Giving the Devil His Due

This is a piece I am preparing for distribution on the blog of The American Society of Church History:

Just in time for Mother’s Day, a bit of commentary on a very recent moment in church history, and something for your syllabi:

Like many of you, I teach a range of upper- and lower-level courses on religion. In all of them, I use an assortment of strategies to bring the students to “breakthrough” moments, moments when they realize that the academic study of religion, irrespective of our different backgrounds, leads us to questions, and insights, of ultimate importance.

In this regard, the arresting documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell has been a godsend. It tells the story of ordinary Liberian women, Christian and Muslim, who banded together, praying, fasting, and protesting until they “did the unimaginable” – they brought an end to Liberia’s recent, raging civil war. In the film we see Leymah Gbowee, one of the movement’s heroines, launching the campaign in Monrovia’s St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. At film’s end, we find her there again, on Mother’s Day, with her sisters in the struggle, the “mothers of Liberia,” rejoicing and basking in the choir’s praise: “And I thank God, thank God, for Momma.

I show Pray the Devil Back to Hell so frequently and so enthusiastically because it offers a portrait of religion at its best, and religion at its worst. Here is love in its fullest measure, nonviolence in its fullest expression. For my students, born in the 1990s, who want to understand the resistance campaigns of Gandhi and King, but find those histories increasingly remote, this film makes it plain. And yet in the same film we find religion’s dark side: Liberian President Charles Taylor, standing in church, testifying that he enjoys the blessing and protection of “Jehovah God Almighty.” “No one can bring war against me,” he adds; “I am war itself.” Taylor’s warring opponents, moreover, attend the mosque as religiously as his supporters go to church.

Maybe you already know all this. Pray the Devil Back to Hell isn’t on the margins of our consciousness anymore, the way it was when I got my first copy of the film back in 2009. Now PBS has made it a centerpiece of its “Women, War, and Peace” documentary series, and Leymah Gbowee has a Nobel Prize, as does Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the Liberian president whose victory was the culmination of the women’s campaign. Charles Taylor too has been in the news, finally receiving his verdict at The Hague.

If you decide to use the film in class, let your students know that they’re in for an intense, but rewarding, experience. I pause during the film, no more than 30 minutes in, to see how they’re doing, and I make sure to leave time for them to reflect and talk afterward. Inevitably, they respond with gratitude. They witness the power of love and the deep wisdom beyond university walls. My abiding hope is that they will never be the same.

About Tom Simpson

Tom Simpson teaches religion, ethics, philosophy, and human rights at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, NH. He is the author of *American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism, 1867-1940* (University of North Carolina Press, 2016) and nonfiction essays about Bosnia for the Canadian literary magazine *Numero Cinq*. Born in 1975 in Olean, NY, he earned the Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Virginia, where he specialized in American religious history. He writes, teaches, and lectures about religion in America, popular culture, Mormonism, and Bosnia. He lives in Exeter with his partner, Alexis Simpson, and their two children.
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