It is hard to believe that A Time for Burning could have been made without a script. Released in 1966, the film was a pioneering sort of documentary that wanted to tell a story through the eyes and voice of real people. The filmmakers wanted to explore the issue of racism in the church, and they settled on going to the all-white congregation of Augustana Lutheran Church in Omaha, NE. A new pastor, Bill Youngdahl, had just been hired. Youngdahl was heavily involved in the civil rights movement elsewhere, and the filmmakers were "looking for struggle, but hoping for success" in Youngdahl's attempts to make Augustana more inclusive.
In the ensuing film, the filmmakers captured a story that couldn't have been scripted in a more dramatic fashion. They documented Youngdahl as he met with church leaders, members of the congregation, and members of the African-American community in Omaha. Youngdahl believed that the best way to get his congregation to bust the myth that "the white man is superior to the black man" was to have his congregation try to establish real relationships with black people. He organized an "exchange" program of sorts, in which white children from Augustana visited a black Lutheran congregation, and children from the black Luterhan congregation visited Augustana. The program was supposed to be the first step in a larger initiative that would involve congregants meeting in their homes for dinner with black Lutheran families. Unfortunately for Youngdahl, the first step turned out to be a step too far and too fast for his congregation. He was pressured to slow down his new innovations. Stubbornly, he pushed on in his belief that he had a biblical calling to get Augustana to reach out to the black community in Omaha...and within a year, Youngdahl was forced to resign.
The most powerful scenes in the film happen when a young black barber named Ernie Chambers is on camera. In one of those scenes, Youngdahl visited Chambers' barbershop in an effort to reach out, only to receive an earful from Chambers. He told Youngdahl:
We've learned the lessons you've taught us...you did not take over this country by singing 'we shall overcome'...You're treaty breakers, you're liars, you're thieves...you rape entire continents of races of people. Your religion means nothing...and I can say 'you,' because you're part of the whole system....you profit from it...As far as we're concerned, your Jesus is contaminated just like everything else you've tried to force upon us in contaminated...I wish you'd follow Jesus like we've followed him. If you did that, then we'd be in charge tomorrow...The problem is so bad, that we can have no understanding at all.Youngdahl stood, pensively and silently taking in Chambers' rebuke. His only comment captured on film is to ask Chambers, "What about the person who really wants to listen?" To which Chambers prophetically replies, "Well, if you listen and try to do something, you'll get kicked out of your church. That's the way your people are."
Although the film ends with Youngdahl leaving the congregation, there is one success story in the film. A congregant named Ray Christiansen is featured throughout. For the first half of the film, Christiansen is documented trying to slow down Youngdahl's programs, and expressing worry about the pace of the change that is happening. Yet, by the end of the film, Christiansens' outlook has been changed to the point that he is filmed explaining to his wife why he believes that Augustana must take immediate steps in reaching out to black people...his conversation ends with his wife in tears, unable to understand her husbands' new-found beliefs.
A Time for Burning is a powerful film that still holds up surprisingly well in quality and depth today. It provides an invaluable look at the conflict brought about by the dynamic social changes occurring in the 1960s. For those who consider Omaha their home, it provides an interesting snapshot of the specific racial tensions of 1960s Omaha, tensions which still exist today. The film also serves as a reminder to Christians of the danger in resisting change and uncritically holding fast to traditional practices. There are certain biblical truths that must be defended, yes. But cultural practices and behaviors that are not foundational to a biblical understanding have a tendency to be added to the Gospel over time. The sad truth is that American churches considered "orthodox" and conservative in theology were usually the churches slowest to speak out against racism, and in fact, some were actively involved in promoting racism. It was often those dreaded "liberal" churches, with a social gospel theology, that were able to break through the prison of traditional practice and speak biblical truth against the sin of racism.
(For a more in-depth analysis of the movie, you can check out this article.)