Yesterday evening, I finally got around to seeing the Oscar-winning film 12 Years A Slave. It’s a great film, well deserving of probably more Oscars than it won. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should.
I was going to write a review of the film, but I figured I’m a little late to the party and would have nothing to add that plenty of others haven’t said already. That said, I can’t go and see a film that powerful and not write anything about it. So I thought I’d take a slightly different tack.
12 Years A Slave is not a “nice” film. It does not make for a pleasant, entertaining evening’s viewing. It is, in many respects, brutal and shattering. But here’s the thing: it’s real. In fact, it’s as real as it gets.
I don’t just mean it’s real in the sense that these events really did happen, that Solomon Northup and many others like him really did get kidnapped and enslaved on southern plantations not two hundred years ago. Nor do I simply mean it’s real in its unflinching portrayal of the brutality meted out by landowners to slaves in the name of God. It’s real in a much more visceral way than that: it’s real because this is what the world is like.
Here are just a few of the themes that are addressed in this film: corruption, betrayal, violence, exploitation, loneliness and despair. Think about it: are these not the very themes you see played out day after day in the world around you? We all know what it is to have been betrayed and taken advantage of; we have all, at one time or another, felt the terrible pangs of loneliness and abandonment; we have all teetered on the edge of despair. This is what makes 12 Years A Slave so powerful: it is, in many ways, describing the human condition.
With that in mind, I’d like to draw out a couple of points:
1. We need a theology of suffering more than we need a theology of happiness and success. You don’t have to look very hard at the Christian world, and particularly at some high-profile churches and ministries, to realise that the quest for success is lit up in neon lights all around us. Come to Jesus and discover your destiny! Follow these principles and know God’s abundant favour! Live your best life now!
This kind of grasping after success is the playing-out of what sixteenth century reformer Martin Luther called a theology of glory. This kind of theology is built on the notion that at some level, however infinitesimal, we are deserving of merit and thus of divine favour.
Chasing after success is not something most of us have to be taught: it tends to come quite naturally. As such, we need a theology that cures us of this never-ending quest for success and fulfilment, not one that feeds it.
The answer is what Luther called a theologia crucis, a theology of the cross. This is the kind of theology that recognises our uncanny ability, without the forgiveness and empowering grace of God, to relentlessly foul things up even on our best days. In fact, it’s a theology that’s generally only birthed in us once we’ve reached the point of despairing of any efforts of our own.
The thing about a theology of glory is that it’s of little comfort to those, like Samuel Northup and his fellow negroes in 12 Years A Slave, who are living in the land of despair. Try telling a slave who daily longs for death as a release from her misery that God has a wonderful plan for her life and wants her to walk in victory.
We live in a world full of pain and brokenness. Yes, there is joy too, and we must seek to be bringers of joy. But this side of eternity, even where there is joy, it is tinged with sorrow; even where there is laughter, it is marred by the bitter sting of tears. One day there will be no more tears and no more pain, but for now, this is where we live.
That being the case, I’m not interested in any theology that is always looking onwards and upwards. If your theology cannot speak to the despairing slave girl who has lost her children, her freedom, her dignity and her hope, it’s not a theology for the real world and I don’t want it.
2. Jesus came to free us from our enslavement to sin. Slavery is one of the dominant metaphors used throughout the New Testament to describe our bondage to sin. Of course, what enslaves us, first of all, is our own sin – our addiction to being right, having an eye for an eye, and blaming the other. All of our collective sin then combines into diabolical systems that create and maintain division and injustice. These things are so entrenched in us that we can and will, individually and collectively, use violence to protect and defend our rights and our difference from the other; and we will use religion to justify that difference. (This is how, for example, the communion table becomes a place of exclusion instead of a place of radical inclusion and grace.)
Given that it was our own sin that beguiled and enslaved us, how did Jesus go about freeing us?
The primary image that has been used in recent centuries to describe Jesus’ liberating work is that of a courtroom, where what Jesus frees us from is the legal penalty for our sin. There are a few problems with this image, not least the fact that it tends to paint God as a conflicted and angry judge who would like to be able to pardon us but can only do so if he has his pound of flesh; and if he can’t get get it from us, he’ll get it by punishing His own son in our place. This legal view of Jesus’ atoning death also puts the whole issue of our salvation and freedom on a fairly abstract plane: it’s as though a legal transaction takes place somewhere in the courtroom of heaven while we stand outside awaiting the verdict; and when the verdict comes, we feel we ought to be grateful but don’t really know what to do with it in the real world. Or, to stick with our movie metaphor, it’s as though Samuel Northup is given his freedom papers but left on the plantation under the dominion of his evil master, knowing he’s technically free but not able to do anything about it.
It seems increasingly clear to me that, given our enslavement to the work of our own hands (i.e. our sin), the only way Jesus could break our chains and show us the way to freedom was to enter into our human condition, expose our slavery for what it was, and break its power from within. It’s as though, by willingly dying at our hands, he was saying to us “Look! This is where the broad road you humans are on leads! This is where you end up if you keep on with the merry-go-round of rivalry, competition and difference, enforced by power and justified by religion!”
Earlier in this post, I pointed out some of the themes of 12 Years A Slave: corruption, betrayal, violence, exploitation, loneliness and despair. These are the self-inflicted punishments from which Jesus came to set us free. And he came to give us real freedom, not just freedom in an abstract legal sense that makes little difference to how we feel and how we relate to and move through the world.
But here’s the rub: Jesus showed us that the way to freedom for ourselves and others goes through the cross: through self-giving, co-suffering, other-centred love. How badly do you want that freedom? Are you in?