I have a deep appreciation for film. To maintain this appreciation I seek out as many noteworthy films in any given year as possible—soaking in the skilled performances, deft scripts, use of camera. This adds to my film knowledge, which I then weave into my own writings tools. To maximize my time (who can see EVERY film worthy), I often rely on buzz: what films must one see. One of the films this year was Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave.
Based on a true story, the film explores the harrowing experience of a talented African American musician who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the deep south. During his 12 years of captivity, he endures a litany of soul-crushing experiences. For this reason, this graphic film is very difficult to watch, in part because of how long the camera lingers on the torture scenes: we are compelled to not only watch but also study the brutality.
Of the many questions that will linger after leaving the theater, one that stands out (as it often has when exploring stories from this era in US history): how in the world did people allow this practice to go on? Perhaps even more troubling for me: Solomon Northup’s two slave owners are both men of “deep faith” who often quote the Bible.
For much of the New Testament, I have felt the same thing about Paul’s repeated advice about convincing slaves during that era to embrace their situation and respect their masters. How could a religion that espouses so many positive beliefs possibly condone such a barbaric practice—even if being a slave then was “not as bad” as what African Americans experienced in this country?
Philemon finally conveys Paul’s taking a positive stand on the issue of slavery, though sadly, it’s an isolated case—he wants one runaway slave to be welcomed back by his master as an equal.
Addressing his friend Philemon, Paul first butters the man up with flattery about how good of a person he is (1:6-7). Then, he announces his purpose: your runaway slave, Onesimus, came to me, found Christ, and now I am sending him back to you a better man (1:10-11). Please accept him as an equal, not as a slave. Also a subtext: don’t punish him. Paul is also clever to couch this purpose in a suggestion, not an order (8). He even suggests that Onesimus was merely “separated” (1:15) from his master for a little while (downplaying the whole running away issue).
Given how serious it was for a slave to run away and risk capture, Onesimus was taking his life in his hands. Knowing this, Paul appeals to Philemon’s humanity and Christianity to ensure Onesimus is not only unharmed but also welcomed back. I recognize that Paul was taking a big chance, but given the amount of chances he and others took—often standing up for what they—and Jesus—understood to be right, it’s shocking that this did not happen more often. If it had, I’m assuming there would be more records of it.
Although I was glad to read this account, it also saddened me because of how isolated this action appears in the Bible. So often, these books convey worthwhile lessons yet this atrocity appears so often without any attention (or at least not the right kind of attention, even given the era). If anything, it’s a reminder of what Paul (and others) could have done more often, much in the way that McQueen’s film is a brutal reminder of what never to do (or let happen) again.
Up Next: The Book of Hebrews–which is strange, because isn’t most of the Bible about them?