Slavery and the New Testament, Part 1: Expect Liberation

Photo by Miltiadis Fragkidis on Unsplash

The story goes that Martin Luther King Jr. used to carry around a copy of Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited everywhere he went. In that book, Thurman tells a story about his grandmother, who had been a slave in the American South before the Emancipation. She would often have her young grandson read aloud to her from the Bible, mostly from the Gospels, sometimes from the Prophets, but never, said Thurman, from the New Testament Epistles.

Why? Because the Epistles contain verses that, on their face, suggest a blithe acceptance of slavery. For example, 1 Peter 2:18 states, “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.” At least four other passages in the Epistles express a similar sentiment: Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22, 1 Timothy 6:1, and Titus 2:9.

While such passages don’t endorse the institution of slavery (rather, they assume the existence of it and direct the behavior of slaves given that assumption), they also don’t condemn it, as any morally-aware person should. My guess is that Thurman’s grandmother once experienced these passages as bludgeons, notoriously used by white preachers and slave masters to keep Black slaves in line.

While most contemporary Christians would like to disown these verses, the hard fact is they remain part of the New Testament, sprinkled there like a virulent sneeze on a birthday cake. For any Christian who understands the New Testament as authoritative scripture, the challenge becomes how to situate them within the only acceptable view of slavery—that it’s a moral abomination.

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