I told you last Sunday that my family took in a movie together over the holidays. Well, later that day Kerry and I returned to the theater, but this time just the two of us, to see 12 Years of Slave at the Logan. I know some of you have already seen the movie, because we’ve talked about it. Lots of people are talking about it and the film seems on track to be nominated for all sorts of awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director. There’ve been plenty of award-worthy movies this past year, and this one certainly holds its own against any of them.
The story begins in a somewhat unexpected place for a slave narrative in that the protagonist, Solomon Northup, an African-American man from Saratoga Springs, New York was not born into slavery. He’d been born free, and had lived as a free man until his early-30s, when he was kidnapped by slavers in the nation’s capital then taken to New Orleans and sold into slavery.
Much of the horror in the film comes from watching Solomon slowly internalize the rules and realities of slavery as a means of surviving. Immediately upon arriving in Louisiana he is given a new name, a new story, and each time he tries to assert the truth of his life he is punished swiftly and violently. In the dozen years he spends as a slave he sees first-hand how the evils of slavery have warped and distorted the minds and lives of all involved, slaves and slaveholders alike. Without minimizing the distinct suffering of African-American people under slavery, it seems to me that one of the movie’s central points is that racism enslaved us all.
We live in the age of “isms.” Racism. Sexism. Classism. Consumerism. As parts of speech each of these “isms” is a noun yet, unlike other objects, you can’t put your hands on them. If they are objects they are a sort of thought object. Ideas that obtain undeniable mass and reality as more and more people fall under their sway. The New Testament doesn’t use the language of “isms,” but refers instead to the “powers and principalities,” or as our translation of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians puts it “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10)
Like 12 Years a Slave, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is a refutation of a mentality, of a spirituality, that divides the world into people “like us” whom God loves and saves, and “everyone else” who must then exist outside God’s care and concern and, therefore, can live outside our care and concern as well.
In the short passage we heard this morning, Paul gives a succinct summary of the mystery of Christ, “that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:6). It is a paradigm shift, a revolution in thought, a revolutionary thought. There is no God “for them” and a separate God “for us.” There is only one God, for all of us, who has created, and sustained, and redeemed us all.
The fact that I can say that and that we can all nod our heads in pleasant boredom shows the extent to which Christianity’s message of universal access and God’s grace has permeated our culture and consciousness. But there are clearly other thought regimes still enthroned in our collective minds that propose a different reality.
Do you remember how, after 9/11, Americans all of a sudden became much more interested in Islam then they’d been beforehand? Most Americans had been pretty content to let Muslims be Muslims, out-of-sight and out-of-mind, until long simmering anger at U.S. involvement in the Middle-East boiled over in acts of terrorism that made it impossible for us to ignore parts of the world as deeply shaped by Islam as the West has been by Christianity.
Blinded by fear and anger and loss, I remember hearing people — at work, on television, in churches — saying that they worshipped a different god, a god named Allah, who was not the same as the God made known to us by Jesus and the prophets. It was breath-taking how quickly our culture mobilized to make sure that anyone who fit the very poorly constructed profile of a “Muslim” — never mind if they were Arab or Assyrian or Persian, if they were Muslim or Hindu or Sikh — was understood as so “other” that they even belonged to another god. All of which, ultimately, was about making it easier for our nation to accept the idea of war. The first step in preparing to kill a person is to imagine that they are no person at all.
Which is part of what makes the Epiphany story so unexpected.
We are all familiar, I suspect, with the story of the three kings who came bearing gifts for the newborn baby Jesus. Listen closely to the story and you’ll realize that it says nothing about kings, or how many there were. Those are later additions to the tale that don’t show up anywhere in scripture. What Matthew’s gospel wants to get across is that these visitors are disciples of a different wisdom tradition, they are “wise people” who do not worship the God of Israel, yet have come to pay homage to the incarnation of God in Christ Jesus.
But these wise men aren’t simply foreigners, they are “from the east” — the direction of Babylon, or Persia, or Arabia. They are contrasted with King Herod the Great, who ruled in Jerusalem as a vassal of the Roman empire in the west, along with the chief priests and scribes of the people.
So one of the first scenes associated with Jesus’ ministry is the clash of empires, the Romans in the west, and the Parthians (or ancient Persians) in the east. Nothing plays out as expected, though. Rather than being accepted by his own people and rejected by the foreigners, Jesus is hunted down by his own king and venerated by those with no relation to him at all.
Again, the story has become so familiar to us that it’s very difficult for us to feel the sense of shock and awe the author intends. To get that, we would have to imagine something totally foreign to the everyday world as we experience it. Something like going to a baseball game at Wrigley Field and hearing in place of the national anthem a call to prayer issued in Arabic.
Something almost as odd happens about two-thirds of the way through 12 Years a Slave. While working alongside his master and another hired hand, Samuel Bass, a White man from Canada, Solomon overhears a conversation in which one White man confronts another over the insanity of racism and the evils of slavery.
“The law can’t make a person a slave,” Bass says. “The law could change tomorrow and make you a slave. That wouldn’t mean it was true.”
Heard with our modern ears, this is the voice of reason and sanity. It is the voice of heroism, confronting the powers and principalities of this world. But, in the moment when such a conversation occurred, between an itinerant Canadian laborer and an American landowner and slaveholder, it was insanity. A paradigm shift that would upend an entire social order. A revolutionary thought.
When the prophet Isaiah stirs the nation of Israel from their sleep with the beautiful words, “Arise, shine; for your light has come,” he is speaking to people who are not yet fully restored. His audience is those who had returned from their exile in the East, who had been promised liberation but had only received a new kind of oppression in the form of poverty and occupation in a land that was once theirs, but was now ruled by others.
“Arise, shine; for your light has come” is what Isaiah says to people accustomed to life’s disappointments, struggling to imagine that anything new could ever take place in their lifetimes. So the prophet imagines it for them, describing a world they have never seen, but have always longed for.
“Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you … They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” (Isa. 60:4-5,6b)
Isaiah whispers words of hope to occupied imaginations and weary hearts, promising that someday the world will be drawn to the light of God’s truth, reflecting off of them; that the rich and the powerful of the earth will bring gifts suited for royalty to people treated like slaves.
Centuries later, as they told and retold the Jesus story, they realized that their long-awaited future had broken into the present. That in Jesus, a disrespected child born in a barn, brought into a world defined by empires and ruled by violence, all the disrespected bodies, all the occupied imaginations and weary hearts, had been honored. It signaled the beginning of a revolution.
Revolutions create revolutionaries, like Paul, who gladly endured imprisonment for the sake of the gospel, who writes, “This is the reason that I, Paul, am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles” (Eph. 3:1). Paul, the prisoner, reveals the truth that we are all prisoners of one kind or another. We may be prisoners of the present order, like the slaveholder who cannot imagine a world in which any Black person is his equal; or we may be prisoners of another power and principality, any of the “isms” that are constantly campaigning for our hearts and minds — the sexism that tells you you are only worth as much as the man who picks you, or the militarism that tells you you are only as safe as the weapons you carry, or the consumerism that tells you you are only as precious as the objects you own; or we can become servants of Isaiah’s vision, reflecting the light of truth, that God desires to dignify all of humanity by reconciling and restoring us to one another.
Paul, liberated by a love that transformed his whole life and set him free from the violence of his own religious zealotry to choose imprisonment for the sake of people so very different from him says, “Of this gospel I have become a servant.” As the light of God’s truth consistently pulls the scales from our eyes, we too are invited to imagine a world without borders, an undivided humanity and a new creation.
Arise, shine; for your light has come.