An Ethical Conviction That You Hold, For Which You Should Be Thankful

You and I believe that slavery is wrong, but neither of us came to this conclusion on our own.  We did not reach this conviction by wrestling with complicated ethical, economic, political and theological issues.  We did not risk our lives to escape our own enslavement and we did not campaign tirelessly against powerful institutions to abolish an unjust system.  Neither of us have ever been confronted with the reality that we would lose a large proportion of our wealth, should our society decide that slavery were wrong.

Instead, we grew up in a culture where we did not see legalized slavery around us anywhere.  We were raised in a society that told us in thousands of ways, explicitly and implicitly, that freedom was good and this system was wrong.  We accepted this great truth without thinking about it.  It cost us nothing.

You and I have not contributed anything to the principle that slavery is wrong.  Oddly, though, we may still cast a smug eye on earlier generations.  We may consider ourselves to be morally superior to those from centuries ago who held slaves.  Or we might be bothered to discover that great Christians from earlier centuries held slaves, good people who loved God, like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield.  What was wrong with these people, we silently wonder?  Without thinking deeply, we assume that if we were born in 1703, we would understand that slavery was an evil and unjust system.  And we would be wrong about ourselves.

The conviction that slavery is wrong is a gift.  We did not pay for it, work for it, achieve it through intellectual effort, or earn it through our own righteousness.  And yet those of us who live in 2012 hold on to this conviction firmly, without quite realizing how it ended up here in our hands.

This is how grace works. This truth was given to us by God.

It happened somehow through the processes of history.  God worked through many different people who, seeing through a mirror dimly, struggled to come to terms with a truth that was not obvious to them.  Some of them then battled formidable economic, political and social powers, in order to eliminate an unjust system.  The results, quite frankly, are stunning.

In 1776 slaves could be found in every single colony and region in the Americas, from Canada to Chile (and each of the original 13 states).  An overwhelming majority of people in North America, Europe, South America, the Caribbean, Central America and Africa accepted slavery as a fact of life.  They might not have thought it a pleasant system, but they were convinced that this was how the world operated.  In fact, the acceptance of slavery had been the default mode for all of humanity, for slavery could be found in some form in all regions of the world throughout history.

And then, in a blink of an eye (by historical reckoning), slavery was abolished.  By 1886 it had been eliminated in the Americas.  By that time, the vast majority of people of the transatlantic world agreed it was an unjust system.  This way of thinking spread throughout the world.  For the first time in history, the acceptance of slavery was no longer the default mode of thinking.

You and I have inherited that conviction.  We should be thankful for this particular gift.  Thankful that many people came before us who worked and wrestled and died and argued and committed themselves to abolition.  And thankful to God who, in His mysterious manner, worked through these people in history, so that we might think this way, without even realizing that we think this way, or why we think this way.

Oh, and one more thing.  Let us also be thankful that, regardless of our thinking, we are not enslaved in this way and do not live in a society that enslaves others in this way.


James Bond vs. Samuel Sharpe: Authenticity.

I started this contest because the two times I visited Jamaica, our van drivers pointed out spots where James Bond films had been made, but none made any mention of Samuel Sharpe.  Tourists, obviously, are much more interested in James Bond than Sharpe.  So, my question has been which person should we be most interested in?

According to my unscientific and undemocratic and unsystematic process in which I make up the categories and analysis of this contest as I go along, Sharpe is currently beating Bond, 4 to 3.  Today is the last day of the contest.  So, the most James Bond can hope for is a tie, a prospect he never faces in his movies.

Are you nervous?  Are you sitting on the edge of your seat in anticipation, anxiety and excitement?  No?  Well, give me a break.  I’m a historian, not a film maker.  (See the previous post).

Anyway, today’s category is authenticity.


Well, Samuel Sharpe was a real person.  James Bond is not and has never been a real person.  In fact, not even one of the six James Bonds was real.

Samuel Sharpe wins the pennant!  Samuel Sharpe wins the pennant! Samuel Sharpe wins the pennant!

The name is Bond. James Bond, Bond, Bond, Bond, Bond, Bond.

Wait a minute.  There are further considerations.  Sometimes fictional characters help us to better see what is real and true even if they themselves are not real. The best literature and the best films do that.

And James Bond…does not do that very well.  If we go back to the posts in which James Bond lost out to Samuel Sharpe, we will find that the Bond films do not give us solid insights into redemption, violence, human nature, race, sex or God.  Yeah, James Bond is cool and the stories are fun, but let’s face it, Ian Fleming was no Shakespeare, even though he had that English thing going for him.  Samuel Sharpe, meanwhile, played a key role in the abolition of transatlantic slavery. For that reason, if nothing else, solid historical analysis of Samuel Sharpe gives us a lot more insight into what is real and true about this world we live in.

A real person. OK, a bust of a real person.

So, yeah, go crazy folks, Samuel Sharpe wins it all.


Final Score:

James Bond       3

Samuel Sharpe  5


Next:  the post-game wrap up.


James Bond vs. Samuel Sharpe: Stories

I wish I had a good story to tell about this one.

I don’t.

Apparently, I don’t have a good story because I am a historian and not a filmmaker.  Here’s the deal:  filmmakers often tell good stories.  Historians often don’t.

Is this news to you?

Bond films, of course, intrigue so many people because they tell good stories.  The typical Bond film often sports some sort of wild, unpredictable action scene toward the beginning, runs through plenty of twists and turns in the plot, and packs in dramatic action at the end.  The filmmakers use appealing narrative and visual tropes: technological gadgets, life-threatening explosions, clever villains, sex appeal, and cars that do things like turn into submarines.  The action often takes place in some sort of exotic and alluring setting.  James Bond is not only cool, he comes with his own background music.

Meanwhile, I have heard plenty of people complain about history teachers who make their students memorize dates.  And academic historians write books that are set up like long legal arguments, complete with professional jargon.  Who reads these things?

(Actually, other historians do.  Does that make us boring people?)

Now, there are very good reasons why academic historians write books that are set up as long arguments, supported by evidence that is meticulously detailed in footnotes.  Histories make claims about the past, and in order to be accurate about those claims, they need to be grounded in the evidence.

But some academic historians have wondered whether we have lost something by ignoring the power of stories and good writing.  Would more people see the significance of history if historians wrote better stories?

I’m not talking about Abraham Lincoln the Vampire Slayer.  I don’t mean that history should be simply be another form of entertainment. And I firmly believe that historians need to write long arguments with detailed evidence, even if these historical works are only read by other historians.

But I also suspect that there are important truths about the past that are best told in story form.  The Apostle Paul may have written theological arguments, but the Gospels are told in story form.

Samuel Sharpe’s rebellion would make a great story.  And a great movie.  Because of the lack of evidence, it would involve making speculation, but that speculation could be grounded in the best available scholarship.  And it would be a great counterpart to the film, “Amazing Grace.”  Admirable as he was as an individual, William Wilberforce does not encompass the entire story of the abolition of slavery.  But for now, all we really have are the historical arguments about Sharpe and the rebellion in Jamaica.

It is a hard to tell a good story AND hold true to the evidence.  But I think historians ought to try to do it more often.

That’s my argument.  I wish I could have told it in story form.

Bond wins this one.



James Bond                3

Samuel Sharpe            4

James Bond vs. Samuel Sharpe: Slavery, Sex and Consumerism

OK, I don’t know what you are thinking about that title.  I may not want to know.  Just bear with me for a moment.

I’m returning to a little series I have going that pits James Bond against Samuel Sharpe.   I have raised the question of which person we should be more interested in.  Today’s category:  objectification, which is to treat human beings as objects.

As a slave in Jamaica, Samuel Sharpe was, at some level, regarded as an object.  The movers and shakers of transatlantic slavery bought and sold human beings like they were houses, deeded human beings to descendants in their wills like they were furniture, and regarded the costs of human beings in their financial calculations in the same way they figured the value of their agricultural machinery.  These are not pleasant or appealing dimensions of the human story to dwell on.

Contrary to the logic of 19th century slavery, Samuel Sharpe was a person, not an object for economic production.

I do find it interesting, however, to consider Samuel Sharpe’s response to this dehumanization.  Just how did he come to the conclusion that the slaves had natural equality with others, especially when this was not an idea that had occurred to slaves in countless cultures down through the centuries?  Why did he instruct his followers to burn houses but not to harm slaveowners, when he obviously had been treated like property himself and it would have been so easy to gain revenge by treating slaveowners like property?  I am thinking the grace of God must have been at work there, but just how did it seep its way into his being?  I find those questions interesting and I wish we had more historical documentation to unpack the story of Sharpe’s life.

We have plenty of stories about James Bond, of course.  In the Bond films, there are human beings who are always, at some level, regarded as objects.  These human beings are the women.  James Bond is always on the hunt for beautiful women to seduce.  After these flings, we don’t ever see these women again, though James Bond keeps reappearing in every movie.  It’s part of the Bond formula.

Most evangelical and traditional Christians probably respond to this point by thinking, “of course this is a problem.  Sex should be reserved for marriage.”  But the discussion should not end there.

The fact that James Bond tends to regard women as objects is nothing new, historically.  One does not have to dig very deeply in history to find men in all sorts of cultures and civilizations who treat women in this way.

There is something new in the way that Bond objectifies women.  It is the same characteristic that is found in Hugh Hefner’s Playboy philosophy:  the role of consumerism.  I’m not just talking about the fact that audiences have bought Bond films and Playboy magazines.  I think that consumer dynamics enable James Bond films to present a sanitized Playboy philosophy for popular audiences.  It’s hard to recognize because all of us in western culture are deeply shaped by consumerism and because Christians tend to evaluate movies by a simplistic rating system that doesn’t encourage more thoughtful reflection.

Contrary to the logic of late 20th century Bond films, women are persons, not objects of economic consumption.

James Bond and Playboy both emerged in the 1950s and early 1960s when a consumer-driven lifestyle came within reach of most Americans (and a few Brits, if they could afford it).   And Americans enthusiastically embraced this consumer world.  Hefner and the Bond films took advantage of a certain kind of consumer lifestyle (among other things) to attract audiences.  Consider the lifestyle that each glorified.  Early on, Hugh Hefner cultivated an idealized image of the playboy as a man living in a “pad” (not a home), furnished with cool furniture, hi-fi stereos and tasteful décor.  He wore snappy suits and drank martinis.  Children did not inhabit this world (we should be thankful for that).  Nor did married, old, or physically unattractive women.  This lifestyle setting helped Hefner in his efforts to make pornography respectable and even cool.

If you cover up the women a bit more, this cool form of consumerism also defined James Bond’s lifestyle. (And it’s not just in the films.  Today you can purchase James Bond items online and imagine yourself to be living his lifestyle.  Good luck with that dream.)

Both Hugh Hefner and James Bond treated women as objects designed for their sexual gratification.  Like sports cars, women were quickly disposed of once a more fascinating model came along.  Like “hip” furniture, women were valued primarily for their physical, external appearance.  Just as we are to believe that the purchasing, wearing and disposing of stylish clothes does not bring any problematic consequences to our relationships, so we are to believe that the seduction and disposal of beautiful women does not bring any problematic consequences to our relationships.  Slaveowners viewed slaves like machinery, as cogs in their system of economic production.  Hefner and Bond viewed women like luxury cruises, as items in their lifestyles of economic consumption.

Of course, Bond films haven’t been the only ways that a sanitized Playboy philosophy has expressed itself in our culture.  But they have been widely popular.  As such, Bond films have played a role in the tendency that has developed during the last half century to look upon sexuality as a component of our consumer lifestyle.  There’s a different kind of slavery at work here.

It’s a historical development that requires better understanding.  As such, I think it is quite good, when viewing films, to think about and discuss these issues.  This kind of film viewing is not only interesting, it could lead to deeper understanding, wisdom and Christian maturity.

Most people do not view films these ways, though.  I’m guessing that most men who watch Bond films merely respond to the women on screen with a desire that says, on some conscious or unconscious level, “I’d like to have that.”

There it is.  Slavery, sex, and consumerism.


James Bond        2

Samuel Sharpe    4