Twelve Years a Slave

I had a chance this weekend to see the film, “Twelve Years a Slave.” This film tells the true story of Solomon Northrup, a free black man living in New York in the early 1800s. He was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana, but eventually regained his freedom. Screenwriter John Ridley and Director Steve McQueen capture the brutality and horror of slavery. McQueen sets a stark and realistic tone that reinforces the seriousness of the subject without falling into melodrama.

Such realistic depictions of slavery give us the opportunity once again to examine this terrible part of our history as a nation. Even though such narratives bring up feelings of anger and sadness and frustration, it should not be forgotten. On one hand, although it took too long, eventually America got it right. Slavery is an evil and inhuman practice. On the other hand, we need to pay attention to the fact that the legacy of slavery remains with us.

The film intentionally depicts the religious practice of the time. The slave owners are Christians. Just like in every place and time, some of them took their religion more seriously than others. McQueen and Ridley don’t go out of their way to link the religion with the evil. But they do make sure that we notice it. They even capture the ambivalence of some of the slaves themselves. In one scene, Solomon declares to Eliza, a fellow slave, that their master is a good man. To which she replies, “he’s still a slaver.”

Slavery is only one example of how we Christians can live in blatant and horrible sin and still tell ourselves that we are right with God. We are products of our culture. We have a great capacity for getting it wrong.

I can imagine that in a hundred years, people will look back at our time and question how we could have believed and acted as we do. Sometimes the moral call of God tells us that we must defy the status quo. Even in the 19th century there were Christians and others who spoke out against slavery. But most just went along with it. Like the ordinary Germans who refused to see the evils of Hitler even while they were taking place right in front of them.

Jesus calls us to notice those whom our actions and beliefs are hurting. Jesus calls us to love people and treat each other with respect. Jesus calls us to be peacemakers and to be merciful. Sometimes the dogma religion leads us to treat others as if they are less than truly human. That is why Paul says, “for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). That is why the Spirit also inspired Paul to say, “the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).

Love in Christ,

Greg Burriss

Pastor, Rocky River Baptist Church

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