A litmus test of Christian morality: the film North Country

north countryMy wife and I wanted to watch a light film at home this past Saturday night and then go to bed early. We made the mistake of putting in the movie North Country, which came out in 2005. It was inspired by a landmark sexual harassment case that took place in a Minnesota coal mine. As I was watching the film, I was shocked by how mercilessly the protagonist Josey Aimes was treated by her co-workers, her family, and even the other women in the mine who were victims of the same sexual harassment. I said to my wife, “This seems a little bit over the top,” and she said, “Oh no, this is what women really deal with.” As I saw Josey standing up for her dignity with the whole world against her, I thought a real test of my Christian morality would be if I had the guts to stand up for her if I were working in that mine.

Since it’s an eight year old movie, I’m not going to worry about spoilers. The movie starts with Josey leaving her husband because he was abusing her. Josey has two children who were both born out of wedlock, one of whom was born when she was 16. She goes back to live with her parents in northern Minnesota. They all go together to a church event, and predictably, the church ladies are gossiping about her in the kitchen.Josey gets a job at the local mine along with several other local women. During their time there, they are harassed by the other miners sexually and otherwise. One woman gets groped early on. Josey gets cornered by a guy who tries to make out with her. There is graffiti referring to blowjobs with graphic illustrations. After Josey goes to the supervisor to complain, he not only does nothing, but in retaliation, the men trash the women’s locker room, which the other women blame on Josey. Then, the miners knock over a portapotty with a woman inside of it, covering her in nasty water. They masturbate onto a woman’s sweater in her locker. When Josey gets physically assaulted, she quits work and decides to file a lawsuit.Throughout the court proceedings, Josey is the one who is put on trial. Everyone is against her, including her family and the other women who work at the mine. The way she’s discredited is to call her a slut because of the circumstances of her son’s birth. It seems to me that this is one way that Christian morality can function, particularly with regard to sexuality. People who are sexually pure gain the right to dismiss the dignity of those who aren’t, no matter what their circumstances.It turns out that Josey’s son was born as a result of rape. I’ve often heard that people who are molested or raped often end up in a series of abusive relationships throughout their lives as a result. It made me wonder about the woman who came into Simon the Pharisee’s house in Luke 7 to wash Jesus’ feet, the woman whom Simon referred to as a sinner. What if her first time, she was raped, and this was the reason she found herself in a series of exploitative relationships that reduced her to being a “sinful woman” in the eyes of her community?Jesus takes up for the woman who washes his feet at the expense of his dinner host. He publicly humiliates Simon when Simon had done no more than frowned on the situation and thought judgmental thoughts. I wonder how many Christians working in that mine would have been content to be like Simon the Pharisee and dismiss Josey Aimes as a trouble-making slut (even if they used more polite Christian terminology). What kind of moral foundation would it take to stand with Josey against everyone else?If Christian holiness is about no more than keeping my hands clean and avoiding all the behaviors that the Bible tells me to avoid, then I would have no moral basis for sticking my neck out for someone like Josey Aimes. Under a holiness that sees “purity” as its only goal, your moral obligation to other people is simply not to harm anyone or cause a mess or a burden that other people have to deal with. Someone who raises a stink about how she’s being treated in the workplace is already condemned under that kind of morality for being an “uppity feminist” who is unwilling to “carry her cross” quietly and “stay out of trouble.”It would take a completely different moral vision to ground you with the courage to stand with Josey Aimes. It requires being given the same heart that caused the Samaritan to be “moved with compassion” when he saw the beaten man on the side of the road rather than merely seeing a potential cause of uncleanliness like the priest and the Levite (Luke 10:25-37).There is very good reason for Christians to be zealous about freeing our hearts of idols and addictions and other forms of sin. It’s so that we are completely undistracted from being God’s mercy for the people around us. If our morality makes us unsympathetic to the wounds of others and aloof to their dignity because we’ve sized them up and dismissed them on the basis of babies they’ve had out of wedlock or other “evidence” of sin in their lives, then it isn’t Christian morality. At least it doesn’t look anything like how Jesus treated other people.If we need the reassurance of hearing ourselves disapprove of others, that’s evidence of our profound immaturity in the path of sanctification. It’s when we have sins to hide that we have the need to say, “I thank you God that I’m not like other people” (Luke 18:11). People who are further along in their liberation from sin have a patient and generous spirit towards the imperfections of others as a result. At the same time, being patient and generous towards others’ imperfections does not mean to shirk standing up for the truth. It’s one thing not to let whatever rumors you’ve heard about a Josey Aimes in your world dismiss her human dignity; it’s another thing to say, “I’m not one to judge” when you’ve seen other people engaging in abusive behavior whose victims you betray by refusing to get involved.When you’re compromised by sin, it compromises your integrity as a result. When King David’s son Amnon raped his step-sister Tamar, David felt like he couldn’t say anything about it because of what he had done to Bathsheba. So again, there’s another good reason to pursue a life of holiness that is above reproach. It’s not in order to give yourself permission not to care about other people. It’s so that you’ll have the credibility with yourself and others to stand up for what’s right when nobody else will.Last year, I wrote a whole lot about the Biblical concept of the “fear of the Lord,” taking great pains to point out that it’s not about being afraid of God. To fear the Lord is to be a person of integrity, which is to say that you live as though God sees everything and will one day call each of us to account for everything we’ve done and failed to do. Many Christians misunderstand the justification Christ provides for us. It isn’t giving us permission to lack integrity because of a blanket amnesty; rather it empowers us to embrace integrity when we trust God’s mercy enough not to be imprisoned by sinful secrets.
A false Christian morality would make it easy to dismiss a woman like Josey Aimes, believe all the rumors about her immorality, and refuse to stand with her. A true Christian morality fills us with a mercy that relentlessly seeks to understand the suffering of others, and an integrity that refuses to let the truth be buried. I hope that I would stand with Josey Aimes if I were working in her mine. I still have many miles to travel in my journey towards the heart of Christ.

12 thoughts on “A litmus test of Christian morality: the film North Country

  1. Dritta has a good point: it does and is happening every day, all around us. It is important for us to open our eyes to see and our ears to hear, and take a stand for those around us. It is praiseworthy that your heart is open and you have become aware. Most, I think, would not. Bless you for your willingness to be renewed in this way, and see others as God sees them.

  2. It seems to me that Christianity would be a great deal more Christ-like if it divested itself of the concepts “sexually pure/sexually impure” which are, I think, unjustifiably judgmental. Judgmentalism undermines and degrades the most precious characteristic of any religion, i.e. spirituality. How can I nurture my own spirituality if I’m constantly scrutinizing the behavior of others rather than concentrating mindfully on my own behavior and its motivations?

    We are all sexual beings. How we exercise that sexuality, when, how, and with whom, is no one’s business but our own and God’s. All we can ever observe or know are the external circumstances of others’ behavior–only God can know minds, hearts, and motivations. Let’s let him worry about who is “pure” and who is “sinful”. That way we can help heal the Joseys of this world, rather than contribute to their hurt.

      • I did, didn’t I? So, if one does not judge and condemn the judgmental behavior/words of others that cause harm and hurt, does one then–at least implicitly–condone it? Perhaps the issue is the behavior/words that we choose to judge. For instance, I try very hard to be a non-judgmental person–unless someone’s words/actions are causing harm to people or entities (e.g. the environment) other than that individual.

        Also, those who judge harshly the “sexual impurity” of others (usually girls/women), seem to do so with a degree of smugness and an almost gleeful schadenfreude that is un-Christian to say the least. The bottom line, I think, is that judging the sexual behavior, in particular, of others allows those who pass the judgment to feel superior to those who are being judged. Their motive, I suspect, is more the satisfaction of an ego boost than it is the state of the judged person’s soul.

        The whole issue of one’s passing judgment on another, for whatever reason, is convoluted and rife with subjective twists and turns. I believe that it is a path we all should tread in the company of caution, compassion, and sincere self-awareness.

  3. Something I first realized during my Emmaus Walk when my sponsor was the female pastor of my church; women and men are God’s ultimate gifts to each other.
    Women may not realize it because men don’t often act like a gift. We act like false gods; like we own them.
    That’s the essence of patriarchy; ownership of the females.
    Patriarchy doesn’t sound so bad unless you name it properly, it should be considered synonym for Idolatry. It is how we make ourselves into the Lords when it comes to the ladies.
    It is we men who are challenged by God to recognize that women are God’s gift to us.
    Think about what a difference that attitude would make. You would never treat a gift from God like the men in that movie did. You would never abuse a Gift from God. You would deal with it reverently and as a sacred thing.
    And that is what we must do. We men must see women as sacred. ALL WOMEN.
    You would never masterbate into a locker that belonged to a person who was a gift from God. You would never push such a person over in a port-a-john.
    You would never rape a gift from God.
    Now some of this missing the mark when it comes to women, I am afraid, has been absorbed in our scriptures, and it’s no use pretending it isn’t there.
    When Jesus saves the adulteress from the crowd about to stone her, don’t you wonder why it is only the adulteress that is being stoned, with no mention of the adulterer? We need to revise that story.
    And then we can revisit the metaphorical impact of adopting a virgin birth story for our Christ.
    What does it say to women when we claim that God could only have his Son gestate in a woman who was a virgin? It says that women are property. Otherwise the state of her hymen is irrelevant.
    God is not a sexist, and neither is his son, Jesus. But we have sometimes said things that we thought would reflect well on Jesus’ nature, which reflect our sins of ignorance and abuse, instead.
    Women are gifts. A gift is something good for you. Women and men are good for each other. This is God’s true plan.
    We will deal with the fact that men are gifts to each other from God some other time.

    • This is a very problematic idea. Women are not gifts from God to men. They are not ‘sacred’ any more than anything else is. Women are independent human beings, who may or may not choose to enter into an equal partnership with a man. When you say that women are gifts, you make them into objects bestowed on men regardless of their own free will. If a man needs to think that women are from God in order not to rape them, masturbate into their possessions, etc, he still has a very long way to go before he’s a decent human being. In my opinion, he’s best behind bars since a man who thinks of women as a present to himself from a supernatural being sounds very likely to have the sense of entitlement that enables him to be a sexual abuser.

      Also, two human beings who happen to be male and female respectively can be good for each other or not, depending on a lot of factors. Don’t forget that some women are lesbians and have no interest in men while some men are gay and have no interest in women.

      • Hmm… There’s a preacher I follow named Amanda Garber who starts off each sermon by saying, “You are a gift.” That’s all I mean. Not in the sense that women are given from God to men. Just that each of us has infinite value. I can see how it came across the way it did. Thanks for speaking up.

  4. It is good that we can watch movies like this and come to some hard conclusions, but when submission of women, rape, denial of education, domestic beatings, sexual slavery etc. occur each and every day and we turn our heads away and don’t speak up, then we have wasted those hours watching movies of this nature.

  5. “I hope that I would stand with Josey Aimes if I were working in her mine.”

    I only respond to point out that you are working with Josey Aimes in her mine, currently, in our world. The same culture that shamed her for her previous sexual history, that put her on trial because she dared to stand up against injustice, that sided with the oppressors and blamed the victims of sexism for crimes committed against them… that same rape culture is alive and well. Rush Limbaugh calling women on BC “sluts” is pretty much the same thing. Anti-abortion activists who treat pregnancy, rape, and STDs as the proper punishment for sexual activity aren’t any better. Steubville… Maryville… the only shocking part about it is how common it is. Currently. In your (and my) backyard.

    • True. It was a tough, eye-opening experience for me to watch the film. I don’t know if I’ve been sheltered or just oblivious or both. I hope I will be faithful when I am tested.

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