Slavery and the Bible — Part 3: How Should We Then Live?

If you’re at Westminster Abbey, walk over to the St. James Park tube station and take the District line over to Embankment where you’ll connect to the Northern line.  Head south (you’ll need a Zone 2 pass) until you reach your stop: Clapham Common station.  Head up the stairs and you’ll see a lovely green space in front of you, dotted with families relaxing, people walking their dogs, and a few pick-up games of football (aka soccer).  Tucked away in a corner of the park, almost out of view behind some trees, will be Holy Trinity Church.  Unlike the Abbey, this place is not overrun with tourists snapping photos or school groups in queues.  It certainly doesn’t look like much.  But, for my money, this is one of the most important churches, indeed one of the most important buildings, in the world.  Affixed to the edifice is one of the ubiquitous blue signs denoting a historic location.  It reads: “William Wilberforce and ‘The Clapham Sect’ worshipped in this church.  Their campaigning resulted in the abolition of slavery in British dominions, 1833.”  Another plaque erected by the church lists ten names of “servants of Christ…who in the latter part of the XVIIIth and early part of the XIXth centuries labored so abundantly for national righteousness and the conversion of the heathen and rested not until the curse of slavery was swept away from all parts of the British dominions”.  A small bulletin board informs you that the church promotes racial reconciliation through regular “Wilberforce meetings”.  Standing on that lovely common in the outskirts of London and gazing upon that simple church is to stand on holy ground.

One year after Richard Furman wrote his “Exposition”, William Wilberforce wrote “An Appeal to the Religion, Justice, and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire in behalf of the Negro slaves in the West Indies”.  The epigraphs were Jeremiah 22:13 (“Woe unto him that buildeth his house by unrighteousness, and his chambers by wrong; that useth his neighbour’s service without wages, and giveth him not for his work;”) and Micah 6:8 (“He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”).  Wilberforce and a small group of evangelical Anglicans and Methodists had worked tirelessly to awaken England from its moral slumber and had succeeded, after a 20-year campaign, in abolishing the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807.  Now, this aging member of Parliament was calling on the British people to finish the job and abolish slavery entirely.  It was the final chapter in one of the truly heroic lives in world history.  Wilberforce was born wealthy in 1759, went to Cambridge, and became an MP at the age of 20.  He seemed to be on his way to the comfortable life of a gentleman politician.  But then Jesus got a hold of him.  In 1785, he experienced a Methodist-style conversion and, upon talking with converted slave-trader John Newton (of “Amazing Grace” fame), he was convinced to use his position to do good.  He committed himself to a life of advocating justice for the oppressed.  He worked on prison reform, labor rights, electoral reform, missionary outreach, and even the prevention of cruelty to animals.  But his great crusade was the end of slavery and he would soon link up with a small but committed group of men and women to do just that.  It was these Christians who would end the practice of slavery in the largest empire the world had ever seen, and their example would cause a cascade of abolitionist movements in the 19th century which eradicated the practice in most of the world.

Discovering Wilberforce in college on the eve of my foreign study in England renewed my faith as only studying the saints can.  Here was a Christian who, rather than taking Scripture out of context to justify his own selfishness, delved deep into the heart of the gospel message and allowed it to change him and, thus, the world.  And that story is repeated wherever you find abolitionist movements anywhere in the world.  The gospel message of radical equality before God (a unique message of Christianity) has broken chains around the world.  In America, it was Quakers like John Woolman who started the first abolitionist societies.  The Grimke sisters of South Carolina combined a passion for women’s rights with abolitionism, all spurred on by a deep faith in Christ.  Indeed, it was the spiritual revival of the Second Great Awakening that lit the fuse of abolitionism.  After all, it was a committed Calvinist preacher’s kid named Harriet Beecher Stowe who penned Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the book that woke the conscience of the nation.  Of course, African-Americans themselves were spurred on to work for their liberation by the message of gospel, which calls us out of slavery into freedom.  And the list goes on.  While there has been a concerted effort by secular historians to downplay it, committed Christians were at the forefront of the abolition of modern slavery wherever it was found.  The Enlightenment, when not leavened by the gospel, did not stand against slavery and the “meritocracy” of Enlightenment thinking was often just thinly-veiled white supremacy.  To its great shame, the Church has sometimes stood alongside those who promote power above all.  But Christ declares the power of the powerless, and the riches of poverty.  Those who took Jesus seriously changed the Church and made the world more just, peaceful, and equitable.

Christian abolitionism didn’t start or end with Wilberforce.  Early Church Fathers both Eastern and Western condemned slavery.  St. John Chrysostom (349-407) said that “slavery is the fruit of covetousness, of degradation, of savagery…[it] was the fruit of sin.”  Similarly, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) wrote that “the condition of slavery is the result of sin…by nature, as God first created us, no one is the slave either of man or of sin”.  In the supposedly-backward Middle Ages, the Church worked to end slavery in Europe.  In 873, Pope John VIII declared it a sin for a Christian to own another Christian.  The Sachsenspiegel (c. 1220), the most important law book of the Holy Roman Empire, condemned slavery as a violation of man’s likeness to God.  Queen Isabella of Castille banned slavery in the newly-discovered colonies and banned the enslavement of Native Americans in 1493 (that second decree was more successful than the first, to be fair).  And so on.  While the Church has never been consistent in applying Christian principles, slavery could not withstand the gospel and faithful Christians have always stood against it.  Even today, it is Christians who stand at the forefront of movements to end slavery and sex trafficking (see, for example, the wonderful work of the International Justice Mission).  The message of Scripture, far from promoting slavery, has liberated millions from bondage both material and spiritual and broken down systemic oppression the world over.

****

In light of all this, how are we to interpret difficult passages of Scripture?  How do we keep our own biases and presuppositions, conscious and unconscious, out and allow God in?  These are big questions, of course, much too big for this essay.  But I want to underline a few basic principles as I conclude this study.

First:  “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).  The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the inerrant Word of God and contain all things necessary for salvation.  They are the bedrock of all truth and the basis for living a holy (and joyful) life.  Simply dismissing difficult passages as “from a different time” and therefore able to be discarded denies God’s ability to use His word to teach, correct, and encourage.  We must avoid the Thomas Jefferson-ish temptation to remove the parts of Scripture that make us uncomfortable and face them head on.

Second:  That said, not all Scripture is the same.  The Bible contains a wide variety of literary styles from history to poetry to philosophy to prophecy to personal letters.  Each passage must be interpreted with an understanding of the style of writing and the historical context in which it was written.  Conversely, each passage must also be interpreted in the light of the entire message of Holy Scripture, since each part contributes to the whole of God’s salvation story.  Which brings us to…

Third:  The central story of Holy Scripture is the incarnation of Jesus Christ and His salvation of the world.  All Scripture must be interpreted through the lens of the gospel message.  Interpreting the Old Testament without reference to the Jesus revolution is to miss the entire point of the story.  The four Gospels are the center of the Biblical canon for Christians, the first among equals, just as the Torah was (and is) for the Jews.  Any interpretation of Scripture that undermines, detracts, or contradicts the message of salvation found in the Gospels is a false interpretation.  If you have to discard the Golden Rule to justify what you are doing, you have entered the realm of heresy.

Fourth:  The tradition of the Church should not be ignored, especially the teachings of the early Church Fathers.  When the united Church spoke with one voice, particularly in the councils, we ought to give special weight to their interpretation of Scripture and not throw it out because the culture has “moved on”.  Moving on is not the same as progress.  When Sts. Augustine, John Chrysostom, and Gregory of Nyssa (among others) condemn the practice of slavery as sinful, we ought to take notice.

Fifth:  Interpreting Scripture is not meant to be a solo activity.  Christ gave us the Church to build each other up in the faith.  Praying and studying Scripture together, seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit, will keep us from straying too far off the narrow path (Matthew 7:14).  If the Church speaks with one voice on something, we ought to be humble enough to submit to its teaching, understanding that our obedience will be rewarded even if the Church is in the wrong.  That is why those in Church leadership must be especially careful about how they present the Gospel, for if they lead the sheep astray, it is the shepherds who will be held accountable.

Lastly:  Sometimes we must say with St. Paul: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33)  If a particular passage continues to elude our understanding, we may continue to struggle with it, perhaps all of our lives.  But we must be radicals, that is we must delve our roots deep into the center of God, which will always be a mystery.  The center of that mystery is love and that love is demonstrated to us in Jesus Christ.  Scripture is not an end in itself — it is merely a window through which we may glimpse the infinite God in all His inscrutable wonder.  This can be frustrating at times or even disheartening, for sometimes God acts in ways we think unjust or feels absent when His presence seems necessary.  That is why we must have faith.  Life is a risk and none of us will get out of it alive.  I intend to use what little time I have in service to love, specifically the love found in Jesus Christ.  If I’m right in taking this risk, I will leave behind a legacy of peace and hope and salvation.  If I’m wrong, at least I will have served something greater than my own selfishness, at least I will have tried to make the world a little better by my being here.  Isn’t that worth the risk?

 

Slavery and the Bible — Part 2: The Jesus Revolution

The first shots in the revolution were fired by the prophets.  Isaiah declared, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” (58:6).  Jeremiah proclaimed a new covenant of forgiveness in every heart (ch. 31).  Joel pronounced that the Spirit of God would be poured out on all flesh, even on slaves, leading to salvation for all who call upon the Lord (2:28-32).  Clearly, something new was coming into the world, a radical departure from everything that had come before.  Then a young woman gave birth in a stable in the town of Bethlehem.

As I mentioned in part 1, Dr. Richard Furman argued that the Golden Rule had been taken out of context, that it couldn’t possibly apply to slaves.  So let’s avoid proof-texting, and take it in context.  Matthew 7:12 (“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets”) occurs at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, often considered the central moral teaching in the Gospels.  In chapter 5, Jesus declares blessings upon the poor, the meek, the hungry, and the persecuted (and, in a parallel passage, woe upon the wealthy and esteemed [see Luke 6:24-26]).  He expands our obligations to care for our neighbor even beyond the law, prohibiting anger, lust, and divorce.  He cites the “eye for an eye” passage we mentioned yesterday in order to strengthen it even further, demanding forgiveness and radical generosity.  Rather than singling out who we’re allowed to hate, Christ commands love for all, even our “enemies”.  In chapter 6, He reiterates the need to give to the needy and not to hoard wealth on earth.  To the slaveowner who would protest the economic cost of freeing a slave, Jesus declares that you cannot serve God and money.  And just before the verse in question, Christ reminds us that God will give us everything we need if we ask Him and seek Him first.  So let’s summarize: Christ blesses the marginalized and oppressed, condemns greed, demands that we love without prejudice, and calls for radical dependence on the generosity of God against the unjust systems of this world.  I find little comfort for slaveowners here.

Jesus never directly addressed slavery during His earthly ministry.  But that doesn’t mean He didn’t care.  His love for “the least of these”, going so far as to identify Himself with them (Matthew 25:40), speaks volumes.  Instead of shunning lepers, he touched and healed them.  Instead of rejecting the Samaritans, He ministered to them and used them as examples of righteousness (Luke 10).  He seemed to have a special place in His heart for women, be it the woman at the well (John 4) or the woman with the issue of blood (Luke 8), and for children (Matthew 19:14).  He healed a Gentile slave of a Roman Centurion (Luke 7).  Two passages stand out to me as instructive here.  The first is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16.  In the parable, a poor and injured man named Lazarus lays at the door of a rich man (who is unnamed — notice God’s priorities!).  The rich man ignores him and Lazarus dies and goes to heaven.  When the rich man dies, he ends up in hell, begging Lazarus for the mercy of just a little water.  But the rich man did not show mercy on earth, so he would be offered none in the afterlife.  The parallels with slavery should be clear.  The second passage is the rich young ruler in Matthew 19.  After the young man lists off all of his righteous deeds, our Lord looks upon Him with love (Christ even loves the rich!) and says that to be perfect, the man must sell all that he has.  Did that include slaves?  Possibly.  But either way, Jesus just undercut the economic argument for slavery.  Jesus condemns the pursuit of wealth at the expense of others, as when he condemned the scribes who “devour widow’s houses” (Luke 20:47).  This is nothing short of a revolution, in which the poor and oppressed triumph and the rich and influential fall.  Or, as Jesus put it, “the last will be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:16).

While Christ’s teaching undercuts slavery, there’s something even more fundamental.  It’s who Jesus is and what He accomplished.  The central story of the Jewish faith is a journey out of slavery in Egypt into the freedom of the Promised Land.  Slaveowners in the American South understood this, as they refused to let ministers preach on this passage to slaves.  There’s a reason Harriet Tubman was nicknamed “Moses”.  But that story was incomplete until Jesus came.  As Paul puts it in Romans: “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (6:20).  The sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross freed us from slavery to sin and made us slaves of God.  More than that, He has given us the right to become children of God (John 1:12).  “So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Galatians 4:7).  This salvation was not earned through righteous acts or by accident of birth, but by the grace of God alone (Ephesians 2:8-9) and it is offered to all people, Jew and Gentile alike (see, e.g., Acts 11:18).  This is why Paul could declare, in one of the most triumphant verses of Scripture, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, emphasis mine, see also Colossians 3:11).  The walls that people build between themselves, be they gender, class, race, or national origin are abolished in Christ as we form one body in Him (Ephesians 2:11ff).

So what are we to make of all those verses I listed yesterday, calling on slaves to obey their masters?  Context, as always, is key.  Let’s take each passage in turn.  Ephesians 6 occurs in a lengthy section dealing with how to “walk in love as Christ loved us” (5:2) by “submitting to one another out of reverence to Christ” (5:21).  This is practical guidance for family living.  1 Timothy 6 concludes a barrage of advice from Paul to young Timothy about how to conduct Church life in an orderly manner, including honoring widows and elders and even adjuring him to try some wine for his balky stomach (5:23).  Titus 2 similarly includes myriad pointers for people in all walks of life, concluding with an admonition to “renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in the present age” (2:12).  Lastly, the 1 Peter verse is directly preceded by “honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (2:17) and followed by an admonition to endure suffering for Christ.  So Paul and Peter are not operating on some lofty theoretical plane here, wrestling with the philosophical and theological justifications for slavery.  They are dealing with the intensely practical questions of how to live out the gospel in this fallen world.  Jesus started a revolution, but it is a revolution that calls upon us to love our enemies and forgive those who hurt us.  As a slave, honoring your master could be a way of showing Him the love of Christ.  Slave revolts rarely ended well and individual slaves that attempted escapes were punished severely and ceded any privileges they might have (see this entry from my Philemon meditations for more on Roman slavery).  Paul and Peter aren’t so much endorsing the Roman slavery system as giving recommendations for how to live as a Christian within that system.  The most instructive verses here are from 1 Corinthians:

Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God. (7:20-24)  

Unlike some, including Dr. Furman, I don’t think the Golden Rule is Jesus’ ultimate moral teaching.  I think that the pinnacle of Christ’s instruction comes at the Last Supper after He washed His disciples’ feet.  He turns to them and says: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34).  Or, as Paul put it, “love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10).  Just as love requires the bondservant to treat his master with respect, so does it require the master to treat his slave as a brother in Christ (Colossians 4:1; Philemon 16).  In this way, slavery is abolished not through force, but by the adoption of the slave as a son in a reflection of the gospel story.  More than that, the law of love requires that we treat all whom we meet, regardless of wealth or race or status as if they were Christ Himself.  This means working toward a more just and equitable society, challenging systems which lead to the subjugation of marginalized peoples be they immigrants or the unborn or the homeless or the elderly.  Slavery cannot stand, and it does not stand, where the gospel is lived out.

Which brings us to the end of part 2.  In my third and final entry in this series, I will share how I resolved the trouble in my soul raised by Furman’s essay and explore how Christians have been the driving force of abolition around the world.  I will also cover how we can best interpret difficult passages like the ones about slavery in light of the gospel message and how we can live out a skeptical faith in light of the challenges presented by Scripture and a fallen world.

Slavery and the Bible — Part 1: What Does Scripture Say?

Three days before Christmas in 1822, the Rev. Dr. Richard Furman, first president of the Trienniel Convention (predecessor of the Southern Baptist Convention), published a paper entitled “Exposition of the Views of the Baptists Relative to the Coloured Population of the United States”.  The paper was published at the behest of South Carolina governor John L. Wilson as a response to the slave uprising led by Denmark Vesey in Charleston earlier that year.  Furman called the suppression of this revolt, including the execution of 35 slaves, “an instance of Divine Goodness”.  His defense for this view is simple:  “the right of holding slaves is clearly established by the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example”.  He goes on to cite many examples of the Bible condoning slavery, and he anticipates abolitionist responses, such as when he claims that the Golden Rule does not apply to slaves because it cannot supersede “the order of things, which the Divine government has established”.  Indeed, Furman goes farther by saying that slavery benefits the slaves by giving them a family with a benevolent Christian father (the master) who cares for them and brings them up in the faith.  He waves off the cruelty inherent in the slave system by saying that husbands and fathers have been tyrants, but that doesn’t mean that being one is immoral.  Indeed, the master has a Biblical duty to subjugate his slaves in order to retain social order and inculcate Christian values among the heathen.  In short, Furman concludes, “the holding of slaves is justifiable by the doctrine and example contained in Holy writ”.  Three years later, the Baptist convention opened a theological academy in South Carolina and named it in honor of their leader and thus was born my alma mater, Furman University.

I read Dr. Furman’s “Exposition” at least three times during my education at the university (they don’t shy from their past), and each time it troubled me.  It troubled me because I could not fathom how a faithful Christian could justify the subjugation of an entire group of people under a cruel, inhumane, and racist system.  However, my unease was deeper than that, spurred on by a nagging question:  what if Dr. Furman was right?  What if the Bible does promote slavery?  Are Christians just glossing over the clear message of Scripture because the Confederacy lost the Civil War?  If that was the case, I could not live with myself morally and remain a Christian.  I would, like Huck Finn, go to hell if it meant standing for racial justice and the equality of all.  It would be my encounter with another Christian from the early 19th century who would change my perspective and renew my faith.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s start in this essay with a simple question.  What does the Bible actually say about slavery?

In Old Testament times, people became slaves in different ways.  Many slaves that worked in the courts of Israel and Judah’s kings and in the temple were captives from war (see Numbers 31:25-47, Joshua 9:23, and 1 Kings 9:21).  Private slaves often became so because of personal debt.  For example, if a thief could not pay back what he stole, he would be sold into slavery (Exodus 22:2-3; see also 2 Kings 4:1).  Sometimes people would sell themselves into slavery in order to achieve a measure of protection and stability (Exodus 21:5; Leviticus 25:39).  Generally speaking, the Hebrews were only to enslave outsiders and not their fellow Hebrews (Leviticus 25:46).  Nobody seemed to question the system of slavery; it was simply a fact of life that needed to be managed.  Before you start feeling too lofty on that high horse of yours, remember that our own society depends upon wage slaves making subsistence income both in our country and abroad.  Overthrowing that system, however moral, would create incredible suffering especially for those being liberated.  We recognize the complexity of reforming late capitalism in a just way, but somehow we look at Old Testament slavery and say “just get rid of it, you immoral ninnies”.  Perhaps we ought to start from a place of humility.

The real question, of course, is what the Old Testament says about the treatment of slaves.  The ur-texts here are Exodus 21, Leviticus 25, and Deuteronomy 15.  The main principle seemed to be to treat your slaves as a member of your family.  Slaves were not to be separated from their spouses or children, and if you forced a slave to marry your child, that slave became an heir.  Slaves were to be circumcised and allowed to participate in the Passover and other religious observances (see, e.g. Exodus 12:44).  The real sticking point verse for most people is Exodus 21:20-21:  “When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.”  So it’s o.k. to beat a slave as long as they don’t die?  Only if you don’t keep reading.  The rest of the passage prescribes fines for hitting a pregnant woman and the death penalty for causing a miscarriage.  It requires freeing slaves to whom they cause bodily harm such as the loss of eyes or teeth.  In fact, it is here that we get the famous principle “you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (vv. 23-25).  This command is directly aimed at slave masters in order to keep them from mistreating slaves.  The problematic verse above merely says that striking a slave is not punishable by death, which is hardly the same as condoning mistreatment.

Far from promoting cruelty, Old Testament laws regarding slavery made provision for the slaves’ well-being.  Foremost among this was requiring that slaves be given Sabbath rest (Exodus 20:10).  Moreover, slavery was not intended to be a permanent condition.  Hebrew slaves and all debt slaves were to be freed every seven years (Exodus 21:2; Deuteronomy 15:12) and any manumitted slaves were to receive financial gifts to allow them to start a new life (Deuteronomy 15:14).  Self-sold and voluntary slaves were to be freed on the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:40).  Freeing foreign slaves would not have worked as well since it would be more difficult for them to integrate into Israelite society and they might well not be accepted back by their native countrymen.  Remaining in slavery, especially given the protections afforded by the Torah, was probably a better option.  Indeed, in light of current political controversies, it should be noted that foreign slaves were to be granted asylum (Deuteronomy 23:16).  The Law and the Prophets repeatedly condemn the mistreatment of foreigners, aliens, and the poor.  Indeed, the most important point to remember is this: Old Testament laws regarding slavery are framed by moral obligations to God’s law and just treatment of the poor.

I say all of this not to brush away the uncomfortable issue of owning people, but simply to differentiate the way we view slavery through how it was practiced in Bible times.  When we think of slavery, we think of the horrors of the Middle Passage across the Atlantic and the treatment of slaves as chattel in the rice and cotton plantations of the American South.  One major difference between American and Biblical slavery was the issue of race.  Because foreigners could be kept as slaves in Bible times, people like Dr. Furman justified a racist ideology of enslaving black people.*(see note)  But the Bible never differentiates by race, but rather by loyalty to God.  It is highly likely that people with darker skin owned those with lighter skin in Israel (and vice versa).  And foreign slaves in Israel were treated as human beings as opposed to American slaves, who were treated like animals.  The word “slavery” meant something very different in the Old Testament than it did in the antebellum South.

But the troubling question remains:  does the Bible justify slavery, even if it tries to mitigate its worst abuses?  Turning to the New Testament, it certainly seems to:

  • Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man (Ephesians 6:5-7)
  • Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled (1 Timothy 6:1)
  • Bondservants are to be submissive to their own masters in everything; they are to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior (Titus 2:9-10)
  • Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust (1 Peter 2:18)

These verses seem inarguable.  Slaves are to obey their masters in everything and masters are justified in expecting obedience.  Slavery is the Biblical system for organizing society.  Yet there is one important figure we haven’t heard from yet: Jesus, the very God Incarnate.  What is the teaching of Christ in relation to slavery?  How does the message of the gospel recontextualize these passages?  More than that, how does the gospel reorient our view of all marginalized people, indeed of all people everywhere?  These questions and more will be addressed in part 2.

 

*NOTE: Richard Furman, like many in the antebellum South, justified enslaving Africans by pointing to Noah’s drunken curse of his son Ham (“a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers” [Genesis 9:25]) and asserting that it was Ham who fathered the peoples of Africa.  Actually, the curse was on Canaan, Ham’s son, and thus of the peoples who settled in what we now call the Middle East (Noah’s curse perhaps anticipates the subjugation of the Canaanites to Israel).  It was Ham’s other children who peopled Africa.  Either way, it’s pretty tenuous to argue that this drunken rant justifies anything, much less the enslavement of an entire race or the prohibition of interracial marriage.  Bigots love to proof-text, a major reason I’m doing a deep-dive on this topic.