Watch the Bible story scene at:
(NOTE: In the previous meditation I told the story from memory. Then I found this and saw I did not retell the conversation precisely, though the gist of it is the same.)
(…continued) This scene from Amistad illustrates several important Biblical truths. Though that scene is fictional, the historical truth is that kind of thing happened all over the South to a majority of the slaves. The two captured Africans in the movie saw in the Bible pictures a story that brought hope, even in the face of injustice, oppression, and possible death; and a high percentage of the real African-American slaves saw in the Gospel a story that gave them hope in the face of their oppression and hopeless lives. When given the opportunity, the slaves in this country turned to Jesus Christ by the millions. To this day, the church remains a powerful presence and force in the Black community. In that fictional scene, the movie accurately portrayed a powerful movement in American history. The slaves heard, believed, and took comfort in the message of Jesus Christ, and the hope of a better life beyond this one. They sensed a truth and a power in the Gospel that transcended the ways individual believers, such as their owners, had perverted that truth; and the slaves believed it and took hold of it.
The two Africans saw very early in the Bible story pictures that something went wrong. They could see the effects of that, but the pictures could not tell them what it was that caused the trouble. But by reading the whole story, we learn that the problem was that the people God created and loved began to turn away and disobey and ignore God. The pages of the Old Testament are filled with expressions of God’s anger, frustration, sadness, disappointment, and bewilderment at such a response from those he created and to whom he gave everything. It was when they turn away that the trouble and the sadness begins for them, and that is what the slaves saw in the pictures.
I am reminded of another time of great suffering in another part of the world. Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) was a Russian writer and historian. He wrote tens of thousands of pages telling the sad story of the 20th century in Russia; the story of the Communist revolution, the violence, the wars, the famines caused by the many crop failures, and the purges in which the Communists killed tens of millions of their own people. Solzhenitsyn was the primary historian of that story. As an old man he looked over this tragedy that brought such destruction to his homeland and said, “I asked myself over and over again, why this all has happened to my people? And over and over again, I return to the same answer. It is the answer that my old grandmother gave 70 years ago when the sufferings were just beginning. She said, ‘All this has happened because we have forgotten God.’”
That is what happened in the Old Testament and in Russia. The Old Testament prophet Hosea, in a similar brief and powerful summary of his nation’s troubles said, “Return O Israel, to the Lord your God, for your sins have been your downfall.”
That is what happened in this country when people believed they could capture and enslave fellow human begins. That is what can happen to any people at any time. We must not forget God. We must not fail to give God our attention and our devotion and our thanksgiving. When Jesus himself first gave to the disciples the Sacrament of Holy Communion, he commanded them to repeat what he said and did, saying, “This do in remembrance of me.”
The focus of the story that the slaves see pictured in the Bible is Jesus Christ. Seeing who Jesus was and what he did gave them hope. Earlier in the movie, an old and experienced lawyer gives some good advice to the team that is defending the slaves and arguing for their return to their homes in Africa. The old lawyer says, “When you are in court, remember that the one who tells the best story will win.” In the movie that had to do with the telling of the slaves tragic story– being taken from their homes, mistreated, and brought here to be bought and sold like animals. Tell that story in a way that makes them look like humans and not animals, said the old lawyer, and you will move people’s hearts and you will win.
For me, that line hinted at a deeper meaning, one found in another story. It is almost immediately following that old lawyer’s remark that the scene shifts to the prison and the two slaves looking at the pictures in the Bible. That truly is the best story that has ever been told, and it has been winning the hearts and minds of people all over the world for the last two thousand years. “The one who tells the best story wins,” said the old lawyer. The Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ is God’s own story, and the only story that goes on into all eternity, and therefore is indeed the very best story of all.
The most important thing in life is to hear and believe and remember that story.
Hosea 14:1 — Return, Israel, to the Lord your God. Your sins have been your downfall.
Jeremiah 13:24-25 — “I will scatter you like chaff driven by the desert wind. This is your lot, the portion I have decreed for you,” declares the Lord, “because you have forgotten me and trusted in false gods.
Luke 22:19 — (Jesus) took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
Father in heaven, you have first loved us, help us never to forget that love. May the sure conviction that love triumph in our hearts over the seduction of the world, over the restlessness of our spirit, over our anxiety for the future, over our guilt about our past, and over the distress of the present moment. Grant also that this conviction may discipline our soul, so that our hearts may remain faithful in the sincere remembrance of your love for us, and your command that we love others as ourselves. Amen.
–Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)