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.
I’ve been given much. It’s been given to me to hear, understand, and embrace the gospel of Jesus. I’ve been given a wonderful family; dear friends; a healthy church community; opportunities to receive a good education, to work at a solid job, and to write; and a mind and motivations to make good on those opportunities. I bet you’ve been given some similar things.
According to Luke 12:48b, Jesus requires much from people like us: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”
I’ve always read this verse as imposing a requirement to produce for Jesus. All the things I’ve been given I should somehow offer back for the purposes of his kingdom and glory. I should use my gifts to further his ends—faithfully loving him, loving my neighbors (be they family, friends, or strangers), serving my church community, providing for my family, and sharing the good news in deed and word.
To be clear, in reading the passage this way I’ve not been snared by a works theology, believing that I must earn my standing before God (this standing, too, is a gift of grace in my view). Rather, I’ve simply believed that Jesus has goals, that following Jesus is in large part about furthering those goals, and that everyone ought to pull their own weight—serving in accordance with their God-given opportunities and abilities. And, I still don’t think this reading of the verse is wrong; it just might be too narrow. Let me explain. Continue reading →
I’m writing a historical novel that tells the backstory of Paul’s little New Testamentletter to Philemon. The letter is written to a Christian slaveholder in Colossae (Philemon), and it asks the slaveholder to forgive and welcome back his runaway slave, Onesimus, who has been attending to Paul while he is in prison.
The letter is rarely taught these days, probably owing in part to the difficult questions it raises about slavery. For example, what is a Christian doing owning slaves? And why would Paul blithely encourage Onesimus to return to his bondage rather than keep running? The letter also has the dubious reputation of being used by antebellum American slaveholders and their sympathizers to justify the practice of slavery in the American South. After all, it can seem that by sending Onesimus back to Philemon, Paul implicitly accepts (endorses?) the institution of slavery. These are just a few of the issues I plan to tackle in the novel.
In researching interpretations of Philemon and the institution of slavery in the First-century Roman Empire, I have noticed that part of the contemporary Christian defense of Paul’s actions in Philemon often includes the claim that First-century Roman slavery was generally kinder and gentler than antebellum American slavery. Continue reading →
43 You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (NRSV)
This passage is, of course, a familiar “difficult saying” of Jesus. However, the podcast reflected on it in a way I had never heard before: suppose the enemy you are to love is yourself. What then? Continue reading →