12 Years a Slave and the Bible

Last night I went with a group to go see the movie 12 Years a Slave. I had seen the previews a few months back, and was very excited to see what the whole product was. I had heard it was difficult to watch, and was prepared to see some horrific things on the screen.

But what I felt both during and leaving were much more powerful than I think I was expecting.

This isn’t meant to be a review of the movie at all, even though I think it was wonderfully done- I truly hope it gets the credit and awards it deserves. But there were several themes in the movie, one in particular, that I just can’t get out of my head. I remember when the movie version of Les Miserables came out last December, it was stated on the radio that there was one line of the whole movie that was stuck in everyone’s head (and out of 2.5 hours of singing that is saying something): “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Ironically, this was the quote that I posted right after seeing the movie myself. But anyway, similar to this experience, there was one scene in particular that really, really impacted me.

No spoilers or anything, but for those who don’t know, the film is based on the true story of a free Black male, Solomon Northup, in the mid-1800’s who was tricked, kidnapped, and sold into slavery down South. As the title says, he was a slave for 12 years. The very first scene after his kidnapping, it shows him chained up and bewildered. He hadn’t done anything wrong, anything illegal, nothing of the sort, and was desperately trying to tell the men who he was. They didn’t believe him, or rather, they didn’t care. There was then a very extended scene where it just shows them mercilessly hitting his back with a paddle over and over and over again. It seems like they are never going to stop, even when the paddles break from the force. Solomon is crouched over on the ground, crying out in agony.

During this scene though I had one really, really strong visual that came to mind. It was basically the same thing happening: this angry, hateful man representing the bad that exists in all of mankind beating a man, but this time that man was God. And instead of being crouched on the floor alone, He was laying over me saying “No, no no. This one’s mine. You can hurt me but you won’t take her. I’m not going to let anything happen to her.”

That’s when my eyes really started welling up. I think before that I was experiencing a lot of emotional pain thinking of how many people really did endure this kind of treatment not all that long ago, and how many still endure it today. But suddenly when I thought about how there are things in all of us, certainly myself included, that place attacks on love, grace, and purity, it sickened me. I had a sense of disgust with all the times when while maybe I haven’t hit another person or screamed obscenities at them, I have held on to anger towards them or acted out of my own pride and well-being. But just as I had these feelings of disgust, I had a sense of overwhelming gratitude that in spite of all my flaws and past mistakes, that I (and everyone) am so loved by the God who created the whole universe that He was willing to undergo public humiliation, unspeakable pain, feel the weight of every single person’s sin on His shoulders, die, and then overcome death. He overcame death so that not one person would have to ever experience it if they call on His name.

It was also difficult to see how the Bible was taken so far out of context during that time in order to justify slavery and treating other people like dirt. The word “property” was thrown around a lot in reference to the men and women who were slaves- aka, “less than animals”. But at the same time it gave me so much joy to see how even though the angry men were practically beating people over the head with the Bible screaming about superiority, punishment and abuse, those in slavery were singing songs of praise and hope from the gospel and what they were hearing preached. They sang of their souls receiving redemption, and the promises of freedom. They were able to listen to words of the Bible and look past the tone and image that man was giving it, and instead see God’s actual purpose. It made me think about how this is often still the case today: how some use the Bible as an excuse to be hateful, vindictive, or lazy. There are others who use it as a book that tells the greatest love story ever told. I pray that the second group remains faithful to that message. I pray that despite my failures I can be a faithful, loyal member of that second group. It can be so easy to look and see the people who claim that God is unhappy with this population, or this phenomenon, or whatever, when they are taking one line out of context of an entire book, message, theme, you name it, that is actually centered around love. When you know that God loves you no matter what, and that you can be guaranteed to go to heaven through no actions of your own, you can’t help but love others. But instead, so often we hate the sinner, instead of the sin.

That’s my prayer for the future, and for every day- that even just one more person today will come to know the love of Christ, and not what people so often make Christianity out to be.

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