Recently, I watched the film Fences by August Wilson based on his Pulitzer prize-winning play. The film features the two most gifted and talented actors of their generation – Denzel Washington and Viola Davis amongst other cast of stellar actors.
The film is set in 1950’s Pittsburgh and it’s about Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and their son Cory (Jovan Adepo). Troy has a mentally impaired younger brother Gabriel Maxson (Mykelti Williamson) and an estranged son Lyons Maxson (Russell Hornsby) from a previous relationship.
Troy works as a garbage collector alongside his best friend Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson) whom he met in prison.
Troy’s younger brother is mentally impaired because of a head injury he sustained while serving in World War 2. Troy used the money Gabriel was paid from the army and bought the house they live in. Troy bought the house so that Gabriel could live with them but Gabriel moved out and is always in the neighborhood causing trouble because of his strange behavior.
Troy left his abusive father when he was young and became a robber. He ended up serving time for fifteen years because he stabbed a man to death he was trying to rob.
In prison, Troy learnt how to play baseball. However, his desire to play professional baseball was thwarted and blamed it on the racism that was very prevalent during his time. He claims that he wasn’t picked to play professional baseball because he was black. Bono his loyal friend thought he was way ahead of his time – came too early. Rose, on the other hand thought the reason why Troy did not cut it was he was too old. He was past the age of playing professional baseball.
His son Cory is a gifted young man who wants to play college football. But Troy insists that he wouldn’t allow him to play any sports because he fears that his son would encounter the same racism that kept him out of the big leagues. He wants his son to learn a trade and look for a job. In the film, you can sense some jealousy because Troy is scared that his son might do better than him.
Rose however is keen that their son embraces sport and makes something out of it. Eventually, Troy scuppers his move to see a recruiter who was due to visit and offer him a place in the college football team. Rose sees in her son that everything he does is to get approval from his father. Yet, his father keeps on pushing him away because of his own insecurities.
The film is very thought-provoking, heart wrenching, tear jerking and inspiring. As you watch the film, your own life might flash before your very eyes. You’d see your life through the various themes that run throughout the film. I cried both times I watched it.
I want to explore two lines in the film that stood out for me in terms of grace and the gospel. In part one I’ll explore what Bono said that I think is the underlying theme of the film. In part two of the blog, I’ll explore the second line.
So here we go…
Some people build fences to keep people out … and other people build fences to keep people in.
Bono: Some people build fences to keep people out . . . and other people build fences to keep people in. Rose wants to hold on to you all. She loves you.
This particular line to me was what the film was all about. Bono spoke these words so inconspicuously and yet so profoundly. As a matter of fact, I first heard this line from an infomercial here in South Africa two years ago. The infomercial by a leading insurance company depicted what foreigners thought of one-of-a-kind South Africa.
The scene around these words comes at the heel of Troy coming back from “bailing out” (bribing the cops) his mentally impaired brother from jail. He had been arrested for causing some disturbances as was always the case. When Troy and Bono come back, Cory is busy helping his mum cleaning the cupboards. When Troy hears that Cory is at home he calls him to come so that they could start working on the fence.
Troy and Cory can’t understand why Rose wants a fence around the house. That’s when old man Bono quips and makes that statement. His reasoning is Rose wants a fence because she loves them.
As human beings, we build fences all the time — fences to keep people out or to keep them in. Conversely, some people don’t have fences at all.
What do fences represent? Fences are barriers. In South Africa, this is very vivid. In the suburbs are beautiful big mansions that are surrounded with high perimeter fences with electric wiring all around. Certain estates have a walled fence all around and then individual homes within the estate also have walled fences. The high crime rates are a reason for these high walls.
Let’s talk about three scenarios that involve fences. Firstly, fences that keep people in. Prisons, juvenile systems and such like represent places where fences have been built to keep people in. If you build fences to keep people in, eventually your life becomes toxic. Your life becomes like the Dead Sea — salty and toxic because there are no other relationships that flow in to keep your life fresh. Nothing comes alive in a salty environment.
Your life becomes like the Dead Sea — salty and toxic because there are no other relationships that flow in to keep your life fresh
People of faith are guilty of building such high fences that others can’t even peep in to have a look. We hide behind our fences to be safe. We fear others could contaminate our faith. We tell ourselves its evil out there, don’t go out there. Even when we do we are weirdos. Most people of faith are like the Amish in Utah or the Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn New York.
Most parents are also guilty of building fences around their kids. We call them “helicopter parents.” They hover around their kids for too long. In the name of “love,” they do everything for their kids. These parents may describe their kids as best friends. This kids grow up with a limited view of the world. When time comes for them to move out and face the world, they are unable to cope. They easily give in to the pressures of the outside world or bomb out completely.
Secondly, fences that keep people out. Military barracks represent such. Their fences are built to keep people out. Only security officers and intelligence personnel are allowed to go in. However, in real life, building fences to keep people out leads to isolationism, which again leads to toxicity.
In real life, building fences to keep people out leads to isolationism, which again leads to toxicity.
There’s been a lot of talk of late of countries strengthening their borders and keep the “other/s” out. The “other/s” are usually immigrants, which have led to incidences of xenophobia, racism, bigotry, etc. Politicians have been able to exploit such issues and ride to power. However, even when the borders and immigration checks are enforced, we still build fences within the system that we have created. So, the “other/’s” now become — women, gays, poor, orphans, sick, elderly, people of other faiths, etc. The fences we put up within our systems then define the “other/s.” So, in apartheid South Africa, the “other/s” became Blacks, Coloureds and Indians. In post-apartheid South Africa, even whites have now become “other/s.”
A friend of mine posed this question to me after I had commented that I had just watched the film. Schulter, which one are you? Personally, I have fences put up to keep people out. These fences went up because of past painful experiences with people and my own sins and failures. These fences were there as a self-preservation mechanism to stay sane and be in control of my space — my porcupine needles — and are so high that Jenny many times has to use a step-ladder to peep into my life.
Nevertheless, as years have gone by I’ve seen how detrimental these fences are to my own life, marriage, spiritual life and even physical health. These fences made me self-righteous, and smug and on the other end cynical and indifferent. Self-righteous and smug — I’m better than y’all. Cynical and indifferent— nothing moves me anymore. I’m indifferent to all that’s happening around me. That’s me.
Most people who haven’t met genuine people of faith or have been burnt by religion also build fences to keep people out. They will say things like, “I don’t trust organized religion. I don’t like all these “supernatural” talk and Jesus talk. I like to think and decide for myself.” Sadly though, fences that keep people out eventually lead to toxicity.
Thirdly, is the idea of no fences at all. This means you have no boundaries, no structure, and no order. Having no fences also is toxic because people can just come in and out of your life without a care. They dump their stuff or take stuff from you without blinking twice. They violate your life. Having no fences is not a good way to live your life. No way! For me, this is actually the most vulnerable group of all.
What about grace? What about Jesus? Does grace have fences? What if tell you that Jesus builds fences that keep people moving in and out at will? What if I tell you that Jesus also creates wide open spaces where people who are different from you can come and add to your life without you surrendering or compromising your principles?
I think grace does that. You can see it in the life of Jesus how his associations were all sorts of people. He hangs out with the crème de la crème and the bottom of the pile of the Jewish society. He was accused of hanging with such low downs by the highbrow beaters of the society. Jesus kept a constant flow of people in and out of his life. Yet, Jesus stayed true to his convictions — the gospel and grace.
Jesus had a fence. His fence was called grace. His fence though does three things. It forms a community, (let’s people in and out at will), protects and causes one to flourish and creates open spaces.
Within this fence, everybody and anybody including kids was invited, accepted and made into a community. What kind of community lives within the fences of grace? It’s a called the church. The church is basically a group of people who had been kept out because they weren’t good enough and have now been adopted into the family. They were welcomed in. That’s what church is all about.
Galatians 4:6-7 NLT
And because we are his children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, prompting us to call out, “Abba, Father.” Now you are no longer a slave but God’s own child. And since you are his child, God has made you his heir.
A true gospel proclaiming, Christ centered and spirit led church is not only exclusive in its claims but also inclusive in its demographics. It does both. In this church, there is no them and us or “other’/s”. In this church we are all invited to see Jesus.
So then we must ask if you are a gospel believing Christian, how fenced are you? Is there traffic in and out of your life of people who are different from you in terms of gender, profession, confession, sexuality, political ideology, fashion tastes, race, education, status, comedy shows, food tastes, temperament etc? If not, then your life has a high perimeter fence that needs a door that will let people in. Alternatively, YOU may need a door that will let you out so that you can go and explore the world around you.
Grace also builds fences around you for protection. Job experienced the “fence”
You have always put a wall of protection around him and his home and his property. You have made him prosper in everything he does. Look how rich he is!
The enemy of our souls saw Job fenced all around meaning that God protected Job and his family. Even more God made him prosper. Within the fences of grace, you are safe. Jesus takes responsibility for protecting, and blessing you.
Within the fences of grace, you are safe. Jesus takes responsibility for protecting, and blessing you.
And within the fences of grace are wide open spaces. Grace invites us in and creates open spaces for everyone.
Psalm 18:19 (CEB)
He brought me out to wide-open spaces; he pulled me out safe because he is pleased with me.
There’s no further need for fences within grace because it’s safe. Within grace everyone is accepted. Everyone can play. Everyone can have fun. Everyone can dance, sing and laugh. There is space for everybody. Grace is inclusive.
There’s no further need for fences within grace because it’s safe.
Ronald Reagan told Mikhail Gorbachev the former Soviet Union leader this – Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!
May it be so with our fences. Grace says to you – Schulter, tear down your fences. Let me build my fences that will make you flourish, protect, with wide open spaces and expose you to diversity.
That’s what grace looks like