The Common Good

'12 Years a Slave:' A Film of Moral Gravity

I pre-screened 12 Years a Slave the same weekend I saw Gravity. The two films couldn’t be more different, although they do have some fascinating (if not immediately obvious) commonalities.

As for commonalities, they’re both powerful and both deserve to be seen. Both are about people trying to get home — one, in a harrowing adventure that takes several hours, the other in an agonizing 12-year struggle. The protagonists of both movies demonstrate heroic resilience and courage. One struggles with physical weightlessness, the other with a kind of social or political weightlessness. 

Although Gravity impressed and fascinated me, 12 Years a Slave affected me and shook me up. Now, several days later, scenes from the film keep sneaking up on me and replaying in my imagination — three in particular. 

First is a scene in which a slave owner holds church for his slaves and quotes the Bible. Virtually no Christians today still quote the Bible to defend slavery, but relatively few Christians have taken the time to analyze and repudiate the method of interpreting the Bible that allowed slave owners to use the Bible as a kind of psycho-spiritual whip. The memory of that scene will come back to me whenever I hear a preacher confidently assert, “The Bible says ... ” “Even the devil quotes Scripture,” the old saying goes, and sadly, the devilish way the Bible was quoted in the film didn’t end with the Emancipation Proclamation.

Second is the scene where the film’s protagonist, Solomon Northup, is told he had better pretend he can’t read. “Playing stupid” was a requirement for survival in the presence of insecure but powerful members of the dominating elite. I couldn’t help but think about how today, many political and religious ideologies require people to play stupid, stick to the script, and suppress questions and information that doesn’t fit in with the whims or fears of the powerful. 

Third, I keep mentally replaying a scene where a white man, a former slave master, confides to Solomon Northup that slave masters experience a deep moral corrosion through their abuse of fellow human beings ... and then he goes on to demonstrate that moral decay. Knowing that he was morally damaged, even admitting it, didn’t change the fact that he was so, any more than a pathological liar doesn’t become trustworthy when he admits to a lie after it has been proven.

Reflecting on that scene, I can’t help but think about the long-term, multigenerational effects of slavery that are still with us today. On one side, the effects of slavery on African Americans, although debated by some, are widely acknowledged. But on the other side, I suspect there has been much less honest reflection on the long-term, multigenerational effects of slavery on the white majority that was privileged by it. How much morally and socially dysfunctional behavior by white folk today is the consequence of being the descendants of Bible-whippers, intelligence-suppressors, and power-corrupted abusers?

What would it take for all of us — the descendants of slaves and the descendants of slave holders — to seek deep healing for a past that still makes us, even though we didn’t make it? Could it be that our full healing can only happen through a kind of mutual liberation, mutual discovery, mutual acknowledgement?

If millions of Americans flock to the theaters to see 12 Years a Slave as they’re doing for Gravity, then perhaps some of these important conversations can be had — if not in our public media (most of which are poisoned by a kind of partisan toxicity that inhibits honest communication), then around dinner tables, in church basements, in classrooms, on long walks. 

In that way, 12 Years a Slave could take us in the same direction as Gravity — down, in, homeward, directing us back to earth, to deal with unfinished business from our past.

Brian McLaren is an author, speaker, and networker who blogs at www.brianmclaren.net.

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