Where was the Kingdom for 400 years?
I’ve been reading a lot lately about the history of slavery in America, and how Christians participated in the practice – and even defended it biblically. I’ve learned how some enslavers evangelized their enslaved people, in hopes of making them docile; how others forbade Bible reading, lest the enslaved get wind of the Exodus story.
I’ve always been uncomfortable with the way the Bible seems to condone, or at least tolerate slavery. I knew there had to be an explanation, but as an evangelical, I’d been trained to take Scripture at face value and interpret it “literally” (i.e. “it means what we tell you it means”). I didn’t know how to explain the apparent “fact” that both testaments seemed to green-light the practice of enslavement, and no one addressed it.
I recently finished “Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope,” by Esau McCaulley. Dr. McCaulley taught me a whole new way of understanding the Bible, especially the Hebrew Testament, and showed me an interpretation of the enslavement passages – and other difficult passages – that have the ring of truth.
It’s just a few years since I left the evangelical world, so I’m still learning. Maybe this concept is familiar to you, but it was new to me.
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Enslavement and divorce
Dr. McCaulley used Jesus’ dialogue about divorce (Matthew 19) to answer the dilemma of slavery in the Bible. I will provide the passage, then quote McCaulley at length (the issue of divorce itself and the whole question of gender is outside the scope of this discussion):
Some Pharisees came to Jesus, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?”
He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?”
He said to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Mt 19:3-8).
“[Jesus] does not engage the text that his opponents have in mind—Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Instead, he turns to the opening words of Genesis. He speaks about God’s creational intent. The question, for Jesus, is not what the Torah allows, but what God intended. Jesus argued that before the fall there was no divorce and therefore we were not made for divorce. Instead man and woman were made to enjoy each other forever…
“Jesus shows that not every passage of the Torah presents the ideal for human interactions. Instead some passages accept the world as broken and attempt to limit the damage that we do to one another [emphasis added]. This means that when we look at the passages in the Old Testament we have to ask ourselves about their purpose. Do they present a picture of what God wanted us to be or do they seek to limit the damage arising from a broken world?…”
The Pharisees preferred Law-based responses to “sinners,” punishment to teach a lesson and discourage others from sinning. But Jesus’ priority was the restoration of God’s creational intent – ushering in the Kingdom.
When Jesus forgave the woman caught in adultery, received the tax collector, and honored those outside the Jewish tribe, he was demonstrating favor toward the disfavored – the last becoming first and the accusers heading to the back of the line. That’s what the kingdom of heaven is like (Matt. 20), and that’s the track that we need to pursue.
I have to believe that God never intended us to take individual passages from the Bible as literally God’s last and only words on every topic. If Scripture seems to say that an unjust practice is acceptable, then we’re not digging deeply enough.
The Bible seems to tolerate slavery, the subjugation of women, even genocide, yet none of those practices bears any resemblance to justice, mercy, or humility. The problem is not with the Bible, but with our interpretation.
We must wrestle with our understanding of Scripture, until we find God’s wisdom on how to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly” in all things.
(God’s wisdom is often not a simple instruction. Life in the Kingdom isn’t usually a matter of choosing the right words or actions, but of discerning ways to speak and act in love and in the direction of restoration. As I’ve said often, binary thinking, binary expectations, just oversimplify the nuanced world.)
Regarding abortion: Is out-of-wedlock pregnancy a result of the fall? How about the poverty and hopelessness that drive many women to abort? Instead of demanding a stop to abortion, let’s demand an end to its causes – by bringing an end to the poverty and inequality make it impossible for some to raise a family. Bring the Kingdom.
Regarding immigration: Is oppression a result of the fall? If yes, then we should not tolerate oppressive regimes, and until we fix them, we should in mercy shelter their victims. Bring the Kingdom.
Regarding racism and inequality: Is it God’s will that some people, due to their skin color and/or ethnicity, be treated as unworthy – or is that a result of the fall? If it is a result of the fall, then we should not tolerate hardship or discrimination among us. We should demand that those in need be lifted out of their misery and given the tools to succeed. Bring the Kingdom.
The level of mercy we must show in order to restore equality is enormous because we’ve been so merciless for so many generations (by “mercy” here, I mean providing some form of restitution and opportunity – as in affirmative action – to begin to bridge the opportunity gap).
America has sinned worldwide, “removing kings and setting up kings” (Daniel 2) as though we were God, devastating much of the world’s population. And America has sinned at home, keeping millions of its own in deep misery through policies that enrich the already-rich and take from the poor what little they have.
The magnitude of our failure to do anything constructive is in great part the fault of Christians. We have for generations blessed policies of oppression – slavery, mass incarceration, and worldwide brutality – when we should have done the opposite. The cost of redemption will be high, but we must be willing to pay it.
“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” – either these words mean something, or they don’t.
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- The inclusivity of heaven – according to Jesus