 22-year-old Zak (played by Zack Gottsagen), he is in a nursing home cafeteria, sitting with an elderly lady and plotting an escape. Not the lady’s escape, mind you, but his own. This is the endearing opening scene in the recent indie film “The Peanut Butter Falcon” (rated PG-13, mostly for language). 

Because he has Down syndrome and no family to care for him, Zak lives under the watchful care of Eleanor (Dakota Johnson). But Zak is unhappy and wants nothing more than to escape and go on the run to join the wrestling school of his hero, The Saltwater Redneck. Once he does finally escape, the plot for Zak is set in motion. 

At the same time, Tyler (Shia LeBeouf), a fisherman on the lam with troubles of his own, runs into Zak along the coast of the North Carolina marshlands. After some initial hesitation, the odd couple form a partnership and begin traveling together on what becomes an unforgettable adventure.

“The Peanut Butter Falcon” is a well-acted, funny, and endearing movie. While the same could be said about any number of films, what sets this movie apart is the fact that a man with Down syndrome isn’t just a side character, he’s the main character. Aside from “Life Goes On,” the television series from the late 80’s/early 90’s, movies and television have typically shied away from giving major roles to people with Down syndrome. But perhaps with the success of a film like this, more opportunities will be given.

Highlighting strengths, not exploiting weaknesses

Each human life is special, not because of what a person can do or what he has accomplished, but because each of us was created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:27). To give a film role to someone who is typically marginalized or kept at arm’s length is a beautiful recognition of that image-bearer’s dignity. To be sure, Zack Gottsagen wasn’t simply given a leading film role because he has Down syndrome. He has studied acting for years and even taught at one point. 

When the film’s co-directors, Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, met Zack and watched him act, they noticed true talent. But it wasn’t until Zack himself suggested it that they all determined to make a full-length feature film together. After creating a proof-of-concept trailer, the trio sent out the video to Hollywood stars LaBeouf and Johnson, who both loved the story and quickly jumped on board. 

What also makes this film unique is that the filmmakers don’t exploit weaknesses in the main character to tell their story. Instead, they focus on his determination. They focus on his physical strength. They focus on his ability to befriend and love others without condition. Sure, he has weaknesses and flaws, but in highlighting the positive aspects of Zak and the things he can do, the filmmakers again recognize his inherent dignity and give their audience a more interesting and well-rounded character. 

Each human life is special, not because of what a person can do or what he has accomplished, but because each of us was created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:27).

Love and truth without pretense

But the best arc may be that of LaBeouf’s character, a small-time outlaw on the run. Along the way, he meets Zak. At first, he is annoyed by Zak and bails on him. After seeing him bullied by someone and called the r-word, he comes to Zak’s defense and a friendship is born. But the beauty of this relationship is that it isn’t one of pity—it’s a friendship built on mutual respect, care, and ultimately love. That onscreen friendship and respect seems to have carried over into real life as well. 

During the filming of the movie, LaBeouf was arrested for public drunkeness. According to a March 2018 Esquire article, the day LaBeouf got out of jail Gottsagen confronted him, saying, “You’re already famous. This is my chance and you’re ruining it.” He later asked LaBeouf, “Do you believe in God?” In his interview with the magazine LaBeouf said, “I don’t believe in God . . . But did I see God? Did I hear God? Through Zack, yeah. He met me with love, and at the time, love was truth, and he didn’t pull punches. And I’m grateful.” 

The fascinating thing about LaBeouf’s admission is that we often look to people like him for wisdom and truth. We put celebrities on pedestals. However, in 1 Corinthians 1:27, Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, flips that on its head: “But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.” 

In a world of polish and pretense, there’s something beautifully refreshing about Zak—both the actor and the film character. He inspires us to find people in our own lives who are more concerned with love and truth than with the opinions of others. As we recognize the dignity within each human being, perhaps we can take a cue from “The Peanut Butter Falcon” and learn from those in our own communities and churches who can teach us, just by how they live and reflect God’s nature. 

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