Very early in ”The Birth of a Nation”, young Nat Turner is shown being taken into the house of the plantation masters where a maternal character begins to encourage his ability to read. She shows him the vast library of books there in the study. High above him are rows and rows of novels, science books and social theory texts. But as Nat’s eyes open wide at the sheer amount of knowledge previously hidden away from him in the room, she quickly and harshly reminds him that these are “white folks books” and not for his kind. “There is one that is for you though” she says, as she places in his small childish hands the Bible. Nat Turner will be a preacher from that moment on…reading and speaking from that book in so many ways: placating the slaves at other plantations, offering comfort to the afflicted and then, leading a bloody revolution.
It is no stretch then to see this as a film about preaching. This is, at its heart, a film about what it means to speak for God-as preaching claims to do. But as we see in the movie, there is no safe way to speak for God. For preaching or even just speaking about God is also at its heart, a dangerous act…literally one of life and death or slavery and freedom.
Nat Turner was a slave in the early 1800’s who began as a preacher solely for the other slaves at his plantation on the farm of Benjamin Turner. It would not take long, however, until a white preacher begins to solicit Benjamin to co-opt Nat’s preaching in order to keep slaves at other plantations docile. Benjamin’s acceptance of this work leads to some of the most striking moments in the film as Nat stands before his brothers and sisters of race and faith struggling to find the words to keep them complicit in this injustice that is literally killing them all. (As one slaveowner says “they don’t fear a gun as much as they fear the Gospel.” Nat is forced in these moments to speak for God, but the words then God speaks to his people are words of death. They are condemned to suffer and die quietly lest they also risk their souls.
There comes a point though when Nat has had enough. He begins to remember, recover and read the passages in the Bible which speak of freedom, justice and God’s wrath. In a particular strong scene of the movie, Nat squares off with the white preacher as they each begin to quote Scripture to claim God’s support of their side. I couldn’t help but think of the verse which describes the Scriptures as “sharper than a double-edged sword” as this scene shows how the Bible and preaching has been so used to cut both ways…both for slavery and freedom.
As the argument is brought to a swift end by the attack of Nat Turner’s overseer, the text has already been written. Nat has seen that the message he has spoken for God has been one of death, rather than of freedom. His message and preaching begin anew as he begins to preach the message of revolution, justified violence and divine wrath as he gathers an army around him.
In many ways, this is a film that asks us the same question that Nat must have asked himself in those days “When you speak for God, what will you say?” For preachers and all people of faith, this is not a question to be avoided by simply remaining quiet for as Nat shows us, silence is still to speak loudly on behalf of a dominant and brutal system. Nat’s choice is not only his, but ours…if we are silent, we lead brothers and sisters to death, but if we speak what shall we say? At what point does comforting the afflicted only become another recommendation to remain silent in the face of injustice? Which of us pastors/preachers/Christians has not had the same struggle today? When every week there is another story of an African-American killed because the color of their skin made them more “suspicious or dangerous?” If we do not speak out at every moment and every turn, are we not also speaking for God a message of death and injustice?
Nor does the story release us from the peril of speaking for God by simply lifting up Nat Turner’s later preaching and actions as the clear way forward. (Although the inclusion of the slaves killing of the Travis family infant while in its cradle would have most certainly made this more explicit.) Nat Turner is not the unreflective answer for how to speak for God, but his story and this film does remind us of the life and death realities of what we say when we do claim to speak for God. Nat Turner doesn’t have to be perfect to cause us to ask this question, but only another sign of how dangerous it is to preach or speak for the divine. (As an aside, this is perhaps the sole reason that I felt okay about watching this film in light of the director, Nate Parker’s past sexual assault in college. Nate Parker did a terrible thing, but neither does he own the questions he raises for us either in telling us this story.)
I wonder sometimes if we all in the church…preachers, Christians, and believers understand just how dangerous a thing it is to speak of and for God. What we say or don’t say on behalf of God or the Scriptures matters…it is still the difference between life and death. And so perhaps, if nothing else, to begin to speak faithfully of/for God is to start in that fearful knowledge that as Christians our voices in times such as this hold both a terrible weight and a great power. So the voices we raise must always begin in that knowledge as we too speak in hope of the birth of something new…the kingdom of God for which we all hope. Nat Turner’s story reminds us we must be those who speak prayerfully, carefully and boldly for our question is the same as his when he saw the faces of the dying and asked “What will I say?”