University Congregational Church
July 31, 2016
Movies & Stories: The Color Purple
Colossians 2: 8-10, 18-19
In her moving novel, The Color Purple, Alice Walker’s protagonist, Celia, works through becoming a good daughter, a good neighbor, a good mother on one level. But underneath the surface, she is dealing with the spiritual trauma of being sexually abused by her step-father as a child and being told by him that this was her plight in life – what she should expect.
The book starts with “Dear God”. Celie writes letters to God. There is no one else she can talk to, or write to, or pray to. “Dear God,” she starts, and then she tells her life story of abuse, first by her stepfather, the man she thought was her father. This man raped her repeatedly, impregnated her, and then twice took a baby away from her. And yet—she could write, “Dear God…” Clip #1
Somehow, Celie’s spirit survived. At her core she had a faith in God. Celie’s father married her off to a man she called “Mister,” Mister Albert. “Mr.” forced her to take care of his children, work in the field, cook, clean, and take his beatings. It was more physical abuse, and it was also verbal and psychological abuse that nearly took all her self confidence away. And yet—she could write, “Dear God…”
A woman named Shug Avery comes to visit Celie and her husband, Albert. Shug—short for Sugar—is a blues singer, a woman with style and self-confidence unlike anyone Celie has ever known. But, she figures out right away, Shug is her husband’s lover. She moves right in to the household. And yet, Celie can write, “Dear God…”
Just when you can’t imagine how a person could survive any more abuse, Celie begins to emerge as her own strong person. Shug and Celie develop a close relationship, and Shug encourages Celie to stand up for herself. She takes Celie to listen to her singing the blues one night at an old tavern, and Shug dedicates a song to Celie, calling it “Miss Celie’s Song.” Celie later writes in her letter to God, “First time somebody made something and name it after me.” That night Shug tells Celie not to hide her smile, but to let people see it: it’s a beautiful smile. Shug’s encouragement is a voice of affirmation and hope for Celie. Clip #2
Another voice of hope in Celie’s life is the voice of her sister, Nettie—but Celie didn’t hear Nettie’s voice, for a long time, because the sisters were an ocean apart: Celie in rural Georgia, and Nettie in Africa with a missionary family. Nettie wrote Celie letters, but Celie’s husband intercepted them and hid them and wouldn’t let Celie read them. In the film, it is Easter, a time of new life. The men are drinking and carrying on. Shug goes to the mailbox and gives Celie the letter that has arrived from her sister Nettie. They go up to the bedroom to be alone. Celie rips the envelope open: “They’s alive!” Celie says. Her two children, taken from her as infants, are alive, living with her sister Nettie and the missionary couple that adopted them. Shug and Celie go on to find the whole stash of Nettie’s letters—letters of hope that reveal details of a new life in Africa, a life where Celie’s children are cared for and respected. Now Celie has hope for the future. Celie had been in a kind of prison—she had no self-respect. And yet, she could always write, “Dear God…”
God was the only shred of goodness she could hold onto. Somehow she clung to God and refused to despair. And then with acceptance from Shug and hope from Nettie— Celie found affirmation. She found her freedom. Acceptance and hope, isn’t this what everyone needs? This is what faith gives us: acceptance and hope.
Few of us have such a deep trauma that becomes the central spiritual issue of our lives, but all of us have spiritual/emotional issues beneath the surface that actually bring our total life, the public persona and the private persona, into focus.
Purple is a symbolic color both in the Bible and in our movie for today. When we read about the trials that Jesus went through at the end of his life, it reminds us that we are not exempt from suffering in this life. Part of our spiritual health is preparing for the inevitable destiny of having to deal with difficult suffering, to being open to growing through it, difficult as it is, unjust though it can be, frustrating to the point of rage that it can become. Purple reminds us that we will have to face our own spiritual tests, ultimately our own deaths, and to remember that we can get through them, that we can actually become more authentic, more dignified, more mature for having grown through hardship and difficulty.
Purple is a symbol of bruised healing, which is one of the marks of Christianity. I think of those times in people’s lives …
• When we are over-stressed and under-resourced,
• when expectations for ourselves or our spouses or good friends are woefully disappointed,
• when there is too much work and not enough creative space,
• when we are tired and cross,
• when hurtful words are exchanged with the express intention just to wound.
Henri Nouwen called this “wounded healing”.
Celie tells about how Shug told her that God isn’t an old white man with a beard: “Here’s the thing, say Shug. The thing I believe. God is inside you and inside everybody else”.
God is inside us! The writer of Colossians says we have God inside us—or we are inside God— in today’s traditional word for today, Colossians 2:8-10, 18-19:
See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.
Celie seems to have had God close at hand—maybe she thought of God inside her all along. She suffered more than a person should have to suffer—being poor, being a woman, being black, and being taken advantage of. And yet, she wrote to God, “Dear God…” Celie could see beyond her immediate situation. When her life was literally falling apart, she picked up the pieces and began quilting—creating something new out of old fabric. She learned from Shug to notice the color purple in a field, to enjoy life, to respect herself—we might say to view herself for the first time as “royalty,” as the color purple has always signified royalty throughout history. Celie learned to live in the present—and yet imagine a better life in the future. Clip #3
Alice Walker also wrote “The Gospel According to Shug,” a chapter in another one of her novels, The Temple of My Familiar. Instead of the usual verses as we know in the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount, Shug – this same character who originated in The Color Purple – gives us what would be called a new version of Jesus’ teachings. Like saying, “Blessed are…,” she says:
“Helped are those who find the courage to do at least one small thing each day to help the existence of another—plant, animal, river, or human being. They shall be joined by a multitude of the timid. Helped are those who lose their fear of death; theirs is the power to envision the future in a blade of grass. Helped are those who love and actively support the diversity of life; they shall be secure in their differentness.”
May you be blessed to be surrounded by such people and to be such a person. May you be privileged and lucky to color your life with purple.
Hammer, Heather Leslie. “Faith & Hope”, July 25, 2010.
Rush, Charles. “The Color Purple”, March 9, 2003.