Slavery and the Scriptures:
Straight Licks With Crooked Sticks
There’s certain verses in the Bible that rub me the wrong way. Like when Peter says that slaves are to be subject to their masters (I Peter 2:18). Verses like these remind me that it really is impossible to do theology detached from one’s culture, ethnicity or worldview. We all have a set of lenses through which we see the Scriptures, and the sooner we “see” this truth, the better off we are.
That’s right, my blackness hermeneutically prejudices me.
And so does your whiteness…
And so on…
The great Howard Thurman’s own grandmother refused to even read much of the epistles on account of verses like I Peter 2:18. As a former slave she found herself appalled by the perceived passivity of the likes of Peter and Paul. Her white enslavers actually used these verses as a means to subjugate their slaves to this evil system.
I was sharing my faith recently with a woman on a plane, and one of her first arguments against the veracity of Christianity is that the Bible approves slavery. While she didn’t cite the verse, she was clearly referring to passages like the Peter one to build her case. It was then that I was reminded of the importance to speak intelligently about the Bible and slavery.
Specifically, I have found these two things helpful:
First, Roman Slavery was not American Slavery:
This is pretty straight forward. American slavery was devastatingly based on a system of permanence. Except in the case of rare exceptions, you were a slave for life. In Roman times, however, slaves were typically emancipated at the age of thirty.
American slavery was a system solely based on race. If you were black you were a slave. Period.
Roman slavery was based on conquered nations. Some guesstimate that there were around sixty million slaves at the time of Peter’s writing. Most of these slaves were former professionals. Doctors. Lawyers. Educators. In many instances they were more educated than their masters. And, in most cases their skin color was the same.
The second and most telling thing, however, is that people should know that the Bible does speak very pointedly against what would become the American system of slavery:
“Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine” (I Timothy 1:8-10, emphasis mine).
There it is. Paul, the same one who also talked about slaves being subject to their masters, says that enslavers are in the same class as murderers, liars and the sexually immoral.
To be an enslaver is to be a part of a system that captures people made in the image of God and sells them into bondage. What are Paul’s thoughts on these kinds of people involved in these kinds of acts?
And here is what brings me to my knees:
God allowed godless enslavers who totally misused the Bible to bring people like Howard Thurman’s grandmother, and my great-great-grandfather, along with millions of others to faith in Jesus Christ.
If ever there was a case of God hitting a straight lick with a crooked stick…