Per Caritatem

R. Douglas Whitfield earned his Bachelor’s degree at New York University and his Master of Divinity at Westminster Theological Seminary. He is currently serving as an assistant pastor in Washington, DC. His interests include biblical studies, African-American history, and race.

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How should a Christian community interpret passages in the Old Testament that appear to permit slavery? On my reading, it seems that the most fruitful way for the Christian community to interpret passages in the Old Testament vis á vis slavery is to employ a hermeneutic with a redemptive trajectory which continues to advance the call of the text beyond its historical context and into the world of post-resurrection reality and expectation. Put another way, the Christotelic flowering of the indicatives of the gospel provides the resources for a transformation in our understanding of the imperatives that we encounter in the Old Testament text concerning slavery. Careful attention to the contours of the divine meso-narrative of Scripture, along with a dynamic understanding of the two-age structure of Scripture can manumit the interpreter from bondage to static modes of interpretation that have been used to defend or justify slavery.

To begin with, the reader must see the series of movements within the Biblical texts. The first movement to be detected is the movement from the historical-cultural context to the pronouncements of the biblical text. When the two are placed beside one another, there is a redemptive trajectory at work wherein biblical texts improve upon cultural norms of the time, albeit, in a subversive and developmental manner. Though the development of these texts is commensurate with the development of the culture, the biblical ethic is always ahead of the prevailing culture.

The next movement to detect is the trajectory between the biblical text, in its particular redemptive-historical location, and the telos of the text as it is to be consummated in the eschaton. This is where the resurrection and the two-age structure must determine our reading, advancing the call of the text beyond its historical-cultural borders. There is an inextricable relationship between the indicatives and the imperatives in Scripture. It is the indicative of God’s redemptive activity that drives the imperatives that are given to the community of faith (cf. Exod 20). Where there is a heightening and development in the indicatives, there is a heightening and development in the imperatives. With the resurrection comes the consummate indicative that carries nothing less than an eschatologically charged hermeneutic and ethic. Put another way, the resurrection demands new age interpretation and praxis- the type of interpretation and living that introduce the life of God’s new creation into the present brokenness. This kingdom-present behavior and hermeneutic must come to the fore, particularly in contexts where it is all too obvious that the kingdom has not yet been fully realized.

The resurrection overturns the brokenness that was introduced into human relationships, bringing restoration. The pride and entitlement that would lead one to believe that they have proprietary authority over another human being is dealt a lethal blow by the resurrection. Disregard for the human rights of fellow image bearers is no longer conscionable in the new age that has been ushered in by the resurrection because one of the primary goals of the resurrection is the restoration of the image. This restoration is both individual and corporate in its scope, shaping the ways in which fellow image bearers relate to God and to one another. The Lordship that Christ demonstrated in his resurrection produces people who recognize only one sovereign who rightly holds determinative authority over other people.

The love that the resurrection produces in renewed people will not rest content with a foot on the neck or fear in the hearts of the weak. The resurrection introduces a drastically different vision of human relationships. However, these realities come to fruition in the community of faith only inasmuch as they allow the all-encompassing significance of the resurrection to permeate their interpretation and living. The Christian community must adorn the gospel with functionally and interpretively.

The resurrection has massive interpretive implications. However, if the reality of the resurrection does not inform one’s interpretive approach to the Old Testament slavery texts, then the biblical text will always appear to be lagging behind contemporary culture, ethically speaking, and resurrection realization will be stunted (as it was in the antebellum south). The reason why many interpretive approaches to these texts are unsatisfying (and down right disturbing) is because some interpreters are content with a static read of the indicatives and imperatives. They are unwilling to go where the resurrection boldly takes us. The redemptive trajectory present in the text remains undetected and the contours of the text are flattened out with the hammer of literalism and dislocation. The result is that these contemporary interpreters provide a read that is regressive with respect to contemporary culture because they take texts that were progressive in their redemptive-historical location and freeze them in time in order to carry them into contemporary culture. They fail to follow the trajectory to its proper end. This resurrection-less, old-age interpretation has the appearance of biblical fidelity and accuracy because it carefully measures words, grammar and syntax in order to draw contemporary equivalents. The problem is that it denies the interpretive, social and ethical power of the resurrection, failing to understand how this sweeping reality is woven into the narrative of Scripture in all of its culturally polyvalent glory. These texts are treated atomistically, permitting the old-age imperatives to stand precisely because the consummate, new-age indicative is ignored. These readers fail to understand that exegesis does not equal interpretation.

N.T. Wright helps us to frame our understanding of resurrection implications when he says, “The worldview questions, when posed to the early Christians, elicit a set of resurrection-shaped answers. Who are we? Resurrection people: a people, that is, formed within the new world which began at Easter and which has embraced us, in the power of the Spirit, in baptism and faith. Where are we? In God’s good creation, which is to be restored; in bodies that will be redeemed though at present they are prone to suffering and decay and will one day die. What’s wrong? The work is incomplete: the project which began at Easter (the defeat of sin and death) has not yet been finished. What’s the solution? The full and final redemption of the creation, and ourselves with it; this will be accomplished through a fresh act of creative grace when Jesus reappears, and this in turn is anticipated in the present by the work of the Spirit. What time is it? In the overlap of the ages: the ‘age to come’, longed for by Israel, has already begun, but the ‘present age’ still continues.”[1] If Bishop Wright were speaking to this discussion, I believe that he would say that we must go and work out the implications of the resurrection in our own particular contexts- beginning with our Bible reading.

Slavery will have no place in the new age that is characterized by the resurrection, and it is this resurrection life that shapes the narrative of Scripture. As more Christian communities begin to read the Old Testament with these redemptive lenses, social restoration will begin to rise to the surface. This is not a hermeneutical silver bullet, but it seems to me the most helpful way to begin dealing with the difficulties that Old Testament slavery texts present. To summarize, we must move away from the old wineskins of static interpretation that flatten the dynamic trajectory of the Biblical text, exchanging them for the new wineskins of redemptive trajectory hermeneutics that take into account the canonical contours of Scripture and the transforming power of the resurrection.

Notes


[1] N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 581.

 

By Michael Westmoreland-White

Dr. Westmoreland-White’s graduate work was in theological ethics, and he formerly co-chaired the interest group in “Scripture and Ethics” at the Society of Christian Ethics.  He teaches courses in religion and philosophy at Jefferson Community & Technical College, Simmons College of Louisville, Spalding University, and the Kentucky prison system.  He blogs on religion and politics at http://pilgrimpathways.wordpress.com.

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Liberator William Lloyd GarrisonIt wasn’t  Darwin’s writings on biological evolution, nor the advent of critical studies of the Bible, but the struggle to abolish chattel slavery which provoked the first crisis of biblical authority in the United States. After all, Darwin did not publish The Origin of Species[1] until 1859, one year before the outbreak of the Civil War and his sequel The Descent of Man[2] wasn’t published until 1871, six years after the end of the war and the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery throughout the nation permanently.  In Europe, critical studies of the Bible had begun in the 18th century(especially by philosophers, Hobbes and Spinoza) and had begun to spread to university theology departments by the beginning of the 19th century, but they did not begin to make an impact in the United States until after the Civil War.  The forced termination of Old Testament scholar Crawford H. Toy from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for teaching Wellhausen’s documentary hypothesis of the Pentateuch didn’t happen until 1879[3]. (In 1880, Toy moved to Harvard University, helped create its Divinity School and created Harvard’s Department of Semitic and Oriental Languages.) The heresy trial of Union Theological Seminary’s Professor of Biblical Theology, Charles A. Briggs, also over historical criticism, didn’t occur until 1891[4]. (Briggs was stripped of his ordination by the Presbytery of New York, Union broke from the Presbyterian Church and became the first free-standing ecumenical seminary in the U.S., and Briggs, who kept his post at Union, was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1899.)

Those developments did lead to crises of biblical authority in the U.S., but they were preceded by the struggle to abolish slavery—which created a crisis from which most of the evangelical churches in the United States have yet to recover.  There had been debates over slavery during the Colonial period and at the Constitutional Convention (though ultimately they created a pro-slavery Constitution), and the Friends/Quakers, under the influence of John Woolman, had abolished slavery within their ranks.  But the main abolitionist movement began with William Lloyd Garrison’s launch of The Liberator in 1831.  By the 1840s, the debate led to regional divisions (North and South) in the Baptists (The Southern Baptist Convention was formed in 1845 after the “Trienniel Baptist Convention” refused to appoint a slaveowner as a home missionary), the Methodists (1844), and Presbyterians (New School Presbyterians split over slavery in 1857, and the Old School Presbyterians in 1861).

The biblical crisis stemmed from the fact that not only did many biblical passages explicitly support slavery (e.g., Ex. 22:1-3), but that in no passage from Genesis to Revelation is there an explicit condemnation of slavery itself.  The closest are the jubilee passages in Leviticus 25:8-11 (which, among other things, demands the release of all Hebrew slaves every 50 years—but it doesn’t apply to foreign slaves captured in war) and Paul’s Epistle to Philemon in which the apostle pleads with Philemon to free Onesimus—but refuses to order him to do so. (The pro-slavery preachers would cite Paul’s return of Onesimus to Philemon in support of the Fugitive Slave Law.) The abolitionists could and did argue that the overall spirit and tenor of the Scriptures undermined slavery and former slaves turned abolitionists like Frederick Douglass applied the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery to their situation.  But, especially from a pre-critical perspective, the pro-slavery forces seemed to have the Bible on their side.[5]

I suggest that the evangelical churches never really solved this crisis.  They stopped supporting slavery because the issue was decided by the war, not because they learned to read Scripture in a way that would allow them to reject slavery out of principle. Many of the abolitionists lost their evangelical faith, becoming Unitarians or even atheists.  Evangelical churches and institutions that had been socially progressive (e.g., Wheaton College) turned socially conservative or even repressive.  Thus, the struggle over slavery set the stage for the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the early 20th century and the division of Christians into “conservatives” or “liberals” ever since—with a loss of prophetic power among the conservatives and a loss of biblical grounding in liberals.  Conservatives have not yet faced either the slave texts, the genocide texts or other “texts of terror” in the canon.[6] Liberals have done so, but have had a hard time retaining a coherent form of biblical authority.

I don’t have a full solution to this crisis.  My concluding thoughts are more challenges for us all than anything else.

  • A “flat Bible” approach, as with most versions of “inerrancy” is simply impossible without endorsing slavery, genocide, and other evils.
  • Critical attention to the complex formation of scripture and all its parts is helpful, but ultimately insufficient.  We must find ways to reject the normativity of pro-slavery (and other violent “terror texts”) passages and strands without denying their presence as part of the warp and woof of the writings that form our Christian canon.
  • My own struggles along this line have been helped immensely by the work of Karl Barth and by reflections on sacramental theology.  I have come to see Scripture not as the Word of God in a simple sense, but as sacramentally conveying the Word of God to the Church in and through the very human words of the texts.
  • This doesn’t solve all hermeneutical problems, nor all problems of authority, but I find it a start.
  • We cannot approach these texts safely from positions of empowerment.  We have to read Scripture in the presence of victims of the abuse of Scripture.  We cannot claim Scripture as the Word of Life to us without sitting and reading it with those for whom it has been a weapon of spiritual (and sometimes physical) destruction.[7]
  • We must read Scripture today in light of the misuses of Scripture—such as the defense of slavery—in the past.  We need humility when we do so.  It is far too easy to think “If I were a19th century Christian, I’d have been a strong abolitionist,” or “If I were an adult during the crisis over segregation in the U.S. or apartheid in South Africa, there is no way I’d read the Bible as supporting oppression,” etc.  But, in fact, many did.  I have both slaveowners and segregationists among my own ancestors.  Without humility, we cannot learn from the mistakes of the past.

Notes


[1] Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle of Life (London: John Murray, 1859).

[2] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (London: John Murray, 1871).

[3] See Dan G. Kent, “The Saint’s Suitor:  Crawford H. Toy,” Baptist History and Heritage (Winter 2003). Online at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0NXG/is_1_38/ai_99430502/pg_9/?tag=content;col1

[4] Harvey Hill, “History and Heresy:  Religious Authority and the Trial of Charles Augustus Briggs,” U. S. Catholic Historian 20:3 (Summer 2002), pp. 1-21.  Online at http://www.jstor.org/pss/25154815

[5] For the 19th C. debates over slavery, see Willard Swartley, Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women:  Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation (Scottdale, PA:  Herald Press, 1983).

[6] Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror:  Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Fortress Press, 1984).

[7] In North America, today, I insist that straight Christians must learn to read Scripture with lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgendered persons.  The “able-bodied” and those without learning disabilities or problems of mental health must read with the differently abled.  The employed and well-housed must read with the unemployed and homeless.  We must read with people of different racial/ethnic groups and men must learn to LISTEN to the readings of women.

* The “Liberator” image originates with this website:  theliberatorfiles.com.

 

David Horstkoetter is a doctoral student in systematic theology at Marquette University. He received his Bachelor’s Degree at Multnomah Bible College and his Master of Arts at Union Theological Seminary in NYC. David’s interests are history, social ethics, and systematic theology. He blogs at Flying Farther.

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Violence is often seen as evidence of divine un-favor—the opposite of blessing within a prosperity gospel context. Here violence done to one is equated with a person losing; while to be victorious, or feeling the victory promised by the church after one gets saved, is predicated on vanquishing. Now, of course this is far from unoriginal, but the twist here is that this logic also works itself out on a more subtle level when people feel that they aren’t winning in their life. The import is that a simple feeling of malaise becomes evidence of divine un-favor or no salvation. The result is a Christian life as pragmatic and will-to-power, even in every day details, whether one subscribes to a prosperity gospel explicitly or not. Apollo Fights the Fires of Dionysius

Where we place the importance of violence will determine (literally and logically) whether we do—or ignore—violence to others. Half jokingly, I wonder if we should recover the theological category of divine smiting, just to make sure that violence is put in its proper place, rather than allowed to have too much purchase. If we are not careful, violence becomes legitimated because it is understood as earned. I believe this explains much of the logic for conservative Christian proclamation that parades like a Hebrew prophet of old, explaining away natural disasters and, say, September 11 through terrible theodicy arguments. In such cases, violence was understood as deserved divine punishment-retribution. (I should say here that I am not ignoring the political concept of blow back. The September 11 attacks were certainly the result of blow back from American policy.) This is the same logic used by people who blame the victim in rape cases. Here one sees a(n) (ana)logical consistency between individual rape cases and the oppression that liberation theology addresses on a structural level. And perhaps this explains some of the current resistance to liberation theology: why align one’s self with the losers? After all, Jesus didn’t tap out, right? (See jesusdidnttap.com/. Wait, people seriously say that?!)

We must obviously take care to understand violence as parasitic (not determinative) and that Christians are called to God’s economy. Perpetrators of violence warp the God-who-judges and simplistically see violence as the evidence of judgment, while ignoring the economic and social vulnerability so crucial to God’s sense of judgment-justice and gratuity. Violence visited upon the weak is not God’s way because the divine kingdom is not a self-serving empire or spitefully vindictive. If the Psalms and the Sermon on the Mount have anything to say, it is that God cares for the true victims. Gustavo Gutiérrez has rightly seen that the “God in whom we believe is the God of life. Belief in the resurrection entails defending the life of the weakest members of society. Looking for the Lord among the living leads to commitment to those who see their right to life being constantly violated. To assert the resurrection of the Lord is to assert life in the face of death” (Gustavo Gutiérrez, God of Life, 14). Thus to let others be defined by violence has allowed us to write them off — they did not triumph on their own, so they are not worth our attention. Blaming the victim rids the person or people of their humanity and thus turns subjects into objects of derision. Weakness has somehow become something to take advantage. Clearly this is incongruent with God on the cross.

Up until now I have oh so eloquently made moves that the Hulk could describe: “Violence, bad!” How does this square with its conflict with texts of terror? First, a few boundaries. We must be aware of historic anti-semitism in Biblical studies that subtly still rears its head at times. And we also cannot give into a Marcionite urge. However, we also must allow for honesty: there is indeed a tension that seems to exist. Is there inherently a supercessionism in Christianity? But J. Kameron Carter has argued that supercessionism has helped bring about racist racial categories (Race: A Theological Account). Then again, what about the different kind of supercessionism, a universalizing kind, that Jesus spoke about with the woman at the well? Questions abound and the complexity is mindboggling.

I do think there is a way to deal with some of the issues around violence that hopefully eliminate what should not be an issue in the first place. Perhaps this is evidence of my time among the Jesuits, but difference in order to unify may work here for moving beyond impasse or paralyzing frustration. The distinction? Covenant.

Covenant is originally given, not earned; covenant was instituted by grace and fulfilled in human response. Also, Jewish covenant, especially with Abraham, has a tendency toward expansion, if not outright universalism: a blessing to the nations. Some of the covenants clearly had conditions, however, blessings and curses in covenants work differently than prosperity assumes.

We, as Christians, are not in covenant that speaks of any blessings or curses. None. The book of Hebrews may come close—that is, at least there is contention on whether one could lose their salvation by continued disobedience. But this has nothing to do with blessings and curses associated with obedience and disobedience through the Jewish covenants. We do, as Christians, work within a different paradigm that also has continuity with Jewish thought: God’s economy of gift. Or at least we are supposed to.

The logic of violence as divine un-favor has no support within contemporary Christian thought, yet somehow it continues. I suspect that such a discourse has more to do with capitalism, privilege, and victimization, than it does with Christian notions of humanity and what God desires.