Is there a space where sexual freedom for the LGBTQ community and conservative Christian values can thrive together? If so, what does it look like?
These are the questions that lie at the heart of For They Know Not What They Do, the new documentary by Daniel Karslake. In the wake of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case legalizing marriage equality, American conservatives have launched an effective campaign to fight back and potentially limit the rights of LGBTQ citizens across the country. Attacking with a righteous venom, the movement is hell-bent on preserving ‘Christian values’ at the expense of those who do not fit inside their limited frame of sexual reference. But is there space for change? Or are the limits of faith and sexuality diametrically opposed? For They Know Not What They Do takes the viewer on a journey of understanding about what connects us all and gives us the courage to embrace each other.
Having explored the issue once prior in his 2007 doc, For the Bible Tells Me So, director Karslake has a clear understanding of both perspectives and showcases the best (and the worst) dynamics between the two worldviews. Pulling no punches, Karslake is unafraid to delve into the traumatic effects of issues such as conversion therapy camps, battles with the Supreme Court and even the Pulse Massacre of 2016. Stories of addiction, depression and suicide and self-harm abound as young people attempt to fit into the spiritual expectations of their parents (or the culture).
Through his use of terrifying footage, Karslake recognizes the horrors that have been inflicted upon the LGBTQ community in the name of ‘Christian values’ and ‘protecting’ the nation.
However, the most surprising aspect of the film is not that there have been atrocities committed in the name of religious ideas. Rather, Karslake’s doc chooses to be framed by a perspective of grace. This is not to suggest in any way that the film somehow ignores the incredible pain and damage that has been caused by oppression of human rights and sexual freedoms. Although, whereas another filmmaker could be forgiven for merely highlighting the dark road taken by the church at large regarding same-sex marriage and transgender issues, Karslake instead emphasizes stories of those who have managed to open their hearts to those within the LGBTQ community while also keeping their faith as well. For the families within For They Know Not…, the conversation about Christian beliefs is not limited by the more conservative readings of Scripture but lovingly increases with a repentant heart and ever-expanding grace.
Time and again, despite initially struggling when their children came out to them, these families all found their way to spiritual healing through humility, brokenness and, ultimately, a new understanding of what it means to love one another. This theme carries throughout the entirety of the film as Karslake recognizes the misguided attitudes and hearts that people within the church have taken towards the LGBTQ community over the course of their spiritual journey. Yet, at the same time, he also highlights the fact that people can change if they’re given the chance to do so.
Perhaps the best example of this comes through Karslake’s bold decision to offer a sympathetic ear to Randy Thomas, the former Executive Vice President of Exodus Ministries. As one of the founders of what was once one of the leading conversation therapy movements in the United States, it would make sense for Karslake to portray Thomas as the film’s primary villain. Though, rather than fully condemn him, Thomas is shown as a man truly repentant of his involvement in the organization with a desire to make things right. By allowing him to share his heart, the film does not absolve him of blame for his actions but takes him seriously at his word and seems to offer him an olive branch of grace in the process.
Humbling, terrifying and hopeful, Karslake’s documentary offers a fresh perspective of the relationship between faith and sexuality. Taking its title from the Biblical narrative where Jesus offers forgiveness to those who condemned him, For They Know Not What They Do reveals the hope that can happen when those within the conservative Christian church humble themselves and demonstrate a willingness to listen to in the LGBTQ community.
At the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Virtual Cinema now.