The Birth of a Nation: From Darkness to Light

When I was a college student at the United States Naval Academy, I received an email from a stranger who was tracing his family tree. My maiden name “Sistrunk” is quite rare, and it is one that we shared so he wanted a chance to meet. Since I was intrigued and didn’t know him, I thought it best that we meet in a public and safe place. I invited him to attend a Naval Academy Gospel Choir concert where I would be singing on the secure campus grounds.

I suspected he was a white male. When he arrived, he discovered that I was black. We shared our pleasantries and after such initial persistence, I never heard from him again. The unspoken truth between us revealed there was really only one way for him and me to share a last name. But you see, he thought there was no place for me in his story.

But there is a history and connected between both of our stories and indeed our lives. Both are laced with brokenness, violence, and darkness while offering a hope for a better future.

The Darkness of Slavery

I was privileged to complete an early screening of the movie, “Birth of a Nation,” opening in movie theaters everywhere today. If this viewing has taught me anything, it has reminded me of the interconnectedness of our stories and our brokenness. It has caused me again to reflect on the violence that takes place in the darkness.

We are all “born into the darkness of bondage,” and on this American soil the darkness of that bondage is perpetuated through violence and is dripping with the blood of both the oppressor and the oppressed. American soil is dripping with the blood of both oppressor and oppressed. Click To Tweet

The Birth of a Nation centers on the story of Nat Turner an enslaved man who led a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831.

Historian Scot French told The New York Times,

To accept Nat Turner and place him within the pantheon of American revolutionary heroes is to sanction violence as a means of social change. He has a kind of radical consciousness that to this day troubles advocates of a racially reconciled society. The story lives because it’s relevant today to questions of how to organize for change.

Alongside this opinion, I would interject that we cannot adequately discuss whether violence is a reasonable means of social change without also considering the violence that is proposed, sanctioned, and institutionalized by the state. Speaking of revolutionary violence against oppression must be considered within the larger context of what we have come to see as “justified violence.”

The “Birth of a Nation” gives us another opportunity to do just that. The institution of slavery was violent. It included rape, starvation, lynching, domestic abuse, psychological warfare, and other acts of terrorism against humanity.

The “Birth of a Nation” is violent, and it enters the cinema landscape at a critical time when historical narratives like 12 Years a Slave (depicting the life story of Solomon Northup), Belle (depicting the life story of Dido Elizabeth Belle), Roots Reimagined on the History Channel (depicting the family legacy of Kunta Kinte), and The Free State of Jones (depicting the life story of Newton Knight) give us stories of real—and sometimes forgotten— people who have shaped our lives and the trajectory of the entire world. We can't discuss violence as a means of change without considering institutionalized violence. Click To Tweet

We All Hope for a Better World

The theme of “Kingdom Living” reigned as I spoke at a conference last week about seeing God at work in our lives, stories, history, across generations, and throughout the world. We see the fullness of God, not only in what he ordains, but also in what he allows.

When watching “The Free State of Jones,” I was reminded that God does have a way of bringing about justice in this world, and that righteous action has often come through violence. Our human brokenness and the sinfulness of this fallen world requires that we wrestle with the holy trinity of violence, freedom, and justice.

Likewise, I reminded the conference audience that when it comes to the kingdom of God, remembering the lives and stories of those from a historically oppressed people group matters greatly. Our beginnings and our relationships matter. Our assigned place and time matters. Our history matters. This is why the life, legacy, and story of Nathaniel “Nat” Turner matters!


In 1800, Nat Turner was born a slave on a plantation in Southampton County, Virginia. The movie leads us to believe that from the very beginning of his life, his destiny was that of wisdom, courage, and vision. He was marked with the holy marks to become a leader and prophet of his people. His earthly mother reinforced these beliefs.

As a child, his slave master’s wife taught him how to read the Bible. As he grew into adulthood it was believed that his owner ran an orderly plantation with obedient slaves partially due to the preaching of Nat Turner. To get himself out of debt his owner began to accompany Nat Turner on a preaching circuit to various plantations to share a “mind your master” word about obedience with the slave community.

He was indeed a traumatized man. His internal wrestling during this time awakened him to advocate against the violent acts of slavery.

Every verse they use to justify our torture, there is another damning them to Hell for those actions.

Every verse they use to support our bondage, there is another demanding our freedom.

This bondage separates us, causes us to forget our history, and think that we are somehow better in our sins. But that is not the end of our stories.

The rise of God is a rise against evil. It was true in the days of David, Gideon, Joshua, and Sampson. And this kingdom reality was most powerfully demonstrated at the cross where Jesus died.

We need to remember these stories, the truth that we were all “born into the darkness of bondage,” and we all long for a better world. Bondage separates us, causes us to forget our history, to think we're somehow better in our sins. Click To Tweet

Darkness and Light

Yes, we are reminded of that darkness when we witness and experience things that eat at our consciences, but look away. We are reminded of that darkness when we loathe others who enjoy the freedoms that we lack. We are reminded of that darkness when we allow the abuse of women and children to go on while saying nothing. We are reminded of that darkness when we murder physically with our hands or verbally with our lips. We are reminded of that darkness when we seek profit, prosperity, and safety above human rights.

But the whole countenance of God offers something better; it offers a glimmer of light and hope if only for one day of freedom on this earth.

In the midst of the world’s darkness, Nat Turner saw an eclipse of the sun—the source of the earth’s light—on August 20, 1831. This glimmer of hope for freedom triggered a nearly 48 hour rebellion which began on August 21, 1831. Their plan was to journey to Jerusalem, Virginia where they would obtain weapons to advance their cause for justice.

The symbolism and journey towards Jerusalem should not be lost on any of us. Jerusalem is the place of light, where the Lord’s glory is revealed as the prophet Isaiah writes eloquently in Isaiah 60.

Arise a shine, for your light has come,
And the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth
And thick darkness is over the peoples,
But the Lord rises upon you
And his glory appears over you.
Nations will come to your light,
And kings to the brightness of your dawn (verses 1-3 NIV)

This is a strange, strange world we live in. On most days, we only get to see glimmers of this light. It is in the darkness where we see the contrast most clearly.

Nat Turner’s life and story gives us a clearer and fuller vision of the reality of the darkness of bondage. His life and story matters. This history matters. It is a part of #apeoplesjourney. Although he was captured on October 31, tried, and then hanged on November 11, 1831; and although they skinned his body, the story of Nat Turner did not die; and with the telling of this necessary story, #NatTurnerLives.

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