Tag Archives: 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave: Does God Approve of Slavery?

1 Mar


As the Oscars approaches I’ve been thinking about the film 12 Years a Slave, which surely will be rewarded with at least one Oscar statuette. This film has a compelling storyline, it’s brilliantly directed and features superb camera angles but more than that it is also immensely personally challenging.

Based on the 19th-century memoir of Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave follows the tribulations of an educated carpenter, musician and family man from New York State who, in 1841, was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the south – a shockingly common occurrence. Stripped of his past, his identity and even his humanity, the renamed “Platt” becomes the property of plantation owner Ford whose comparatively benign and sympathetic demeanour belies his slave owner status. But after incurring the rage of sadistic farmhand Tibeats, “Platt” is sold down the river to Epps, a broiling cauldron of psychotic rage whose desire for slave girl Patsey appears to be pushing him ever further into a black hole of sadistic cruelty.

As I looked around at the ethnically diverse cinema audience, very few people sat comfortably as we witnessed scenes of rape and torture. Even though I know almost 200 years and an Atlantic Ocean separate me from that particular story I still felt deeply ashamed. I can only begin to imagine how those of African origin felt in the audience, perhaps a mix of anger and profound sadness that it took so long for humanity to recognize all people as equals.


But as the film continued my discomfort was compounded as the slave owners used Scripture to legitimate their slave status. Now if we are serious about believing every verse in the Bible then maybe I should kill those working on the Sabbath at the Academy Awards (Exodus 35:7) and why not get the whole town together to stone some of our farmers for growing crops side by side (Exodus 35:2). Am I morally obligated to rebuke Salvationists for wearing their mixed-fabric uniforms prohibited in Leviticus 19:19? Furthermore, are we not free to sell our daughters into slavery (Exodus 21:7)?

As far as slavery goes, the bottom line is that the Bible does and doesn’t tolerate it. But it is also important to remember that the whole Bible is a story of how slaves, the Jewish nation, were set free from slavery. I think the biblical cultural understanding of slavery is possibly akin to how people in 100 years time will look at us and say, “I can’t believe our great-grandparents drove their cars knowing full well they were polluting the atmosphere!”

Franciscan priest and author Richard Rohr writes that if we stumble on passages that seem outrageous to us today, let us try to interpret Scripture the way that Jesus did. Even more than telling us exactly what to see in the Scriptures, Jesus taught us how to see, what to emphasize, and also what could be de-emphasized, or even ignored.  Jesus consistently ignored or even denied exclusionary, punitive, and triumphalistic texts in his own Jewish Bible in favour of texts that emphasized inclusion, mercy, and justice for the oppressed. When Christians state that every line in the Bible is of equal importance and inspiration, they are being very unlike Jesus. Jesus read the inspired text in an inspired way, which is precisely why he was accused of “teaching with authority and not like our scribes” (Matthew 7:29).

As a trainee Salvation Army officer I am acutely aware that I need to model responsible interpretation of Scripture. However, perhaps you have been dissuaded from believing in God or being involved in a church because some Christians have used isolated verses to champion their suspect positions and opinions.

Whoever you are I hope that you may know the big overarching story in the Bible, of a creator God who has a dream for all humanity, who although we can’t fully understand it become a man, and showed us a blueprint of how we can make our world a better place so we can live out fulfilling and healthy relationships.

This is a challenge to all Christians but I hope it also serves as inspiration to everyone to come back to the Bible in the context of God’s dream of a better world – one without the ills of slavery, especially today’s slavery that continues in its modern form: human trafficking.