Saturday, November 2, 2013

Yolanda Pierce on Slavery, Religious Rhetoric, and "12 Years a Slave"

The commentary on the movie 12 Years a Slave continues.  The latest comes from The Christian Century website. Yolanda Piece of Princeton Theological Seminary discusses the role of religion in the film and the use of Christian rhetoric to support slavery in antebellum America.  Here is a taste:


The 1853 slave narrative Twelve Years a Slave is now a major motion picture directed by Steve McQueen.The film is a faithful rendering of the life of Solomon Northup, a free African American man who is sold into chattel bondage and brutally enslaved. Northup’s life story highlights one of the little-known facets of American slavery: the dangers that free black people faced during the antebellum era, with little legal recourse if they were cheated, harmed, brutalized or even sold into slavery.
Northup was eventually freed. But there were countless others whose names we cannot know, who never escaped the institution of slavery despite their legal status as “free” people of color. The film forces the observer to think about the various hypocrisies inherent in a system of chattel bondage—not the least of which was the religious justification used to support, sustain and reinforce American slavery.
In the film, slaveholders use Christian rhetoric and biblical passages to insist that slavery was ordained by God and consistent with being a “good” Christian. This is juxtaposed with scenes of enslaved men and women singing songs and hymns of the same Christian tradition, the very tradition used to justify their enslavement. It’s a fundamental religious question: how can the same scripture, the same songs and the same religious rhetoric be used both to justify slavery and to insist that it’s evil? The institution of slavery served as a religious battleground. Whose version of the divine and whose version of scriptural faithfulness would dominate public discourse?
There is no doubt that enslaved people were able to adapt and transform the very religious rhetoric used to enslave them. They did this largely by making a distinction between the “true” Christianity that was emblematic in the person of Jesus Christ and the “slaveholding religion” as practiced in the United States. The stories, symbols and messages of Christianity were adopted by enslaved people as polemical arguments against slavery. By using Christian rhetoric—essentially the language of early American political discourse—enslaved people vigorously participated in a theological and political conversation concerning slavery and freedom, thus undermining racist readings of the biblical text.