Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Slavery’s Roots

On December 12 my alma mater, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, released a report entitled “Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.” It follows up on a 1995 resolution passed by the Southern Baptist Convention, which admitted the sins of Southern Baptists in their support of slavery and racism in the United States.

I am not going to criticize the report. Personally I am impressed that it happened at all. It is a step in the right direction, but it is only a first step. I hope that steps will be taken by the seminary to follow up on the report.

I am thinking specifically of renaming buildings, which presently bear the names of the seminary’s founding faculty, whom seminary president Albert Mohler says “were deeply involved in slavery and deeply complicit in the defense of slavery.” At a time when Confederate memorials are coming down, it seems only right that names of slaveholders should come down from buildings at an institution that trains Southern Baptist leaders.

My main concern about the SBTS report is what it doesn’t say. It doesn’t address the underlying issue. It doesn’t ask the question “Why?” Why did these devout Southern Baptists support and defend slavery? And why has it taken until 2018 to clarify Southern Seminary’s position on this issue.

The answer is the Bible.  Southerners’ support for slavery was rooted in the Bible as much as in Southern economy and culture. Southern Baptist support for slavery was not an aberrant 19th century interpretation of the Bible, but an accurate understanding of the stance of the Scriptures on the subject. The founders of the seminary were biblically literate Christians who correctly assessed the Bible’s support for slavery.

The harsh truth is that the Bible condones and supports slavery from beginning to end. One can’t deny that reality without being dishonest with the biblical text and one’s own conscience.  No amount of prooftexting and creative eisegesis can ever turn the Bible into an abolitionist manifesto.

Abraham – the father of faith – was a slaveholder. His decision to have children with his Egyptian slave girl Hagar was nothing less than sex slavery. There was no way for Hagar to say “No” to Abe’s advances. There was no #MeToo movement for Hagar to appeal to.

When we move on to Moses we find slavery institutionalized and regulated in God’s Law given at Sinai. Slavery is accepted even in the Ten Commandments, which many Christians insist on erecting on public property. In the tenth commandment not to covet anything that is our neighbor’s, slaves are included in the list of covetable property… along with wives, donkeys and oxen.

I could give many other examples from the Old Testament, but let’s move on to the New Testament. The apostles Paul and Peter command slaves to be obedient to their masters as to the Lord, even if they mistreat them. When addressing slaveholders, Paul does not tell then to release their slaves; he tells them to treat their slaves well. True, Paul tells Christian slaves that if they have a chance to be free, they should take it, but he never condemns slavery as wrong or unchristian.

In fact Paul returns the runaway slave Onesimus to his Christian master Philemon! It is true he recommends that the slaveholder receive him as a Christian brother rather than a slave. But he adds that the decision is entirely up to Philemon, and he should not feel under compulsion to do so.

Paul goes so far as to use the term “slave” as a positive metaphor of a Christian’s relationship to Christ. Paul often begins his letters describing himself as a slave of Christ, which would make Christ into a slaveholder. Is it any wonder that Southern Christians would imitate their Lord in this matter?

How about Jesus? What was his word on slavery? Jesus often uses slaves as characters in his parables, but he never advocates freeing slaves. In fact he heals a centurion’s slave so that he could return to a life of servitude. In the process he has a conversation with the centurion about slavery, but never suggests that it might be the right thing to do to free his slave.

The fact is that slavery was part of the worldview of the Bible, just as it was part of the Christian worldview in the antebellum South. It was assumed to be a social institution acceptable to God. That is what the founding fathers of Southern Seminary believed, and that is what everyone in the Bible believed. To suggest that any of the saints in the Bible were actually secret abolitionists is historical revisionism.

The roots of slavery in Western civilization can be traced to the Bible. Slavery was practiced by the Hebrew patriarchs, regulated by the Mosiac Law, and condoned by Jesus and the apostles. Yes, there are deeper principles in the Bible that eventually led Christian abolitionists to support the elimination of slavery. Paul’s statement that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female” comes to mind.

But the development of such verses into principles of universal human equality, human dignity and inalienable human rights took millennia to work out and apply to society.  Southern Baptists are still struggling with how to apply the “male and female” part of that verse to their denomination today, much less the controversial issues of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Slavery and racism are problems, not just for the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the Southern Baptist Convention. They are problems for all Christians who consider the Bible to be the authoritative Word of God and their infallible guide for Christian faith and practice.

It is time that we admit that we have a problem. We have a Bible problem. More specifically it is a problem with our understanding of the authority and inspiration of the Bible. This is a problem that Southern Baptists are nowhere near to admitting. In fact it was the denial of that problem – and a retreat into a pre-critical view of the inerrancy of scripture – which gave birth to the “conservative resurgence” which now controls the SBC.

It is not just that the Bible contains characters who were sinners – a fact which Dr. Mohler admits in his introductory letter to the report - but the Bible condones behaviors that are sins. Slavery is just one of them. If Southern Baptists could admit that perhaps – just maybe – the biblical writers got this one issue wrong, then it might open up a different way of understanding the inspiration and authority of scripture.

That could lead to Baptists and other evangelicals to view other social issues of our day from a new perspective. Then the Church might regain a respected place at the table of public opinion. But that is probably hoping for too much. Only when we admit that we have a scripture problem, can we begin to solve the sin problem in the Southern Baptist denomination and evangelical Christianity.

1 comment:

Rae C said...

I wish that when I was a Christian I could have read this article.
Finally a real voice. Someone who wants to get real and not gloss over things and land in safe denial.