Can I trust the bible if it was used to justify slavery?
“Whoever steals a man and sells him....and found in possession of him, shall be put to death" - Exodus 21:16
The Bible & Slavery
Article By Brandon Cleaver RZIM Ministries
August 2019 marked the 400-year anniversary of when a ship carrying “20 and odd enslaved Negroes” arrived on the coast of the British colony of Virginia. Though these subjugated Africans’ legal status was as “servants,” this event is widely recognized in Anglo-American history as the catalyst for what would become one of the most deplorable institutions ever created: American slavery.
The New York Times Magazine recently produced a collection of articles examining the legacy of slavery in America, entitled the “1619 Project.” In one of the articles, Nikole Hannah-Jones recognized, “The shameful paradox of continuing chattel slavery in a nation founded on individual freedom...” While this perspicuous contradiction and its ripple effects on contemporary society are indeed lamentable, a similar enigma has persisted from the pre-Civil War era concerning the character of the God of the Holy Bible. The Africans who were the victims of this “shameful paradox” were habitually read portions of the Bible to substantiate the notion that their inferior status was rooted in a divine mandate.
James Pennington, a former slave during the 19th century who became a minister, orator, writer, and abolitionist, codified this concept and its implications in a poignant and impassioned manner in one of his sermons:
“Is the word of God silent on this... greatest of... curses?” he [Pennington] asked. “I, for one, desire to know. My repentance, my faith, my hope, my love, and my perseverance all... turn upon this point... If the word of God does sanction slavery, I want another book, another repentance, another faith, and another hope!”
Pennington’s sentiments were indicative of biblical hermeneutics that yielded an accepted culture of enslavement, torture, rape, kidnapping, family separation, and all manner of exploitation. Many Scriptures and books of the Bible (e.g. Philemon) were used as pro-slavery propaganda in justifying the enslavement of African people. Yet in the midst of these horrid conditions, many slaves still turned toward to Jesus Christ. Instead of merely adopting the heinous eisegesis of racial inferiority endorsed by the enslavers and many ministers, the slaves noticed an incongruity in the doctrinal messaging.
One notable former slave, Frederick Douglass, eloquently differentiated between the Christianity that became tethered to antebellum slavery, and the Christianity he (and others) discovered through personal readings:
“...between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land... Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity.”