Andy and I watched 12 Years a Slave the other night. Easter night. During the scene in which the drunken Christian plantation owner whips a stripped Patsy, the object of his obsessions, until blood and skin spray from her back, I thought how could any Christian look at slavery and not see the persecution of Christ. Even back then, on some subconscious level?
If Jesus was the living God, and Jesus said “God is Love” and “I am the Truth,” then is this not, on its abstract and spiritual level, the destruction of Love and Truth? And is that not the opposite of justice?
Where is justice in the willful harm, physical or mental or emotional, of one human to another? And where do I fall in all this?
The movie, as you probably know, was inspired by the horrifying life events of Solomon Northup, an accomplished violinist and free black man with a wife and children living in New York. In 1841, he agreed to travel to DC with two white men to provide music for their traveling circus act. It was a trap. They drugged him and sold him into slavery, where he remained to witness and suffer unspeakable mental and physical tortures for the next 12 years.
Slavery is a long period of American history difficult for me to reconcile for many reasons, mostly because I am Southern, raised in the Christian tradition and white-ish, thereby the inheritor of slavery’s resounding psychic wound and prejudices. I have heard the counterarguments: that was so long ago, people need to let it go; I didn’t do anything like that to anybody; black people have the same opportunities as I do. But, I am not disconnected from my social history to the extent that I can treat it like a simple story that has no effect on my experience. I have traveled to many places in the South, and the old towns reek with strange energies: Richmond, Wilmington, Jackson, Savannah, New Orleans.
When I contemplate slavery or when I see images of it, it resounds within me, as the scene of Patsy’s excoriation, as if I am somehow still involved in it. I can’t explain this feeling; I haven’t a clue why my reaction is the way it is. Perhaps it is only my natural horror at witnessing cruelty. I have always despised bully tactics.
That the legion inhumanities of slavery were supported by illogical, racist, and ungodly arguments taken out of context from the Old Testament troubles me even further, especially since the living ideologues in present day America have successfully created “Christianity” as the political party of the Religious Right. To the best of my understanding, this party upholds the opposite of Jesus’s teachings of compassion, loving kindness, and communion with the Living God as acts of humility and easing the suffering of others. May I venture to acknowledge these unbending political ideas, especially when people are calling them truth or, even worse, “God’s Word,” to inform the government are against Jesus’s teachings. Or, if you will, anti-Christ. Twisting Jesus’s teachings to make hurting others morally right, particularly when Christians are willfully blind to their own unethical choices, deeply depresses me about the manifestations of human fear. Trust me, Christians, I have examined the log in my own eye, and I hate to admit what that process has done has made me more compassionate although I still react to injustice and dogma first with fear and a desire to retaliate. I’m not perfect.
To be sure, this same point of view extends to other religions, not just Christianity, or any dogma that advertently or ignorantly seeks to dominate others with their system of beliefs. I say “ignorantly” because I’ve spent a great deal of my life watching people and groups of people try to control others with rules and regulations that are “good for them.” It, too, is a trap to sell people into slavery. I’ve done it myself in my family relationships and also in social groups I’ve been in, all on small levels but tangible enough for me to understand how ruthless it would get if pressed outward to counties or countries or, as we’ve all seen throughout history, ethnicities and women. Or, for that matter, our planet and its other living beings.
My first 40 years on Earth have been dedicated to gathering information about life here, about myself, and about human history. In processing this information and after a rather unexpected need to examine my own suffering, I can not ethically come out on any side other than peace and the understanding that we’re all one. In the final analysis, I came out on the side of Love and Truth, despite my propensities for dishonesty and manipulation, and I’ve found these to be quite challenging principles to practice in the modern world and in my relationships with other people.
We’re all aspects of God, even when, complicit in our human circumstances, we have become sick enough to believe we are justified in controlling another human being’s life for our own glory.
On Easter morning, Andy and I read a short contemplation on compassion by Thich Nhat Hahn in his book, Living Buddha, Living Christ. The ensuing discussion was partly intellectual and partly self-reflective, and, like everything spiritual, compassion is much easier to wax opinionated about than it is to practice. For me, I am much better at seeing where you obviously need to practice a little more compassion than where I need to apply some brotherly or sisterly love.
Andy is a great mirror for me in this way as I can spot instantly where he is fucking up spiritually, and that is my exact indicator of what I need to be working on. I need less enemies in America and its history. My problem with slavery is I have no compassion for the sick thinking and deranged circumstances that made it possible. I need more understanding of love and truth as it applies to things and people I despise. When we look deeply, Thich says, “our anger transforms itself into the energy of compassion. …This is the true teaching of Jesus.” Happy Easter, from the Buddhist.
When I am in compassion, I am outside of the power differential. I’m not condoning injustice or indifferent to suffering, but I am finding another path: I see truth, and I experience love. What confounds me is that even as I know this, sometimes the rush of being right, of feeling the power of my opinions, is too seductive, although I find myself less and less titillated by conversations of intelligent complaints.
night night beloveds.