Slavery - or, how not to read the Bible

Brenda Rockell
Sunday, 8 July 2007

Video clip - trailer for Amazing Grace.

I haven't seen this movie yet, but I plan to. I know I'll cry no matter how dry it is, because there'll be bagpipes playing 'Amazing Grace', and because I cried watching the trailer on the computer in my office. Blame that one on the baby. And, even if it's a really sentimental, naive take on the issues, I still think it'll be worth seeing as a reminder of the power of persistent advocacy, and the terrible wrongness that was and is slavery in our world.

I want to offer a series of short reflections on the issue of slavery this morning, because I think it raises some very important questions for our world, and the role of the church in the world.

This year marks the 200 year anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade - a trade  in which many thousands of Africans were herded like cattle on board ships and trafficked to North America to work as slaves on farms and plantations there - assuming they survived the journey. This trade was abolished first by Britain, and then in America, due in no small part to the faith and vision of William Wilberforce, who is the main character in the film.  But, it was another 60 years before the American Civil War put an end to slavery in the American South, and another century after that Martin Luther King died in the fight for freedom and equality for American blacks.

There were many sets of interests that aligned themselves in favour of slavery. The first and probably most significant were financial interests - those companies and individuals and also states and nations, who profited from the traffic of human beings. Many people depended for their prosperity on the ongoing slave trade - not just a handful of unscrupulous individuals, but whole systems of enterprise and livelihood that depended on slave labour to be successful. Ordinary people, who maybe couldn't see the direct link, but whose overall standard of living relied on the prosperity of the nation, which in turn relied on the slave trade. As one politician says in the film trailer: 'If we were to outlaw the trade tomorrow it would bring financial disaster.'

Another important pro-slavery interest was Christianity. Not universally - in America, at the forefront of the abolitionist movement, the Quakers and Mennonites were very strong in activism. William Wilberforce was a man of faith, and as the film suggests, his teacher was John Newton, the former slave ship captain turned preacher who wrote the hymn Amazing Grace. These are the heroes that we like to point to as our forefathers in the faith, and indeed they are. And yet, and this would have been particularly in the American South, there were Christian teachers and congregations who argued from the Bible that God approved of slavery - or at the very least, did not disapprove. As Christians who have - most of us - been formed by the more conservative end of the church, this is also our legacy.

It is easy to argue a case for slavery from the Bible. There is no outright prohibition against slave owning, and in both the First and New Testaments, slaves and masters are addressed as normal parts of the social fabric. In fact, several of the NT epistles seem to accept a system of masters and slaves, and simply counsel how Christians in one or other position might conduct themselves. More than once, Paul addresses 'slaves' and 'masters', and while his approach can be seen as fairly enlightened in his own context, urging masters not to mistreat their slaves, especially if they're Christians, and affirming that in Christ there is 'neither slave nor free', he nowhere critiques the practice of slavery as a social norm.

If you read the Bible literally, the pro-slave lobby probably had the stronger case. However, it is also possible to see in the overall sweep of the Bible the seeds of the abolitionist conviction, seeds that could only germinate in the right social context, which was not the first century. That is, social change, and the growth of a certain kind of conscience and understanding, enabled people to see in Jesus' teaching, in other parts of the New Testament, and the Hebrew scriptures, the foundation for a more just approach to human life.

These realisations included the equality of all people before God, as made in the image of God. Slavery, of course, relies on the idea that some human lives are less important, or even less human than others. In 1787 the US constitution declared that a male slave counts as three-fifths of a man.

Also, the 'golden rule' of our faith makes slavery ridiculous. In the Hebrew Bible, we constantly hear God's prophets reminding the Israelites that they themselves had been slaves in Egypt. Their laws and actions were always to be based on this memory of their own suffering. Then we have Jesus - do to others what you would have them do to you - a formulation that's part of all the world's religions. Love your neighbour as yourself. Would we want to be slaves? Is that a life we would choose for ourselves? If not, why would anyone accept situations where others are being forced to accept that status?

And, we have the prophets & Jesus' teaching about debt...which was consistently harsh on those who exploit those in debt or make it impossible to pay back. Indentured labour as a result of debt was a hard reality in Jesus' day, and he addressed himself to the concerns of the peasants who he spoke to most often. The line in the Lord's Prayer 'forgive our debts' is not just 'spiritual' - it was a very real need, just as was daily bread.

I'd also like to think that a good social shift happening in our world is towards a vision of work as dignity - where a person's work is also in some way an expression of their real talents and interests...not just working for someone to fulfil their economic goals, but to contribute something meaningful to the world as a person with unique personality and perspective. Maybe this is a Western individualist luxury point of view, but I'd like to think that God made us different from ants in this regard.

Now, we know all this, and that's why slavery has been abolished in our world...right? Shouldn't we just be celebrating 200 years of enlightened thinking and moving on? Well, no. Not only is the legacy of slavery still very much a social issue in many places, but slavery itself is thriving in our globalised world. The modern day slave trade is illegal and underground, but even larger in scope than the slave trade of the 15th-19th centuries.

I can only gesture toward the problem now, there's more reading and learning I still have to do. But figures from Amnesty International and the UN put the number of modern day slaves at roughly 27 million people worldwide. Who is considered to be a slave? Those people who are in bonded labour - which means that their lives and those of any children born to them are owned by others as a workforce. Those children who have been kidnapped and forced to serve as soldiers. Those people who have been kidnapped and smuggled across borders by human traffickers. And sex slaves: women and girls who are lured from their homes and towns with the promise of real jobs, but find that they are trapped into prostitution with no means of escape. These people are usually living in conditions that are substandard, with no way of making enough money to free themselves, and frequently subject to abuse and violence.

There are various books out there on the topic and a number of web-based campaigns that are seeking abolition. (, and www.stopthe

So, what of the two sets of interests that supported the 'earlier' slave trade - where are they in relation to this new face of slavery?

As before, it seems clear that financial interests are driving some - not all - of modern day slavery - the kind of corrupt greed that wants to avoid paying just wages, or provide decent working conditions. But before we point the finger at the slave owners, and insist they change their practice, I think we need to notice how incredibly complex these relationships are. What are the global financial conditions that make owning slave labour the best option for business owners in poor countries? How do we contribute to that? What are the patterns of supply and demand that are operational in human trafficking, and in forced prostitution? How are our lifestyles buying into that?

I don't pretend to even begin to understand these issues. But I look at the end result, the life of an individual slave, and know that something needs to change, and even though my world in NZ feels far away from these stories, it probably isn't.  Human systems, such as our economy, need always to serve humanity, not the other way round. People cannot be allowed to become objects of consumption or exchange in the service of financial goals - including my financial goals and my perception of my own economic needs.

As for religious interests, I'm very pleased to be able to say that the church is right up there with the modern day abolitionist movements, taking a strong role. I don't hear any voices in the church advocating for modern day slavery.

But I want to pause here, and before I close, I'd like to reflect on what has really changed in some parts of the church with regard to the way we think about social issues, and how the Bible comes into that. Is there anything to learn from the way that some Christians were so emphatic in their support of slavery all those years ago?

The reason nobody seriously defends slavery from the Bible any more isn't because the Bible has changed, or because the arguments were demolished on their own terms, or because that particular way of reading the Bible has changed within some parts of the church. Simply that society has so radically changed that it's impossible for anyone to think in the same grid any more. Basically, even though people like to pretend otherwise, there is no objective standpoint from which to interpret the Bible. There is no way of reading it that puts us outside what our time and place allows us to think.

Which forces me to ask - what are the areas where I, or my grandchildren, will look back and God, did we really argue that? Did I really defend that obvious an injustice? It was only very recently, after all, that some Christians in South Africa defended Apartheid on biblical grounds.

I am going to be speaking next week at a forum on the role of women in the church, and in preparation for that I have been re-familiarising myself with the kinds of arguments people make from the New Testament insisting that women should not have any kind of leadership or teaching role in the church, and should submit to the headship of their husbands in their homes. Having been out of this kind of loop for a while, I'm astounded that people are still talking like this, but they are.

While I understand that for many people the issues of women and gay people in the church are not parallel, to me they are, and I would argue that the same kind of relationship to the Bible that suppresses women in some parts of the church is at play in the discussions on homosexuality. And as a woman in the church, I feel fortunate that while people might say annoying things about my gender, nobody wants to tell me that God hates me because I'm a faggot. 

In recent copies of the NZ Baptist there have been two letters lamenting the way Christians have succumbed to the social evil of believing in global warming, or environmental risk. After all, we never know when Jesus will return, our eyes should be on heaven, and we should be out there saving souls, not saving the planet.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the child discipline bill as a piece of legislation, it was still very alarming to me to hear a sustained Christian voice objecting to it not on the grounds of law, but because they needed to defend their right to hit children as God's ordained method of discipline. Again, a proof-texting approach to the Bible was marshalled to support what is essentially violence.

I could go on. I'll stop here, because I've probably said enough to mark me out as a leftie pinko green-voting bleeding-heart liberal. But for me the issue isn't really one of where Christians place themselves on the political or moral spectrum, but the nature of their arguments. In particular, the way people use and abuse the Bible. It would be a whole other sermon to talk about different kinds of hermeneutics, and the relationship of the Bible and culture. And maybe I'll rustle one of those up some day. But for now I want to say that I think we need better ways of reading the bible than those bequeathed to us by our tradition in the evangelical church. Or we will always be in a defensive, reactionary position, ten (or even fifty!) years behind good social change, where instead we should be prophets, advocates and justice makers.

The Bible has within it a story and a direction that can be liberating and powerful - it's just that we  have been taught to read it narrowly. Too often the more conservative end of the church retreats into the kind of argument that boils down to 'The Bible says...' - as though there is some kind of pure interpretation, as though the Bible is not a complex set of ancient texts immersed in their historical, cultural, and religious assumptions. We can do better.

So, 200 years after the abolition of slavery - let's celebrate William Wilberforce and people like him who grasp a vision of God's liberating truth for humankind, and who work tirelessly towards change, in the face of massive opposition. Let's raise our awareness of modern day slavery, and ask ourselves as individuals, as a church...what might supporting abolition look like for us now? And let's remember, that while we claim Wilberforce and Newton and Martin Luther King as Christian saints, we also need to notice whether our Christianity, in particular our understanding of the Bible, sets out a vision worth struggling for, or whether it's actually guilty of perpetuating the injustices of the world.



For a good cry, try "The Live of Others" - a movie that not only has a beginning, middle and ending, but fairly much in that order, too.

I'm just trying to think if I can think of what the "overall sweep of the Bible" is, if anything. I know I can give it a "sweep", but I can also give it a sooty or two, as well. I'm not sure that the Bible has such a broad sweep. "In the Hebrew Bible, we constantly hear God's prophets reminding the Israelites that they themselves had been slaves in Egypt. Their laws and actions were always to be based on this memory of their own suffering." Well ... yes, and no. When the Hebrew prophets remembered their slave past, did they come up with freedom for all? Nope. They advocated not enslaving their fellow Hebrews, but completely overlooked those outside the community (see the narrative in Jeremiah 34.8-16). Those outside the community weren't candidates from freedom. If there is one "broad sweep" in the Bible, it is certainly "us and them". After Jesus, this exclusionary sweep because especially pronounced - not only is it "us and them" / "insiders and outsiders" for the term of your natural life - but this gets increased infinitely to all eternity. The idea of 'community' always makes exclusion the flip-side of love (2 Cor 6.14-18; 1 John 4.3-8).

So I think you can't simply abstract principles or a general direction from the Bible in order to oppose slavery and exploitation, but to some extent you have to transcend the Bible. You have to differ from the principles of the Bible to some extent, go beyond them, be better than what God's prophets and Jesus were saying, choose between the good and evil that the Bible teaches in its broad sweeping motions. And, many in Christendom do just this. As you say, "even though people like to pretend otherwise, there is no objective standpoint from which to interpret the Bible. There is no way of reading it that puts us outside what our time and place allows us to think."


P.S. Baby!? What baby???

I agree Deane - we need to critique the moral positions of the Bible as well as question our own lives by means of them.
However, I think the seeds of inclusion are present throughout - in the teachings in the FT about the treatment of aliens and strangers, and Jesus' slam dunk from the Samaritan woman about 'even the dogs...' I think Isaiah has a pretty broad, tending to universal, vision, while also containing difficult texts about the subjugation of foreign kings.
I think there is progression within Scripture towards greater levels of inclusion and justice - but the Bible also demonstrates the ongoing failure of people and groups to register this or act by it. And then you have the Johannine texts which I admit are pretty separatist.
I freely acknowledge that I engage in a practice of identifying the trends or threads or symbol systems that resonate with my own conscience or sensibility, and my own position in time, and build a theology on that basis!
I did enjoy the Lives of Others.
Baby due at Christmas.
xx brenda

I'm all for building my own symbol-system. Although, I'm probably closer to Eco or Iser when I do this than Fish or Humpty Dumpty. That is, there's constraints as well as creative enablers in the text.