Stephen Prothero’s CNN op-ed from earlier this month titled “On gay marriage, Obama, Billy Graham and a tale of 2 Christianities” touches on some of the points in the previous post here.
Prothero notes that the Rev. Billy Graham (or, at least, his children on his behalf) spoke out against marriage equality in North Carolina, citing the Bible as the basis of his opposition. President Barack Obama, a day later, cited the Bible in explaining his support for marriage equality. Prothero writes:
It is striking how closely this debate mirrors the slavery debate in antebellum America. Then, pro-slavery forces read key passages in the Bible in a “commonsense” manner and concluded that God was in favor of slavery. Meanwhile, anti-slavery activists, seeking after the “spirit” rather than the “letter” of the Biblical text, concluded that slavery flew in the face of both “love your neighbor” and the Golden Rule.
As Mark Noll argues in his book America’s God, the fact that the Bible seemed to most “commonsense” readers to support slavery brought on a crisis of authority that helped to produce what we now [call] liberal Protestantism. Many American Christians at the time just knew slavery was wrong, so they learned to read the Bible in a different way.
Well, to some readers the “commonsense” reading of the Bible seemed to support slavery. Others — usually those without a direct interest in the ginormous heaping scads of money involved in the continuation of Slavery, Inc. — regarded slavery as an atrocity that violated every principle they ever learned from the Bible, from the prophets, from Jesus Christ.
Those Christian opponents of slavery didn’t somehow “just know” that slavery was wrong — it seemed to them a gross denial of the Golden Rule. They read the Bible in a different way than the “commonsense” literalists who defended slavery, but it didn’t require some new, innovative form of liberal Protestantism. It simply required them to stop the “commonsense” practice of pretending that the book of Exodus didn’t exist or to stop relying on the “literal” reading that pretended Jesus did not announce his ministry by proclaiming Jubilee or …
Well, you get the idea. The truth is that plucking out prooftexts and clobber-verses to defend slavery in contradiction to the overwhelming sense of the whole of scripture is neither commonsense nor literal.
I mentioned in the previous post that anti-slavery interpreters of the Bible also often had a self-interested reason to read the Bible the way they did. In their case, that self interest did not involve the protection of vast wealth and huge profits without labor. It involved, instead, the deeply felt desire not to be treated as property.
“In reading my Bible, I found that the white man had no more right to make a slave of me than I have to make a slave of the white man,” Sam Sharpe wrote.
Sharpe “was a slave, a Baptist preacher, a freedom fighter and the main instigator of the 1831 Slave Rebellion in Jamaica which was instrumental in bringing about the abolition of slavery.”
“I would rather die upon yonder gallows than live for a minute more in slavery,” Sharpe also said, so I suppose one could argue that Sharpe’s exegesis was influenced by his personal dislike for having been a slave.
Or one could argue that his personal experience allowed him to see the Bible without the blinders of privilege that distorted its meaning for his pro-slavery fellow Baptists who were busily proclaiming their commonsense literalism.
I pick the second option.