Slaves and the Bible
Friday, February 27, 2009 -- Week of Last Epiphany, Year One
George Herbert, Priest, 1633
Today's Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 948)
Psalms 95* and 31 (morning) 35 (evening)
"Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Savior." Titus 2:9-10
These were important words from scripture in a previous era of U. S. history. While some Christians called for an abolition to the institution of slavery, others pointed to this scripture passage, and many more, that seem to accept slavery as a given part of the social fabric, acceptable to God, even ordained by God for orderly life. There are quite a few passages in the Bible that discuss the management of slaves in a more or less humane manner. Pro-slavery Christians had abundant texts to site which treated slavery as normative.
Abolitionists had to look beyond a concordance word-study of the term "slavery." Otherwise they got cited to death. Abolitionists had to look past these slave-management passages to the core of the Biblical message. First they had to make the claim that slaves were fully human -- a claim that many challenged. Then they had to look at the macro-story of the scripture that tells us that God's purpose for human beings is free, abundant life -- Exodus and Resurrection. To live as property is inconsistent with God's greater purpose for human beings.
It was a long and uphill struggle. Not only did abolitionists have to overcome the Biblical interpreters, they also faced powerful economic and business opponents. Much of America's power, wealth and economic production was linked to slavery and believed itself to be dependent upon slave labor. They fought powerfully to silence and overcome the voices of freedom. Many were willing to go to war to protect their "way of life" and their "investments." They believed their cause was right. It was ancient and traditional; it was condoned by Scripture, and thus by God.
Today, we so clearly understand slavery to be oppressive and contrary to God's will that it is scandalous to Christian people. It is hard for us even to enter the mindset of our ancestors and what was for them conventional wisdom.
I see obvious parallels in contemporary debates about gay people. One happy difference, those who would defend the domination system of heterosexism have far fewer verses to throw at the defenders of freedom and equality.
There is a place of deep anxiety, however, for many contentious Christians who find themselves in a hard place. They have been taught that the scripture is the Word of God, infallible and trustworthy and inspired in a particular literal way. They might like to embrace a more equitable and charitable view, but feel constrained by what they understand to be the authoritative words from scripture.
It is helpful to reflect on old conflicts, like the fight over slavery. Christians then were able to promote a more central Biblical theme in such a way that its teaching transcended and qualified the slavery instructions so as to drain them of their oppressive power.
It is even more helpful to recognize that scripture itself is in conversation and debate with itself. Today's reading articulates a principle dogma for the author of Deuteronomy. If you are good, if you follow God's will, you will be blessed by God. (The opposite is also true for the Deuteronomic author -- if you are unjust, God will move actively to punish you.) Deuteronomy speaks this belief primarily in a corporate setting; Proverbs outlines the same doctrine for individuals.
I've just finished reading Job with a group of teens. Job is written to dispute and challenge the beliefs articulated in Deuteronomy and Proverbs. The book of Job asserts that it is not always true that God rewards the good and punishes the wicked. His three friends defend that traditional, conventional view, and at the end of Job, God tell them "you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done." (It is always amusing to me when I hear a preacher say, "Let's see what the Word of God says," and quotes a passage from one of these three friends as though it is true just because it is in the Bible. In their context within the book of Job, what these friends say is false or folly.)
The point: the Bible is a human book, written by human beings. It is our story of God's revealing God's divine life and truth to us, but it is not appropriate to treat it as if it were magic. The author of Titus (who is NOT Paul) is short-sighted about slavery and many other things concerning authority; the author of Deuteronomy has a simplistic view of justice that doesn't hold to the realities of God's creation.
Read the Bible every day. Read the Bible with deep devotion and respect. But don't abuse it, or use it to abuse God's creatures.
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About Morning Reflections
Morning Reflections is a brief thought about the scripture readings from the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer according to the practice found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.
Morning Prayer begins on p. 80 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Evening Prayer begins on p. 117
An online resource for praying the Daily Office is found at www.missionstclare.com
Another form of the office from Phyllis Tickle's "Divine Hours" is available on our partner web site www.ExploreFaith.org at this location -- http://explorefaith.org/prayer/fixed/index.html
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