Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Quentin Tarantino, slavery and the Bible

Tarantino, slavery and the Bible

I don’t usually do film reviews here and the blog remains mainly focussed on Darwinism and its pernicious effects. But having just seen Quentin Tarantino’s western movie ‘Django Unchained’ at the cinema thought I’d assemble some thoughts the film provoked. Anyhow, there was a little bit of Darwinism in it, with a particularly evil slave owner asserting that black and white humans belonged to 2 different species.

Firstly, it goes without saying that the film, like all of Tarantino’s, is full of gratuitous extreme bloody violence and foul language. I wonder if when QT goes into a Starbucks he screams at the waiter
                    ‘I *******want a ******* Latte, you ********ing *****er!!’
This review is not about that, or the film’s frequent and controversial use of what has come to be called ‘the ‘n’ word’, or Tarantino as an artist or person, beyond saying that I am not an admirer.   IMHO the Coen brothers’ recent remake of the classic film ‘True Grit’ was a very much better western without as I recall any swearing, and I appreciated that.

What truly shocked me in the film was the portrayal of the brutal reality of pre-civil war slavery in the USA. I won’t throw in any plot spoilers beyond saying that we see an escaped slave in what was probably the best acted role in the film cowering in absolute terror and begging for mercy before being killed in the most appalling manner possible. There are several other scenes of brutal torture, and it is about one of them in particular that I feel moved to write.

A terrified young female plantation slave has been tied to a tree and is about to be brutally whipped by an ugly, smiling, fat white man. We know from flashbacks that he is a merciless sadist who enjoys inflicting pain, also that he is a convicted criminal who has the death sentence, as I recall for cattle theft.
This vile man has a bull whip in one hand and a copy of the Bible in the other as he prepares to whip the terrified slave, whose ‘crime’ was to have broken some eggs. Not only does he have a copy of the Bible in his left hand but also has three pages which we can safely assume are torn from the book sewn to his clothes, and he quotes from the book of Genesis as he prepares to inflict torture ‘And I shall put the fear of thee on all the earth’ .

Even for a Tarantino ‘set ‘em up and shoot ‘em up’ pantomime, this is laying it on a bit thick. He’s not hinting but shouting. We are clearly expected to get the message ‘The Bible supports slavery. It also supports severe brutality, disproportionate punishment, racial prejudice, and that it’s OK to be a cattle thief, torturer and murderer too as long as you quote scripture. And by the way the entire episode of the transatlantic slave trade, cotton plantations etc can ALL be laid to the blame of the Christian religion.’ Fairly standard Christopher Hitchens stuff.

This is the baggage that comes with the simple taunt
‘The Bible supports slavery!’ (...and so therefore the Christian religion is evil and I don’t have to listen or respond to ANY of your arguments!)
I hear this taunt absolutely all the time. No doubt this film will emotionally reinforce that ‘argument’ if it can be called that.

One has in fairness to assume that any thoughtful and educated person watching ‘Django Unchained’ knows what this director is like and that ‘...it’s only a film’, and that films have no obligation to be fair, balanced or true. But nevertheless people do absorb things from film and other theatre and I think this scene in particular amounts to unfair and misleading anti-Christian propaganda and deserves a critical response. Certainly anyone who gets any ideas about the role of the Bible and Christianity in the transatlantic slave trade from Quentin Tarantino, and some will, should at least get some balance by watching the William Wilberforce biopic ‘Amazing Grace’ which depicts how Evangelical Christians fought for that wicked trade’s abolition. 

There is a case to answer. Yes, I know that Moses permitted slavery. Yes I am aware that there is a verse in the Old Testament Exodus 21:20 that says if a man beats his slave he is not to be punished if he does not beat him to death. He IS to be punished if the slave dies immediately. This is disagreeable to read, and subject to abuse by the cruel, but it’s not the whole story. It is quote mining of the highest order to build a critique of the Christian approach to slave owning, let alone Christianity per se, on that passage alone.
Even in Moses, there is a lot about slave welfare, for example a compulsory weekly rest day and the release of slaves after a period of time, and making sure they do not leave without goods. The full account of the Old Testament rules concerning slavery is quite nuanced. There is a passage concerning the matter of slaves who had served their agreed term and were free to go, but who loved their master and wanted to remain as slaves in his household.

There is slavery and slavery. All forms of human captivity that have existed were not as extreme as the worst of the American example (which of course a terrible civil war was fought largely to abolish) and even that was not the worst slavery the world has seen in modern history. People in ancient, and not so ancient, times sometimes voluntarily sold themselves into slavery, more of a bonded labourer or serf, as there was no social security. It could be a better option for them than begging or starving.
And what about the appalling slavery under Communist and Nazi secularist governments of the last century? Less than 150 miles from where I live, on the Channel Island of Alderney, there is a mass grave containing the bodies of hundreds of Nazi slaves who were worked to death there building Hitler’s sea defences. This happened during my parent's lifetime. Moses’ rules concerning slavery were not the worst the world has known, and certainly gave no justification for the evils of people kidnapping and brutal transatlantic slavery.

Although Christians hold Moses to be a great prophet, we follow Jesus. When some people who were trying to catch him out (how times change!?!) asked Jesus about divorce, which Moses permitted, he replied (Mathew 19:8) that ‘Moses permitted you to divorce because of the hardness of your hearts, but this was never God’s intention.’ It is reasonable to assume he would have said something similar about slavery. People who misused the Old Testament to justify people kidnapping were wrong to do so, but there is absolutely no way anyone could even pretend to make such a case from the teaching of Jesus. People kidnapping is specifically forbidden in the New Testament.

Slavery is not directly opposed in the New Testament, which is all about gaining freedom from the greater slavery of sin. "Whoever commits sin is a slave of sin" (John 8:34, Romans 6:16, 2 Peter 2:19). It was from that greater slavery that Christ came to free us.

It is ridiculous to say that ‘Paul supported slavery’ because he accepted the existing political reality of it under pagan Roman rule. He was certainly not in favour of it, and encouraged slaves to get their freedom if they could (1 Corinthians 7:21, although the translation and meaning is somewhat disputed according to an interesting bible study on slavery here http://www.bible-researcher.com/slavery.html). Preaching the free gift of eternal life through faith in the risen Christ was Paul's God-given job, not starting a doomed political movement against Roman rule. Twenty first century liberals might as well take him to task for not suggesting some improvements to agriculture and sewage, or inventing vaccination. Surely, taken with the words of Jesus ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s’ this is not a particularly difficult point to comprehend? In the long run, rich man or slave, we are all dead-and will account to God for the life that we have lived.

All this is by way of briefly explaining why the hurling of abuse about slavery against the Christian faith is as childish and ignorant as most of the other anti-Christian slogans that come out of the Christopher Hitchens/Richard Dawkins slime pit.

And its not over. There is a huge amount of slavery in the world today. Marriage in many parts of the world is a form of slavery for women, not to mention the women and girls who are trafficked for sex (something against which Christians actively campaign). Many of the cheap goods we buy in the west are produced in appalling conditions amounting to slavery (again, the Fair Trade movement is heavily supported by the churches). Much of our agricultural produce is grown, picked and packed by workers engaged for one day at a time, whose lives are like those of slaves but without the shelter or job security. Guardian Journalist Felicity Lawrence wrote about some of these people in her book ‘Not on the Label: What really goes into the food on your plate.’

If Britain profited from the African slave trade in past years before Evangelical Christians like Wilberforce saw it ended, today we also profit from goods and food produced by effectively outsourced slavery. This is a sin which grievously offends God according to the New Testament (James chapter 5:1-6).

In summary, yes the transatlantic slave trade was evil and there can be no apology for it. The Christians who supported it at the time (not all did) were wrong, and so were all the non-Christians who supported it too, and there were many of them. Christians should have known better, non Christians of course can choose whatever morality suits them, and they do. A lot of people who were not even nominal Christians were involved as prime malefactors, such as the African tribal chiefs who sold their own peole and captives from rival tribes, and the Arab slave traders who acted as middlemen. The English and American slave traders, the plantation owners, their shareholders and merchants, and arguably (although they may have sinned in ignorance) all those who purchased cheap goods produced without a fair wage being paid to the labourers were all to some extent responsible.  Is it all so different today?

It cannot be denied that some Old Testament verses were misused by those who justified slavery. Against this is  the fact that Christians were prominent in the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, and the fact that however evil that trade was, worse forms of slavery have happened subsequently under men like Hitler, Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot who rejected the Bible.

So, if anyone wants to use the ‘The Bible supports slavery, therefore Christianity is false’ argument, I will say this. Please, do a little bit of thinking before you allow such simplistic and weak reasoning to shape your response to Jesus of Christ, the Son of God, who offers you forgiveness of sins and the free gift of eternal life.
As Peter Hitchens wrote in his book ‘The Rage against God’  

‘It is possible to go to heaven from a torture chamber, and equally possible to go to hell from a palace.’ 
He wrote that shortly before the death of the atheist slave owner Korean ruler Kim Jong Il and was probably thinking about him and his victims.

‘Django Unchained’ made me think again about the evils of slavery and how the Bible can be misused. Jesus said that we should judge ourselves before we think of judging others and treat others as we wish to be treated outselves. We should always assume we might be the one who is in the wrong. I try to.






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