If the story of the Bible is one of God slowly wooing humanity back to him, reaching us where we are dealing with us as we are, then that casts a new light on how we ought to view many of our Bible stories. When I turn to the Old Testament and try to make sense of the Canaanite slaughter, I imagine a people being met where they were, not quite ready for the leap to love your enemies and your neighbor like yourself. When I turn to the New Testament, I see Paul unable to imagine a world that could transcend their social order even as he sought to alleviate the worst of the abuses. However, I also recognize that this argument presents quite the slippery slope. It doesn’t take long to get to the issue of where does that end? The same with the issue of our interpretation of Scripture changing because society decides that something that was acceptable was now in fact wrong. Does that change what the Bible says or simply how we interpret what the Bible has to say?

Some commands in Scripture are time bound and culturally limited. It is dangerous to ignore the voice and lessons of tradition. At the same time, we need to recognize when it is time to jettison traditional beliefs. Culture shouldn’t determine theology, but the impact of culture on the biblical writers and all biblical interpreters (us) shouldn’t be ignored. Gospel has power to transform individual and society.

The Old and New Testaments regulates, but doesn’t approve of, slavery. The same could be said about divorce. Slavery was a social institution created by sinful men, a purely human invention that continues to this day with far too little comment from the church, which could be abolished. No social order should be taken as God given. Culture changes and good theology has to lead to right action. The Bible is a historical revelation in narrative form. It has a historical-cultural context that it works within. We were all are made in the image and likeness of God, created with inherent worth and dignity.

History shows us that religion follows the military: conquerors impose their religion on the conquered. Sometimes it takes God moving in history to bring social change. God is the Great Emancipator, the freedom giver. Christ came as a Liberator; in Him there is neither slave nor free. Anything that undermines that needs to be questioned. . God would have to stand opposed to system and culture of slave masters. Usurp power to define humanity on the assumptions of white superiority, notions of Empire, or Manifest Destiny.

It boils down to this recurring idea that has been nagging at me: you can’t separate ideas from social reality. The Quakers, Benjamin Lay (1736), called slavery “a hellish practice … the greatest sin in the world.” John Wesley soon followed their lead. Eventually the church became the driving force in the abolition movement. In the mean time, there were consequences to be had.

As mentioned before, black people had to have permission to marry and permission to have kids. The power of ownership extended not only to a lack of power over our own names, but also in our choice of religion. Christianity, the white man’s religion, was foisted upon black folks in the guise of evangelizing the heathens, but more to continue the mental and spiritual conditioning already at work inherent as a part of the institution of slavery. Many folks, understandably, couldn’t reconcile their religious faith with reality of their current bondage, seeing religion as an opiate meant to keep them passive–praying to a silent, indifferent God for refuge. This in turn led to answers being sought in places other than Christianity – political solutions, self-determination, alternative religions (Islam), economic solutions.

Within Christianity, the religion was co-opted as a means of mental and spiritual survival. We saw the creation of the black church, believing that God is relevant to black life in a white society. God’s ways, while mysterious, would vindicate the unjust suffering. The key was to start kingdom living now. Jesus inspired courage and strength to hold on, representing God’s active presence in our lives.

Christ is the freedom-bringer and we were created for freedom.

“You are always righteous, O LORD,
when I bring a case before you.
Yet I would speak with you about your justice:
Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
Why do all the faithless live at ease?” –Jeremiah 12:1

Slavery, as practiced in the Americas, must be seen as our holocaust. This brings me back to slavery and the problem of evil. Evil is under the aegis of God’s sovereignty. Reconciling God’s justice with humanity’s suffering used to be answered by saying that the suffering/judgment was in proportion to your sin (and sadly, still is in light of many reactions to modern day tragedies and disasters). “God reaching people where they were” – maybe that explains things like the Canaanite genocide, maybe not. Qoholet, the Teacher in Ecclesiastes (9:2, 11-12) reminds us that God is transcendent, his ways hidden from ours. Suffering is a test of faith through which you find out what you are made of. These latter answers also prove unsatisfying (however true, unlike the previous answers to the theodicy) that we are still left asking why and how this can be (Habakkuk 1:13).

As I read the story of Israel’s faith in the promise of God, the faith in the promise carried them through times of slavery, exodus, kingdom, exile, and return. God didn’t always intervene or liberate, and definitely not in ways they could always see or understand. He allowed the suffering of the innocent. He allowed the subjugation of His chosen people. And not always did they understand. Psalms 94:3 points to a practical implications about evil/suffering: not why does it exist, but questioning why it seems to hit the wrong people.

Therefore the problem of evil solved: not in why does it exist, but in what God has done about it. God identifies with the poor and those in pain, liberating them from injustice. The promise of resurrection gives them hope and grounds to struggle for freedom. Like the Suffering Servant in the book of Isaiah, Israel (and Black folks) identified with the idea of God’s visible presence alongside them during times of suffering. Through Christ becoming the Suffering Servant, suffering became redemptive. Christ’s mission was to free us from sin: individual sin and social sin. Suffering arising from the struggle for freedom is liberating, providing a vision of freedom. Not a “pie in the sky when you die” vision, but the kingdom age bursting into our present. It’s easy to let the problem of evil become a matter of intellectual theory, philosophical points to be debated, that paralyze us into inaction. Rather, the answers can be found through social praxis.

Our mission is to join with His, to relieve suffering and fight injustice because evil is real and ongoing. We need to never foget and join with our brothers and sisters to ensure the promise of “never again.”