Uncle Tom's CabinI’ve often wondered these several decades of my political awareness why the term “Uncle Tom” is used by modern liberals as an epithet. As is easy to do in our Internet age, a quick read of the Wikipedia entry on “Uncle Tom” gives the basic outline, but given I seem to be immersed in antebellum America lately, having read “What Hath God Wrought” and having just watched the PBS series “The Abolitionists,” I figured it would be a good time to finally read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to find out for myself.

No wonder the book made such an impact on a slave drenched America in the mid-19th Century; it is powerful in every way. Written in the early 1850s, the English took some time to get used to; the slave English even more. But as I got into the flow I came to really enjoy what appears to me to be a more elegant flow to our language back then. I think I’m going to miss it as I get back to more contemporary works.

Of course my main interest in taking up the book was the character of Uncle Tom and how he could possibly become such an object of derision. In some ways I could see why. Uncle Tom could rightly be seen as obsequious, but the power of his life in the novel was not that he was uncritically obedient, or by nature servile, but that he was profoundly committed to his Christian faith. There is no doubt that to author Harriet Beecher Stowe Uncle Tom is an heroic, even Christ-like figure. And make no mistake; “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is a deeply Christian book.

In a way, Uncle Tom reminds me of the character Marcellus Gallio in the 1942 book “The Robe.” I read it back when I was a teenager, and several times since, and it had a profound impact on me as to the power Christ could have on a life to touch and make others better. Gallio was at the foot of the cross when Jesus was crucified and was one of the Roman centurions who gambled for Jesus’ robe. Eventually he became a follower of this Jesus, and everyone who encountered him was made better by that encounter. Such was Uncle Tom. He was faithful, trustworthy and obedient, maybe to a fault. But his character, which eventually got him killed, was such that his virtue was plain for all to see and changed many lives for the kingdom of God, both slave and free alike.

stowe-cropIt is clear that the character of Uncle Tom had been so bastardized in the decades after the book’s printing, that over time “Uncle Tom” became the default aspersion on any black who wasn’t sufficiently rebellious against injustice or perceived injustice. In the modern era a black can earn the moniker by simply not kowtowing to the modern liberal political agenda. Justice Clarence Thomas back during his confirmation hearings not only had the temerity to be a self-described conservative, he had the right name as well. So he became the quintessentially modern Uncle Tom. Talk about bastardization. In fact I just did a quick Google search of “Clarence Thomas Uncle Tom” and see from just last summer, that our tolerant liberal friends on the progressive left still hate the man with a vitriol one has to behold to believe.

To be sure, Uncle Tom’s was not the only response to the evil slave characters endured in the book. Tom himself yearned to be free, and was but a day away from receiving it, yet it was not to be. Other slaves chafed against the indignity of being considered property, no better than animals, and some made it to freedom. The beauty of Stowe’s book was that it paints a complex of characters, both black and white, both slave and free; there are good slave owners, as there are evil ones, all of whom were stained by the sin of slavery. It was clear throughout the book, and affirmed by her concluding remarks that slavery wasn’t an issue of North versus South, bad guys versus good guys. The entire union, including her fellow Christians, was complicit in the “peculiar” institution that was American slavery.  Her final words chillingly refer to the “wrath of Almighty God!” and in the civil war America certainly received it.

The book is also a fascinating piece of theodicy, or the problem of evil. Stowe offers no easy answers. Evil is a fact. The Christian can no more explain it than she can excuse it for Almighty God, or even understand it. How does one explain the inexplicable or understand the incomprehensible? Some characters are cynical and never come to faith, others cynical and wish they could, while others come reluctantly; others embrace it in half measures, while others like Tom are all in.

My own two cents when it comes to the problem of evil is that ejecting God from the universe doesn’t make evil any less problematic. In fact, I would argue it makes it more so, because ultimately there is then no meaning behind it. Evil demands an explanation, and Christianity gives us one, even if it’s not a terribly satisfying one. This brings us to Uncle Tom. Tom’s death scene to this Christian has to be one of the more powerful in all of English literature. I’ll confess a few tears.

Throughout his life and especially in his death, Tom is the consummate example of the Apostle Paul’s injunction to “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21). Even to the two black brutes that beat him to death, Tom spoke words of love and forgiveness. One was so moved he wanted to believe in this Jesus Tom spoke of, even though he had no idea who or what he was. The power of the Christian faith is often hard to explain to the cynic or the skeptic, or to those who just have a hard time believing it. Something in the mercy, grace and forgiveness in the cross of Christ, in God giving his son for our sins, meets the deepest needs in a human soul. That’s why it’s still going strong these 2,000 years.

Tom’s dying words tell the power of this story of sin, grace and redemption, this story of evil and wickedness, this story of human beings being treated like animals, that amidst it all Tom could exclaim in the throes of death, “O, Mas’r George! What a thing ‘t is to be a Christian!” I was really startled by the scene, and moved, and thought to myself, would that I could be like Uncle Tom! I’ll never hear the phrase again without knowing the truth, that Uncle Tom is one of the most heroic figures in English literature.