Crickets chirping, a branch creaks, and a black body swings on a tree whose roots grow deep into a shared story of our American past. These are images that are floating in my mind, after watching a pre-screening of12 Years a Slave. This film was a terribly beautiful depiction of the antebellum south and the atrocity known as slavery. Its honesty was riveting, as the film portrays characters in ways never captured before on the big screen. They were characters such as Mistress Shaw (played by Alfre Woodard), the black wife of a slave master who is adored by her husband and treated as a white woman. In a panel discussion, Lisa Sharon Harper of Sojourners asked Woodard, about this character. And she responded that in the South, there were all kinds of arrangements between whites and blacks. Her character Mistress Shaw learned how to survive. I was so refreshed that 12 Years a Slave, was a new depiction of slavery instead of a rehashing of Roots or Amistad.
The panel also consisted of a plethora well-informed faith leaders. One of the panelists, Jim Wallis, while discussing the aspects of faith profoundly said, “Enslaved Africans saved Christ from the Christians.” I was immediately struck by his words as they reminded me of how I became a Christian.
At 16 years old, I remember being on a journey of self-exploration, trying to figure out what it meant to be young, black, male, and Christian. I rejected the stereotypical archetypes, which American culture taught me, and the reoccurring characterization of black men being lazy, dumb, impoverished, shiftless, inarticulate, destructive, hopeless, angry, entitled, bitter, controllable, uneducable, and a menace to society. I found solace in learning about the giants of African descent, such as Malcolm, Martin, and Garvey. It was empowering to learn about our shared past and continuing struggle. Black History became a place where my blackness, masculinity, and Christianity were validated and affirmed. However, it was difficult to affirm my Christianity in regards to American Christian history.
The film, through multiple church services, a funeral, and field songs depicts how Christianity was perverted by the slave masters to oppress and degrade. There is a scene where a brutal slave master takes Luke 12:47 out of context to manipulate and control slaves by the scripture.
"That servant who knows his master's will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows.” Luke 12:47
As I watched this scene, my stomach turned, and l remembered struggling to affirm my Christianity, gazing on an unfaithful bride. The American Church cheated with capitalism and ended up with no credibility. I had many questions: How could people who claimed to follow peaceful loving Jesus of Nazareth enslave, rape, destroy families, and treat humans as animals? How could I, of African and Native ancestry, become a part of that religion? Why, on the earth, did the slaves take on the religion of the oppressor? Were they are so demoralized that they decided to worship a god who hated them? Why should I worship this god of injustice ... this god of the American nightmare? Do I have a slave mentality?
As I wrestled, the Spirit led me to liberating truths:
1. Jesus and his first-century followers were tortured and executed under two corrupt systems — one political and one religious — just like enslaved Africans in America.
2. Jesus hung from a tree, just like enslaved Africans in America.
3. Jesus was beaten with a whip, just like enslaved Africans.
4. Jesus came from a lineage of an enslaved people group, just like me.
5. The slaves believed in the God of Jesus and in Jesus as Lord.
The slaves waded through the theological sickness, to be immersed in the Baptismal waters of the spiritual enlightenment, though uneducated and in the eyes of the world foolish. Jesus shared the same experience as my ancestors, the enslaved African. My ancestors rescued that story, through faith in a living, breathing God. Because this living, breathing Christian God was real to them, that same God could also be real to me. And if having faith to survive the hellish conditions of the American South, was the slave mentality, then I embrace the mentality of my forbearers with pride and dignity.
12 Years a Slave is not just a historical film about slavery; it is a story about the sacred and profane, and a God who would meet us in our brokenness — an image of the Gospel, written in our American history forever there to declare God’s glory.
Joshua Smith is the Intentional Living Pastor of Gallery Church Baltimore, where he does incarnational urban ministry across cultural and socioeconomic lines.