I am embarrassed to have gone so long without reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But I believe I would have read it sooner, had I known that it was not only an important book, but also a good book. I’ve no doubt that Stowe’s book would have had less of an impact, had it not been so well written. While I would not want to limit the appeal of a book to its utility in promoting social change, I certainly appreciate in this instance the confluence of artistic talent and socio-politico significance.

The plot of the book is serviceable; the characters are remarkable. Part of the intention of the book—as I understand from the Wikipedia article—was to simultaneously motivate Northern abolitionists, and appeal to moderate Southern slave holders. It was perhaps a combination of this intention, and of Stowe’s own Christian convictions, that there are few heroes and few villains in the book. Almost all of the characters are ethically compromised in one way or another. It would have been easy to villainize St. Clare—who, after all, purchases a person because his daughter took a fancy to him—but instead Stowe turns him into one of the more interesting characters of the book. He is a compelling character but not not a sympathetic one. By the same token, it would have been easy for Stowe to make Ophelia a paragon of virtue, but she too is shown to be compromised by racism, in spite of being an abolitionist. George Harris struggles with his lot in life, ultimately finding redemption after winning his freedom. Cassy is portrayed as perhaps the most spiritually corrupted figure, though she too finds repentance. These latter conversions are perhaps indicators of Stowe’s religious convictions. But these do not keep her from leaving the fates of the elder Shelbys, and the Alfred St. Clares, ambiguous and unresolved—modern day authors of Christian fiction take note! There are flat characters as well: the pure Evangeline, the hideous Lecree, the loathsome Marie, and… Tom himself.

I knew of the “Uncle Tom” stereotype before I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Wikipedia defines “Uncle Tom” as, “an epithet for a person who is slavish and excessively subservient to perceived authority figures, particularly a black person who behaves in a subservient manner to white people; or any person perceived to be complicit in the oppression of their own group”—I will keep that usage in scare quotes for the rest of the article, not objecting to the concept but to its association with this book and this character. Clarence Thomas’s convictions and surname, for instance, both contribute to his being labeled as an “Uncle Tom” (Uncle Thomas, of course) by some of those disagree with him. Where does the “Uncle Tom” concept come from? Wikipedia is quick to point out that the depiction of Tom as a happy and contented slave may be the result of unauthorized stage depictions and minstrel shows. This is of course possible. I think, however, that a fair reading of the novel could lead someone to conclude that Uncle Tom was an “Uncle Tom.” I do not agree with that reading. I don’t believe that Stowe intended that reading. But it could follow straightforwardly from a misunderstanding of Stowe’s Christian beliefs.

At the level of literature, I cannot imagine any objection to the assertion that Tom is a literary depiction of Christ. His humility and generosity, his multiple avowals that he would give his life for others, his eventual sacrifice of his own life for escapees—death between two slaves, mind you—are all unmistakable allusions to the life and character of Christ. He is the hero of the book, and the only developed character whose soul is not corrupted by slavery. No objection can be made to the depiction of Tom, by someone reading with Stowe’s convictions. Of course, not everyone will share Stowe’s convictions.

Submission is an ambiguous choice—viewed externally. When a man turns the other cheek, it could be that he is acting in obedience to one of Christ’s most difficult commands, which can only be done by the transforming work of the Spirit. (We saw this recently in South Carolina.) But it could be on the other hand that the man has internalized an inferior role, to the point of understanding himself to be worthy of being struck, and therefore becoming complicit (very indirectly) in his own oppression. These are not two views of the same event; they are different events. The former is an indicator of Christian perfection; the latter is an indicator of human degradation—indeed, it is a clear illustration of the kind of dehumanization that Christ came to restore. Uncle Tom could be an “Uncle Tom” or he could be a perfected disciple of Christ, but he cannot be both at the same. (Not incidentally, I suppose, there is a moving description of breaking out of the “Uncle Tom” role in Frederick Douglass’s second autobiography, which I quoted in an earlier post.)

Viewed externally, of course, it is not clear what’s happening when a man turns the other cheek. Actions don’t come with labels. When Cassy has Lecree at her mercy and invites Tom to kill him, he refuses. Is this a man broken, or is it David sparing Saul (i.e., God’s own anointed king refusing to distrust God by taking matters into his own hands)? From a non-Christian perspective, I can’t imagine anyone interpreting Tom’s refusal of violence as a sign of strength—although I’m happy to be proved wrong about that. If life can be reduced to a series of power struggles, then failure to seize power is moral weakness. That is where the “Uncle Tom” stereotype comes in. But I think it is clear that Stowe herself sees Tom as a model of Christian virtue.

This ambiguity, however, leads rather directly into a discussion of Christianity and slavery, which could be kindly described as inconsistent. I cannot presume to say anything from the slave’s perspective. The character Uncle Tom represents one way of thinking; the character of George Harris represents another. Frederick Douglass considered the issue of escaping and even stealing from a master, from a moral perspective, in one of his autobiographies. My reflections come from the perspective of a free person, who doesn’t feel oppressed by anyone really, and who has a private citizen’s capacity to effect change in the world.

As a preface to this discussion, I was surprised to find myself so poorly informed about slavery in general. There is a discussion in the book between Augustine St. Clare and his brother Alfred, where analogies are drawn between slavery and serfdom, and between slavery and modern capitalism (wage slavery, I guess). These comparisons were new to me. I suspect the reality is that historically there was a continuum of forced labor—as there surely in the present day—of which the most egregious expression was chattel slavery. So I am in the uncomfortable intellectual position of being horrified by slavery, but of being quite unaware of the historical context. Therefore questions that are obvious to me—such as, Why did we have to wait until the 18th century to see a strong organized opposition to slavery?—may not be meaningful questions historically. (And I am looking for a good book on this subject, if anyone reading this is able to offer a recommendation.)

Nevertheless, my 21st century question is indeed, Why did we have to wait until the 18th century to see a strong organized opposition to slavery? I have three thoughts on this.

The first, to which I’ve alluded above, is that the distinction between “slave” and “free” was not as crisp a distinction in Europe as my 21st century mind wants to imagine. We have the abuses of the French aristocracy against the peasantry in the late 1700s; serfdom in Russia until 1861. And of course we have the Old Testament system of up to six years of indentured service, with liberation in the jubilee years. I can only begin to imagine a fragmented map of various levels of “freedom” for individuals throughout history. This is not to deny the horrors of slavery—and there are plenty of denunciations by Christians in the aforementioned Wikipedia article, in all periods of history—but I can at least be so charitable as to acknowledge that there was not a single dichotomy of slavery and freedom, for much of history. (In America, of course, that line was always easy to draw, and aside from the case of free black people and indentured white people, the line followed racial contours quite closely.)

Second, there is a pragmatic consideration. It would certainly have been possible for the early Christians to take on the institution of slavery directly from the 1st century—texts like Colossians 3:11 or Galatians 3:28 provide ample warrant for that. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” They would have failed. Perhaps 25% of the population of Ancient Rome was enslaved; a persecuted minority could not touch an economic institution of that magnitude. In fact, how many individuals have been in a position throughout history to end slavery? Not very many. Of course, after Constantine, and especially after Theodosius, the continuation of slavery was one of the many morally problematic accommodations between Christian teaching and secular responsibilities. There is no excuse for that.

While my earlier two thoughts dealt respectively with history and practicality, my final one has to do with theology. The reflections in the last two paragraphs help me to squirm less at the inconsistency of my brothers and sisters in the faith throughout history, this next one helps me to make sense of life today. The thought is: the primary activity of Christianity is not to destroy unjust social structures, but to render them trivial in the life of the individual.

So for example, in Paul’s letter to Philemon, we do not find a denunciation of the institution of slavery generally; we find remarks than render it irrelevant. Philemon is instructed—gently but firmly—that he is to receive Onesimus as a brother, because that is what he is. Paul does not command Onesimus to be freed; he assumes it will be done. For the rest of the Roman empire, slavery is a way of life, but between those two people, it has dissolved away.

And a moment’s reflection will show that the Gospel must work this way. If the content of the Gospel message were, “Human beings must be free,” then it would be meaningless to say that in Christ there is “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female.” Because obviously there would then be slave and free: some people would be enjoying the fullness of the Gospel and some people wouldn’t. All of the good wishes and pity and efforts on the part of the free would avail very little to the slaves, until slavery was abolished. But the magic of the Gospel—and I can’t resist the term “magic” here—is that it cuts directly through every distinction that humans make. The restoration of the image of God is an equal reality whether you are a corporate executive or a sex slave. That’s not to say that those two conditions both equally pleasing to God—certainly not. But it would be nonsensical to say to one, “You are free to go wherever you like, and can afford to do so; the Kingdom of God is open to you,” but to the other, “You don’t even have control of your own body; until we can overcome that there is nothing for you.” And this, to bring it back to Stowe, is the reason that Tom can be the hero of the book, the Christ figure. His state of slavery does not impede his Christian character at all. Certainly, he desires freedom. Obviously, the point of the book is to stir up opposition to slavery. But Tom’s dignity transcends his earthly situation. God’s Word is not bound.

To take a step back from the particular issue of slavery—which is fortunately in the past for many, though it continues today through illegal activity—we can think about issues of social justice more generally. Everywhere I’ve been in the world, every people group is either the victim in their own historical narrative or the perpetrator in somebody else’s. If there is a group of people that doesn’t have a grudge against anyone else, and against whom no other group of people bears a grudge, I have not heard of it. And I do not expect that to change in my lifetime. “If all the grievances that stand between Elves and Dwarves are to be brought up here, we may as well abandon this Council.”

The marvel of the gospel is that the accumulated sins of our cultures are no greater obstacles to the transforming power of God than the accumulated sins our ourselves. Both are hideous offenses to God and must be dealt with; both will be. But the whole business of Christianity is the redemption of humanity through individual people, conformed to the likeness of Christ. Some of the commands from Scripture that are harder to misinterpret include, “Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect,” and “Be imitators of Christ.” These are calls to transform lives, not to transform social structures. Transformation of individual lives will always, always have social implications. But we cannot put the cart before the horse and expect society to change individuals. God’s method in history is to transform individuals, and for those individuals to be agents of change in society. No social ill will, in the end, prevail against the Kingdom; and the Kingdom cannot be impeded by any injustice on earth.

So, legal slavery in the United States was abolished in the 19th century. I wish it had been abolished everywhere in the 1st. I see some things more clearly than my brothers and sisters did in the past, though I acknowledge that some of my confidence what my own judgment would have been reflects anachronistic dichotomies. I wish I knew what to do about poverty, social strife, warfare, abortion, criminality, incarceration, health care, corruption, violent extremism, and any number of other issues that fill the news of this era. And at the same time I have confidence that the grace of God can cut through the most hopeless of situations, both when we’re messing up our own lives, and when we’re messing up the lives of others.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.