Reflections on The Birth of a Nation (2016)
This past weekend I watched the film The Birth of a Nation — here’s the summary:
Set against the antebellum South, THE BIRTH OF A NATION follows Nat Turner (Nate Parker), a literate slave and preacher, whose financially strained owner, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), accepts an offer to use Nat’s preaching to subdue slaves. As he witnesses countless atrocities, against himself and his fellow slaves, Nat orchestrates an uprising in the hopes of leading his people to freedom.
The story is based on true events — [Nat Turner] who led a rebellion of slaves and free blacks in Southampton County, Virginia on August 21, 1831.
This well-acted and well-written movie was evocative and powerful, and here’s what I took away from it.
1. There is a time for Christians to take up arms against oppressors
This is a very controversial topic, and this movie focuses on the frustration of a pacifist who tires of waiting for the Lord to bring down oppressors and begins to feel that God is calling him to use violence to bring that justice he has so long waited for.
The question arises, is he abandoning his God, or obeying in taking up arms? While many modern pacifist Christians would cite the non-violence of Jesus, and cite such passages as Isaiah 53:7 and 1 Peter 2:23, or parrot the truism “violence only begets violence,” watching the murder and rape of one’s wives and children begs the question — do husbands have a responsibility to protect the weak, nay, their own families from violence?
Interestingly, this film did not take sides in this issue, but presented the difficulties of this dilemma, giving credence to both views. As such, it reminds me of the epic film The Mission, in which the same quandary is broached without resolution, leaving the viewer to wrestle with the dilemma.
2. Slavery disrupts families terribly
From a Biblical view, the family is the core unit of society — not the individual, and not the village. If you destroy the family, you destroy individuals, especially children, and no amount of social engineering at the community level can solve the issues created by the breakdown of the family.
With family members regularly separated and sold to other owners, as well as the regular rape and sexual use of female slaves by owners, the one thing you can salvage as a poor person is taken away.
This reminds me of the current plight in black urban America, where >70% of births are out of wedlock, where marriage is at an all time low, absentee fathers are at an all time high, and government programs may be making the problem worse. Black Conservative writers such as Star Parker and Jason Riley are very critical of the government’s role in poorly designed social programs that keep the poor dependent and fail to support the nuclear biological family. 7 8
3. Slavery has been part of every society in history, but defeated in few
As I was watching the horrors of American slavery, I was thinking of how American intellectuals often focus on our own sin of slavery to the nth detail, but fail to examine or discuss the horrific slavery that built the Greek and Roman societies which our democracy is modeled after, as well as the black on black and Islamic slave trades which still go on today.
Our reticence to criticize other cultures due to the overreach of the multicultural knee jerk to our own jingoism is part of the problem — we are slow to closely examine and criticize even the horrors of daily jihad across the world, which in no small part involves human slavery. 9
4. Suffering people need the gospel and its ethics for this world
Suffering people need both hope and concrete instruction on what perspectives and actions they can take to better their situations. It’s not either or — they don’t just need practical help, they need a reason to do the right thing when everyone else is tempted to hate, to murder, and to take revenge.
They also need a framework for the just use of force against oppressors and evil doers. How do you change society? When is it time to take up arms in defense of the helpless? What limit is there on such actions?
In the movie, after a time of violent vengeance, the main character Nat Turner has to decide — has this avenue of violence run its useful course, and should I return to pacifist resistance? Do I need to accept my fate as a law breaker inspire others?
If you have HBO, you should watch The Birth of a Nation. It did not pull punches or provide easy answers but asked all the right questions. I loved it.