I saw the movie 12 Years a Slave over the weekend.  Based on a true story, it tells of a freed black man, Solomon Northup, living in Saratoga, NY, before the Civil War. A talented fiddler, he is lured to Washington, DC with the promise of work. Instead, he is kidnapped and taken to New Orleans where he is sold into slavery. 

It takes 12 years before he can finally tell someone the truth and get help so that he can return to his family and life as a free man. It is a beautiful and profoundly painful film to watch. One of the reasons is that director Steve McQueen’s camera does not look away during some of the most violent moments, like rapes and whippings. The violence is not over the top or cartoonish like Quentin Tarantino, just unwavering and unsentimental. The action unfolds in real time. The camera doesn’t look away, doesn’t let us off the hook, but stays and watches, a silent observer in the room. One of the remarkable things depicted in this film is not only the injustice and violence done to the slaves, but also how that violence affected the white slave owners. The institution of slavery did psychological wounding to both the perpetrators and the victims. It is hard to deny that slavery was a cancer in the spirit of our developing nation. Others have said that seeing 12 Years a Slave should be required viewing for all Americans. I agree. Here’s why:

While we have made some headway to begin wrestling with the scourge of slavery, there is much work still to do. Until we acknowledge and atone for the wrongs done to fellow citizens and recognize the corporate and individual profit that slavery enabled, we will be forever haunted by our history. We know that in families, if secrets and sickness are not brought out into the light, if issues are not resolved, they show up in subsequent generations, they manifest in other ways.

 I am a Northerner. I did not grow up with the Civil War as a visceral collective memory as it might have been for some of you. But I have walked slowly across the battlefields at Gettysburg and smelled the blood in the soil and felt the lack of resolution in the air that hangs like humidity over that land. I have also followed the Slave trail along the banks of the James River in Richmond. My feet have walked in the footsteps of thousands of African slaves who had to be moved from where the ships docked to the auction houses downtown. Unlike the slaves, I did not have shackles around my ankles, nor did I walk at night. The slaves were moved at night to cover up the sight and smell of them after a long ocean voyage. I remember as I walked the trail, I could feel their anguish, their fear, their adrenalin moving up through my feet and legs and lodging in my heart. We cannot reframe or erase that part of our history. Reconciliation is not possible without naming what was wrong and asking God for forgiveness.

In the Gospel of Thomas*, we read:

If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.

I have often felt the power of these words in terms of my own vocation: am I living my authentic life? After seeing the film, 12 Years a Slave, I hear it in a new way. If all this sickness and psychosis and horror surrounding slavery is still inside the soul of the country, unresolved, unacknowledged, un-grieved, then we will remain crippled as we move into our future. This film makes a great contribution to coming to terms with our history. Yes, it’s painful to watch, but don’t look away.

* The Gospel of Thomas is one of the Gnostic Gospels, written shortly after the death of Jesus, but banned as heretical in the 3rd Century by the developing Roman Church. In 1945, the Gnostic Gospels were discovered by a shepherd in a cave in Egypt, tightly sealed in a ceramic jar. Someone wanted to preserve them and found an ingenious way to do it.