After watching 12 years a slave with my wife a few weeks ago, I’m reminded of how much I have to ignore in order to go through life with a smile. I’m reminded of what Vice Vaughn’s character said to Alexander Supertramp (played by Emile Hirsch) when contemplating the evil in man in the film Into The Wild:
This is a mistake. It’s a mistake to get too deep into all that kind of stuff.
I can’t disagree with that statement. It’s Pandora’s box, a bottomless pit of despair. The type that writers and poets seem to find themselves in, and ends in suicide. People generally try to focus on happy things, and must necessarily turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to human suffering and injustice for most of our waking moments if we’re to have any form of enjoyment in this life. A wise man once said, with much wisdom comes much sorrow.
No one’s thinking about North Korean concentration camps at their child’s piano recital. No one wants to talk philosophy at a disco.
Every so often, though, I do allow myself to contemplate with disgust why I was fortunate to be placed here in this peaceful period of time, where I can see myself getting old, fat, and rich, enjoying my hot wife, nice cars, and the latest iPhone. I wasn’t born in Somalia, or North Korea, or Cambodia.
I was born in Nigeria under a violent Military dictator, but I wasn’t exactly born poor either. My parents had the opportunity to decide, “We want to live in America” and then purchase an airplane ticket and fly there after getting a visa. Not everyone in Nigeria has that opportunity due to many factors among which the most prominent are education and socioeconomic status.
So living in one of the safest places in the world, in the wealthiest period in human history, with more opportunities than I know what to do with. It troubles me that it’s not the same human experience for much of the rest of the world. It makes me uncomfortable that most of human history involved human suffering on a level I can’t imagine.
I have to immediately admit that 12 Years a Slave was the best film I saw in 2013. I told my wife it was going to be a “good movie”, but of course I was just guessing based on what I saw in the previews. What I forgot to clarify, and my wife forgot to ask was why this was going to be a good movie.
In my mind, the greatest films are the ones that are able to elicit an emotional response, and do it with some consistency. A good movie makes you invested in the lives of the characters.
When I told my wife I thought it would be a good movie, she made the mistake I don’t think she’ll ever make again. She thought I meant she wouldn’t be closing her eyes every few minutes, crying, and the movie would have a generally happy tone. My wife doesn’t much like American films, and prefers Korean dramas, for the simple fact that she can watch one and go to bed happy. I don’t blame her. I am convinced South Korea is still stuck in the ’90s when it comes to their movies and TV shows, which isn’t a bad thing! Everyone loved the ’90s, back when TV wasn’t all about baby mamas and such.
The film was graced by a star-studded cast. Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, and Paul Dano are the most familiar of the bunch.
Meanwhile the lead is executed to perfection by a slightly less familiar face, Chiwetel Ejiofor (American Gangster, 2012, Children of Men). He plays the lead role of Solomon, the real historical character the film is based on, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery for 12 years.
Chiwetel Ejiofor has already received his Oscar nomination. The first thing I have to say is that this guy is Nigerian. Both his parents were Nigerians that emigrated to the UK. If you google him it says he’s “English, British”. Sure, now that he’s about to win an Oscar this Chiwetel guy is British. I can tell you right now that if he wasn’t famous and was on the news for robbing a liquor store, the headlines would read, “Nigerian man residing in Forest Gate robs liquor store.” I’m excited about him being nominated, and I’m rooting for him.
The sad thing is that had his parents stayed in Nigeria, he likely wouldn’t have had the training and resources needed to become the international star he is today. So maybe to be fair, he really is a British actor. Sadder still, is that on his first trip to Nigeria as a child, he was involved in a road accident that took his father’s life. He still has visible scars from the traumatic ordeal. For Chiwetel, just like most of us in the diaspora, the sad thing is that most of the good in our lives comes from us avoiding Nigeria altogether, but that’s another conversation entirely.
The best female performance was by a complete newcomer, who has literally had only 4 acting roles since graduating from Yale. Her name is Lupita Nyong’o and she may win the Oscar for best actress if she can pull off a nomination. Talk about taking Hollywood by storm! She has a very interesting backstory, as she was born in Mexico and raised in Kenya.
Lupita plays the role of Patsy, and I warn you, she’s the one that will break your heart. It was really her role that devastated me emotionally and made me uncomfortable even with some of my own Christian doctrines.
I have to confess that I don’t know how the Academy works. I think Lupita should win the award for best female actress. The only problem I foresee is her limited acting career, which might explain why she doesn’t even have a nomination yet. I tend to see the Academy as an old boys and girls club, and her winning an Oscar might make a lot of hardworking actresses upset. When Jennifer Lawrence won best actress, I was admittedly surprised, because she was a newcomer too, with only 15 acting roles to her credit. If the Oscar represents how good your performance was compared to everyone else, she wins. If it also represents you having already “done your time”, then she doesn’t. We’ll have to see what happens.
I can say two big things about the film. First it was the best film depiction of American slavery I have ever seen, and it came from Great Britain. Yes, the director, Steve McQueen is British, so is the lead actor Chiwetel, so is Michael Fassbender, so is Benedict Cumberbatch, for starters.
Second is that it’s a film that everyone in the entire world should see (once they’re old enough, of course). It’s disturbing, but it’s human history.
Now that I’ve gotten the periphery out of the way, I can write what I’m really here to talk about. The film was so good, that you care more about the story than the actors and actresses.
Nothing creeps me out, really. I love scary movies. I love horror films. Vampires, Zombies, Slashers, thrillers, you name it I can handle it. It’s one of my marking traits that no one, but my wife really knows about. It’s not my favorite movie genre; Science fiction takes the top spot, but I’m always up for a good horror film.
Here’s how a movie night at my house transpires on occasion. “Hey babe let’s watch a scary movie”, as I casually browse through Netflix for something new to watch. My wife looks at me with those eyes that say, “You mean tonight? At 11pm?” She says no at first; she always says no. I usually don’t try to convince her. I know who I’m dealing with, so I usually say something like, “It’s ok, I’ll watch it later.”
My wife is so loving, though, that a few minutes later while browsing for something else, she touches my hand and sighs, “Ok…we’ll watch a scary movie.” Then she literally gets up from the couch and starts to psyche herself up, “I can do it. I can do it. I can do it.” I promise to keep her safe, look her in the eyes, make a fist and say, “Fighting!” You’ll only understand the context if you’re as into Korean TV as she is.
Despite being a horror movie professional, there is only one thing I’ve ever found truly scary in a film. It’s when a white man with a southern accent slowly and methodically quotes verses from the Bible, or prays.
Give it a try, in the best southern accent you can pull of. *And read it nice and slow like…*
“The lord of that servant will come in a day when he looketh not for him, and at an hour when he is not aware… And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.”Luke 12:46-47
Or try this on for size:
“…How is it that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of them which have buried thy husband are at the door, and shall carry thee out.” Acts 5:9
It’s not that scary bible verses are naturally all that scary, its more how they’re read aloud. For example when Samuel L. Jackson quotes the book of Ezekiel and yells, “And then you will know my name is the Lord, when I lay my vengeance upon thee!” I’m rolling around laughing. It’s really the southern accent and the speed of recitation that throws me off.
I have a draft of a blog post I haven’t quite finished called Scary God. It’s taken a while because of how nuanced it is. I’ve always held the suspicion that whatever we know about God, we don’t know him as well as we think we do.
As I watched 12 Years a Slave, and saw Patsy living in destitution, abuse, and continual sorrow, though a fictional character (or an actress representing the real-life biography of a slave) she became very real to me. How many times must she have prayed to God to be delivered, even for Him to kill her? Yet without a response.
How many thousands of people throughout human history, have seen their loved ones torn asunder before their eyes, all the while crying out to God, “Please help, please save us”?
Having grown up in Christianity, I was reminded of all the callous explanations of human suffering by those in the Word of Faith movement, who believe that even the Christian martyrs only suffered and died because they didn’t have enough knowledge or faith in God for him to deliver them from suffering.
What about Peter, who walked on water, who saw Jesus face to face, who’s shadow healed the sick. Did he not have enough faith when the Romans crucified him upside down?
It wasn’t just the unfairness in the sacrifice that these people had to make simply by being born in their time and their place. It was that I know people that have lived their lives absent of danger, lack, and any measurable amount of trauma. Absent of the kind of trauma that makes it impossible to live and adapt to today’s society without taking medication and seeing a psychologist for the rest of your life, the kind of trauma that drives you to suicide.
As I sit here in my heated house, typing on my expensive computer, only moments away from sleeping in my soft bed, there are entire families in concentration camps in North Korea starving and freezing to death. It’s not that I wish suffering to come upon me to even things out. Who would want that!? It’s the idea that what makes me so good that I get to have it so easy…
Why wasn’t I born the son of a slave in Mississippi in 1820? Why wasn’t I from birth taught that I wasn’t a human being, and that the God I worship ordained me to be in my position because of the curse of Ham?
Bible verses we Christians avoid
Why does the bible condone slavery in the Old Testament? Why does the bible tell slaves to do everything their masters tell them, even evil masters, as if Jesus were the one commanding them? It’s something I’ve always ignored.
Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.1 Peter 2:17-21 ESV
Let all who are under a yoke as slaves regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved. Teach and urge these things. If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.1 Timothy 6:1-5 ESV
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.Ephesians 6:5-9
These are all verses I’ve read before, but never paid much attention to because it’s explaining a world I don’t live in. If you’re a Christian, you’ve probably never heard these verses read in church, unless your church practices exegesis (which tends to produce actual thinking Christians, unlike the self-help motivational speaking style of sermoning).
Have you ever read something and just never thought about it, maybe because thinking about it would hurt too much?
As Michael Fassbender conducted a Sunday service for his family and his slaves, he read from scripture, I was confronted with things the bible says that I’d conveniently ignored for years and unconsciously placed under the category of “inapplicable”. Something told me that there’d be “Christians” that heard those verses unfold and would think Hollywood was just making stuff up to make the movie sound scary. The bible couldn’t possibly say that! Could it? It’s for this reason among others I want nothing to do with the self-help brand of Christianity. Those are a lot of people who signed up for a club I’m not sure they’d actually join if they knew what it really was. “God wants you to be a millionaire and life a fulfilling life!” sounds a lot better than “When you suffer on this earth, remember that I suffered before you, you’re my servant, so don’t expect to have it better than I did. They killed me.”
As I watched the film, I thought to myself, how could all these slaves be singing songs to Jesus as they worked, being schooled in Christianity by their evil slave masters, being told that God ordained their position in life, from which there was no escape but death. But don’t worry, you’ll be rewarded in heaven! I don’t blame those that think religion is the opiate of the masses, or a means of control.
As I drove home I found myself angry. I was angry at God, and asking myself why I believe everything I do. Sometimes I pray to God in my head, and this time it started off with, “I think I’m angry at you…”
The world I live in, the history I’ve read, and the Bible I believe makes most sense to me through the lens of Calvinism, but it didn’t gel the way it usually did.
How do I deal with it?
Then I remembered the story of Abraham and what God told him His plans were for his descendants. When I got home from the movie, I opened by bible and read what God told Abraham.
As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.Genesis 15:12-14
When I remember the story of the Israelites in Egypt, I see a glimmer of hope. Through no fault of their own, they became slaves, and were taken advantage of. Yet, God had a greater plan for their temporary suffering. It’s this same hope that I believe the slaves had in Jesus. That what they were going through was just going to be a blink in eternity, and that God had plans to bless and prosper them in this strange land, maybe even to save them from a future that they could not see.
Today I see how blessed African Americans are in American society. It wasn’t easy, it’s still ongoing, and it was only possible due to the sacrifices made by their ancestors. They’re doing so well, in fact, that native Africans like me have been migrating in droves to this country. It was on the shoulders of those slaves we stand, and their sacrifice has saved generations of people from suffering, both their descendants, and the descendants of their brothers who originally sold them into slavery.
In the bible there’s another story of a man named Joseph. He was sold into slavery by his brothers out of jealousy, suffered in prison for a crime he did not commit, and yet kept his faith in God. Eventually he rose to become regent of Egypt, only second to the Pharaoh. When he had his first son, he named him Manasseh, meaning “God has made me to forget all my pain, and all my father’s house.” He had a second son, and named him Ephraim, which means:
“God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.”
To be honest, it’s not an answer to human suffering, but in a roundabout way, I guess that’s how I deal with it…