Tag Archives: racism

Did the Apostle Paul Condone Slavery?

Did the Apostle Paul condone slavery? Yes and no. A fuller answer requires a bit of unpacking.

In short, the Apostle Paul never comes out to explicitly condemn slavery. On the other hand, Paul deftly and implicitly undercuts the whole basis for why a person should remain a slave, or can become a slave in the first place, thus laying an axe at the root of the slavery system. Let me explain.

While done with good intentions, sometimes Christian apologists come out a bit too quick to exonerate the Bible from charges of condoning slavery. The story is actually more complex. A cursory reading of American Southern defenders of 19th century slavery should dispel that notion, as preachers who wrote tracts in support of enslaving Africans had a number of different Bible verses to choose from to make their case. Here is a short sample from Paul’s writings:

  • Ephesians 6:5: “Bondservants, obey your earthly masters.” (ESV)
  • Colossians 3:22: “Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters.” (ESV)

Yikes. Those verses alone can make a lot of Christians today cringe.

Yet notice how the English Standard Version above uses the word “bondservant.” Who uses the word “bondservant” today? Does anyone?

Nate Parker’s 2016 film The Birth of a Nation tells the story of the Nat Turner slave rebellion of 1831, in Courtland, Virginia, a little over an hour drive from my home. The Nat Turner tragedy is a complicated story about American history, slavery, and bad Bible interpretation. We need to be honest and clear about what the Bible says and not says about slavery.

A number of secular-minded critics today of the Christian faith will cry foul, claiming that popular evangelical Bible translations are sugar-coating passages in the Bible regarding slavery. They claim that Christians are trying to sidestep the hard truth: that the Bible sanctions slavery, and that is simply not morally acceptable for a 21st century person. Therefore, Christianity should be rejected as immoral.

As a Christian, when I hear criticisms like this, I tend to do either one of two things: One, I will stiffen up in defense of my Bible, and perhaps immediately run to some other passage, like God delivering His people, Israel, from slavery in Israel, as described in the Book of the Exodus. While raising an objection like this surely has its place, it can often come across as a “my-Bible-verse-beats-up-your-Bible-verse” approach to spiritual conversation. 

Or second, I will want to ignore the topic at hand, change the subject, or otherwise just try to fade into the woodwork, hoping that the criticism will simply go away. The problem with both approaches is that they do not fairly address the criticism being presented. Sometimes our non-believing friends are a lot more honest about reading the Bible than we as Christians are. So, we need to face the criticism head-on, and see if we can dig deeper to get at a better solution.

Political Correctness” In Today’s Bible Translations?

The vast majority of Christians today would condemn all slavery as unthinkable. But such was not so in the antebellum American South, during the plantation era. Back when I was studying history in college, reading books about early 19th century Southern (and even some Northern!) preachers defending slavery, I would rant in my dorm room that so many of my white Christian ancestors were not really Christians at all! But when I read some of those apologetic defenses of slavery, they sounded eerily like some Christian condemnations of same-sex marriage today. Charges of bigotry against Christians are not that far behind. A lot of 21st century Christians, who are familiar with the history of how some early 19th century Christians fought tooth-and-nail to defend slavery, are often left confused.

So, is it true that today’s Christians are somehow embarrassed at what is plainly in view, when we read our Bibles? Is it true that Christians are making their Bibles more “politically correct,” in order to find more social acceptance in our post-modern society?

Other Bible translations, including the venerable KJV, uses the more well-known word “slave” to translate the Greek word “doulos“. In a July, 2021 Slate article, writer Paul Rosenberg in interviewing anthropologist Samuel Perry accuses the ESV of obfuscating the actual meaning of the word “slave,” by replacing it with the more innocuous “bondservant.”

The cynicism laced throughout Rosenberg’s essay and Perry’s interview critique is pretty hard to ignore.1  But Rosenberg/Perry do raise a point, as to how tricky it is to properly translate “slave/bondservant” for a 21st century English readership. The new Legacy Standard Bible, being produced by Pastor John MacArthur’s Master’s Seminary faculty, takes aim at the ESV from the opposite direction and unashamedly reinserts “slave” largely wherever the ESV has “bondservant.” So, how are we then to think of “slave/bondservant” today, when we read our Bibles?

Placing the Slavery/Bible Question in the Larger Historical Context

When I was a young believer, I often imagined that Paul was really talking about the relationship between workers and their bosses, more broadly. Well, that kind of works, but not really. Slavery was built into the very fabric of the ancient world, from the time of the Israelite patriarchs up through the Greco-Roman world of Paul’s day. To be a slave in the ancient world was a dehumanizing status to have.

Part of our problem is that our 21st century way of thinking about slavery is seen through the lens of America’s tortured history of racially-based, cradle-to-grave, chattel slavery, that precipitated the crisis of the American Civil War of the mid-19th century. A better approach would be to begin with this: What was slavery like in the days of the Old and New Testaments, when compared to the horror experienced by the vast majority of today’s African American ancestors?

Much of what we know of ancient history indicates that the institution of slavery was primarily a means of erasing debt. Even in the Old Testament, voluntary servitude was acknowledged as a legitimate means of canceling certain kinds of personal debt. For example, if you were a poor ancient Hebrew, and you owed your fellow Hebrew some money, and you had no personal property available to pay off that debt, you could voluntarily arrange to offer the labor of your own hands and body, for a limited time, in order to work off that debt. In a day where bankruptcy laws were unknown, the Bible appears to be acknowledging such forms of slavery as a morally acceptable practice, within limits. In our day, when many of us get mailed credit card applications sent to us on an almost weekly basis, we become oblivious to the historical reality that getting into debt with someone else was a serious matter, where the slavery system seemed to be the most obvious solution.

Extending that notion of slavery to a more macro-level gets more complicated. In the ancient world, an entire people group could be enslaved as result of war. Wars, then and now, cost money. Even if one side is victorious, the victor must find a way to pay for military activity. Soldiers deserve compensation for their service, care for the wounded is required, etc. The victor would seek reparations from the loser, just as in more modern times, when the victorious Allied powers after World War I sought to make Germany pay for the war effort. But what if the loser of the war was so devastated by the loss that they could not reasonably pay reparations with worldly goods? This is where slavery on a mass scale came in. 

As opposed to the American history of slavery, which was primarily based on skin color, the question of race was less of an issue in ancient times. When the empires of the ancient near east world fought one another, and drove people into enslavement, the skin color differences between the victors and those conquered were largely minimal. Greeks, Persians, and even Jews, rarely differed that much in terms of skin pigment.

This more nuanced understanding of slavery partly explains why the ESV translation chose to translate the Greek word doulos as “bondservant,” a person bound in service without wages. Whether scholars agree or not agree, “bondservant” carries a lot less cultural baggage than does the typical American connotation behind the word “slave,” which is often front-loaded with concepts of race today, which were foreign to the Scriptural writers. 

Furthermore, even in our day, if you experience indebtedness to someone else, or if, for example, a friend of yours owes you money, and does not pay you back, then you know how awkward it is to have a relationship with someone who you are not “right” with when it comes to an unsettled debt. The person owing the debt feels “enslaved” to the one owed the debt. The bigger the debt, the greater the feeling of enslavement. You do not need be an ancient person, nor someone living in the Deep American South, during the Antebellum era, to know what the distortion of slavery feels like.

Nevertheless, despite all of these noted differences, one still wonders why at least the New Testament does not come out and explicitly condemn slavery as an institution. Many readers of the New Testament can still get stuck on those disturbing words of the Apostle Paul, cited above.

I know that many Christians like to then appeal to Jesus Himself, over Paul, in defense of the abolition of slavery. After all, Jesus is God in human form, and Paul was not, right? Jesus’ preaching takes priority over Paul, correct? I mean, those words from the lips of Jesus, written in red, as those “Red Letter Bibles” tell us, carries more weight, right? 

Well, that might sound convincing, until you start reading the Gospels more closely. Jesus talks quite a bit about slaves working for their masters. But Jesus himself never gives any indication that slavery is an evil institution. For example, when Jesus teaches the parable of the tenants, in Matthew 21:33-46, he indicates that these tenants beat up the slaves who work for their master. The reader does gets the sense that beating up the slaves was wrong, according to Jesus. But Jesus never suggests that there was anything specially wrong with slavery itself

Mmmm……

Pardon an expression from football that might offend Roman Catholic readers, but trying to throw a “Hail Mary” pass in making an appeal to the Jesus of the Gospel, to rescue the Bible from charges of upholding slavery, does not really work.

Instead, you need to go back to Paul if you are looking for some definitive posture that the New Testament takes on slavery. So, what else do we find in Paul?

Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People straightens out of misconceptions that both Christians and non-Christians have about the Apostle Paul, regarding such topics as homosexuality, the treatment of women, and in particular, slavery.

Is Paul the Great Apologist for Slavery? The Answer May Surprise You

To get a better handle on this, I wanted to learn more from a scholar who specializes in the history of the classical period. Sarah Ruden is a scholar of the Greco-Roman classical period, who knows the cultural setting that Paul lived in better than most people. Unlike most scholars interested in Christian origins, Ruden specializes first in Greco-Roman culture, and from there takes an interest in Paul. Ruden is best known for her English translations of ancient Greco-Roman texts, who also recently released her own translation of the Gospels.2 While Sarah Ruden professes to be a Quaker, she does not expressly believe in a conservative evangelical view of the inspiration of the Bible, as being the definitive, inspired Word of God.3 But her specific area of research challenges a lot misconceptions that both Christians and non-Christians have about the Bible’s perspective on slavery.

It should come as no surprise that the Apostle Paul has been derided as representing the very worst characteristics of the Christian faith. As my kindly-Virginian mother told me on more that one occasion, “I really like Jesus, but I am not so sure about that Apostle Paul.” Paul has at various times been regarded as a chauvinistic hater of women, an apologist for the political establishment, a homophobe, and, for the purposes of this blog post, a callous proponent of slavery. Yet what is so intriguing about Sarah Ruden’s scholarship is that she insists that we read Paul within his own historical context, as a Jew and a Roman citizen, in an ancient era. Ruden’s work effectively works to dismiss this common negative narrative that surrounds the Apostle Paul, thus working against the grain of so many popular portrayals of his deficiencies.

In her study of Paul, Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time, she lays out the stark problem in understanding this most influential Apostle for the Christian faith:

We really want Paul to have been against slavery, but the evidence is galling. It’s not that he was for slavery… It’s that he doesn’t seem to have cared one way or another.” (p. 177)

That seems like an overly crass and unfair evaluation, but I get Ruden’s point. On the one hand, you can read a passage like 1 Corinthians 7:21-23 , where Paul advises; “Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so,” Paul at least encourages slaves to seek their freedom, if possible. Score a major point in Paul’s favor!

In comparison to the Gospels, the “Red Letters” of Jesus do not even give you that! But there is also a sense that in this passage, Paul, like Jesus, really does not condemn slavery as an institution as forcefully as many of us would like to hear today. 

Nevertheless, Sarah Ruden offers some powerful insight showing how Paul’s approach to the question of slavery, more than any other Biblical writer, has proven to be the most potential force for radical culture change, even down to the present day. In Ruden’s study of the Greco-Roman world, slaves were essentially subhuman. They were more “like pets: good treatment of them was about the master’s enlightenment, never about the slaves’ inherent equality” (Kindle location 2448). A slave was “nobody and nothing aside from his usefulness” (Kindle location 2512).

Ruden rightly points out that the most significant treatment of slavery is found in one of the most neglected books of the New Testament, Paul’s letter to Philemon, the shortest of all of Paul’s letters. Most Christians and others who dislike Paul tend to skip over this tiny letter, at the very end of the Pauline corpus found in the New Testament. But in doing so, Sarah Ruden discovers a nugget of prose that shows just how revolutionary and progressive Paul really was. In writing to Philemon, Paul is telling about his relationship to Onesimus, a runaway slave who had belonged to Philemon, but who met up with Paul for support and for a sanctuary. Paul, in turn, wishes to hand Onesimus back over to Philemon, but with some extremely provocative requirements involved:

Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord (Philemon 8-16).

Among the several things to observe in this passage, we read that Paul considers Onesimus to be his “child” (son) as well as a “beloved brother.” Unlike what we see in popular Hollywood movies, like 12 Years a Slave, or The Birth of a Nation, that portray the horror of slavery inflicted on African Americans, Paul does not come across as an angry white dude, intent on returning a runaway, disobedient slave. Instead, Paul displays a tender affection for Onesimus, and wants to make sure that Philemon knows that.

True, Paul does not explicitly demand that Philemon set Onesimus free from being a slave. However, Sarah Ruden states that “Paul had a much more ambitious plan than making Onesimus legally free. He wanted to make him into a human being, and he had a paradigm. As God chose and loved and guided the Israelites, he had now chosen and loved and could guide everyone… The way Paul makes the point in his letter to Philemon is beyond ingenious. He equates Onesimus with a son and a brother. He turns what Greco-Roman society saw as the fundamental, insurmountable differences between a slave and his master into an immense joke” (Kindle location 2541). 

In the history of ancient slavery, a slave generally had no value in terms of being part of a family. Even up through the dawn of the modern era in the late 18th century, during the near thousand year period since about the beginning of Islam, Islamic raiders in ships would invade European costal towns and kidnap European Christians, and take them back to Islamic countries, to be placed in forced servitude, for the remainder of their lives. Though dwarfed by the some 12 million Africans taken to the Americas, during the colonial period, historians estimate that nearly 1 million European Christians ended up in this forgotten system of slavery, by their Islamic captors. Yet we know little of what became of these Europeans as their line of descendants were largely wiped out, during their experience of slavery. 

Certainly in the Apostle Paul’s day, the story of what happened to Greco-Roman slaves was forgotten, because of the loss of familial connections: no sons, no brothers. Ruden comments that “one of the greatest cruelties of slavery was that, having no legal family, a slave was boxed off in time, without a real tomb or recognized descendants or anything else to ensure he was remembered” (Kindle location 2550).

However, in the letter of Philemon, the Apostle Paul changed all of that. Paul cut at the very heart of the ancient slavery system, by declaring his affection for Onesimus and challenging Philemon to do the same. For if Paul were to merely ask Philemon to set Onesimus free, it would not have helped Onesimus very much in a culture that regarded slaves, particularly runaway slaves, as nobodies. By asking Philemon to take Onesimus on as a family member, as Paul did, this act of treating Onesimus as a human being, and not subhuman, effectively turns the whole rationale behind the slavery system on its head.

What Sarah Ruden fails to mention in her analysis of Paul is the Old Testament ground for Paul’s radical call for discipleship. In the Law of Moses, while provision was made for slavery of Hebrews by other Hebrews, in the case of eliminating debt, for a set period of time, and non-Hebrews could be held as slaves in perpetuity, the Law of Moses also prohibited the Hebrews from enslaving their fellow Hebrews in the same manner as enslaving non-Hebrews

In other words, according to Torah, Jews were forbidden to enslave fellow Jews in the same manner the pagan Greco-Romans would enslave one another. Why? Because a fellow Jew was like family. There were like sons and brothers. 

Under Paul’s new Gospel message, the implications were clear in Paul’s mind. Now in the era of the Risen Jesus, the message of Christ has gone beyond the borders of covenant Israel, to include the Gentiles, for those who have faith in that Risen Jesus. Now, we can call Jew and Gentile as brothers and sisters (sons and daughters) together in Christ, including both slave and free (Galatians 3:28). By calling Onesimus both a son and a brother, Paul considers the runaway slave to having the same status as a fellow Israelite under the Law of Moses. 

The message is as subtle as it is profound. In not mounting a full scale frontal attack on the institution of slavery, Paul was not one to directly challenge the social order. Instead, Paul takes an indirect, yet more radical approach, of undercutting the very conditions by which one is made a slave in the first place. As the Gospel goes forth, inviting all to place their faith and trust in Jesus, more people are added to the family of God. But since the most dehumanizing form of slavery is forbidden of family members, the whole system of chattel slavery is set on notice. As Ruden puts it, Paul “turns his sermonizing into a bomb, presses down the detonator, and walks away, leaving glittering fragments of absurdity in place of the conviction that people solve problems” (Kindle location 2657). God has declared a new family order of things, and Paul has been entrusted with the message of that declaration, to be given to all peoples. Kaboom!!

An Implicit Argument, Found in the Bible, that Rejects Slavery

As a side note, some Evangelical Bible scholars have tried to make the case that Christians should apply a redemptive-movement model of interpreting the Bible, such as found in William J. Webb’s Slaves, Women & Homosexuals. In other words, instead of getting too hung up on the actual thoughts of Paul described in the Scriptural text that tend of embarrass us today, Christians should seek to best understand the spirit behind the text, so that we might arrive at a new ethic that moves beyond the static literalism of certain statements made by Paul. Critics of this thesis argue that such a hermeneutical model of reading Scripture is unsustainable, as similar redemptive movement models have been used in recent years to justify same-sex marriage and transgender-based ideologies. Furthermore, a redemptive-movement hermeneutic does not seriously enough take into the consideration that the New Testament is ultimately the definitive commentary on the Old Testament.

Yet when it comes to slavery, my reading of Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People convinces me that there is enough substance in the subtext of Paul’s argument in Philemon that makes Paul into a compelling advocate for the elimination of the slavery system, albeit through an implicit means. A problematic redemptive-movement model is not necessary when it comes to dealing the death blow to slavery.

Proof of this can be seen in the history of the early church itself. The aftershocks of Paul’s letter to Philemon have been felt down through the centuries. As historian Tom Holland tells us, Gregory of Nyssa, one of the greatest and influential of the early church fathers, was an outspoken critic of slavery as being against the very concept of what it means to be created in the image of God. Ruden herself observes that as the Christian faith grew throughout the Roman empire, the slavery system almost entirely disappeared, as those early Christians, within just a few hundred years after the closing of the New Testament, chimed in with Gregory of Nyssa’s condemnation of slavery. True, feudalism eventually replaced slavery in the medieval era, but this was nothing like the chattel slavery system that was revived hundreds of years later by European slave traders, who sought to take advantage of conquered African tribes, in hopes obtaining greater wealth from the New World in the Americas. Many centuries before William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglas, and 20th-century activists like Martin Luther King Jr., Christians like Gregory of Nyssa were paving the way towards a slave-free society.

If anything, it was the utter failure of the Christian church, in the era of the African slave trade, to properly interpret the Bible responsibly, that led to the false justification of the slavery system, during the colonial era (for more on that, read this critique found on Veracity). It was as though the slave-holding Christians during the colonial era became totally disconnected from the witness of Gregory of Nyssa, hundreds of years earlier.

However, it would not be fair to throw every European-based Christian in colonial America under the bus. Sarah Ruden’s Quaker tradition held a strongly anti-slavery position by the late 17th century, throughout the colonies. Even in Virginia, where the African slavery system first took root in the North America, Christian opponents to slavery would seek to evangelize the African slaves, with the hope that they might be baptized, as it was part of British policy that it would be wrong to enslave a fellow baptized Christian. As a result, defenders of slavery would then discourage Christian missionaries from evangelizing their African slaves. It was not until 1667, decades after the first Africans landed at Jamestown, when the Virginia assembly eventually passed a law that explicitly ruled that even Christian baptism did not allow for a slave to obtain their freedom, thereby making it more difficult to get rid of the slavery system.

A lot of the contemporary distrust of the Bible stems back to the ugly stain that the American slavery system has left on Christian history. Sarah Ruden’s exploration into the world of the Apostle Paul has reminded me that the original New Testament context, within the period of the early church, tells a much more balanced story.

Evangelical theologian and reviewer Peter Leithart observes that Sarah Ruden’s book is “one of the best defenses of Paul,” in an age where Paul is often perceived to be an embarrassment to the Christian faith, in comparison to Jesus. Ruden offers other provocative defenses of Paul, with respect to Paul’s condemnation of homosexual acts, as well as Paul’s treatment of women. Ruden does not hold to an evangelical view of Scripture, as she holds to the critical consensus, that only seven of the thirteen letters attributed to Paul are indeed authentically Pauline. Interestingly however, as an academic critical scholar, she still comes to many of the same conclusions regarding Paul, that are agreeable with historically orthodox perceptions of him. 

A final word of warning here, for potential readers of Ruden’s book:  Paul Among the Peoples is not for the faint of heart. Her quotations of Greco-Roman poets of the day demonstrate just how crude, bawdy and degrading Greco-Roman pagan culture could be. Plus, there are moments where she tends to psychoanalyze Paul a bit too much. Sure, she humanizes Paul, but she does so at the expense of diluting the divine character of the sacred text at times. But the best benefit in reading Sarah Ruden, despite her wide embrace of the more liberal, critical end of historical criticism in New Testament scholarship, is in showing just how much the writings of the Apostle Paul completely re-oriented the world of ancient Greco-Roman culture, and continues to impact the world today.

Circling back to those difficult passages in Colossians and Ephesians, towards the beginning of this blog post, it helps to read more of the text, to see just how revolutionary Paul was, in challenging the status quo of his day. Simply consider what we read in Colossians (which parallels Ephesians 6:5-9):

  • Colossians 3:22-4:1 (ESV) Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality. Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.”

First, note how bondservants/slaves are not simply to obey their earthly master, but that they are to fear the Lord, to “work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” As opposed to the pater familias tradition of Greco-Roman culture, that Sarah Ruden describes with such unease to our modern ears, which put the male head of household in complete autocratic rule over slaves, to do anything they want with them, Paul argues that ultimately bondservants/slaves are to serve the Lord instead. Secondly, Paul does not let slavemasters get off of the hook for one minute, urging slavemasters to treat their bondservants/slaves “justly and fairly,” which undermined the dehumanizing practice of the Greco-Romans.

Do I wish that the Bible had been more explicit in condemning slavery? Sure, I do. But when we read the Bible within its historical context, and in particularly take a closer look as to how Paul’s strategy worked in trying to persuade Philemon to welcome the runaway slave, Onesimus, we get a far more liberating picture of the message of the New Testament.

 

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For a helpful video that briefly summaries some of the arguments found in this blog post, I would recommend the following video by Dr. Matthew Hall, at Southern Baptist Seminary:

Notes:

1. See this thorough and excellent YouTube video rejoinder by Bible Study Magazine editor, Mark Ward. Mark Ward’s YouTube channel is “Bible Nerdy,” but entertains just as well as it educates. The Slate article goes onto rightly observe that the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible does have a definite complementarian bent to it, emphasizing the distinct roles that differentiate men and women, in contrast with other translations, like the Common English Bible (CEB), that favors a more egalitarian approach, that tends to see male and female in more or less interchangeable terms, particularly when it comes to leadership offices in the church. The Slate article also suggests that the ESV was “compromising” by putting together a special translation of the ESV to the Gideons, that kept more “KJV-friendly” verses in the Bible, which is overly-simplistic. The KJV is outdated in many ways, but the ESV has always sought to stand within the tradition of the KJV. So, the idea that the ESV is simply “marketing” the Bible to appeal to a particular audience is really a cynical way of looking at Bible translations. Kudos to Mark Ward for his work in expose the flaws in the Slate article. 

2. Here is a delightful nugget of insight that Sarah Ruden has in reading the Gospels, which is simply too good to ignore: Matthew 15:26-27 is part of an episode where Jesus meets a Canaanite women (i.e. not a Jew, but a Gentile), where the woman cries out to Jesus for him to help her. The NIV renders Jesus’ response and the woman’s rejoinder like this, ‘” He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”’ The problem with this type of translation is that it makes Jesus sound very severe and serious, even condescending towards the woman. But Ruden rightly notes that the word for “dog” used by both Jesus and the woman is not what many Christians typically think. Most Greek dictionaries will translate this directly to English as “little dog,” which is better, but Ruden says that there is more to it. Instead, Ruden says that Jesus is being playful here, as the word is better rendered as “little doggie.”  That sounds less seriously spiritual, but it is more accurate. The NIV could have been improved with the following, for Jesus’ statement: ““It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the little doggies.”  That sounds a lot less harsh, and more tongue in cheek. What a wonderful insight Sarah Ruden gives to the passage.

3. For those unfamiliar with a “conservative evangelical” view of the Bible’s inspiration, a short of way of putting it is that conservative evangelicals believe that the Bible is not only written by humans, it is also written by God. There is an essential divine/human character to Holy Scripture. More liberal scholars, who adhere to what is typically described as the “historical critical method,” mainly emphasize the Bible as a human work of literature. Sarah Ruden herself even says that she is trying to lay aside the idea of the Bible as being “sacred” in order to get more at the humanity of the text. But why the dichotomy? Why not do scholarship with the Bible that reads it as both divine revelation AND as human literature? While the “historical critical method” can help at times to reveal certain blindspots in how to read and interpret the Bible, which sometimes happens with conservative Christians, one must be careful to understand that historical criticism inherently takes an anti-supernatural bias contrary to biblical revelation. Thankfully, Sarah Ruden focuses most of the time on using the “good” side of historical criticism, when doing her work, which is extremely rewarding and helpful to the church. Conservative Christians have a lot to learn from her.  


Welcoming Justice: Carrying on MLK’s Legacy

The year 2020 will be known for many things, notably the coronavirus pandemic. But it will also be known for “Black Lives Matter” protests, all over world, not just the United States. Why all of the protests?

For an explanation, one could point to a number of essays, books, blog posts and Twitter tweets, chronicling the history of racism, and the sad story of how the Christian church has been complicit in furthering problems related to skin color. Christians in my generation and older think of Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK), and his efforts to try to get the white church involved in overcoming racism.

The amount of literature on these type of topics is staggering. Many of these sources of information are insightful and helpful. A number of other sources are not. So, I was looking for a resource written by a seasoned veteran in the black struggle, who might have wisdom gained over the years, to give some necessary perspective, in our present day and age. What does it mean to carry on MLK’s legacy, in the first half of the 21st century?

When I saw Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community, co-written by John M. Perkins, I knew I had found the book I needed to read. It was the perfect book to read during Black History Month. An African American, Perkins came to Christ in the late 1950s at age 27, and then founded a Bible institute in his home state of Mississippi. Perkins was almost beaten to death by white police officers in 1970, an experience which gave him a deeper and renewed vision for his ministry calling.

Perkins framed this as the “three R’s”: relocation, redistribution, and reconciliation, all fundamentally grounded in the life of the church. His work in Bible teaching soon grew to address social issues in racially divided Mississippi, and the ministry grew as Perkins and his wife moved to California. His first book in 1976, Let Justice Roll Down, established him as a leading voice in evangelicalism, calling his fellow evangelical believers to expand ministry efforts towards racial reconciliation, instead of focusing narrowly on saving souls. At age 90 now, Perkins has the breadth of insight to give to a new generation of Christians, who struggle with how to best continue this type of reconciliation work.

Co-author Charles Marsh, lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, where America’s racial divide was on full display just a few years ago, nearly 50 years following MLK’s death. Those events in Charlottesville prompted an expanded reprint of this book. Both Perkins and Marsh offer a summary of insights, gained from years of ministry and writing on the topic of racism. Marsh, a scholar of the life of German 20th century theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and a white Baptist, is a generation younger than Perkins. Perkins mentored Marsh, and the debt owed to Perkins’ experience and wisdom clearly shows in Welcoming Justice. Both Marsh and Perkins are convinced that the greatest strength of the movement towards racial reconciliation is to be found in the roots of the Christian church. Whenever efforts to combat racism have failed, they have failed because they have lost the Civil Rights movement’s original vision rooted in the Christian faith.

Sadly, much of the movement to combat racism today has indeed left the church. Yet without that spiritual vision, today’s efforts to deal with racism have often exacerbated the problems instead of providing sustainable solutions. MLK’s vision of a colorblind society is being replaced with a philosophy of antiracism, which makes practically everything an issue of race. Just meditate on the thought of John McWhorter, a professor of linguistics at Columbia University, and leading African American intellectual today, who warns that 21st century antiracism is becoming a greater threat to society, more so than the 20th century racism, that to a certain degree still plagues us.

Through a series of anecdotes covering the decades following World War 2, Welcoming Justice is a renewed call for the church to reclaim a biblical vision for racial reconciliation, one founded on the idea of a colorblind church. There is still much work to be done to expunge the sin of racism from our society (not just the church), but Perkins and Marsh give us encouragement for the task that still lies ahead. This is not a doctrinally rigorous book, but it does not intend to lay out precise and detailed theology. It does not seek to address some of the larger cultural problems associated with the secular rise of critical race theory and wokeness, that divides Christians today. But it does challenge Christians to engage in God’s program, to bring about reconciliation among persons of different skin color. A fairly short series of essays, Welcoming Justice communicates a vision for the beloved community, that seeks to carry on Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream.

For more on what the Bible actually teaches about racism, please read this previous Veracity blog post. For more on Martin Luther King, Jr., look up these previous blog posts (#1 and #2) For more on the dangers of critical race theory, read about those topics here and here. If you want to know more about the story of John M. Perkins’ life, here is a biographical film made about him:


Happy Juneteenth!

In this time of racial unrest, where genuine, peaceful efforts at positive reform get intermingled with violence and ideologically-driven “critical theory” gone mad, it is difficult to parse through what Christians can actively support, versus those things we should reject. However, today marks an emerging holiday celebration that we can all get behind: Juneteenth.

On June 19, 1865, Unions troops led by Major General Gordon Granger, entered Galveston, Texas, to officially deliver and enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. The Emancipation Proclamation had been first declared in January, 1863, but the Civil War delayed efforts to effectively announce that enslaved persons throughout the “slave states” had been freed. Now that General Robert E. Lee had surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox a few months earlier, the way was now clear to more peacefully correct the injustice endured by countless African Americans.

It is important to remember, though, that Juneteenth was but one step towards racial reconciliation. When the Emancipation Proclamation was first made, in 1863, it ironically did not apply to Union-held territories in the South, at that time during the war. For example, in my hometown, Williamsburg, Virginia, the Emancipation Proclamation had officially freed slaves living in James City County, in Confederate territory, but it did not free slaves living in York County, which was then in Union territory. Therefore, slaves living south of Duke of Gloucestor Street, in James City County, were free, but slaves living north of Duke of Gloucestor Street, in York County, were technically not! It was not until the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, later in December of 1865, that slavery was officially ended everywhere in the United States, without exception.

In a way, the incompleteness of what Juneteenth accomplished underscores the fact that official proclamation might be one thing, but the reality on the ground can be something else altogether. Considering that America is still undergoing race related trials over 150 years after the end of the Civil War confirms this fact. The ramifications of racial-based slavery, that many Christians were complicit in, supported by the acceptance of some really bad misinterpretation of the Bible, has had far reaching effects beyond questions about race, that plague us today. We as Christians would do well in continuing to remember Juneteenth.

On my bike ride today, I rode near the Charles City County, Virginia courthouse. Charles City County is one of the oldest communities, founded by the English in the early 17th century. It is also home to several stately plantations, that dot along the James River, a few of which are open to visitation today. These plantations were supported by hundreds of African American slaves, whose descendants make up the majority population in the county. Below is a photograph I took of the Confederate war memorial, with the newer courthouse building in the background. Below that is another photograph, taken only a few hundred feet from the courthouse, where Isaac Brandon, an African American with a wife and eight children, was awaiting trial, after being charged with assaulting a white woman. Brandon was taken from the jail and lynched by a white mob, in 1892, on a tree, on this hillside. No one from the mob was ever charged or arrested for their activities.



George Floyd, Robert E. Lee, and the Danger of Forgetting History

Events surrounding the tragic death of George Floyd, a victim of police brutality, have triggered a massive wave of protests across America, and across the world. Even more despairing, extremists on both the far right and far left have taken advantage of the situation, igniting hatred by attempting to hijack the protest movement, through senseless acts of violence, that only makes the situation worse for the poorest among us. The misinformation, often relayed through irresponsible use of social media, and media in general, has generated confusion in the process, leading to some misguided response by law enforcement. We live in desperate times.

Even in my home state, the crisis has reached a boiling point in nearby Richmond, Virginia, the home of the Confederacy. As marchers have descended on Richmond, there have been long-standing calls for the removal of confederate statues along Richmond’s famed Monument Avenue, a prominent feature of the Richmond landscape. The most significant of these statues is that of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, dressed in full military regalia, mounted on his horse, Traveler.

Virginia Governor Northam announced today that he will seek removal of that statue.

There are mixed thoughts here. On the one hand, the Confederate “Lost Cause” narrative has itself hijacked the story of Robert E. Lee, thus serving a particular version of history, that has fueled unchecked racist-oriented police brutality for decades. THIS MUST STOP. On the other hand, by removing the statue we are endangering our collective memories, by threatening to silence the story about Lee that needs to be told and re-told. If God can chasten and change a man like Robert E. Lee, God can change the heart of anyone.

Robert E. Lee fought for the Confederacy, defending his native Virginia, but like many in his day, he was conflicted about slavery. He came to the conclusion that God, in his providential way, would judge him personally, regarding the outcome of the war. When defeat of the Confederacy became imminent, Lee concluded that God had judged against him, and that upon to returning to Richmond, he should take off the military uniform and work for peace and reconciliation. He spent the remainder of his life in civilian attire, promoting the restoration of college education in the American South.

Might I suggest that Governor Northam consider replacing Lee’s military statue with a different statue of Lee in civilian clothing, as Lee, the Chastened Soldier turned Educator?  Inaccurate and incomplete knowledge and ignorance of history has impoverished our communities, particularly in our churches. In our efforts to rectify the wrongs of history, let us not forget the lessons that such history teaches us.

I have included some links below to previous Veracity posts, that tell the story more fully:

Here, we learn about the last time Robert E. Lee wore his Confederate uniform, and put it away forever:


The Madness of Crowds

In the introduction to his brilliant book, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity, British author Douglas Murray, begins by saying:

“We are going through a great crowd derangement. In public and in private, both online and off, people are behaving in ways that are increasingly irrational, feverish, herd-like and simply unpleasant….”
“[Yet] the origin of this condition is rarely acknowledged. This is the simple fact we have been living through a period of more than a quarter of a century in which all our grand narratives have collapsed.”

“One by one, the narratives we had were refuted, became unpopular to defend or impossible to sustain. The explanations for our existence that used to be provided by religion went first, falling away from the 19th century onwards.”

“Then over the past century the secular hopes held out by all political ideologies began to follow in its wake. In the latter part of the 20th century we entered the postmodern era. An era that defined itself, and was defined, by its suspicion towards all grand narratives. However, as all schoolchildren learn, nature abhors a vacuum, and into the postmodern vacuum new ideas began to creep, with the intention of providing explanations and meanings of their own.

What makes Murray’s observations so strangely poignant, is that he is not a professing Christian. Rather, he is an openly practicing gay atheist. Yet Murray manages to highlight the following quote, by G. K. Chesterston, a Christian, who was also one of the most profound cultural critics of the modern world, back almost exactly 100 years ago:

“[The] special mark of the modern world is not that it is skeptical, but that it is dogmatic without knowing it.”

Chesterton had prophetic insight in his own day. Douglas Murray revives that same insight for where we are in the 21st century.

In The Madness of Crowds, Douglas Murray lays out what he sees is a new, post-modern religion, that has sought to supplant Christianity in the West. But it has only starting to emerge, with its full-throated dogmatism, somewhere within the past ten years or so.

I recall about ten years ago, when the controversial Mormon and conservative news commentator, Glenn Beck, cautioned Christians to beware of churches that promote diversity and social justice. “I beg you look for the words social justice or economic justice on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words…

My response to Mr. Beck’s critique then, just as it is now, is that Mr. Beck simply does not understand what the Bible is talking about, when it is talking about “social justice,” or specifically, “justice.” As I had learned years ago, the language of “intersectionality” and “identity,” as interpreted through the lens of Scripture, were simply intellectual tools, to help us to understand the fallen world in which we live, and make sense of the lived, life experiences of those who face oppression or misunderstanding, who have yet to experience the full reality of being made new creatures in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). As I have outlined elsewhere, the concept of “social justice” actually has its roots in the Bible.

But times have changed, and the pace of that change is unrelentingly fast. In particular, I have been increasingly learning, that words can alter their meanings over time, and such words can be spun very differently, in different contexts. What were once merely helpful intellectual tools have morphed into becoming ideological markers, whereby rationality is sacrificed on the altar of sentimentality, and justified on the basis of Neo-Marxist philosophy. When the Biblical concept of social justice gets uprooted from its essentially Christian, Scriptural context, a new religiosity gets formed, promoting a form of dogmatism, just as bad, if not infinitely worse than the most wooden, legalistic forms of Christian fundamentalism.

What is so scary about this, is just how pervasive it is in all levels of society. Take for example, this easy experiment that Douglas Murray shows in his book, as to how Silicon Valley has embraced this new religiosity, and smuggled it into our iPads and iPhones, without most of us ever knowing it. Type into Google’s search engine, “straight couples,” and look for images, and you will immediately notice that a large number of the top hits will be either gay or lesbian couples, with relatively few heterosexual couples to be found. On the other hand, if you type in “gay couples” instead, you will get exactly what you are looking for, countless gay couples, and no straight couples anywhere to be found. Nevertheless, we all know that “straight couples” far outnumber “gay couples” throughout society. So, why are the Google search results so skewed in favor of “gay couples” over and against “straight couples?”

This is “intersectionality” as an ideological project at work, going way beyond the more helpful notion of “intersectionality” as a tool. In oh-so-subtle ways, the world of social media is forming our minds, with the new religion defining the new dogmatism. The supposedly unbiased nature of machine learning algorithms, that tech giants like Google (and they are not alone!!) use to sort their search results, are being employed to further this post-modern agenda.

One could suggest, as Douglas Murray does at times, that such language of “intersectionality” and “identity” has always been rooted in non-Christian, Marxist ideology. Yet this would be news to the writers of the Old and New Testament, such as when Christians make reference to the fact that Christians have a new “identity” found in Christ, as taught by the Apostle, in 2 Corinthians 5:17, mentioned above. But we now live in a world where the new forms of social media, driven by Silicon Valley, available 24/7 on our smart phones, are causing a whole new generation of young people to lose those long held connections to a Christian frame of mind.

Murray’s point is well taken, in that much of the talk of “intersectionality” and “critical race theory” today is decidedly not Christian today, but rather unashamedly Neo-Marxist. In his 1960s “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King Jr. argued for a Christian vision of a colorblind society. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But Murray’s central contention in The Madness of Crowds is that the contemporary, ideologically-driven “social justice” movement has flipped King’s colorblind vision upside down upon its head, and freedom of speech has suffered as a result.

The silencing and bullying that seeks to suppress free speech is horrifying enough. The fact that such promotion of this type of “intersectionality” rhetoric shows very little, if any shame, only heightens the analysis that Douglas Murray displays in his prose. But it is not merely shameless, it is frankly unbelievable, or as the title of Murray’s book suggests… it is madness.

Perhaps the most troubling message in The Madness of Crowds comes in Murray’s chapter on “On Forgiveness.” In this new, ideologically-driven “intersectionality” movement there is no opportunity for forgiveness. Once someone has been identified as being a person of privilege, due to their gender, race, etc., the only “moral” way forward is to ally with the identified non-privileged. If such a person of privilege “sins,” in this religious paradigm, not even an apology is acceptable.  Even “sins” of the past can never be forgiven. Unlike the Christian faith, there is no opportunity for redemption. There is only condemnation. This new religion is a view of the world without hope or forgiveness.

The Madness of Crowds is not for the most squeamish. There were moments, when reading The Madness of Crowds, where the author was very explicit in matters delicate and morally degrading, to the point where I felt uncomfortable. But there is a purpose here. Murray is not gratuitous, for he chooses his words carefully to make his points, which are sadly necessary.

As an aside, in the Audible version of the title, Douglas Murray reads his own book. Just listening to the cadence and his British accent adds to the effectiveness of driving Murray’s argument home.

While The Madness of Crowds was not the most profound book I read this year, it is surely the best book I read that was released this year. Concerned and thoughtful Christians need to push this book to the top of their reading list.

I have Douglas Murray to thank, to help expose the elephant in the room, regarding how the post-modern phenomenon of political correctness and identity politics gone viral has poisoned the hearts and minds of so many in our day. Unlike Murray, I have not given up on what Murray calls “religion,” which I find to be the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as the true antidote to our difficulties today. Yet many Christians seem to be blithely unaware of what is being propagated, in much of the social media in our post-modern age. Sometimes, when the Church finds it so hard to figure things out herself, God can even raise up a gay atheist, to tell us the truth.

Get this book, and read it.

 

 


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