What's "Twelve Years a Slave" Really About?

"During my residence with Master Ford I had seen only the bright side of slavery.  His was no heavy hand crushing us to the earth.  He pointed upwards, and with benign and cheering words addressed us as his fellow mortals, accountable like himself, to the Maker of us all.  I think of him with affection."


Such is former slave Solomon Northrup's surprising assessment of William Ford, one of the masters who "owned" him during his twelve years in bondage. 

Northup was a free, educated man in the north before being kidnapped and sold into slavery.  He recounted his experiences in a memoir published a few years before the Civil War entitled, Twelve Years a Slave.  The grippingly dark movie of the same name, winner of the Academy Award for “Best Picture”, is closely based on his book. 

Years ago I had to buy a second copy of Northup's book.  I had given my first copy to Ron, an African American friend who was intrigued upon hearing of Northup's experience.  Recently, after watching the acclaimed movie, Ron and I again discussed Northup’s story.  Of all the horrifying aspects of his account, we agreed that one of the most haunting is his portrayal of slave owner William Ford.     

In his book Northup discusses Ford at length.  "In my opinion," he summarized, "there never was a more kind, noble, candid Christian man than William Ford".  Northup’s description of Ford stands in stark contrast to his portrayal of the other vicious slave owners under whose cruel hands he suffered. 

Regardless of how "kind" and "benign" his experience of Ford, however, that is no solace in light of a deeply troubling question-- how could Ford and thousands of southern "Christians" like him have convinced themselves it was acceptable to have any part in a cruel institution that ripped apart families and demeaned human beings?  As Ron asserted, “One who acquiesces to evil is just as harmful as those who actively perpetuate evil.”  

In participating in slavery, southern Christians clearly betrayed the profoundly benevolent spirit of Christ.  They also represented an enormous step backward from what many early Christians had understood over a thousand years before. 

It's sobering to note that the ubiquitous practice of slavery threads throughout human history-- through Europe, ancient Rome and Greece, through native America, China, India, Egypt and earliest Sumer.  In the long history of slavery virtually no one condemned it as wrong.  Plato and Aristotle both owned slaves, maintaining it was part of the natural order.  Aristotle wrote, "From the hour of their birth some are marked out for subjection, others for rule."  In the modern era most of the antireligious philosophers of the enlightenment embraced it. 

At the time of Christ it's estimated that a quarter of the population of the Roman Empire was in slavery.  

One might find it unsettling that Jesus himself never directly condemned slavery as an institution.  What Jesus did, however, was promulgate--and exemplify--the biblical perspective that all people, regardless of status, are infinitely valued by a personal Creator.  In application of this ennobling, egalitarian theme the New Testament affirmed, "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free... for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).        

In a complete reversal of cultural norms, Jesus went even further by especially ascribing dignity to those of the lowest status, declaring "blessed are the poor" and "the last shall be first".  To the extremely classist, status-based cultures of the ancient world, this was not poetic nicety-- it was revolutionary. 

"Christianity supplied a new order of relations in which the distinction of classes was unknown," wrote Cambridge scholar, William Lecky, of early Christianity in his two volume classic History of European Morals. "It imparted a moral dignity to the slave classes and it gave an unexampled impetus to the movement of emancipation." 

Still, an age-old practice like slavery would not easily go away.  Medieval church law largely justified it while seeking to minimize associated suffering.  Yet Lecky references thousands of recorded examples of early converted Christians freeing their slaves out of spiritual conviction.  This was often done in church services and commemorated at Christian festivals.  In 13th century France, when there were no more slaves to free, it was typical at many church festivals to release caged pigeons in celebration of the spirit of emancipation.   

Due to this unprecedented ethos and other historical factors, by the end of the 12th century slavery had faded away in most parts of Europe.

Tragically, with the discovery of the New World and the intense demand for labor to exploit its resources, the slave ethic found new life in western culture.  Age-old rationalizations were embraced which mingled perceived biblical justifications with references to the Greek philosophers.  These rationalizations passed down through the generations, influencing southern Christians like "benign" William Ford who, according to Northup, "never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection."

Ironically, at the same time, northern Christians were taking the lead in the movement to end slavery.  Abraham Lincoln noted the strange juxtaposition of pro-slavery and abolitionist Christians.  "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God,” he observed, “and each invokes His aid against the other."

Northup himself offered an explanation as to how a devout man like Ford could come down on the side of slavery.  “The influences and associations that had always surrounded him blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of slavery,” Northup wrote. “Brought up under other circumstances and other influences, his notions would undoubtedly have been different.”   

In our discussion, Ron and I wrestled together with Northup’s assessment.  If a "kind" and "benign" Christian like William Ford could be so influenced by his culture that he would participate in an evil like southern slavery, what about the rest of us?  How might we be unconsciously influenced by our culture so that in some significant perspectives we unwittingly stand opposed to the very heart and spirit of Jesus?

I posed a question to Ron that has long haunted me.  “Suppose I wasn't part Jewish and you weren’t African American.  And suppose I grew up in Nazi Germany and you grew up in the slave south.  How can we know either of our perspectives wouldn’t be utterly poisoned by the influence of those cultures?”

“We can't know,” Ron answered thoughtfully.  “Northup’s assessment of Ford expresses what I learned from my experience with segregation.  The paradox is, if the shoe were on the other foot, the outcome might not have been any different.  We can't know what we might have done.  But what we are responsible for is to make sure we're on the side of right in whatever ethical issues we currently face or will face in the future.”      

We agreed this is easier said than done.  History makes clear, not only the powerful influence of culture, but the incredible human ability to rationalize--to justify--how we choose to think and live.  "Every man is right in his own eyes," says the Old Testament Proverb.  

Having long ago read Twelve Years a Slave, Ron and I knew the movie would be hard to watch.  It was.  It's about the human capacity for unbounded self-interest.  It's about the frightening potential for cruelty--or for "benignly" looking the other way--in pursuit of that self-interest.  It's about the age-old tendency of "good” people to imbibe the sometimes toxic mores of their culture so as to unwittingly betray Christ's exalted ethic of love. 

Perhaps more than we dare to admit, Twelve Years a Slave is about you and me.








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