Three hours ago my wife and I put the kids to bed, grabbed our favorite throw, snuggled on the couch and clicked “play” on 12 Years a Slave.
Three hours later, painful scene after painful scene, of all the lessons I could take from the movie I’m struck by this one: Nothing breeds empathy and action like sharing another’s suffering.
Two lines in the movie brought this home for me. The first occurs in a flashback. Northup remembers taking his wife shopping for a new suitcase to use on her upcoming trip. They’re a picture-perfect family. Married, two children—boy and girl—strolling through the streets of Saratoga Springs well-dressed and happy. They cross the street in front of a white man followed by his servant. The Northups capture the eye and curiosity of the slave, who wanders from his owner into the store where Northup intends to purchase a bag. As he and the shop owner, a friend, haggle over the price of the suitcase, the slave stands dumbfounded at the wonder of a Black man frequenting shops, wonderfully dressed, caring for his intact family. As he stands gawking, the slave’s owner finds him in the shop, sharply rebukes him and apologizes (to the white shop owner) for the imposition. Hardly looking up, seemingly not bothered at all by the slave’s presence or condition, Northup accepts the apology with the words “It is no imposition.”
The Northup we meet at the beginning of the film gives no evidence of identifying with slaves. But all of that would change.
Shortly after, two wicked men lure Northup to Washington, D.C. where they drug him and sell him into slavery. Awakened in chains, he receives his first lesson at the end of a paddle and whip. For the next twelve years he witnesses the brutality of the slave system. He fights valiantly to retain his humanity against the monstrous absurdity of chattel bondage. He tries to remember the names of his family members, etching them into his violin. That, while forced to pretend to be the uneducated “Platt.” He refuses to take a young girl’s life when she pleads for him to do so, only to later stand powerless as she is repeatedly raped and whipped brutally. It’s a world where murder looks like God’s mercy.
Then comes the scene where Northup shares his story with an empathetic Brad Pitt. He recounts the entire ordeal, at the end of which Pitt commits to contact Northup’s friends in an effort to secure his freedom.
Northup concludes his story with the words, “Slavery is an evil that should befall no man.”
How did Solomon Northup journey from “It is no imposition” to “Slavery is an evil that should befall no man”?
He was dragged down the trail called suffering. Suffering caused him to see what he apparently overlooked on the streets of Saratoga Springs. Suffering cleared the glaucoma so he could see two things with crisp clarity: evil and humanity. “Slavery is an evil that should befall no man.” Northup recognized the incongruity of people made in the image of God living under the dominion of Satan—but only after he entered that incongruity himself.
As I thought about this, two things came home for me. First, I’m far more like Northup in Saratoga than “Platt” in Georgia. If I’m honest, far too often the evil that befalls men “is no imposition” as I go on about my very comfortable life. There are many evils—gross and soul-twisting. I drive by most them hardly seeing. Is there any wonder that my life is marked by such inaction and distance when I’m unmoved by the suffering of others?
Second, I’m far less like Jesus than I want to be. The Lord of glory set aside the prerogatives and privileges of heaven to be “tempted in every way, just as we are” (Heb. 5:15) and to “suffer for [me], leaving [me] an example” (1 Pet. 2:21). The ultimate purpose of our Lord’s passion was our salvation. But Peter makes it plain that His suffering also has heuristic value. It teaches us that we should suffer as He did, freely and gladly identifying with those who suffer injustice (Heb. 10:33-34). It is right to do what is right for those who are wronged. It is wrong—un-Christlike—to do otherwise.
So I find myself trying to move from Saratoga Springs’ Northup to Calvary’s compassionate Christ and suspecting the road between the two will be marked by suffering—just as Jesus promised. I pray now to suffer well, to see clearly, and to act valiantly on behalf of Christ and those for whom He weeps. Solomon Northup never forgot his enslavement or the enslaved. He served the Underground Railroad until his death, the circumstances of which are unknown. Now he speaks posthumously to all of us who would find “no imposition” in the presence of the onlooking oppressed.
Lord, help us!
Make sure to see Tony Carter’s book review of “Twelve Years A Slave.”