Christianity, the Bible, and Slavery: Some Candid Thoughts

Christianity, the Bible, and Slavery: Some Candid Thoughts April 15, 2024

April 16th is Emancipation Day, and it commemorates the ending of slavery in Washington D.C. in 1862 and the freeing of over 3,100 slaves.

That’s right: 1862!

That’s nearly 100 years after the founding of this country!

But wait, if you listen to Christians on the Right–those who thump the same Bible a certain presidential candidate is currently hawking–then you’ll likely hear how this nation was founded on Christian principles. Some even go so far as to emphatically say how America is a Christian nation.

How can that be? How can a “Christian principle” include slavery? Certainly, no self-respecting Jesus follower would advocate or even provide cover for something as insidious and dehumanizing as slavery!

Oh yes, they would!

Because for large swaths of Christians, the Bible > Jesus. And wouldn’t you know it! The Bible never out-and-out condemns slavery (which is the problem with a literalist hermeneutic). In fact, slavery is even something God dabbles in (but only when he needs a new Temple).

I remember the last Bible study I ever attended. It was one of those men’s groups where all dissenting views are openly welcomed and … oh, who am I kidding? It was no such thing. More like a fundamentalist circle-****. After reading a passage from a section of the Old Testament I can no longer recall–it was probably the section about the building of Solomon’s Temple–I simply asked, “Are we sure God told people to own these slaves?”

Oh, boy! You’d think these dudes were defending something that is … well … actually defensible:

“Slaves weren’t treated bad back then…”
“It was a different time…”
“The slavery of the US was much worse…”

Okay. Sure. I suppose there are degrees of slavery. And I’m sure Black folks in America have had the worst of it. But this is hardly a defense for biblical slavery, right? We are going to do better, right?

Bueller?

I suppose not…

Well, that was the last time I ever attended another event at that church. They just weren’t thinking hard enough about these issues. They lived in their privilege-bubble and it was easier for them just to prattle off apologetics and talking points rather than actually hear what they were saying (or, heaven forbid, listen to Black folks!).

To my mind, that is why Christians need to do two things if they want to get this issue (and others) right: 1) they need to take a queue from Jesus and read the Bible through the lens of a scapegoated brown victim who preached radical inclusion, love, empathy, forgiveness, and repentance, and 2) they need to develop morals and ethics that aren’t always derived directly from the Bible. In other words, they need to read outside of the Bible if they want to take their faith seriously.

Point 1 should be crystal clear. Jesus himself asks us to follow him, so it would behoove us to also follow him in how to approach and read the text. Isn’t that the main point of the story where the Risen Christ meets the disciples on the Emmaus road? Why do so many modern Christians not have this lens? That would be like a Buddhist who doesn’t follow the Buddha, or a Muslim who doesn’t take Muhammad seriously.

Yet, here we are.

Point 2 should also be fairly obvious. Slavery isn’t condemned explicitly in the Bible, yet we know better, so we should do better. God’s not gonna cut you down if you read outside the Bible and develop a set of ethics more in line with the love of Christ.

And yet … here we are, dealing with Christians who are more offended by that last sentence than the so-called “Word of God” being sold for $60 by criminally-minded snake oil salesman.

So, what do we do? As a post-Christian who reveres Christ, we must keep speaking out, we must keep fighting to do greater things than Jesus, we must keep working toward ending suffering for those around us, all the while battling the systems and powers that only use the name of Jesus as a prop (any version of Christianity that endorses slavery, racism, and oppression).

And yes, while Christian Nationalists would likely go back to the days of slavery if they could–one of them even came on this page and said, “I wish we could go back to the days of lynching people like you”–we press on and insist on progressing to a better place in society. Not so we can “go to heaven when we die.” But because it is the right thing to do in the here and now, and brings us ever closer to that mountaintop Dr. King spoke about all those decades ago.


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About Matthew John Distefano
Matthew J. Distefano is an author, blogger, podcaster, and social worker. He lives in Northern California with his wife and daughter You can read more about the author here.
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