Sunday, November 17, 2013

12 Years A Slave: Some Thoughts (and spoilers)

I got to see the movie 12 Years a Slave last night with my sophisticated and attractive friends Jordan, Landon and Janae.  It is an incredible movie - incredibly good and incredibly disturbing.  The nearest thing I can compare it to, movie-wise, is The Passion of the Christ.

12 Years a Slave is a true story, based on the autobiography of Solomon Northrup, a free black man, an American citizen from New York with a wife and two kids, who was abducted by slavers on a trip to Washington DC in 1841 and sold into slavery in the Deep South.  He stayed trapped in slavery for twelve years until


he was able to convince a sympathetic white laborer to carry a letter to his white friends in New York, who came and rescued him.


For me, the most arresting scene in the film comes soon after Solomon is sold into slavery.  The master of his plantation is supposedly a "decent" slave owner.  He gives his slaves plenty of food and good living quarters. He is unable to purchase a woman's children along with her to keep her family together, but he feels bad about it.  He respects Solomon's intelligence and obviously realizes he was not born in slavery, but makes no effort to find out the truth, since he went into debt to buy Solomon. 

One day, one of the master's  sadistic overseers attacks Solomon, and Solomon, still fresh from the North, fights back, steals the overseer's whip, and strikes him with it.  Shocked and enraged, the overseer flees, and returns with a gang to hang Solomon.  They get the noose around his neck and hoist him into the air from a tree branch, the other end of the rope staked to the ground.  At that moment, a different overseer arrives, and, knowing Solomon's value to his master, drives his attackers off at gunpoint.  After the attackers release the rope, Solomon drops just low enough that his feet are brushing the ground, and he can breathe if he pushes his body up with his feet.

This is where the truly horrible part comes.  Instead of cutting Solomon down, the overseer sends for the master - and then leaves.  Solomon is left hanging by his neck for hours, just barely able to breathe by constant, laborious footwork.  In the background, we see the other slaves coming and going about their work, their eyes averted.  And not just other slaves, but other white people - the master's wife, the other overseers, day laborers.  No one dares rescue Solomon until the master returns at sunset, rushes over with genuine alarm, and cuts Solomon down with a machete.

That night, Solomon sleeps on the floor in the foyer of the master's house, the master watching over him with a shotgun, hastening to investigate every little sound in the darkness beyond the porch.  He is terrified that the attackers are coming back for Solomon, and arranges to sell him as soon as possible.

For the vast majority of this horrifying segment, there are no villains onscreen.  The only villain present is the invisible, demonic Power of racism.  This Power dictates the actions of everyone onscreen, from the blacks who have been taught by long years of terror never to interfere in the punishment of a black, to the whites who have learned the same lesson.  Even the supposedly all-powerful master is only powerful enough to cut down the noose - to do the very least to help the black man.  He is too afraid to do anything else.  The terror, the violent Power of racism that Americans invited in to help build their country hangs over all their heads, ruling over them.  Some people in this picture are rich and comfortable, but none are free.

Over and over again, the movie presents us with similar no-win scenarios.  Does the "good" slave master buy the enslaved mother and separate her from her children, or leave her with her children and run the risk that they get bought by someone awful?  Does Solomon accept his status as a slave and get constantly abused, or insist on his rights as a free citizen and get beaten even more?  Does he help a tormented female slave  commit suicide, or force her to stay alive?  Do the slaves intervene when the master rapes a slave woman, or look away?  When Solomon's deranged second master pulls out a gun and orders Solomon to whip his fellow slave or "I'll kill every n----- here," does he do it?

There might not be right answers to these questions.  There might also not be right answers to the questions that confront Americans on a daily basis, whether we realize it or not.  I passed a homeless man asking for money twice on the way in and out of the theater last night.  Do I give him money and contribute to making degrading street begging a viable means of survival for him, or do I pass him by and do nothing to help him survive?  Which of two candidates promising to continue bombing innocent people overseas do we vote for?  Which national corporate bank involved in massive fraud and economic malpractice do we open an account with? Which grocery store carrying cheap products produced at unimaginable cost to the environment and overseas laborers (and yes, slaves) do we shop at?

This summer, I read An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, a frustrating, convicting book by William Stringfellow, an Anglican lay-theologian and 1970s antiwar activist.  Stringfellow argues that the "powers" of the world - all governments, organizations, militaries, churches, schools and families - are fallen creatures, fallen separately from the human beings that constitute them, and are given over the demonic Power of death.  Certain things - the Vietnam War, for him, and I would add the Iraq War, farm subsidies, carbon dioxide pollution and the abortion industry to that list - only make sense if we realize that they operate not for the benefit of anyone involved, but for the benefit of the System itself - which is to say, for the benefit of Death.

For Stringfellow, the only answer to this dilemma we are all caught in is to resist the power of death, in whatever fashion our circumstances and the Holy Spirit avail us of.  Our resistance will inevitably be futile, fallen and sinful to some degree, but "resistance is the only human way to live."

I'd be remiss if I didn't add that, except for the racial and religious dynamics, all the elements of slavery I saw in this film are present in modern-day slavery in Sudan, where I regularly travel to see people who have been liberated from slavery through the organization I work for, Christian Solidarity International.  Abduction, family separation, name changes, murder with impunity, rapes, constant beatings, torture, maimings - it's all still happening today, and at about the same level of technological development, in the Darfur and Kordofan regions of North Sudan.

I met this man, Deng Akol Acien, in September.  He was 20 years a slave.  Before his capture, he was a Christian, a sugar trader.  His master changed his name to Abdullah and forced him to pray like a Muslim.  After Abdullah lost one of his master's sheep, he beat him, cut off the tip of his ear, tied him to the ground and left him in the sun for three days without food.  On the fourth day, his master brought him food mixed with dirt to eat.  Abdullah saw seven of his fellow slaves executed for trying to escape.  There's more, but it's not fit even for this horror-show of a blog post.  When I met him, he told me he wanted to be called Deng again. "I'm done with Abdullah forever now."

We can get people like Deng out of slavery through our contacts in Sudan, usually for the price of about $50 worth of cattle vaccine - per person.  

It won't solve poverty, racism, systematic abuse of women, and war in Africa.  We can't defeat the power of death on our own. 

But we can resist.  And that, I believe, is what we are called to.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Evangelicals and the World Abroad

Dear friends, brothers and sisters in Christ,

Bear with me as I relay three personal stories from the last month that have been weighing on my heart.

Story 1: I'm on the plane to Cairo early last month.  I strike up a conversation with the friendly Egyptian Muslim man next to me.  He tells me about his family and his fears for his culture and his country.  I tell him about my previous visit to Egypt and my love for his country.  He speaks perfect English.  He pretends to be impressed by my Arabic.  At some point, I tell him that I'm an evangelical Christian.  He reacts with surprise, and keeps prodding me about my beliefs.  Finally, he tells me about his one other encounter with an evangelical: he was traveling in the U.S. on business during Israel's war with Gaza in 2008-2009, in which 1,300 Palestinians, including hundreds of women and children, were killed. 

Needless to say, he wasn't a fan of the war.  But the evangelical businessman he met was.  And why was that?

Because, the man told my friend, it means Jesus is coming back sooner.

I apologize, and try to explain that not all evangelicals are like that.  I'm not like that.  My pastor's not like that.  Some of us, I tell him, are moderates.

Story 2: I'm in Nairobi, Kenya, where evangelical and pentecostal Christianity are thriving.  I'm flipping channels in my hotel room, and come across John Hagee preaching a sermon on "The Four Blood Moons of the Apocalypse" or something or other.  Knowing that Hagee is one of the most powerful American Christian leaders, commanding, among other things, a pro-Israel organization with 13 million members, I decide to watch.

In this particular segment, he is preaching on Ezekiel 38-39, a prophecy of a coming war between Israel and a collection of nations led by an unspecified northern power, a war that will end with the divine destruction of the attacking nations.  Ezekiel identifies the nations in this prophecy as Gog, Meshek, Tubal, Persia, Cush, Put, and Gomer.  John Hagee says that this war is coming within the next two years - because blood moons! (I didn't understand that part) - and he helpfully tells us which nations these are.

Gog, Meshek and Tubal are identifiers for Russia, he says.  Persia is Iran.  Put is Libya.  Cush, Hagee says, is "Ethiopia and all the other Arab Spring countries." Confused because Ethiopia is a Christian African country, not an Arab Muslim one, and that the principle Arab Spring countries, Egypt and Syria, don't get a spot on the list?  Don't be, because we're already moving on.

Gomer, John Hagee says, is Germany.  Yes, Germany.  Germany is going to attack Israel next year, and God will totally wipe it out in response.  Why?  Because Germany killed the Jews in the Holocaust, and - this is what he said - "God doesn't forgive sins that you don't confess."

Thus, in the space of about three sentences, one of the most famous American Christian leaders condemns Germany - a country of 80 million people, 50 million of whom call themselves Christians, the home of Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Beethoven  - to total destruction.

This brings a few questions to mind: Hasn't Germany confessed to the Holocaust?  Haven't they made reparations to the Jews?  Does God punish children for the sins of their grandparents and great-grandparents (cf Ezekiel 18)?  Could total genocide be the punishment of a just God for attempted genocide?  Does God have plans to avenge other "unconfessed" genocides in this manner - say, the United States' genocide of Native Americans?  Does Pastor Hagee actually know any Germans?  Has he run this theory past them?  Has he thought about trying to warn the Germans of their impending doom (cf Jonah)?  Can we hear from Pastor Hagee on any of this?

Nope, because Germany's 30 allotted seconds in Hagee's sermon have passed, without any indication that Hagee or anyone in his audience spent more than 30 seconds thinking about it, and now we're talking about the outrage of Obama's Benghazi coverup.

Story 3: Famed American Christian author Joel Rosenberg has a new book out, Damascus Countdown, and it's climbing the bestseller lists.  SPOILERS AHEAD: The book ends with Damascus getting destroyed in a nuclear attack in a war between Israel and Iran, thus fulfilling Isaiah 17.  On Rosenberg's website, it is advertised with the tagline, "Is it a novel or today's headlines?"

Well, in point of fact, today's headlines will tell you that Damascus and Syria are being torn apart, not by nuclear weapons, but by a vicious government and an equally-vicious rebel movement being extensively funded, armed and supported by the U.S. government and its allies.  Syrian Christians are being systematically driven out of areas where the rebels have taken control.  One might think that the destruction of Syrian Christians at the hands of the American government would be of interest to American Christians, as opposed to thinly-disguised fantasies about cities full of brown people getting nuked.

Judging by the bestseller lists, one would be wrong.

Let me reassure you: the common theme I see in these three totally true stories is not "evangelicals are stupid" or "evangelicals are racist" or "I, Joel Veldkamp, American evangelical, am smarter than other evangelicals." (God forbid.)

This is the theme I see: A large swathe of evangelical Christianity in America seems unaware that other countries are real.

Intellectually, of course, we know that other countries are real.  But our truly-felt beliefs are reflected in our words and actions.  And judging by the popularity of John Hagee, Joel Rosenberg, and the State of Israel among evangelicals, for far too many of us, foreign countries exist only as props in our dreams about the Rapture. That has to change.

Let me leave it at this: if you wouldn't be comfortable explaining your hope for the last days to a German person, a Palestinian person, an Iranian person, a Syrian person, or an Ethiopian person, you're doing it wrong.