By Dr. David Franks, Chairman of Massachusetts Citizens for Life
Some Netflix discs languish for months because they’re movies I know I should watch, but which I also know will be unpleasant.
Well, I finally got around to viewing 12 Years a Slave. Like, say, Hotel Rwanda, it’s hard to stomach, but also necessary. We pro-lifers need to be submerged again and again in the history of suffering. In fact, no human can afford to skirt that history, but what constitutes the very essence of the pro-life subjectivity is the existential cry, “Never again.” The powerful may successfully continue to assail the innocent with the blessing of the law, but we will never acquiesce to it, though the struggle go 40, 50, 100 years…
12 Years a Slave presents the horrors endured by Solomon Northup, a free man from New York who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery in Louisiana. The most powerful scene in the movie, I think, shows Solomon finally realizing that though he differs from his fellow slaves in being enslaved “illegally,” the same screaming injustice is being done to all of them. In the scene, he has just helped to bury a man who dropped dead in the cotton fields, and the whole enslaved community gathers to sing a hymn, “Roll, Jordan, Roll.” At first, Solomon does not sing with the others, but eventually he does, and does so viscerally.
Part of what’s implied here is that Solomon’s cultured self has “gotten religion”: here melts away his aloofness from the Christianity that the other slaves have held on to (despite the grotesque parody of the faith presented by the masters). You can’t be in real solidarity with the poor without sharing their simple faith.
Enough faith seizes Solomon for him to glance up to heaven with the agony of the common situation. That’s where faith begins: in the universal cry for justice, in the tortured plea for mercy.
Solomon couldn’t get to that point of anguished faith without acknowledging that the pain of those around him is in fact his pain, and his pain is the pain of those around him.
Like Simon of Cyrene, Solomon has been dragged into hell, and the initial thought of both men had been “I’m innocent, an innocent bystander. I’m not like this man, these others. I don’t belong here.”
Well. There is no “free man among the dead.” When Jesus harrows hell, He does so in His total identification with us sinners. (That is why the facile, triumphalist, and indeed modernist—because non-solidaristic—misunderstanding of Christ’s descent into hell will always strike me as abhorrent, a betrayal of the Gospel, if I may fly my Balthasarian and Ratzingerian flag for a moment.)
The phrase from the hymn that gets repeated is, “My soul arise in heaven, Lord,/for the year when Jordan roll.” There’s ambiguity in the original hymn as well as in the altered version heard here, but I think what’s going on is a plea that the waters of baptism become a new flood to sweep away our inhumanity and lift the victims up to heaven.
Solomon learns that he is not above his suffering brothers and sisters. And that is what we must always remember: looking upon sinners and victims, we’re looking at ourselves—in absolute need of love and mercy.
We are also the unborn. In the womb of this world, there is not one of us who is master of our lives, who is not utterly dependent on the goodness of others and of God. There is not one of us whose present life is not merely prelude to an abundance of life that can be received only in the kingdom of merciful love.