Last year my husband wanted to see 12 Years a Slave, the film adaptation of a 19th century slave narrative. I went along, though I didn’t really want to see it and spent much of the time thinking about how to revise my courses, and occasionally excusing myself to get a drink of water. In spite (or more likely, because) of the fact that most of my teaching focuses on human atrocities, I am a real coward when it comes to watching movies about them. I have been teaching a unit on the Rwanda genocide for over ten years and still have not seen Hotel Rwanda. Yes, I own a copy; it sits among the other DVDs in the cabinet and mocks me. I was in Krakow once and took a Schindler’s List tour; I was the only person on the tour who hadn’t seen the movie, which was something of a disadvantage. But although I’ve sat through other relentlessly brutal films, including the ones I show in class and have seen over and over, I don’t get used to them, I don’t seek them out for entertainment, and I don’t really understand those who do.
What I do understand is the desire, when watching a film like 12 Years a Slave, to find a character one can identify with. I mean, if you’re Black and you’re watching this film, you know who to identify with; at least, you have plenty of choices. For White viewers it’s tougher, because even the more decent White characters are still pretty bad. The one who stands out is Bass, played by Brad Pitt: he risks his own safety to help a slave.
It’s a relief after the non-stop parade of evil or just morally compromised characters. And oh how tempting it is to identify with Bass. I want so much to believe that, had I lived in the days of American slavery, I’d have been a heroic abolitionist. I’d have seen the corrupt system for what it was, I’d have seen slaves for the sisters and brothers they were, and not kept silent.
Here’s the problem, though: I do live in the days of American—and global—slavery. It’s not just in the cocoa plantations of Ivory Coast where people are being exploited for economic gain, paid nothing and threatened with violence if they try to escape. It happens here in Seattle, too. In fact, because Seattle is a port city it’s a major problem here.
Thankfully, awareness of modern slavery has increased over the last fifteen years. But the moral question remains: If you’re not an abolitionist now, what grounds do you have for believing you’d have been an abolitionist then?
No one can fight every evil. You can’t die in every ditch, or on every cross. But unless I’m the kind of person who speaks and acts against genocide now, I delude myself if I think I’d have been a “righteous gentile” during the Holocaust. Being a contemplative doesn’t mean escaping human misery. It means getting to know the face of my God well enough that I will recognize it when I see it in others, in Darfur, in Ivory Coast, or on my own doorstep.