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Reardon on Creation as the First Exodus

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

March 5, 2012

I received recently a generous gift from Father Patrick Henry Reardon: the new, revised version of his classic book, Christ in the Psalms. The new edition includes a helpful Introduction, wherein Reardon explains what the book is about, emphasizing toward the end its Christocentric focus. There are also substantive changes to his discussions of five Psalms. Although my brief comments below do not do the book justice, I want to highlight one of his new entries: Psalm 73. Here Reardon recounts Asaph’s reflections on the act of Creation as an act of deliverance or liberation. As Reardon observes, “[n]othingness was not neutral. Existence is not natural to nothingness” (145). In other words, God’s act of creating ex nihilo, was, especially given the resonance with such “battle” imagery in the ancient world, a conquering of forces opposed to God. Creation, thus, contains, so to speak, an imprint of future redemptive historical events. Listen to Reardon’s re-contexualization of Creation as the original Exodus or act of deliverance.

Centuries before parting the Red Sea. He [God] divided the more primitive waters, cleaving the fountains and the flood, cracking open the multiple heads of the sea monster in order to feed, with their meat, the peoples of Ethiopia. Creation, that is to say, was the initial Exodus, a deliverance from bondage, a redemption from the deep dungeon of non-being. The Lord smote that more ancient Pharaoh and fed him to His hungry creatures (145).

Reardon goes on to describe creation as “both a moral and a metaphysical act” (145). That is, God’s ordering of the chaos, his taking “hold on the tohu wabohu and invoke[ing] His light of the darkness of the abyss” are redemptive, salvific acts. “He did this in the sense that in the very heart of Creation, its arche or principle, there is a deed of redemption, the world’s deliverance from the oppression of primeval chaos” (145). As God’s covenant of creation “unfolded” (here one is hindered by language itself—as T.S. Eliot reminds us, “Words strain, Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, Decay with imprecision”; “Burnt Norton,” V, in Four Quartets), he created time and space. The former is intimately tied to the and given expression in the liturgical calendar, whereas the latter is connected to his sanctuary. Reardon’s meditation on Ps. 73 ends by reflecting on how we, in our present human condition, attempt to undo Creation and thus to return it to chaos.

Of all the evils lamented by Aspah, therefore, the worst are the desecrations of sacred space and sacred time. God’s enemies destroyed the first with ax and fire, the second by the suppression of feast days. Man becomes the Lord’s enemy in the space dedicated for worship and glorifies himself in the sacred time set aside to glorify God. Both space and time are thus defiled. Rebellious man, by this desecration of his life, returns Creation to the primeval chaos. Living outside the covenant inherent in the structure of the world, he endeavors to undo what God has done (146).

(Although Reardon doesn’t develop an environmental ethic from this Psalm, I suspect he would be very open to the suggestion).

Douglass as the Quintessential Public Intellectual or How to Make Plaintive Lament Preach

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

October 2, 2011

Undeniably, the United States has come a long way from the days of chattel slavery, and we can be encouraged by the positive strides made in racial relations and equality; yet, it is important to remember whence we came in order to avoid repeating past mistakes and so that we might become critically alert to new manifestations of racism and racial bias.[1] Here we would do well to heed the words of Frederick Douglass’s 1852 oration, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Having accepted an invitation to speak to a predominately white audience in celebration of Independence Day, Douglass, as master orator and rhetorician, turns to a Psalm of lamentation—a passage with which his audience was thoroughly familiar—and interprets it as analogous to the situation of American slaves.

Douglass begins with the following lines:  “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song.”[2] The captors, having accomplished their mission, now command their Jewish captives, whose eyes still tear up when they recall Zion, to sing one of their native songs. To this obtuse, insensitive demand, Douglass, speaking the “plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people,”[3] asks, “[h]ow can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem […] let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”[4] Always poised and ready, like Socrates of old, to turn his public speaking invitations into opportunities to provoke and to challenge the ethico-political status quo, Douglass condemns his fellow citizens’ superficial “national, tumultuous joy” in celebration of America’s so-called “freedom” and independence. In fact, earlier in his speech, Douglass emphasizes the great “disparity” and “distance” separating him and his fellow citizens. The good fortune and “blessings” celebrated on this day do not apply to those of a darker hue. “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me.”[5] Beyond the surface civility, the fanfare, and the laudatory refrains, Douglass remembers, Douglass hears “the mournful wail of millions, whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are to-day rendered more intolerable by the jubilant shouts that reach them.”[6]

With this example of what Foucault calls “reverse discourse,” Douglass uses the familiar words of Scripture and says in effect, just as the Jews were taken captive by their oppressors, forced to dwell in a land not their own, similarly African American slaves find themselves as strangers in a strange land where they have been constructed as the savage, as the intellectually-inferior other in need of the white man’s culture, “superior” reasoning abilities, and “moral” direction. Like the Jews exiled in Babylon, the most suitable song, the song corresponding to the violent, unjust, degraded existence of an African American slave is not a song of triumphalist jubilation, but a song of sorrowful lament. For Douglass to gloss over this all-too-recent contemptible American history because he is no longer in chains would be to turn a deaf ear to the “mournful wail of millions” and to once again allow the white, hegemonic culture to write the black story. Moreover, Douglass reminds his audience—who, after all, function as analogues to the captors of God’s people of old—that God’s heart bleeds for the weak, the humble, the downtrodden. Though a merciful and forgiving God, divine justice unlike human justice will not, in the end, be mocked.

Notes


[1]  Race, race-baiting, race relations in the United States, and the media’s role in constructing racial identities continue as significant socio-political problems that must be engaged.  These issues are in no way resolved or behind us simply because Barack Obama holds the highest public office in America. See, for example, Frank Rich’s assessment of the Sherrod incident in his New York Times editorial, “There’s a Battle Outside and It is Still Ragin’.” The New York Times, July 24, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/25/opinion/25rich.html?_r=1 (accessed  7/26/10).

[2] Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”, 431–32.

[3] Ibid., 431.

[4] Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”, 432. The psalm on which Douglass improvises is Psalm 137.

[5] Ibid., 431.

[6] Ibid.

Guest Post#6: Violence and Christian Holy Writ: Philemon and Onesimus: To be free in the Lord and in the Here and Now Flesh

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

November 6, 2010

One in ChristAs I stated in the previous post, the current piece deals with the issue of slavery in the New Testament and both were written by yours truly, Cynthia R. Nielsen.  Unfortunately, I did not receive any submissions to the series dealing with the contested letters of St. Paul and the household codes.  I have not studied those letters in depth and thus am not entirely sure as to how they relate to St. Paul’s uncontested letters and the passages therein dealing with slaves and the Christian community. My underdeveloped hypothesis is that the NT captures glimpses of different and competing Christian voices  in the early church reacting to perhaps a perceived threat regarding the Christian freedom St. Paul advocated, for example, in his epistle to the Galatians.  I certainly welcome comments related to that intertextual interpretive issue.

Thanks again to everyone who has contributed to this series by way of posting essays and commenting on the posts.  There are still several guest posts to come, so please continue to be part of the conversation.

***

As is well-known, St. Paul, in his very short letter to Philemon,[1] devotes significant space to the master/slave relationship. Some scholars have concluded that in his letter to Philemon St. Paul’s position on slavery has changed and changed for the better in comparison to his exhortations to slaves in 1 Cor 7.[2] But has he altered his view in any substantive way?   Perhaps not, if we keep firmly before us the fact the specific appeals regarding the recently converted Onesimus are directed at Philemon, St. Paul’s friend and co-laborer in Christ (Plm 1). In contrast, there is no indication that the slaves addressed in 1 Corinthians had exclusively Christian masters.  Rather, it is more plausible to suggest that at least some, and perhaps even most slaves whom St. Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians, had non-Christian masters.[3] In Philemon, then, what we have is an impassioned plea to a mature Christian leader to enact in this world the kind of relationships that will characterize the age to come.

As Brown observes, “[t]he letter, designed to persuade, is astute, with almost every verse hinting at something more than is stated.”[4] Apparently, Onesimus, Philemon’s slave, had been converted by St. Paul during the latter’s imprisonment (Phlm 9-10).  St. Paul addresses Philemon as a Christian brother and one whose life and works had been a great source of encouragement to him (Phlm 4-7).  Now that Onesimus has been brought into union with the living Christ, St. Paul challenges Philemon to recognize Onesimus’s new status in Christ, not simply in a “spiritual” inner sense, but καὶ ἐν σαρκὶ καὶ ἐν κυρίῳ (“both in the flesh and in the Lord,” Plm 16, NRSV).  In other words, pace Nietzsche’s complaint that Christianity has an exclusively “other-worldly-world” focus, new life in Christ necessarily involves socio-political ramifications.  Thus, St. Paul, in a pastoral and caring manner, encourages his fellow brother in Christ, Philemon, to embody this Gospel in his relationship with Onesimus.  Consider, for example, the strong emotional language Paul employs to urge Philemon to action, “I am appealing to you for my child [in the Lord], Onesimus” (v. 10, NRSV); “if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me” (v. 17, italics added, NRSV); “Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say” (v. 21, italics added, NRSV).  Acknowledging the strong rhetorical flavor of this letter, we may reasonably conclude that St. Paul expected Philemon to manumit Onesimus—to receive him “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother” (Plm 16, NRSV).[5] Even if one were to concede that St. Paul to some degree participated in the cultural blindness of his day by not directly speaking against slavery as an institution (and in part due to his strong apocalyptic convictions), nonetheless, he does call the Christian community to a different standard, as it were, to kingdom values.

Many scholars, of course, are quick to point out that slaves were the economic backbone of Roman society.  For instance, Bartchy writes,

[i]n such an economic context it was virtually impossible for anyone to conceive of abolishing slavery as a legal-economic institution.  To have turned all the slaves into free day laborers would have been to create an economy in which those at the bottom would have suffered even more insecurity and potential poverty than before.[6]

Though this is no doubt true historically speaking, arguments along these lines have been employed (and sadly enough by Christians) to justify slavery as an institution.[7] As I shall contend in the concluding section, Christians ought to see slavery[8] as a consequence of the fall and, hence, as completely un-natural and inconsistent with God’s ideal for human beings and with human ontology (viz. as free beings).   Bartchy goes on to say that neither Jesus (nor the Twelve) nor St. Paul owned slaves.  By example of their own lives, both Jesus and the pioneers of early Christianity issued a challenge to the “early Christians to conceive of themselves as living already among themselves in an alternative social-legal environment.”[9] Through God’s activity of calling into being these “alternative households,” that is, Christian communities in which the slave/master relationship is relativized and slavery to Christ (the ultimate suffering, foot-washing Servant) is the only form of servitude that will continue into the eschaton, we see the Gospel and St. Paul’s exhortations to kingdom living issuing a threat to the economic structure of Roman society.[10]

Notes


[1] With Sampley and Witherington, I conclude that 1 Corinthians was composed in Ephesus in the late fall or early winter 53-54 AD. Cf.  Sampley, “The First Letter to the Corinthians,” p. 777.  Sampley presents his case for this early dating based on Paul’s travel information given in 1 Cor 16:5-9.   In this passage, Paul announces his plan to visit Corinth after a stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, a Jewish festival that occurs fifty days after the second day of the Passover celebration (p. 776).  This has led some scholars to postulate that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians “in late fall or winter, leaving time for the pre-Pentecost, remaining work in Ephesus to which Paul alludes by the metaphor of the ‘wide door’ opened him there (1 Cor 16:9)” (p. 776).  The question then becomes, which late fall or winter?  According to Sampley, if one gives credence to the Acts 18 account of Paul’s missionary activity (vs. 22-23), coupled with the time needed to secure his mission in Ephesus, one may posit an early date for 1 Corinthians, ca. late fall or winter 53-54 AD (pp. 776-77).  Witherington also opts for an early dating (53-54 AD) of 1 Corinthians, pointing to the evidence of the inscription found at Delphi mentioning Gallio’s name, which corroborates with the Acts 18 account and thus allows us to establish a date for Gallio’s service in Corinth (50-51 or 51-52 AD) (see, Conflict and Community in Corinth, pp. 71-73).   With Brown, I hold that Philemon was also composed in Ephesus in 56 AD, approximately two to three years after 1 Corinthians. See, Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, pp. 507-8.  Felder opts for Rome as the place of composition and a later date as well (ca. 61 AD).  If Felder is correct, my overall argument is not diminished and perhaps even strengthened.  See, Felder, “The Letter to Philemon,” p. 884.

[2] Cf. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, pp. 506-7.

[3] Witherington concurs. Cf. Conflict and Community in Corinth, p. 183.

[4] Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 505.

[5] As Lewis highlights, it is curious that Paul introduces himself in this letter as a “prisoner of Christ,” rather than a “slave of Christ” (Phil 1:1) or a “slave” and “apostle” of Christ (Rom 1:1) (Lewis, “The Philemon-Paul-Onesimus Triangle,” pp. 240-41).  In this letter, Paul is clearly appealing to Philemon as a friend and fellow brother; thus, he refrains from imposing apostolic authority.  Perhaps he avoids the title “slave of Christ,” because his aim is to persuade Philemon to manumit Onesimus and to en-flesh the eschatological reality of Christian relationships that characterize the next aeon in the present aeon.

[6] Bartchy, “Slavery,” p. 546.

[7] Cf. Garnsey, Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine, p. 156, footnote 3.

[8] That is, human ownership of other human beings in which those owned are considered as “things” and property of their masters.

[9] Bartchy, “Slavery,” p. 546.

[10] Bartchy, “Slavery,” p. 546.  Witherington has similar comments, cf. e.g., Conflict and Community in Corinth, p. 185.

Guest Post#5 Violence and Christian Holy Writ: 1 Cor 7:20-24 In Christ Equality and Its Horizontal Repercussions in the Christian Community and Beyond

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

November 3, 2010

The post below as well as the one which shall follow deal with the issue of slavery in the New Testament and were written by yours truly, Cynthia R. Nielsen.  Unfortunately, I did not receive any submissions to the series dealing with the contested letters of St. Paul and the household codes.  I have not studied those letters in depth and thus am not entirely sure as to how they relate to St. Paul’s uncontested letters and the passages therein dealing with slaves and the Christian community. My underdeveloped hypothesis is that the NT captures glimpses of different and competing Christian voices  in the early church reacting to perhaps a perceived threat regarding the Christian freedom St. Paul advocated, for example, in his epistle to the Galatians.  I certainly welcome comments related to that intertextual interpretive issue.

Thanks again to everyone who has contributed to this series by way of posting essays and commenting on the posts.  There are still several guest posts to come, so please continue to be part of the conversation.

***

As many commentators observe, Corinth was a religiously diverse city of considerable socio-economic import. The Corinthian church was a microcosm of the social structures of the larger culture.  “There was no middle class in the Greco-Roman world.  At the top of the pyramid were a few rich persons who were, therefore, automatically persons of power and status.”[1] This reflection of the larger culture is indicated in 1 Cor 1:26, where St. Paul states that few of the saints at Corinth were wise according to worldly standards (σοφοὶ κατὰ σάρκα), few were powerful (δυνατοί), and few were of noble or high birth (εὐγενεῖς). Thus, we can reasonably posit that most in the church at Corinth were of low birth (perhaps slaves), weak or lacking in worldly power (perhaps women, who, in a patriarchal society, generally occupy subordinate socio-political positions), and unsophisticated, non-philosophical individuals (those whom the world consideredOne in Christ“foolish”).  To these no-bodys (τὰ μὴ ὄντα, literally, “things that are not,” italics added) by worldly standards, St. Paul speaks words of immense encouragement:  “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are” (1 Cor 1:27-28, NRSV).  Yet, to those few in the Corinthian church who were wise, powerful, and high born, St. Paul’s words are meant to convict, to urge them back to God’s system of values, which in the eyes of the world is weakness and foolishness. St. Paul then informs the Corinthians of his purpose by reminding them who they were and who, by God’s gracious call, they now are in Christ:  “so that no one (πᾶσα σὰρξ) might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor 1:29-30, NRSV). As we shall see, St. Paul’s exhortation in this opening chapter to the Corinthian believers to relate to one another in a way that recognizes their mutual equal status in Christ is a theme permeates the letter as a whole and has particular bearing on our focus passage, 1 Cor 7:20-24.

1 Corinthians chapter 7 falls between St. Paul’s admonitions regarding lawsuits and sexual immorality and his directives concerning food offered to idols.  More specifically, chapter 7 consists of St. Paul’s responses to particular questions, which the Corinthians had raised and sent to him by letter on an earlier occasion (1 Cor 7:1). The focus of the present essay centers on St. Paul’s teaching regarding slaves in 1 Cor 7:20-24. Before explicating the more controversial aspects of my translation and interpretation of this passage, a few preliminary remarks are needed.

The Gospel for St. Paul necessarily affects one’s relationships with others, and, hence, ipso facto affects the broader socio-political sphere.  A believer’s redemption in Christ involves not only the vertical dimension (God and humans) but the horizontal dimension as well (humans and other humans).  In fact, the horizontal, socio-political dimension is precisely where the radical transformation resulting from one’s redemption is embodied and displayed to an on-looking world, for good or for ill.

Though many New Testament scholars often highlight the positive ways in which slaves in the Roman world were treated—some received an excellent education, others gained greater economic security than poor, free-born individuals—nonetheless, slaves were still considered legally the property of another person.  As S. Scott Bartchy observes, “a slave was a res, a thing, a chattel to be owned, bought, and sold.”[2] In addition to this de-humanizing reification, a slave could not enter into a legal marriage, could not represent himself or herself legally, could not inherit, and was subject to physical, sexual (particularly if a female but not excluding males) and other abuses by his or her master.[3] With these very concrete, tangible realities in mind, St. Paul wants the slave to understand who s/he is and to whom s/he now belongs.  Those who currently find themselves under the yoke of human masters are in actuality ἀπελεύθεροι κυρίου (v. 22), who have been “bought with a price” (v. 23), the shed blood and broken body of our Lord.  St. Paul, as one who knows what it is like to be concerned for his own safety and the well-being of others, to be beaten, to be despised and humiliated, is no doubt acutely aware of the daily hardships endured by slaves and exhorts them not to allow their current status as slaves consume them such that they forget who they truly are in Christ.[4] Yet, in the very same breath, he encourages them to seize their freedom, should they be presented with such an opportunity (v. 21).

As a pastor and fellow sufferer for the sake of Christ, St. Paul exhorts these slaves not to allow the cares of this (presently fading) world to consume them, causing them not only to lose sight of their Christocentric identity and mission, but perhaps also to lose hope.  Thus, for those slaves who are not presented with the opportunity to obtain their freedom (manumission was clearly not in their power to decide, as they were not considered persons under Roman law, and consequently, had no legal rights),[5] St. Paul wants to encourage them with the truth that in Christ they have been freed from the bonds of sin, and in Christ their status before God is not less but equal to their (free) fellow-Christians.

St. Paul likewise urges various other groups of believers at the church in Corinth (the married, unmarried, widows, virgins, 1 Cor 7:25-39) not to allow the understandable, legitimate concerns of this life to distract them from their kingdom callings. These exhortations as a whole must be interpreted in light of St. Paul’s strong apocalyptic conviction that the “present world is passing away” (1 Cor 7:31). In fact, 1 Cor 7:25-31 is permeated with eschatological language, which reflects St. Paul’s belief in the imminent return of the Lord Jesus Christ (i.e., he expected the parousia to occur during his own lifetime).  For example, in the pericope immediately following our focus passage, he speaks of the “impending crisis” (1 Cor 7:26), stresses that the “appointed time has grown short” (1 Cor 7:29), and, as just mentioned, describes the present structure of the world as “passing way” (παράγει γὰρ τὸ σχῆμα τοῦ κόσμου τούτου, 1 Cor 7:31). With St. Paul’s apocalyptic and eschatological views in mind, we are now in a position to discuss my translation and interpretation of 1 Cor 7:24.

In 1 Cor 7:24, St. Paul states, “[o]n account of this, brothers and sisters, before God, let each person, while finding himself in the situation in which he was called, so remain” (ἕκαστος ἐν ᾧ ἐκλήθη, ἀδελφοί, ἐν τούτῳ μενέτω παρὰ θεῷ).  St. Paul has made use of an inclusio to frame this passage; yet, he has also varied his original theme.  In 1 Cor 7:20, we read, ἕκαστος ἐν τῇ κλήσει ᾗ ἐκλήθη, ἐν ταύτῃ μενέτω, whereas in verse 24, we find two substitutions, (1) ἐν ᾧ for ἐν τῇ κλήσει and (2) ἐν τούτῳ for ἐν ταύτῃ.  Are these variations significant?  More specifically, do the substitutions in the second parallel passage serve both to establish the inclusio structure and yet simultaneously function as a prelude to the explicit eschatological themes in the pericope which immediately follows (1 Cor 7:25-31)? I contend that verse 24 does serve this dual purpose, as it creates an organic connection between the two passages (1 Cor 7:20-24 and 1 Cor 7:25-31)—passages, which must be interpreted in light of St. Paul’s apocalyptic and eschatological concerns and emphases. Moreover, emphasizing the temporal dimension of 1 Cor 7:24 helps us to make sense out of St. Paul’s exhortation in verse 21 (μᾶλλον χρῆσαι, “by all means, take advantage of it,” that is, of gaining your freedom).  If we fail to take into account St. Paul’s strong apocalyptic orientation, then his instructions that follow regarding marriage, re-marriage and celibacy can easily be misconstrued as “nay-saying” (Nietzsche) and as espousing a disparaging view of embodiment and life in this world.  In light of St. Paul’s knowledge of the OT teaching affirming the goodness of creation, his high view of the Incarnation, his teaching on the sacraments as a means for sanctification in this life, and his firm belief in our embodied state in the age to come, the principle of charity demands that we seek a more this-world-friendly interpretation.

Wrapping up my exegetical discussion of this pericope, to what does the “this” refer in the phrase which I have translated, “on account of this” (ἐν τούτῳ, v. 24)?  In verse 23, St. Paul commands the currently enslaved believers not to become slaves of human masters. Why?  Because they have been “bought with a price” (ἀγοράζω (agorazō),[6] Christ’s blood, whose value infinitely outweighs any monetary amount offered for the purchase of a human being.  Consequently, the only true Master for a Christian is Jesus Christ, who alone is worthy of devotion and unyielding submission.[7] The Christian community then must exhibit kingdom relationships to the on-looking world—relationships characterized not by the arbitrary, self-serving, exploitative standards of unregenerate human beings, but by mutual respect and recognition of the equal status of all believers before God.  “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28, NRSV).

In the next post in our series, I shall bring the 1 Cor 7 passage into dialogue with St. Paul’s letter to Philemon.

Notes


[1] Sampley, “The First Letter to the Corinthians,” p. 814.

[2] Bartchy, “Slavery,” p. 544.

[3] Bartchy, “Slavery,” p. 544.  Bartchy acknowledges that slaves were considered property and things; yet, he seems at times to present an overly romanticized view of slaves in the Greco-Roman world, emphasizing the varied roles slaves had, depending on to whom they belonged.  Bartchy adds that slaves in the NT period constituted   a “logical” and a “juridical” class but not a social class (p. 544). I find this a somewhat confusing claim.  If such were the case, why would the apostle Paul feel the need to address gender and social status issues, as he does in our current passage as well as other crucial texts such as Gal 3:28?  For a less romanticized view of slavery in the Roman period, cf.  Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity.   Cf. also A.A. Rupprecht’s discussion of the use of the ergastulum to house slaves who worked in chain gangs (“Slave, Slavery,” in The Dictionary of New Testament Background,  p. 881) and J.A. Harill’s comments on the severity of the physical torture of Roman slaves by means of the flagellum (“Slavery,” in The Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, p. 1125).

[4] It is also worth highlighting that in 1 Cor 7:18-19, two verses immediately prior to our focus passage, Paul relativizes the circumcised verses uncircumcised distinction.  Thus, we have in close proximity two of the three distinctions annulled in Gal 3:28:  “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (NRSV).  In light of Kenneth Bailey’s thesis that women in the Corinthian church had misconstrued Paul’s message and were engaging in anti-male sexism, perhaps the absence of the relativization of the male-female distinction in Christ was purposed by Paul. If so, once again, the cultural-historical and occasional nature of the letter must be stressed, and one must resist a “timeless truth” application of Paul’s commands to women in the Corinthian church (e.g., in 1 Cor 14:34-36) to our contemporary, ecclesial situation (cf. Bailey, “Women in the New Testament,” pp. 6ff.).

[5] Witherington, Conflict and Community in Corinth, p. 184.

[6] The same verb is used in 1 Cor 6:20, where Paul exhorts the believers to, glorify God with their bodies, since they were “bought with a price.”

[7] The following goes beyond my competence, but I propose it as “food for thought.”  In contrast with the Covenant (Ex 20:22-23:33) and Deuteronomic (Dt 12-26) Codes, the Holiness Code in Lev 25:39-55 explicitly forbids the enslavement of fellow Hebrews, as they are God’s “slaves,” whom he delivered from Egyptian bondage (Lev 25:42).  Is it possible that Paul has Lev 25:39-55 in mind and is engaging in a Christocentric variation on an OT theme?  That is, just as the Hebrews were commanded by God not to re-enslave their fellow Hebrews because God himself had delivered them from the hands of their oppressors and made them his slaves, so too Christians, using Paul’s language, are slaves of Christ, having been bought with a price, Christ’s blood, and ideally are not to be the slaves of other human beings.  Brown, for example, notes that Paul “betrays his Jewish roots” in his outcry against the sexual immorality condemned in 1 Cor 5:1-2; “for marriage within such a degree of kindred was forbidden by the Mosaic Law” (Lev 18:8; 20:11) (An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 518).  Sadly, American slaveholders in the South appealed to Lev 25 to justify their proslavery position, claiming that just as God permitted the Hebrews to enslave other people groups, so too, they, as God’s chosen people, have a divine sanction to enslave African Americans (cf. Martin, “The Haustafeln,” p. 215).

Guest Post#4 Violence and Christian Holy Writ: A Redemptive-Resurrection Hermeneutical Trajectory

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

October 24, 2010

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.

***

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.

Guest Post #3 Violence and Holy Writ: Slavery as a Crisis of Biblical Authority in 19th C. America

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

October 17, 2010

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.

***

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.