From Silence to Song (with thanks to Solomon Northrop)
It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
Among several remarkable scenes in the recent film, 12 Years a Slave, there is one that in my watching marks an incredible and subtle turning point. As any moment like that goes, it's also ambiguous. It can be "read" in more than one way and has meanings that move well beyond its function in the narrative. Or so I'm thinking.
12 Years a Slave (directed by British filmmaker Steve McQueen) is based on the memoirs of the same name published in the 1850s by Solomon Northrop. Northrop was a dark-skinned, mixed race, free citizen of the State of New York, a husband and father, well educated for his time, a musician with engineering experience. Through nefarious circumstances he found himself one among hundreds of free black citizens kidnapped into slavery. He was sold into the Louisiana bayou, where slavery was said to be particularly harsh. He kept his identity and education hidden, to protect himself against retaliation from whites who punished slaves who showed education or protested their condition. Before long he found himself in the hands of one of the cruelest of a cruel class of owners, Edwin Epps.
We get to the scene some years into his ordeal, after horrible scenes of violence, cruelty, injustice, and compromise for survival. There's also a real streak of courage and 'will to live' among the slaves. After one of them dies a premature death from the weight of the "peculiar institution," Northrop (now called Platt) joins a couple of others to dig his grave. The men and women then gather round, commit his body to eternal peace, and begin to sing. Haunting and lyrical tones of a Spiritual yearning for freedom move from a single voice through the whole group. Solomon (aka Platt) stands silently, not singing and not moving—for a noticeably long time. His difference from the others is clear. One wonders if this is his protest, or maybe a sign of his continuing refusal to admit his situation. Eventually, however, he begins to move a bit with the others, and then he begins to sing. By the end of the piece he is moving and singing as a full part of the group with an energy that comes from deep inside.
I skimmed through the memoir to see if this event is told there and I didn't find it. I assume it is McQueen's or the screenwriters' objectifying of his internal struggle. In being that it tells a universal tale of transformation, even in its ambiguity.
The ambiguity. Was this Solomon's capitulation to his condition, his becoming a slave in order to cope? Or was this his spiritual reconciliation with what he is undergoing in order to find outer resources, inner strength, and divine power to overcome—to be free, finally, to act from a place other than desperation? It could be either. It might be both.
Critics of religious faith sometimes call religion an opiate, a tool of oppression and a way of keeping weak and oppressed folks from taking their condition into their own hands, from seeking justice, and from overthrowing oppression. From Marx, to Nietzsche, to adolescent boys trying to seize themselves against the values they think belong to their parents, religion is seen as a shroud that hides rather than a canopy that empowers. And there's no question that it can be just that. Religion can be, as Kierkegaard put it, an embodiment of our anxiety and a protection from life. Yet that's not why faith is given to us.
To the contrary, that same movement from silence to song can show another kind of transformation and another kind of power. It can show a power that moves from the outside in and then reshapes the inside so that it can now relate to the outside in an altogether new way.
Let me explain. We can lose ourselves in religion, or we can find ourselves. Faith is the latter, from a creative loss of an old self that leads to a rediscovery of a new self. This can come when the Spirit of Christ becomes our center, when we stop fighting life alone in order to begin to live life in relationship to the giver of Life. It does give us peace with what is, but not to suppress action. Instead, it gives us a taste of deep peace in order to clear our vision enough to know what and how to work for change, for justice, for compassion—as best we can in our situation.
"I, not I, but Christ who lives in me," Paul says of the movement of faith. The "me" becomes newer, stronger, more centered, fighting less in order to work (for what's good) more. From the outside, this person (who Kierkegaard calls the Person of Faith, as opposed to the Person of Resignation) might look no different from the others. But internally, she or he might be spiritually quite different.
Was religion an opiate for Sojourner Truth, William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King, Jr., Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, Dorothy Day, Jane Addams, Ghandi? For Solomon Northrop? I don't think so.
The slave owner doesn't see the difference. But God does. We know. And the world is changed, in both small and big ways