The Broken Christianity of “12 Years a Slave”

Did the slave system break religion or did a broken religion allow the slave system?

Religion ought to connect us.

The root of the word is ligare. It is the same root as the word ligature, the stuff that holds the skeleton together. At its best, religion helps us to see the spiritual ligature that connects us, and shows us that the notion that we are individual particles floating separate and apart in a beam of sunlight is a deception. We are tied together by the breath of life.

When religion rips, tears, breaks, fractures, it leaves our fragile humanity broken, dazed, confused, and dangerous. From this brokenness true horrors are born. One such abomination was the slave system in the United States depicted in the recently-released movie “12 Years a Slave.”

This movie, based on a true story, follows Solomon Northup from his comfortable life as a free African American musician living with this wife and two children in New York state to a life in slavery after he is kidnapped in Washington, D.C. It is a powerful film that tells a powerful story that many people in the United Sates do not want to remember.

The movie shows us a fractured Christianity. People take their Bible in pieces. A slave owner uses a tiny fragment of Scripture to justify torture. An African American woman who has found favor with her master, who lives well with servants serving her, finds solace in the story of the Exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt. She believes that God in God’s own time will deliver an epic punishment for the sin of slavery. Another fragment. Then there is the white itinerant worker who tells the slave owner that there is no justice in slavery, that there are laws that apply to all human beings equally.

Did the slave system break religion or did a broken religion allow the slave system?

In the movie we see how the songs of faith – Roll Jordan Roll – gave enslaved people the strength to endure the degradations of slavery. And those indignities were numerous: children sold away from parents causing ceaseless lamentation, the humiliation of losing sovereignty over one’s own body. Someone else can use your body for work, sex, revenge, physical and psychological torture, and the satisfaction of their own insane will-to-power. We see the sad fact that oppression oppresses everyone — slave master, mistress, all classes and all races. Everyone is afraid.

Thomas Jefferson knew this to be true about slavery. In his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” he describes African Americans through the lens of white supremacy. His prediction on the possibility of the races ever living together in harmony in the United States is thoroughly pessimistic. However he is clear-eyed when he sees the harm slavery does to both master and slave. He writes: “The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.” (Query XVIII) He writes further: “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.”

The fear of such retribution has kept white supremacy in place all these years. The fear that if oppressed people ever get power that they will perpetrate the same oppression as was perpetrated against them forces people to continue living inside delusions of race, class, sex, sexual orientation. And we too often use religion as a justification for this fear.

I say: 12 Years a Slave is a difficult movie to watch, but an important movie to see. It is important to see so that we may knit together the various strands of our religious faith and let it bind us back to true human unity, back to our own humanity, back to justice and even to love.