Though it’s been more than 40 years, I still flinch at the thwack of a belt pulled quickly from the waistline of a pair of pants. I still remember how it feels to have my skin welted, broken, and bleeding—and to have my mother apply ointment to the wounds. A good therapist, a lifetime of kind people, and a loving community of faith have helped me come to terms with childhood abuse and forgive my father as much as I’m humanly capable of doing.
And though I may have some insights that others can scarcely imagine, I know that I cannot possibly fathom the abuse slaves endured. As I watched12 Years a Slave yesterday afternoon, I had to avert my eyes from the screen each time a whip was raised in the air. The film is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man, who in 1841 was abducted in Washington, DC, and sold into slavery.
On an intellectual level, I understood the historical events. On an emotional level, I understood the inability of the slaves to help one another. But though I’ve seen it happen again and again, I cannot begin to understand how people can desecrate the sacred texts of their faith by using them to justify atrocities they commit in the name of their god.
And, yes, that lower case g is intentional. For the God of the universe—the God of Jews, of Muslims, of Christians, of many religions—is no small god. The God of the universe is not small-minded, and if we look at the holy texts of any faith in their totality, they speak of respect for life, of justice for the oppressed, of love for the least among us.
And so it is that I cannot begin to understand how those who share my faith can forget everything Christ said about grace and love. I held my breath as I watched the two scenes in the film where the plantation owners stood underneath beautiful blue skies and read from the Bible verses deliberately chosen as a means of controlling and oppressing other human beings.
It would be a grave mistake, though, to dismiss such behavior as a thing of the past—something that happened so long ago that no one still living can give voice to it. When I was a child, not all that long ago, many Christians in my neighborhood turned a blind eye to my father’s means of enforcing discipline. When I was in my early teens, I prayed at an altar, confiding in a church leader, who told me that I should pray for my father and remember that Christ, too, suffered persecution.
Not surprisingly, my own experiences shape my reactions to people who invoke the name of God for their own small-minded purposes. Each time it happens, I am uncertain how to challenge such thinking and still be true to the freedoms I hold dear, particularly freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
An acquaintance of mine who has a doctorate in theology from Columbia University told me recently that he believes such people are anachronisms, “a throwback to pioneer days.” But it frightens me to so easily dismiss such behavior, especially when many, many people are quick to defend them by invoking their freedom of speech and religion.
And because these are freedoms that are sacred to us, even those of us who are outraged allow the small-minded to shout down more reasonable views.
Of course, none of the abuses in our country rise to the level depicted in12 Years a Slave. And so far our system of government has worked to keep such warped thinking from shaping our society. But what if those “anachronisms” suddenly became a majority? How many times in history have people said “never again,” only to have human rights abuses repeated in another place and time in the name of a small god?
My heart overflowed when Solomon, helpless in the face of another senseless death, looks to the sky and finds solace, hesitating and then finally joining the other slaves in a beautiful a cappella harmony of “Roll Jordan Roll.” I was filled with admiration for slaves and for the children of slaves who could still believe, in spite of everything they were taught about an ugly god, that God—with a capital G—is somehow present in the world.
As I watched Solomon Northup flee that plantation at the end of the film, I shared his agony as he realized he could only save himself. I remember the agony of being unable to save my siblings or my mom from yet another beating. I am sometimes afraid for this country I love, for this world. But I am only one person, and I can’t save the world, even if I could figure out how.
Walking away from the film, tears spilling over my eyelids, I looked to the heavens. The sun had set, and the sky glowed a warm red, though the night was one of the coldest this winter. A sliver of a moon had already risen. I tilted my head so that the crescent smiled at me, and I remembered that the greatest lesson of my faith is that love always trumps fear.
And Grace, when it has a capital G, is always sufficient.
So tell me your stories of Grace.