Why is the gospel of love dividing America? Director Dan Merchant set out to answer that question in the documentary "Lord Save Us From Your Followers," which earlier this year won the Beliefnet Film Award for Best Spiritual Documentary. Following a life-changing trip to Ethiopia, Merchant and his amazing suit of bumper stickers traveled across the country to find out how the culture wars were affecting people from Grauman’s Theatre to Times Square and everywhere in between. His ultimate goal, to shift people from believing that the modus operandi of Christians is not to be right but to love unconditionally.
Through exclusive interviews with Al Franken, Rick Santorum and Tony Campolo--among others; soundbites from Bono and Pastor Rick Warren; and a slew of interesting man-on-the-street meetings, Merchant leaves no stone unturned in the search for peace in the midst of the faith and culture imbroglio. In an interview that took place during the 2008 International Christian Retail Show, Merchant talked to Beliefnet about the film, how it changed his life, and his favorite bumper stickers.
When did you realize that the culture wars and this problem with Christianity is worth a book and a movie?
The defining point was following a trip to Ethiopia. Coming back from one of those unsettling look-in-the-mirror experiences in Ethiopia and comparing that against the very political, divisive kind of strident climate that Christians in America were having. There was a guy in Ethiopia that I met, a 19-year-old who was an Ethiopian Christian and he was one of many that really touched my heart and shook up my head, along with Christians from around the world and from America who were there doing, you know, the hard work, doing the good work. And this young man and I got to talking about faith. He said that we’re all children of God and that we’re in different continents and we speak different languages and our skin colors are different, but we’re still all children of God. And I was like, yeah, it feels like that should be how it is. We have way more in common than we have differences, and I really liked that.
And we were talking about our faith, and he was trying to help me understand what he believed. So he went into this story. He explained that his mother died of AIDS. And he said to me, "But she didn’t die for me. And my father died of AIDS, but he didn’t die for me. But, Jesus Christ, he died for me."
As those words left his lips, this thought ran across my brain, like, "Wow, this kid sounds like he believes this stuff," and--you know, it begged the question, "Well, what do you believe, Dan? Isn’t that what you believe? Don’t you believe God knows the number of hairs on your head?"And it’s like, well, I guess I don’t really believe that and I thought I did. And you had to see the expression on his face.
There’s just this comfort, strength and, assurance. It’s like, wow, is that what really believing it looks like? Does really believing and trusting in God mean you can sleep on a mud floor in a hut and brush your teeth in a drainage ditch with your finger and be happier than me? Is that what believing in God means? Wow. It forces you to look in the mirror. It forces you to figure out how come you don’t believe like that? Is it because I’m too comfortable in America and I don’t have to? Most of us don’t have to rely on God hourly or a minute-by-minute the way most of the world lives. But to have that kind of faith in God and that kind of reliance in God really impressed me. It really shook me up, and it forced me to look in a mirror.
That was really the start of this journey for “Lord, Save Us From Your Followers.” It’s about trying to reconcile the distance between the perception of Christ and the perception of Christians, the difference between a guy who can trust in God and be happier than I am when I have 10 times the worldly possessions. I’ve got to figure out how to reconcile that distance between how he believes and I believe.
So, it was sort of in that space that we started off on this journey. And it demands a lot from you. You’ve got to get out of your own comfort zone and you’ve got to realize that being right about everything is not where it’s at, and that actually trying to get inside of these inconvenient things Christ says, like, you know, "Love one another," "Love your enemy as yourself," that that’s a whole different kind of being right.
How do you know that how Christians are perceived isn’t actually the way they are supposed to be perceived according to the scripture?
Well, if we’re persecuted for our beliefs, so be it. And if we’re persecuted because we’re a jerk, that’s something entirely different. And I think, more often than not, that’s [the latter] actually the case. You know, I’m as guilty as anybody of sitting back on the scripture and going, "Oh, the truth divides. It's pearls before swine," you know, all these things that--if I think about it, all of those things allow me to remain motionless and pious and not go out of my way for other people.