In the movie “Red Tails”, the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, we see how religious icons serve as “windows into the Kingdom of God.” The images that the fighter pilots take into combat with them help them to see a kind of divine transcendence that gives their lives meaning. The icons help them to come closer to God.

One of the major characters in the movie is the skilled, fearless, self-confident, improvisational and independent-minded pilot nicknamed “Lightning.” He is a womanizer who falls in love at first sight with an Italian woman named Sophia. He tells his friend, Easy, who is also the leader of the squad: “I spotted something. I just saw a goddess who is going to bear my beautiful children.”

His love for Sophia becomes his transcendence. In a conversation with the squad members, his belief system contrasts with that of Deacon, a pilot who worships Black Jesus and credits him with the protection and success of the squad. Lightning says there is “no sanctified mojo running the world. Things are as they are.”

Easy teases him about spending all his money on gifts for Sophia. We see Lightning and Sophia’s courtship and their efforts to find a way to communicate despite the language barrier. When she tells him that she loves him, he is speechless. We see them stroll through the village. Lightning pulls her into a church, drops to one knee, and asks her to marry him.

She haltingly finds the English words to say: “Time to think.” Lightning is not discouraged. The womanizer is thoroughly, genuinely in love. He puts her picture in the cockpit of his airplane when he flies. Her image is his icon, his window into the Kingdom of God.

In the history of God, the female aspect of God, the goddess named Sophia is another incarnation of the Divine Logos. In ancient Greece, Sophia was the goddess of wisdom. A lover of Sophia was and is still known as a philosopher.

There was a time in human history “When God was a Woman.” Merlin Stone, author of the book by this name, explains that archeological and historical evidence shows that the earliest human civilizations imagined God as female. There once was a time when human beings did not connect birth with sex and women were held in high regard because of the miracle of birth. According to Stone, devotion to the Goddess came under attack when patriarchal northern tribes conquered the Goddess worshipers. Theology followed war, conquest and politics.

The feminine divine was and is still associated with fertility. When Lightning sees Sophia and regards her as a goddess “who will bear his beautiful children”, he is in line with a long religious tradition. Lightning himself is an icon. According to Stone, male gods were often associated with mountains and with bolts of lightning. She writes:

“The Indo-European Zeus, with his fiery lightning and thunder bolts, was to be found on the top of Mount Olympus. Baal, with the same lightening symbol, resided upon Mount Saphon. The storm gods of the Hittites and Hurrians are portrayed with lightning bolts in one hand, standing upon one or even two mountains. Indra, glowing in gold, also holding his lightning bolt known as vajra, was known as Lord of the Mountains”(115).

Stone is making a connection between male gods of Indo-European peoples and the image of mountains. I am interested in the lightning. In “Red Tails” the love relationship between Lightning and Sophia can be an icon that helps us to see the love relationship between the male and female aspects of God. It can also help us to see that our love relationships help us to enter into relationship with God.

Love is the way mystics perceive God. Philosophers think that the way to understand God, the way to enter into relationship with God, is through reason. Philosophers think God. Mystics fall in love. In her book “A History of God: the 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam”, Karen Armstrong describes the divine, mystical love of the Muslim Ibn al-Arabi. She writes:

“In 1201, while making the circumambulations around the Kabah, Ibn al-Arabi had a vision which had a profound and lasting effect upon him: he had seen a young girl, named Nizam, surrounded by a heavenly aura and he realized that she was an incarnation of Sophia, the divine Wisdom. This epiphany made him realize that it would be impossible for us to love God if we relied only on the rational argument of philosophy. Falsafah emphasized the utter transcendence of al-Lah and reminded us that nothing could resemble him.” (234).

Ibn al-Arabi thought that loving a beautiful being is loving God. Armstrong writes: “the object of Love is God alone.” She also writes about the beloved as an image of God in Dante’s “The Divine Comedy.”

“Beatrice remained the image of divine love for Dante, and in The Divine Comedy, he shows how this brought him, through an imaginary journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, to a vision of God” (235).

In the movie, Sophia is for Lightning “a vision of God.” Their love shows us transcendence because it is not confined by the bigotry that Lightning faces as an African American. After an altercation in an officer’s club that lands him in jail, Lightning says that he does not swallow the ideology of separate but equal as articulated by Booker T. Washington in his “Atlanta Compromise” speech.

In this speech given before the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, 1895, Washington, the founder of Tuskegee Institute, said among other things. “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” He said further. “The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the employment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than artificial forcing.”

Lightning refused to accept such a compromise. Lightning’s love for Sophia and her love for him is an icon that transcends the veil of racial oppression behind which African Americans lived then and to some extent live now.

War is an awful thing. It is a horror. It makes no sense. Faith in God is also beyond reason. It too makes no sense. The window into the Kingdom of God that icons provide and the mystic love with which God loves us and we love God in return may provide the key to peace and the end of the madness of war. Love – radical love – transcends war.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

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