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Hell is for Other People

Come Sunday considers the price of self-doubt

Come Sunday, a film released last month by Netflix and a production of NPR’s This American Life, claims in its short description to concern a “crisis of faith.” It’s based on the true story of Bishop Carlton Pearson, a black Pentecostal minister, and his radical shift in theology from fear, damnation, and a fallen world to forgiveness, inclusion, and hope. It’s an intriguing premise for a film, especially in this moment where pundits consider over and over why white evangelicals continue to support President Trump despite his moral bankruptcy. Politics, it would seem, matter more than faith. Toeing the party line becomes a virtue, and questioning one’s political allegiances and theology seems almost unimaginable. And yet, this intense, intimate, and quiet film—starring powerhouse actors like Chiwetel Ejiofor, Danny Glover, and Martin Sheen—centers on a moral crisis and catalogs the angst of uncertainty for a man that always appeared certain.

Yet, as I watched Come Sunday, I became less and less convinced that the film is strictly about Pearson’s wrangling with faith or even the question of what happens if you stop believing in hell. Instead, it convinces the viewer to ponder another question, an important albeit harder one: What happens when you change your mind about something big—like what the world is and what comes after? And what happens to everyone near you in the shift?

It is easy to see why Pearson’s change of mind—his rejection of hell and punishment—makes a compelling story. He started as a Pentecostal minister, educated at Oral Roberts University, where he was mentored by the university’s founder who called him his “black son,” and created a ministry that became a megachurch in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with over five thousand members. The film wastes no time zeroing in on the evidence of Pearson’s faith: lingering attention is paid to his Bible covered in notes and underlines; we dwell on Pearson’s claim that “God has chosen him”; the huge church amphitheater is filled with congregants, black and white, worshipping ecstatically together. They have their hands raised, swaying in time with the gospel music, and they’re waiting devotedly for Pearson’s sermon. These early scenes are a quick sketch of both the man and his church, our preparation for a complicated story of unwavering faith in adversity but also for the trials, tribulations, doubt, and hint of redemption awaiting him.

“The world,” he tells them, “needs to get saved.”

The actual introduction to Pearson comes in the next two, starkly contrasted scenes. First he convinces a white woman—a lawyer and lapsed Catholic stuck beside him on an airplane—that she needs to be “saved” to be able to cement her place in heaven when she dies. Pearson is charming, affable, and convincing during small talk as he coaxes her toward salvation. Being saved has a particular meaning here: to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior in your heart by saying the words aloud. The woman’s conversion becomes a key component of a Sunday sermon. Wearing a clerical collar, suit, and a large golden cross, he stands in front of the congregation, in their Sunday best, with a large robed choir behind him. “The world,” he tells them, “needs to get saved.”  Because the world emerges as a place that is beyond fixing—beyond hope—and saving souls becomes crucial and necessary work. He jokes about bugging people on airplanes to save them.  He describes the need for “tough love” as a tool for salvation to get the most people possible to heaven. Who really wants to be damned and punished for all eternity? Pearson’s charming facade cracks a little when he talks about punishment. Fear emerges as a powerful motivator for the lawyer, for the congregation, and for the bishop. God’s love only covers the saved.

In another scene, Pearson is in a waiting room at a detention center in California, where his Uncle Quincy is imprisoned. The cement block walls, cheap tables, and uncomfortable chairs are far removed from the solid pews, raised stage, and soft carpet of the church. Quincy needs a favor from his nephew: a letter to convince the parole board to let him out of prison. His desperation is written across his face; he can’t take another day in lock up. Pearson, however, is unyielding as stone. He needs Quincy to want to be saved because he is a sinner, who hasn’t done “the work” to be saved. Pearson, it seems, only knows how to help people by saving their souls. His uncle commits suicide, which makes Pearson less sure of what he preaches and suggests regret of how he treated Quincy. 

His treatment of Quincy is not quite an anomaly. His wife, Gina, is clearly unhappy with her role as a pastor’s wife and the expectation that she must support Pearson no matter what. When she tries to express her displeasure, he ignores or dismisses her concerns. He admits that his two children are a burden that keep him for doing the Lord’s work. His friend, Henry, has put his life on hold to support the bishop and his ministry. Saving souls is crucial work, but it has a toll.

At first, Pearson is a self-assured man of God who knows without a doubt what the paths to heaven and hell are, and he diligently teaches his congregation to know the difference. It is obvious that he is due for a comeuppance, a narrative shift from assurance to doubt. It is scenes on TV of the Rwandan genocide that shake him to the core. A God that allows suffering with no chance of salvation appears as a “monster.” Maybe, he decides, God saves everyone, regardless of a choice to make Jesus your savior. His next service looks like the previous one with a confident bishop and an adoring congregation, but it takes a turn when he tells his congregation about this epiphany. To put it mildly it doesn’t go well. A congregant, a white man, interrupts Pearson’s sermon with fury. Other congregants look confused and concerned. Some get up and leave in a huff. The fallout is even worse because half of them leave the church altogether, mostly the white congregants. He loses friends and colleagues, he loses the grand church where he preached, and the opulent home where he and his wife have lived. Oral Roberts and the larger Pentecostal community publicly denounce him. When he abandons fear and damnation, they abandon him.

None of this is surprising; I had been waiting for Peason’s downfall as soon as I put Come Sunday in my Netflix queue. Like Pearson, I know the power, the allure, of a theology based on fear and trembling, and I know the cost of walking away. I know what it is like to change your mind about the nature of the cosmos, and I can still feel, so many years later, the repercussions of that kind of decision. You shift your world, and the world doesn’t necessarily shift with you. Your people don’t necessarily shift either.

What frustrates me about Come Sunday is that when Pearson changes his mind about God, the Bible’s dictates, and the afterlife, the film narrows to his existential angst and trauma. There are close-ups of his tears, prayers, and desperation. There are so many scenes of him alone in the car, in his home, and in a hotel room where he fasts and prays after his big revelation. He believes that God spoke to him as “clear as a bell,” so his theology had to change to reflect what he heard. The personal consequences of his revised theology become more important, more pressing, than what happens to the other people who are a part of his life. The film’s narrowing reflects his self-centeredness.

Pearson asks everyone to take a leap of faith without checking to see if they are ready to jump.

It takes a while for him to grasp the enormity of what he’s done. (Maybe that’s the case for most of us.) He doesn’t recognize the decision’s impact on his wife, the misery he caused her both before and after, or the effects on their marriage. He doesn’t see the pain that he caused the church’s gay musician, Reggie, who is dying from AIDS. He doesn’t see how the new theology wreaks havoc on his friends or his church. Pearson asks everyone to take a leap of faith without checking to see if they are ready to jump. He can’t quite realize that most of them don’t want to be anywhere near the chasm.

His treatment of Reggie, in particular, proves that Pearson’s theology considers everyone as saved, but the bishop is still as unyielding as he was at the beginning of the film. He chastises Reggie for the “sin” of not being gay, but “doing gay.” Reggie leaves the church and comes to understand that he is beyond saving. Pearson’s assurance, his self-righteous assumption that he is right again and again, shows how cruelty remains, even when damnation is off the table. In a heart-rending scene, Pearson travels to Reggie’s childhood home to check in on him. Reggie is gaunt and haunted; his room has prescription bottles overflowing table tops and any other flat surface. Not only is Reggie’s body ravaged by the terrible disease, but his soul is ravaged too, by Pearson’s teachings. Pearson finally understands the pain he has inflicted on Reggie, who remains convinced that he is going to hell because of who he is, a gay man. “You don’t have to be saved,” Pearson tells Reggie, to go to heaven. Reggie starts to cry, and they sing, “Jesus Loves Me,” together. The bishop finally practices what he preaches.

In the next scene, Pearson stands in front of a river, and he dips his hand into the water. He places the droplets of water on his head. His crisis is over, with this new baptism, and he becomes a new man, a new minister, unlike the minister he originally was.

At the end of the film, the bishop stands in a warehouse with folding chairs and a rainbow flag on the wall. He’s in front of the congregation of another minister, a black woman. The congregation is diverse: grizzled bikers drinking coffee, black women in dresses and scarves, black men in sweaters and buttoned down shirts, lesbian couples, and gay men. The bishop appears not confident but nervous. He preaches about what it is like to be an outcast and to feel like he didn’t deserve God’s love. He teaches about hope and unconditional love.

Is unconditional love terrifying–and is promoting fear easier?

He is redeemed—of course, he is—but we can’t stop thinking about the aftermath of his change of mind, his change of heart. His community is torn apart because they disagree not only about the nature of heaven and hell, but also about the contours of this world. On one side are those who understand the world as fallen and beyond redemption and on the other are those who held hope that the world can be saved. Pearson and a good portion of his megachurch congregation agree on what the world is, and then, they don’t. His changing his mind changes what they knew fundamentally. They could no longer agree on what our shared world is, which makes me think about our current political moment, its division and sharp boundaries.

Come Sunday asks us to think about the opposing views of how the world works or even what the world is. It makes us wonder about the power of fear and the tantalizing allure of cruelty. It asks us to ponder why unconditional love of other people appears untenable and idealistic, and even if Pearson is right, that unconditional love is terrifying–and promoting fear is easier.

If we can’t agree on what the world is or could be, how can we ever agree on how to repair it? Maybe changing our minds is the first step. Maybe rejection of fear is the next. Perhaps we can shift the world by shifting what we believe, by considering what our theologies and ideologies have wrought. And by refusing to ignore their consequences for everyone else, not just ourselves.