Here is a story that just made national headlines, about my hometown, Williamsburg, Virginia.
Christianity Today magazine reported this week about “Black Baptists Discover Lost Cemetery in Virginia.” When I was in high school, my school bus would pass by a cemetery everyday. This cemetery just seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. There was no church building nearby. No other buildings. No houses. So, I always wondered what the story was about this place. No one on my school bus, a bunch of mostly white teenagers, knew anything about it either.
As it turns out, this particular cemetery was associated with an old black Baptist church, part of a community called Magruder, a few miles out of Williamsburg, near the current Interstate highway (I-64).
Magruder no longer exists.
Before the Civil War, several large plantations encompassed the area, along with a few small parcels of land owned by free African Americans. After the Civil War, slaves freed from these plantations stayed in the area and built these neighborhoods, all part of the Magruder community. The Oak Grove Baptist Church was founded there in 1887, when parishioners decided that walking a full three miles to attend Sunday services, at the First Baptist Church, in the Williamsburg town, was too inconvenient.
In 1941, as the United States entered World War II, the Navy eyed the property as the perfect place to build a Seabees training base for 26,000 officers and men, known as Camp Peary, which later became a CIA training facility. The African American families were forced to move, and the church buildings abandoned, leaving the cemetery behind. Many of those former Magruder residents settled in the community of Grove, on the other side of Williamsburg. A group from the Oak Grove Baptist Church moved to the area of Waller Mill, not too far from Camp Peary, and the large cemetery. But they had to vacate that property (again) when the new city reservoir was built.
During the time that the church was at Waller Mill, they acquired another parcel of land for another small cemetery. This small cemetery is the lost cemetery described in the Christianity Today article. Over the years, that church community has dwindled, and the site of that small cemetery was lost. In 2021, the lost cemetery was finally rediscovered. The Christianity Today article cites a William & Mary historian, Hannah Rosen, as saying that there might be over 1,000 lost African American cemeteries like this all over the country, most of them probably in a sad state of decay.
Recently, I wrote a blog post about the Confederate military general and educator Robert E. Lee. Controversy about various R.E. Lee statues and memorials have swirled around us for the past few years. But it is important to note that monuments to African American history are fairly rare. The remarkable thing about these Black church cemeteries is that they are mostly built with stone, which will make them more easily preserved, while they also serve as a powerful witness to how the Gospel has sustained these African American communities over the decades, despite being overshadowed by the history of racism in America. Making an investment in them is making an investment in preserving history.
A local television station tells part of the story about preserving the larger cemetery, that I passed by everyday on the bus to my old high school.
When I attended Washington and Lee University (W&L) in the 1980’s, I was drawn to the school’s sense of tradition, civility and honor. But I was only a few months into my freshman year at W&L, before I wondered if I had made a mistake in going to college there. I had walked passed by a fraternity one Saturday night, when they were celebrating an annual tradition of having a Confederate ball.
W&L was all-male back then, one of only five all-male colleges remaining in the United States (now we are down to only two all-male schools, Hampden-Sydney and Wabash College). The men of this fraternity had all rented Confederate military uniforms, and their dates wore elegant dresses, with hoop skirts, as they danced the night away. But when I later saw a few of my African American friends on campus (of which there were few at W&L to begin with), I realized that my friends might have felt a bit out of place at this school. They surely would not have fit in at that fraternity Confederate ball, as every fraternity man and respective date were strictly white caucasians.
I had already applied as a transfer student to a different school, when I stumbled upon some essays about the life of W&L’s second namesake, Robert E. Lee, the Confederate army general, who after the Civil War, essentially saved the struggling college from extinction. I read that the defeated Confederate leader did not support a type of guerrilla warfare that many of his fellow Confederates had advocated. Instead, upon surrender to General Grant at Appomattox, Lee turned his attention towards healing the rift between North and South. By promoting a concept of the “Christian gentleman,” it was through Lee’s presidency at W&L that the education of Southern men was seen as a way of seeking reconciliation after a bitter military conflict.
The Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia was removed in September, 2021. The power of symbols exercises tremendous influence over the human psyche: Some see the statue removal as an attempt to erase history, or more so, a desecration. Others see it as a liberation from a lie that has perpetuated a legacy of racism. But who really was Robert E. Lee, anyway?
R. David Cox’ The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee, which I reviewed a few years ago on Veracity, tells the story of a man conflicted by the ethics of slavery and yet loyal to his native Virginia. He had strong misgivings regarding the slavery system, but nevertheless supported the system, through his dedication to his Virginia homeland. There is no doubt that Robert E. Lee was a complicated figure. In the end, Lee saw the military defeat of the South as divine judgment against him, and therefore his service as an educator at W&L after the war stemmed from his Christian convictions.
It was the image of Lee “the Educator and Reconciler” and not Lee “the Southern Military Hero” that helped to inspire me to turn down the offer to transfer to a different college, and then finish my 4-years at W&L. Fast forward to the early part of the third decade of the 21st century, and the popular opinion regarding Lee’s legacy has shifted dramatically.
After the defeat of the Civil War, and before his death in 1870, Lee rejected any notion that he should be memorialized and statues set up depicting him as a great Southern military leader. Rather, attention should be focused on bringing the United States back together, and accepting the dissolution of the slavery system as the will of God.
The Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, was unveiled in 1890 (credit: Wikipedia)
Nevertheless, by the end of the 19th century, the myth of the “Lost Cause” had firmly taken hold in the imagination of Southern folklore, and statues of Lee had popped up all over the South, a deliberate attempt to recall the “glory days” of the Antebellum South. The most prominent statue, in my mind, was the 60-foot tall depiction of Lee on his famed horse “Traveller,” in the midst of a traffic circle along Richmond, Virginia’s historic Monument Avenue. The refashioning of Lee’s image was complete by then, as even Traveller was transformed from a moderate sized breed to a stronger, more muscular-looking thoroughbred. Needless to say, not everyone has been impressed with the symbolism represented by the Lee statues.
In the wake of the death of George Floyd in 2020, protests turned their attention in Virginia to that Lee statue on Monument Avenue. After quite a bit of legal back and forth, the statue was finally removed from the top of its pedestal on September 8, 2021. As the statue was lifted off of its perch, cheering crowds sang “Nah-nah-nah-nah nah-nah-nah-nah, hey-hey, goodbye!!“
So, how does one go about remembering someone who did not want to be remembered in the way he has been most often remembered?
People gather at the Robert E. Lee Monument on June 20, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. After 2020 protests graffitied the monument, a Richmond Circuit Court Judge ruled to extend an injunction preventing the Virginia governor from removing a historic statue. The injunction was later rescinded, and the statue was removed by Governor Northam nearly 15 months later, September 2021 (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
The Quest for the Historical Robert E. Lee
During the 20th century, most biography readers looked to Douglas Southall Freeman’s multi-volume, 1934-1935 Pulitzer Prize winning R.E. Lee: A Biography. Freeman was a great admirer of Lee, who seemed to imbibe the “Lost Cause Narrative” that tended to elevate Lee to an almost semi-divine status. So, by the time controversy over another Robert E. Lee military statue in August, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia, erupted into violence, a revisionist re-evaluation of Lee’s legacy was long overdue.
The often cited essay at The Atlantic, by journalist Adam Serwer, “The Myth of the Kindly General Lee,” published just weeks before the Charlottesville protests captivated the nation, is representative of this revisionist picture of the famed Confederate general. The subtitle for Serwer’s essay, “The legend of the Confederate leader’s heroism and decency is based in the fiction of a person who never existed,” pretty much sums up the disdain for Lee’s memory, as the honored military hero for the Confederacy.
A more fair and accurate portrait lies somewhere between Freeman’s distorted hagiography and Serwer’s campaign to dismantle any remaining virtue in Lee’s reputation. But where does one go to find a such a nuanced biography? Thankfully, former Gettysburg College and current Princeton University historian Allen Guelzo has set his sights on demystifying the matter with his expansive 2021 R. E. Lee: A Life. Allen Guelzo is an evangelical Christian, along with being a well-regard historian. Guelzo manages to bring out dimensions of Lee’s character and life that humanizes Lee in ways that others have not always done so.
Guelzo’s portrait of Robert E. Lee is framed around Robert’s attempt to distance himself from the shadow left by his revolutionary war hero father, “Light Horse” Harry Lee. “Light Horse” Harry was known to the general public to be a decorated military leader, serving under the Continental Army of General George Washington. But by the time Robert E. Lee was born, Harry Lee’s reputation had sunk. Robert’s father became known as a “swindler,” a man who speculated on various means of getting wealthy, encouraging others to join him, only to have such efforts fail, and force the family into debt.
When Robert E. Lee was only two-years old, his father was thrown into debtors prison. Robert’s father spent most of Robert’s young life trying to escape creditors. Robert hardly even got to know his father, as his father died while Robert E. Lee was still a child. Robert E. Lee endeavored to be everything that his father was not, except for the fact that Robert E. Lee chose to make life in the military a career. It took 50 years before Robert E. Lee made any effort to visit his father’s grave, and when he finally did so, he made little mention of his father’s grave to other members of the family.
Robert E. Lee refused alcohol, became exceedingly frugal with money, and determined to live a life of responsibility and duty. He vowed not to make the same mistakes his father did, and not leave his own children in the type of desperation that Harry Lee left him in. This characteristic of Robert E. Lee helped to shape some of the most significant decisions in his life, that would eventually impact the lives of thousands, if not millions, of Americans.
Partly through the influence of his mother, Robert E. Lee sought to honor the reputation of his father’s militarily most distinguished supporter, George Washington, even to the point of marrying into the Washington family, by marrying Mary Custis, a descendant of Washington. Lee made top honors at West Point, and served the U.S. Army as an engineer for decades, before coming into his own as a trusted supporter of General Winfield Scott, during the U.S.-Mexican War. Winfield Scott essentially became the father Robert E. Lee never had.
The death of Robert E. Lee’s father-in-law precipitated a crisis, that led to perhaps the most morally damaging act in Lee’s life. The father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis, a step-grandson to George Washington, had himself inherited a considerable amount of property, mainly associated with a large estate plantation at Arlington, Virginia. The late Custis had decided in his will to follow the example of his step-grandfather, and release all of the slaves that he employed within five years after his death. In addition, Custis left his daughter (Lee’s wife) and grandchildren significant property, but bypassed his son-in-law, Robert E. Lee, while still assigning Lee to be the late Custis’ executor. Lee effectively took this as a vote of “no confidence” by his father-in-law, though Lee would indirectly benefit. However, the situation was made awkward since a most successful transfer of the estate to other members of Lee’s family was contingent on the remaining years of service to be provided by the soon-to-be-released slaves of Custis. Still clinging to the desire not to leave his children in a financial distressing situation as his father had done for him, this put pressure on Lee to try to make more efficient use of those slaves, prior to their manumission.
In various letters, Robert E. Lee had made his opinion known, that while he viewed the slavery system to be a moral “evil,” he was not a supporter of urgent abolitionism, instead hoping that a process of gradual emancipation would eventually wind down the slavery system. When several of Custis’ slaves decided to try to escape the plantation, before the five years specified in the Custis’ will had expired, the slaves were caught, and in a fit of anger, Lee ordered that they be whipped for their premature release from slavery service, in order to teach them “a good lesson.” Lee’s otherwise steady, measured, moral disposition had cracked. It was apparent that Lee’s hopes for gradual emancipation would not necessarily be sped up by any intentional action on his part.
Robert E. Lee statue being removed from a New Orleans monument in May, 2017 (credit: Scott Threlkeld/ AP)
Choosing Sides: Why Did Lee Defend the Confederacy?
However, the most significant decision that Lee faced in his life, was driven by a complex set of factors. Upon the eve of the Civil War, Lee had faithfully served for decades in the United States Army, and he seemed to be the best candidate to assume command of the Union army, under President Lincoln’s direction. Lee’s fatherly mentor, the retiring General Winfield Scott, personally asked Robert E. Lee to consider the offer, on April 17, 1861. Yet in the conversation that Scott had with Lee, Scott held the opinion that a Civil War could be averted.
Even though many states in South had seceded from the Union, Lee’s home state of Virginia remain undecided at the time. Lee was hopeful that perhaps Virginia could foster some type of middle position between the radical Southern states, like South Carolina, and the Northern slave-free states, for negotiating some type of mediating solution between the extremes.
At the same time, Lee was concerned about his duty to his family, and his responsibility towards the Arlington estate, just across the Potomac River from Washington. Lee believed that the family property was endangered by both sides, as Arlington held a high ground position, which would have been perfect for Confederate artillery to overlook the federal capital. Likewise, the Union side also recognized the strategic importance of the family property as well. Nevertheless, the family property was legally in Virginia, and he felt a certain obligation to defend his native state. Lee’s initial response to Scott included this, “General, the property belonging to my children, all they possess, lies in Virginia. They will be ruined if they do not go with their state. I cannot raise my hand against my children.”
It was this sense of duty towards Virginia and primarily his family, and his desire to get out from underneath the shadow of his father, that pushed him towards supporting Virginia, and declining Scott’s offer to lead the Union Army, three days afterwards on April 20. Lee’s middle-of-the-road, Southern view, that wished that slavery as an institution would simply go away over time, did not have a significant role in Lee’s decision.
In summary, Lee’s views on summary were complicated and contradictory. He disliked the institution of slavery, but he did nothing to try to end it himself. Instead, he opted to take up a different offer to eventually command the Army of Northern Virginia. Interestingly, Lee kept the provision specified in his father-in-law’s will and released the remaining Custis slaves, in 1862, while the Civil War was well underway.
Nevertheless, once the die was cast, the effects of that decision bore consequences that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Lee’s plan for “winning” the war were straight-forward. If he could lead the Confederate Virginia army to shatter northern confidence, it could have led to some type of peaceful settlement between the North and the South. That was the best Lee could hope for, as he knew well that the North had more resources at their disposal than the South. The plan almost worked. However, defeats at places like Antietam and eventually Gettysburg shattered Lee’s plan, at the cost of many lives. Serious mistakes were made, included the loss of Lee’s orders before the Battle of Antietam, and an overly ambitious attempt to smash the Federals with Pickett’s charge doomed the Gettysburg campaign. Lee may have even considered a third attempt to humiliate the North, had it not been for Grant’s final campaign that eventually led to the capture of Richmond.
It is fascinating to consider what was going on in Lee’s mind, in the waning days of the Confederacy, when Grant was slowly tightening the grip around Lee’s army in Petersburg. Lee was desperate, and desperately short on men. So he petitioned the Confederate government to conscript, not just white Southerners, who been already been drafted into the Army of Northern Virginia, but African American slaves as well. Lee was quite firm in insisting that those conscripted slaves be given their emancipation, following the conclusion of their military service. This was certainly not well received by Southern slaveholders, who overwhelming rejected Lee’s request. Nevertheless, this one particular act suggests on the one hand, that Lee continued to have certain misgivings about the slavery institution, foreseeing its ultimate demise, while continuing to fight to preserve that very system.
The Lee I have come to appreciate, that of being the President of my Alma Mater, Washington and Lee University, following the Civil War is given a critical yet fair appraisal by Allen Guelzo. Like many if not most white American men of his day, both in the South as well as the North, Lee did not think very highly of the aptitude of most African Africans. Lee can not avoid the stain of racism. But you would be hard pressed to find exceptions to that, in the mid 19th century.
In Lee’s favor, as President of the then “Washington College,” he discouraged actions taken by Southern whites that would denigrate former slaves, even to the point of expelling white students who engaged in such behavior. Many white voices in the South probably would have preferred continuing on with guerilla war effort to resist the North, in the name of defending the Confederacy, but Lee’s wise judgment at Appomattox Courthouse, to cease hostilities, and move towards reconciliation prevailed. But Lee did not go out of his way to lift up the African American. Nevertheless, it can be genuinely said that Lee wished to put the tragedy of the Civil War behind him and refocus on the rebuilding of a United States, encouraging the students of the college to purse the life of being “Christian gentlemen.”
One looks back on Allen Guelzo’s R. E. Lee: A Life and sees a rather complex man, who sought to do what he believed was his duty, first and foremost for his family, who had a rather complicated relationship with slavery. Revisionists will often depict him as a defender of racial slavery, and traditional defenders of Lee will portray him as being a principled defender of states rights. Neither view is truly accurate. Both judgments are overstated and overly simplified, and thus they distort what should properly be remembered of the historical Robert E. Lee.
Lee’s motive of defending his children’s inheritance at Arlington, thus seeking to reverse the dishonorable legacy left to him by his absentee father, as the prime motivation for him joining the Southern cause, as argued by Allen Guelzo, stands out as a convincing and neglected aspect of Lee’s life. This does not diminish the fact that Lee was at least in some sense a traitor to the Union, and it’s army that he faithfully served for decades. But it does illustrate how one’s family history can deeply impact one’s moral decision making ability.
Furthermore, Guelzo portrays Lee as more of a cultural Christian, than a truly evangelical one, more so than I had originally imagined. A good case can still be made, even from Guelzo’s book, that Lee eventually took his faith more seriously, while he assumed the great responsibility for leading the Confederate military effort. His self-acknowledgment that God had used the Confederate loss to judge and chastise Lee should not be underestimated.
I would agree with the review of the book offered by biblical scholar Mark Ward, that R. E. Lee: A Life can help one see more clearly the faults of Lee, while still appreciating his many virtues. As the history of racism in America continues to have an impact on the Christian church, and the broader culture, R. E. Lee: A Life offers an important look into that history. Many books on Lee focus on his accomplishments as a military field leader, but R. E. Lee: A Life explores much more than that. Complicated he was …. Robert E. Lee has been branded as a traitor, who lacked a better sense of moral clarity regarding race and slavery, but still was enough of a Christian gentleman, who sought to serve and honor his family, out of a profound sense of duty, all at the same time. This type of balanced look at a person is sorely needed in our day and age.
To my embarrassment, I was completely unaware of Arthur Briggs, even though I DJ’ed a jazz show, on my college radio station, as an undergraduate. But there is a good reason why Briggs was so unfamiliar.
Though he was born on the island of Grenada, he made his way as a teenager to Harlem, during World War 1, and learned the art of jazz trumpet. However, America would not remain home for Arthur Briggs, as the pernicious effects of racism left him a strong distaste for American life. Briggs was most likely a descendant of London Bourne, an early 19th century African slave-turned-abolitionist, on the island of Barbados. Arthur Briggs had no patience for racist bigotry, so he no desire to stay living in America.
Arthur Briggs left America at the end of World War I to advance his career as a jazz trumpeter in Europe, where he finally settled in Paris, France. The years between the world wars were the hey-day for early jazz in Europe, and Briggs was at the top of his game. While the more familiar Louis Armstrong wowed audiences in America, Briggs toured nearly all of Europe with various jazz ensembles, but made his reputation primarily in Paris, where racism was much less an issue than it was in America. He played with the likes of guitarist Django Reinhardt and singer/dancer Josephine Baker. Briggs’ years in Europe explains why many like myself never knew of him.
The most challenging period of Briggs’ life was when Nazi Germany overran Paris in 1940. Briggs failed to escape Paris and was sent to a Nazi prison, at St. Denis, on the outskirts of the city, and spent the remainder of the war there. He experienced brutal dehumanizing conditions at St. Denis, along with the added insult of Nazi-imposed racism. Yet he survived the war, largely through the exercise of his extraordinary talents, which entertained his fellow prisoners, along with his Nazi guards and prison commanders.
Author Travis Artis introduces each chapter with a quote from the Bible, meaningful to Arthur Briggs, thus indicating a spiritual side to the great musician, but makes little emphasis on that aspect of Briggs’ extraordinary life. Better Days Will Come Again is a remarkable story of how one man stood up against the brutality of racism, excelling at his craft as a musician, as a crucial figure in the history of jazz.
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:
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?
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.
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.
“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.
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. They 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
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.
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.
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:
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. ↩
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.
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: