Denise and I watched “Birth of a Nation” last Friday night.
It’s certainly not a “make-out” movie.
The main characters in the movie are:
*Nat Turner – a slave who is known for leading a rebellion against the slave owners of South Hampton County, Virginia.
*Elizabeth Turner – the plantation owner’s wife.
*Samuel Turner – the plantation owner’s son and upon the death of his father, the plantation owner and Nat’s owner.
*The Bible. Yep, the Bible plays a major role in the real life story of Nat Turner. I don’t recall a movie with more Scripture than “Birth of a Nation.”
Nat could read. His ability was noticed by Elizabeth who brought him into the library of the main house. When Nat reaches for a book, though, he’s quickly reprimanded. “Those books are for white folks,” she says. “They’re full of things your kind wouldn’t understand.”
So she hands him the only book he’d ever need, the book that shaped his life: a Bible. Nat becomes a preacher and begins holding Sunday services on the plantation for the slaves.
There is an unrest among the slaves in the county, so, at the suggestion of the local white preacher, Samuel pimps Nat out to other slave owners to preach to their slaves in an effort to keep them under control.
Instructed by the slave owners, Nat based his sermons on texts like:
“Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to those who are harsh” (1 Peter 2:18)
“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear and sincerity of heart, just as you would show to Christ (Ephesians 6:5).
“All who are under the yoke of slavery should regard their masters as fully worthy of honor, so that God’s name and our teaching will not be discredited” (1 Timothy 6:1).
Initially, Nat doesn’t realize he’s part of a systematic indoctrination. Then he does. And he doesn’t like it. The words he’s reading from the pages of the Bible leave a bitter taste in his mouth. The words are:
Nat began to read other parts of the Bible. Nat tells his flock, “I’m going back through his words with new eyes. For every verse they use to defend our torture, there’s another demanding our freedom.”
He found new texts for his sermons:
“Let the high praises of God be in their mouth, and a two-edged sword in their hand, to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the nations… ( Psalm 149:6-9).
Nat hatches a plan to put that text into practice. His wife, Cherry, reminds him of another Bible verse: “…those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).
But Nat is determined. The passage that confirms for him that he should lead an armed rebellion against the slave-owners is 1 Samuel 15, in which God tells Saul, through the prophet Samuel, to commit genocide against the Amalekites.
While this movie, like all movies “based on a true story,” plays loose with some facts, the portrayal of the role played by the Bible in the story is spot on.
From one Bible came three different ethics.
- Slaves, submit to your master no matter what.
- Slaves, kill your master (remember the Exodus?).
- Love your enemies.
Each of us is living a story. What role does the Bible play in our stories – our ethics?
In this story, “Birth of a Nation,” the issue is slavery. On that issue the Bible was used as the basis for diametrically opposed positions: pro-slavery and anti-slavery.
Slave owners and pro-slavery pastors used the Bible to justify the African slave trade through the 19th century. Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy during the Civil War, said that slavery…
“was established by decrees of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation.”
Through the 21st century white Christians continued to used the Bible to justify their feelings of superiority over and oppression of non-whites.
Throughout history, people have invoked the “Good Book” to rationalize the widespread murder of others. Europeans quoted the same verses that inspired Nat to brutally kill white slave owners, to excuse the murder of Native Americans. Catholics and Protestants have each quoted it in their violence against the other. Preachers quoted it to support the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Some Christians are still quoting it today to teach that the murder of men, women and children is the righteous reaction to disbelief in God.
There is a lot of pro-slavery backing in the Bible. In fact, in his book, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, historian Mark Noll, in comparing the pro-slavery sentiment in the United States with that of Europe, says, “When a populace, committed to republican and democratic principles, was also a Bible-reading populace, the proslavery biblical case never lacked for persuasive resources.”
On the other side, were anti-slavery Christians who appealed to the spirit of Jesus to support their view. The line was drawn between the anti-slavery spirit of Jesus and the pro-slavery letter of the Bible.
And according to Dr. Noll, “Those who defended the legitimacy of slavery in the Bible had the easiest task.”
I’ve found Dr. Noll to be right. It’s easier to point to chapter and verse than to point to the life and spirit of Jesus.
So, I have to remember to whom the Bible itself points – Jesus.
Jesus is talking to religious people who, when confronted with the radical teachings of Jesus, liked to point to a particular verse to prove Jesus’ way was wrong.
“…the Father who sent has himself testified on my behalf. But you have never heard his voice or seen his form, and you do not have his word abiding in you, because you do not believe him who he has sent. You search the scriptures because you think in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:37-40).
Jesus says the Bible points to Him.
It doesn’t point to itself.
It’s about Him.
It shows us who God is, and who God isn’t, through the person of Jesus.
Any ethic found in the Bible that is not found in Jesus loses to Jesus.
Let’s build the story of our lives around Him.