reflecting on two films

On Saturday evening Sally and I went to the cinema to watch ’12 Years a Slave’. It is very difficult to describe my emotions afterwards as I felt that I had been assaulted by a vile experience. That is not a criticism of the film – I thought it was incredible, powerful, moving and engaging. But what was portrayed in the film left me feeling sickened to think that people could treat one another in the way that the slaves were treated.

And when the slave owners tried to justify their actions by a distorted and highly selective reading from the Bible it left me both disturbed and angry. How can anyone imagine that God approves of such barbarity, inhumanity and what is plainly evil? How can they imagine that God was on their side?

And that left me with some difficult questions of my own:

How can I be sure that my reading of the Bible is not distorted by prejudices of my own? I think the answer to this lies in honest and open approaches to the text. I should look at the pages with an open mind not a closed one, ready to receive not look to back up my own views. It helps to look at how others have interpreted it too (which is why commentaries and Bible reading notes are so helpful), and not just those I would automatically agree with. And it is essential to read it prayerfully and with humility – what does God want to say to me?

What would I have done if I was born into a Plantation-owning family in the Southern States of America in that era? Would I have bought into the distorted view of reality? Would I have accepted the status quo? And if (as I hope) I would have been repulsed and want to change things, what would I do differently? If I only had employees rather than slaves I would price myself out of business very quickly as I could not compete with those whose overheads were much lower because of the exploitation of slave labour. Would I sell up and move to another place where slavery was not accepted and start a different business? I don’t know.

What would I have done if I had been born as a slave, or kidnapped and forced into slavery? Is it possible to resist evil when you are so powerless? Would I have tried to be the best I could and serve as diligently as possible in the hope of showing another way (along the lines that Paul advises when he writes to those who are slaves, and also in supporting the return of a runaway slave in the letter to Philemon)? Would I have responded with hatred?

I recognise that I am privileged not to be in a situation where I have to answer those questions. But I feel that it is important for me to try – in order to try to recognise the suffering of others, in order to motivate me to fight for justice and truth (especially in the face of modern slavery and people-trafficking) and in order for me to be vigilant about how I treat others and seek to ensure that I respond in a way that emulates Jesus.

And then last night at our church Film Night we watched ‘Invictus’. I have already commented on the film last week but watching it after having watched ’12 Years a Slave’ was incredibly powerful. Nelson Mandela’s refusal to respond to violence and hate with revenge and retribution was inspirational. By offering forgiveness and reconciliation he showed another way: what Paul calls the ‘most excellent way’ (1 Corinthians 13). That cannot have been easy. It is still not necessarily easy today.

There is a lot of talk about ‘equality’ today. Equality Legislation has been passed to give the full force of the law to trying to stamp out prejudice. But legislation alone is insufficient. We need to begin by recognising the innate value, dignity, humanity and importance of every other human being on this planet. The Bible talks about us all being made in the ‘image of God’. That is not a physical representation of him, but is about the capacity to love and be loved, to sense the divine spark of creativity in everyone, to know that everyone is utterly priceless.

When we see each other like that we will not only find slavery and racism (and the like) abhorrent, but we will also find it more difficult to be unkind to one another, to carry out character assassinations behind someone’s back, or even to think of ourselves as better than someone else.

On Sunday morning we used a prayer from the Iona Community to gather at Communion:

Gather us in
The lost and the lonely,
The broken and the breaking,
The tired and the aching
Who long for the nourishment found at your feast
Gather us in
The done and the doubting,

The wishing and wondering,

The puzzled and pondering

Who long for your company

found at your feast

Gather us in

The proud and pretentious,

The sure and superior,

The never inferior

Who long for the levelling

found at your feast

Gather us in

The bright and the bustling,

The stirrers, the shakers,

The kind laughter-makers

Who long for the deeper joys

found at your feast

Gather us in

From corner or limelight,

From mansion or campsite,

From fears and obsession,

From tears and depression,

From untold excesses,

From treasured successes

To meet, to eat,

Be given a seat,

Be joined to the Vine,

Be offered new wine,

Become like the least,

Be found at the feast

Gather us in

Be blessed, be a blessing


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