Thursday, June 9, 2016

On Watching Roots With Benjamin

I was born twenty-three days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in a hospital that was only eight minutes away from the 16th Street Baptist Church where timed dynamite, put there by white supremacists, killed four young African-American girls right before a service in which the sermon was titled "A Love That Forgives."   This was the world that I was born into.

I remember first learning about slavery in elementary school. It horrified me and I raced home off the school bus (I was bussed across town as part of Charlotte's integration program) to ask my mother, "Did our family ever own slaves?" I remember thinking, "Please say no. Please say no." My heart sank when she replied that our family had. Perhaps because of seeing my crestfallen expression she added, "But we were good slave owners." Even as a young boy this did not sit well with me and I could not in my conscience reconcile the idea of someone owning another person as a slave as being "good." The more I learned about slavery, the more I was convinced that my mother, unable to face the truth of our family's history, viewed our ancestors through a sentimental lens; after all, who wants to think badly of the people they came from.  This same sanitized and romanticized idea of the "genteel" South and of slavery also comes when one encounters films like Gone With The Wind.

Knowing that my ancestors owned slaves, I grew up wondering: If I had lived then, would I have done anything differently? Would I have stood up against slavery? Would I have spoken up? Against my family? My neighbors? My church? 

Would I have been like the Quakers of North Carolina or Moncure Conway or the antislavery Wesleyan Methodist Community in Montgomery, North Carolina? 

Or would I have been like Thomas Jefferson? 

Our country's third President once considered freeing his slaves, understanding that it was morally wrong to own them, but decided against doing so because it would cost him his wealthy lifestyle. Jefferson was a man who loved nice things and died in debt acquiring them. Would I, like Jefferson, have chosen my comforts over my convictions? Many did, as the wealth of our nation was built on the backs of its slaves.

One man who didn't was William Wilberforce, who fought tirelessly in England to end the slave trade. Driven by his Christian faith, he worked for twenty years to get the Slave Trade Act of 1807 passed. 

I would like to believe that I would have done what was morally right, but I cannot definitively say that. It's easy to think one would make the right and difficult choice when one doesn't have to do it and face the costs of such a stance. I wondered the same thing about the Civil Rights Movement and would I have been willing to accept the costs of standing for what's right?  

In 1977 Alex Haley's bestselling novel was turned into a miniseries on ABC. I was only 9 at the time it came out so I did not get to see this monumental programming when it first aired. Although I didn't get to watch Roots, I certainly heard about it since Alex Haley and this series was covered all over the media.

His book and the miniseries struck a nerve in those who read and watched it. This powerful story of family made others begin to think about ancestry and their own heritage. As Haley himself said, "In every conceivable manner, the family is our link to our past, bridge to our future."

It would only be years later that I would get the chance to see this monumental miniseries. It made a huge impact on me, so much so, that when I found out that the History Channel had remade Roots, I knew that I wanted to share this experience with my older son, Benjamin. The first episode aired on Memorial Day.

After we had finished watching the first of four episodes, we found ourselves wiping away tears and sitting there silently for awhile. While it was not easy to watch what was happening onscreen, it was important that we did not turn away. Benjamin struggled with why I wanted him to watch something so horrific but I told him that all of life is not beautiful or easy to look at, but it is a part of life all the same. We cannot turn a blind eye to the suffering of others or to our own country's past.

Watching Roots together has led to discussions on the subject of our painful history. We thought about what it must have been like to have worked all day in the fields (either cotton or tobacco) only to return to the shack you called "home" to find that part of your family had been sold off while you were gone. To find that your mother or sister was gone. You had no idea where or if you would ever see them again. Or what it must be like to have your name stripped from you. Your name is your identity, who you are, and to find yourself unable to even retain even that very sense of self given to you by your parents. (This was driven home by the scene where Kunta Kinte is whipped over and over again until he will say the name "Toby," given to him by the mistress of the plantation.  

What must it be like to know that your life was not your own and that, in the blink of an eye, everything could be taken away from you? That you could find yourself whipped or lynched or, if you were a woman, raped. 

Whenever I see documentaries or movies about slavery, racism, the Holocaust, or genocides, I find myself asking: How can someone so disconnect themselves from another person that they can inflict such suffering on them? How can they distance themselves to the point where they see someone else as an "other"?

Nobel Prize Winner, Elie Wiesel, who lost most of his family in the Holocaust, once wrote, "We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish and with some measure of triumph."

Recently, First-Lady Michelle Obama gave a commencement address to City College of New York in which she mentioned that she "wakes up every day in a house built by slaves." This remark is astounding to think that the very people who helped build the White House could not conceive that one day an African-American man would be elected President of the very country that was oppressing them. It overwhelmed me to think of this, but I was discouraged and disheartened by the hateful comments that many posted underneath the story that were full of vitriol at the First Lady for even stating the truth. There were those who wished them still slaves so they could whip them and one who even mentioned the President and First Lady being in his "cross hairs." It saddens me to think that we are still mired in the sins of race that have plagued this country from its beginnings. The blood of our sins have soaked this land and there are too many who wish to ignore the pain and suffering and "move on." How can we move on from that which we have never been willing to face? This was something that I have discussed and will continue to talk about with Benjamin and, when he's older, Cava. 

And I pray that I and my family do not let our hearts grow so hardened and cold to the violence and hatred that still inflicts our county. I want us to be like "Fiddler" (played movingly by Academy Award Winner Forest Whitaker) who rejects the idea of  "every man for himself." Especially as Christians. We cannot pretend to not see the suffering of those in the world around us and not do something. 

Between 1526 to 1827, 10.7 million slaves arrived in the Americas. Between 1821 to 1830 over 80,000 Africans a year were shipped off in slave ships. Today there are over 46 million slaves worldwide. This was a subject that Roots also allowed us to continue to talk about with Benjamin. We have been supportive of organizations like International Justice Missions that work to end slavery and human trafficking in the world today. My wife and I have explained to Benjamin why we won't be buying chocolate or coffee from any company that continues to use slave labor. We have talked to him about sexual trafficking and why this is one reason that the excuse of looking at porn doesn't hurt anybody is a lie because many of the girls involved in pornography are victims of sexual trafficking, as well as the young girls (many younger than 10) who are forced into prostitution around the world. Or about the slave trade in mining for gold in countries like Kenya or Ghana.

None of these subjects are pleasant or easy to discuss but that does not mean they shouldn't be.

My boys see the racism in our country, particularly in this nasty political climate. I want them to understand they have a moral obligation to reject any platform that promotes hatred, racism, bigotry, fear of other ethnicities, discrimination, misogyny, and a sense that "we" are better than "them." America can never be "great" if it takes a contemptuous stance towards anyone. One cannot make the appeals of darkness and expect light. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best, "I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear." We cannot keep carrying around that burden. We must let go of our individualistic concerns and find more concern in the well-being of others.

Scriptures again and again command us to take care of the poor, the oppressed, the orphan, the widow, the refugee, the sojourner, and the outcast. As the prophet Isaiah warned, "Woe to those who enact evil statutes. And to those who constantly record unjust decisions, so as to deprive the need of justice. And rob the poor of My people of their rights, so that widows may be their spoil and that they may plunder the orphans. Now what will you do in the day of punishment . . .? To whom will you flee for help? And where will you leave your wealth?" (10:1-3).

God calls himself a "stronghold for the oppressed." As his followers, are we?

Certainly the Church must also face its failures to act on behalf of those oppressed. Even in its more recent history, the religious Moral Majority was started not in an effort to fight abortion but to fight integration at Bob Jones University. How does that show the love of God to the world?

Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, thinks for Christians to combat racism they cannot think only in terms of conversion. Keller believes that racism is perpetuated by "systemic evil" and the lack of "corporate responsibility." He contends that racism exists because "the system that allows it to exist is actively or passively supported to varying degrees" by those in society and that the system must change in order for people to change. "White people don't have a concept of corporate responsibility and this prevents them from dealing with systematic racism. Christians need to see systemic evil, take responsibility, and come alongside those who recognize systemic evil to articulate their concerns." He cited Daniel 9 because it demonstrated "corporate responsibility for an entire culture because it shows how the prophet Daniel repents of the sins of his ancestors and sins that he didn't individually commit." This means we cannot pass the buck or dismiss the past as being not our fault. Keller reminds us, "If a person has grasped the meaning of God's grace in his heart, he will do justice. If he doesn't live justly, then he may say with his lips that he is grateful for God's grace, but in his heart He is far from him."

the system must change in order for the people to change. But one of the challenges, he presented, is that "white people" don't have a concept of "corporate responsibility" which prevents them from dealing with "corporate evil" or "systemic racism

racism is perpetuated by "systemic evil" and the lack of "corporate responsibility." Racism persists, he contended, because the system that allows it to exist is actively or passively supported to varying degrees by different participants.

Watching Roots has allowed our family to ask ourselves these questions, to take a good look at our own selfish and hateful hearts, and to pray that God would change us and provide opportunities to help those who need it the most. We pray that we are motivated by the love of Christ: a love that is not seeking to protect and serve self, but to protect and serve others. May we pray that we can find ways to be part of the racial healing of our community.  Those wounds are deep, but His love is deeper and can heal all wounds. As Martin Luther King, Jr. so eloquently said, "We have before us the glorious opportunity to inject a new dimension of love into the veins of our civilization." I pray that we do, that we respond to acts of hatred not with more hatred, but with mercy, compassion and the love of Christ because only then will this world begin to change.

Here's a link to go to the History Channel's official website for Roots:
You can also watch full episodes there.

To read the full article on Tim Keller and John Piper discussing why churches still struggle with racism go to:

To see the discussion with Tim Keller and John Piper go to:

To hear Tim Keller speaking on race go to:

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