We all have crises of faith (even my atheist/humanist friends, though I suppose they are more crises of non-faith). My last crisis of faith occurred as I thought about the issue of slavery. Obviously, as a Black man in America, the issue of slavery is one that strikes a special chord within me. It’s part of who I am, part of the story of my people and my family. I only have to go back four generations before I have to trace my family tree through receipts. When the topic of slavery comes up, it brings up a mix of emotions: sadness, embarrassment, humiliation, anger. It also means, for example, that I read the story of Israel as slaves in Egypt differently than others might. The Exile of Israel. The New Testament passages on slavery. These stories all resonate differently for me.

A lesson we have to keep re-learning is that words mean things. So, when pastors speak of God’s ownership of us, it’s going to resonate differently with black folks. When we speak of God buying us at a price, images of auction blocks swim through our collective unconscious. When we speak of Adam laying dominion over creation by naming things, we can’t help but be reminded of slave owners giving us new names. The “elect”–the chosen–means “called out” and implies that there are those excluded. Though people forget that the elect are called out for a purpose, the poor identify with the excluded. When they talk of sin being black and the need for people to be washed whiter than snow, well, you get the picture of the mental conditioning.

In a lot of ways, slavery is a specialized, personal form of the problem of evil theodicy for me: Why would God allow slavery – be silent on it at best, condone it at worst? Why would He permit it on the level and scale seen in America? For that matter, why allow the continual suffering? Like the theodicy of the problem of evil, I suppose that we could solve the dilemma by saying God is not good or that he is not all powerful, but those statements are neither true nor satisfactory. Though I do suspect that one of the reasons that this issue sticks in my craw so much is because I believe in the Bible as God’s inspired word, and I feel betrayed by that “truth.”

Truth can seem to be a slippery thing. People from the conservative side of my theological circles are quick to jump up and down, point to the Bible, and proclaim “God’s truth is eternal” or “The Bible is inerrant.” However, those are moot statements because if even if they are true (“if” because the Bible doesn’t describe itself as “inerrant”), our interpretation of the Bible is far from eternal and constant, and often about as errant as you can get.

I guess the first thing we have to do is define what I mean by slavery. I’ve sat through too many sermons in my day where the common evangelical position is to equate slavery with ordinary work. As if our modern 9-5 gigs are the equivalent of yesterday’s slave. Slavery was a peculiar institution set apart even from forced labor. Slavery represented a segment of the working population; not all workers were slaves. Most importantly, a slave was property. Property. Subject to their owner’s authority. People were owned. We need to meditate on that for a minute. We’re talking about people needing permission to marry. Permission to have kids. Natal alienation, people as socially dead or non-entities from birth–separated from family, culture, even country – with no power, no independent existence. Men were work horses. Women often used sexually.

Slavery was not an institution new to America, mind you. The story of the human race is one of the strong oppressing the weak. Slavery from Africa, Europe, and Asia, was essentially a by-product of conquest. One power conquered another, and the conquered were taken as slaves. For example, there was the Roman brand of slavery. Slavery was not based on color; the slave could be white and the owner white. Slaves could expect manumission. Slaves were mainly captives, not born into it. Don’t get me wrong, Rome did use her slaves in gladiatorial combat and could also be cruel and dehumanizing.

Slavery as practice in the Americas, however, had two distinguishing features. The dynamic shifted so that it was a matter of capital motives moreso than conquest; and was practiced along racial lines, justified by the inherent inferiority and dehumanization of African peoples. Slavery became an economic/political system that once woven into the fabric of the culture, created a mindset echoes of which are still felt today. This mindset found it’s way to the church’s “inerrant” interpretation of the Scriptures regarding slavery. The reactions of the church on this matter fell into one of three categories: 1) the church was silent on the issue, 2) the church justified it, or 3) the church spoke against it.

For almost 19 centuries, most Christians, the historic church tradition, believed that the Bible regulated and legitimized slavery. Legitimized being the most troubling part of their interpretation. 362 A.D. The Council of Gangrae laid anathema on “anyone [who] under the pretense of godliness should teach a slave to despise his master.” The Council argued that we are all slaves in Christ and that one’s exact station in life didn’t matter. Augustine argued that slavery and other hardships were a consequence of the Fall with the implication being that social hierarchy was fixed by God.

Reformed theologians and proponents of the inerrancy of Scripture considered slavery “a divine institution”: many owned slaves in good conscience. Absolutely certain they knew what the Scripture had to say on the topic. Kevin Giles, in his The Trinity and Subordinationism, sums up their “unassailable” hermeneutic this way:

1) slavery established – the curse of Ham (Genesis 9:20-27) was used as the proof text God instituted slavery. Black people specifically, since Ham being the father of the black race.
2) slavery practiced – all the patriarchs had slaves Abraham, Isaac, Joshua, David, Solomon, and Job.
3) slavery sanctioned and regulated by the moral law – slavery was mentioned in the 4th and 10th commandments. The ceremonial law (such as Leviticus 25:44-46) was temporary, but the moral law perfectly reflected God’s mind and will.
4) slavery accepted by Jesus – He never criticized slavery and often used slaves as parable characters. Paul sanctioned it (I Timothy 6:1-3) based on Christ’s teachings.
5) slavery endorsed by the apostles – I Corinthians 7:20-21, Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 3:22-25, I Timothy 6:1-3, Titus 2:9-10, Philemon 10-18, I Peter 2:18-19.

Now because this interpretation was given the weight of the authority of Scriptures, a person who argued against slavery wasn’t arguing with the authority of someone’s interpretation of the Bible, but they were arguing the authority of God. What got overlooked was how often our interpretation of Scripture is mistaken and influenced by our own self-serving biblical tastes. In 1780, Methodists condemned slavery as “contrary to the laws of God, man, and nature and hurtful to society” even voting to expel all slave holding members. Those rules were suspended when cotton became lucrative.

The Old and New Testaments accept slavery without direct criticism. The overarching story of the Bible is the story of God wooing man back to Him, and often this wooing had to begin where we are. We often establish relationships by accepting and dealing with someone where they are before moving them to a new position. So, when cultural values shifted, slavery became to be seen as inherently unjust. Changing cultural values caused us to see slavery as a sin, that the social order itself was a consequ
ence of the fallen order. The Church came to a crossroads as it had to re-think what the Bible had to say on the topic. Either it had to uphold the status quo, using the Bible to prop up their position or the church had to face the fact that its interpretation of the Bible was wrong.

This was part of the journey that I had to go on, following the soul-searching that the church itself had to do. Frankly, this is a scary place to be, because “absolute truth” is the bedrock of so many people’s perception of the Bible. But this bedrock is more slippery than they think: if social and cultural values can change how we see the Scriptures in regards to slavery, what does this mean for other areas, such as how we view the role of women (as Giles argues)? There are many consequence that come out of this epiphany.