Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Lessons Learned from Uncle Tom's Cabin

This essay was written specifically for Meeting, following First Day's (Sunday's) Worship. The messages shared focused on a particular period of reform, namely AIDS outreach in the early 1980's. My response to those who spoke at length about their level of involvement is that anyone can be a hero in the face of something awful like an epidemic. The true challenge lies in those who don't need trauma to do the right thing.


What follows has been weighing on my heart for a while. While I listened to the vocal ministry given today during Meeting for Worship, ideas and thoughts arrived that consumed my mind. I have, accordingly, arranged them below.

A few months back, I saw a film adaptation of the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery melodrama was the best-selling work of the 19th Century. Published in 1852, Uncle Tom's Cabin's most singular theme is a fervent belief that Christian theology renders owning a human being utterly immoral. In her arguments, Stowe attacks the peculiar institution in ways that might seem overwrought and quaint to today's audience. Her prose aims for the heartstrings, much less so for the intellect.

The movie version, dating back to the 1920's, takes some liberties with the original plot. Quakers feature prominently in the book, mainly as healing figures that restore runaway slaves to health. An especially memorable and dramatic section recounts how Eliza, a slave woman fleeing her sadistic master, seeks to cross a frozen river to escape into free territory. Along for the terrifying trip is Eliza's newborn baby. The two are pursued by dogs and slave catchers all the way, but end up safe and sound in the end.

The film elevates Quaker virtue to a wholly different plane. In this setting, a Quaker man observes Eliza and child's perilous journey from the bank of the river. Intervening directly, he extends a hand, ensuring that they land on free soil safely. Upon arrival, Eliza and the baby are given hospitality, food, and a place to stay. Or, at least for a while.

This would be a sweet little story in and of itself, but it is not complete. The next morning, having traced their target to the Quaker's house, the slave catchers demand their bounty. Good intentions give way to loaded guns, especially when pointed at the accommodating Friends. Eliza and her child sorrowfully concede that they have no choice but to return to where they started.

Before we pat ourselves on the back, we need a broader understanding of context. Before we adopt a pose of misunderstood martyr in our adopted causes, we should peer closely at the crusade we've chosen for ourselves. It's possible to be so involved that we haven't recognized challenges that stand before us. Social justice and good works are not immune from irony or sanctimony.

Returning to the film, an interpretation of this scene could cover lots of ground. One might see it as a criticism of pacifism, which can arguably be reduced to theory in the face of armed resistance. One could also perceive of it as something of a cautionary tale. Our worthy, altruistic deeds are insufficient if we have not first examined the entire situation thoroughly. May we always realize the need for continual, structural reform. There is, and will always be, much to learn.

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