The Birth of a Nation and the problem of religious violence

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Just a few quick thoughts about the depiction of violence and religion in Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, which tells the story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in 1830s Virginia.

Turner was a slave who knew how to read, and — as depicted in the film, at least — the only book he is allowed to read is the Bible. He gets to know the Bible so well that his master rents him out to other slave-owners, so that he can preach a message of obedience, telling other slaves to obey their masters.

The first time Turner preaches one of these messages, he cites I Peter 2:18, which tells slaves to submit to their masters, “not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.”1 As Turner finishes the quote, he looks back over his shoulder somewhat nervously, as if he’s afraid the slave-owners standing behind him will think he has just criticized them for being “harsh” — but it turns out the slave-owners either didn’t notice or didn’t care how the verse ended. They’re just happy to see that one slave is telling the other slaves to obey them.

(I’ll come back to that passage in a moment.)

Later on, Nat Turner’s wife Cherry is raped and beaten. (Reportedly there was a rape scene in this film when it premiered at Sundance, but now the rape takes place offscreen.) Nat is seething with a desire for revenge, but Cherry reminds him of what Nat taught her: that those who live by the sword will die by the sword (as Jesus said in Matthew 26:52).

Eventually Nat gets into an argument with a white preacher, and they quote scripture at each other, each man using verses that appear to support his side of the argument. For his insolence, Nat is whipped. At the end of his punishment, he has a vision of an angel.

And then, in another scene, he reads a Bible passage that confirms for him that he should lead an armed rebellion against the slave-owners. The Bible passage in question — which the camera does linger on — is I Samuel 15, in which the prophet Samuel tells King Saul to commit an act of genocide against the Amalekites.

This is one of the most problematic passages in the entire Bible.2 And this is the passage that, according to the film, convinces Nat Turner to become a Braveheart-like hero.

Is the film aware of how problematic this passage is, or indeed of how problematic Nat Turner’s entire campaign of violence was? I’m not so sure.

There are moments in the film that could be interpreted as ambiguous or even potentially critical of Nat Turner’s rebellion, such as when a slave enthusiastically beheads his master — an act of violence that is now typically associated with terrorism.

But for the most part, the film wants us to take Nat Turner’s side. Indeed, it mythologizes Nat Turner and depicts him as a “chosen one” who does God’s will.

The film begins with a prologue in which Nat Turner is a boy with a birthmark on his chest, and some older female slaves hail him as a prophet because he bears the “holy marks” of their ancestors. “We should listen to him,” says one of the women.

When Nat begins his rebellion some years later, he is hailed by women once again: his mother tells him, “I’m proud of you,” while his wife — who had previously tried to talk him out of getting revenge by reminding of his own pacifist preaching — now tells him, “Fight for us all.”

And then there is the (female) angel who appears to him when he is whipped, and who appears to him again when he is about to be executed.

Other directorial touches signal the filmmakers’ approval of Nat Turner and his actions. Light pours into his prison cell as he awaits execution, and then, in the film’s final shot (spoiler alert!), a boy who betrayed Nat Turner watches him die and then morphs into his adult self, wearing a Northern uniform and fighting in the Civil War. Thus the film connects Nat Turner’s unauthorized but sanctified violence to the authorized violence that was needed to end slavery for good in the United States.3

The film does not depict how the historical Turner and his rebels killed white children, and it only barely depicts the killing of one woman (when slaves attack a married couple in their bedroom). If the film had shown the full scale of Turner’s violence, it could have painted a more ambiguous, complex portrait of the cycle of violence, and how scripture was used to justify atrocities on both sides.

But that isn’t what writer-director Nate Parker, who also plays Nat Turner, wanted to do here. In multiple interviews (with Alissa Wilkinson, Steve Harvey and others), Parker has argued that Nat Turner was a heroic “man of faith”, and he has suggested that there are two kinds of Christian: “Nat Turner Christians” on the one hand, and the kind of Christians who killed Nat Turner and oppressed the slaves on the other hand. Parker has even suggested that Nat Turner was “Christlike”.

And, um, well, wow.

Here’s where I’d like to take another look at that passage in I Peter, an epistle that is traditionally believed to have been written by the very same man that Jesus was addressing when he said that those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.

When the author of that epistle wrote that slaves should submit themselves to their masters — and that Christians in general should submit themselves to human authorities — he was addressing people who lived in a pagan society that was actively persecuting Christians. The assumption the author made was that the masters were pagan and the slaves were Christian. No one at the time thought that slave-owners would ever use those passages to justify their own cruelty.4

Instead, the whole point of the passage in I Peter 2 is that we are called to follow Christ’s example when we suffer unjustly. In the film, Nat Turner quotes just verse 18. But in the verses that follow, the epistle says, among other things:

21To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. 22“He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” 23When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.

So it is not just the slave-owners who missed the point of that passage (and its criticism of “harsh” slave-owners) when Nat Turner preached it to their slaves. Nat Turner himself missed the point of that passage when he embarked on his retaliatory rebellion.

Instead of following in Christ’s footsteps, the Nat Turner of this film deliberately sets aside the words of Jesus and embraces a message of violence based on an Old Testament passage that explicitly calls for genocide. That is the character arc followed by this film’s version of Nat Turner. That is what the filmmakers depict their “hero” doing.

I have been fortunate to live in a time and place where neither I nor anyone I know has ever been a slave or had to live under the brutality of an empire like Rome’s. So I don’t want to pretend that I know what it would be like to live under the sort of oppression that Peter or Nat Turner had to endure. I know how easy it is to say the words of Jesus and Paul; I do not know how hard it would have been to have to live those particular words.

But if we’re going to talk about “Christlike” behaviour, then this is what we need to be talking about. If we’re going to talk about the different kinds of Christians out there, then we need a third, non-violent option — an option that rejects the violence of the slave-owners and the violence of rebel slaves who, as depicted in this film, deliberately set the words of Jesus aside when they set out to kill men, women and children.

To be clear, the film didn’t have to give us that third option. I don’t believe films always have to provide positive answers; sometimes it’s enough to shine a light on the problem, and a film that consciously explored how both sides distorted scripture to suit their violent ends could have given us plenty of food for thought.

The problem here is that this film, by mythologizing Nat Turner the way it does, and by literally putting him on the side of the angels, obscures these issues. And that makes the film something of a missed opportunity.

1. I’m quoting the NIV version of the passage. I assume Turner, in the film, quotes the KJV.

2. Saul’s attack against the Amalekites was given a sensitive treatment in Of Kings and Prophets.

3. In a film brimming with Braveheart parallels, this closing shot is perhaps the most Braveheart-y of all: it recalls how Robert the Bruce abandoned William Wallace in the earlier film, only to be motivated by Wallace’s death to take the fight to the English once more — and this time succeed.

4. To be sure, there were some Christians in the early church who owned slaves, but in Paul’s letter to Philemon, you can see how the apostles tried to steer Christian slave-owners away from thinking of people as property and towards seeing slaves as “brothers”.

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