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That's Scripture?
by Tom Goodman
April 23, 2014

In 12 Years a Slave, the Bible is referenced by nearly every character surrounding Solomon Northrup.  But if you watch the Oscar-winning film, I'll understand if you miss this.

The film is an adaptation of an 1853 memoir by Northup, a free black man from upstate New York who was abducted and sold into slavery in Louisiana.  The film displays the indignities and cruelties he and other slaves endured until a chance meeting with a Canadian abolitionist began the legal process that brought him back to his family.  It's not a film for the faint of heart, but I recommend it.

I also recommend we help our nonbelieving friends see the use of the Bible among the slaves and abolitionists, not just the slave owners.

Viewers will probably need our help, because the only use of Scripture that most will recall is by slave owners.  In an unforgettable introduction to the vicious Edwin Epps, the cotton farmer quoted a verse about a disobedient servant beaten with many stripes, then he raised the Bible for emphasis, and said, "That's scripture."

This left many viewers to conclude, like Deborah Potter for the PBS Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, that the point of the film was to explore "how religion and the Bible were used to justify slavery and cruelty."

The misuse of Scripture by slave owners was a sad chapter in our nation and our faith.  But slave owners weren't the only characters in the film to quote the Bible.  Slaves were referencing it as they sang "Roll Jordan Roll" around a fresh grave.  And the Canadian abolitionist Sam Bass knew his Bible when he warned Epps that God would not ignore American slavery for long.  "There's a sin, a fearful sin, resting on this nation that will not go unpunished forever," he said.  "There's a day coming that will burn as an oven.  It may be sooner, or it may be later, but it's a coming as sure as the Lord is just."

In the words of Epps, "That's scripture."

As Michael White wrote for The Guardian, "Almost unheard in the background of 12 Years a Slave was the Christian-driven abolitionist movement.  The Christianity that helped to enslave also helped to liberate.  To assert otherwise is a bit modern."

So, watch the film and grieve for those who suffered under this tragic blight on our nation's past.  But also be prepared to help your friends discover how that blight was healed by the word of God.  After all, his word is alive and active and sharper than any sword (Hebrews 4:12).  It may be mismanaged by fallible humans for a time, but his word ultimately prevails.


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