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Saturday, September 23, 2017

What Does Your Proof Text Prove? (3)

Jessica Misener at Buzzfeed wrote a piece a while back on “shocking Bible verses” and happened to include this one:

“Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.”

Jessica’s tongue-in-cheek characterization? “Slavery rocks.”

God and Slavery

I take it to mean she’s insinuating, as many do, that God approves of slavery.

That’s a subject we’ve dealt with over the years at ComingUntrue extensively, here, here and here (I think we currently have nine posts on the subject if you include this one), and we’ve rebutted Jessica’s position time and time again. But let’s forget the theology for once, and forget about how approving of slavery might affect our concept of God, and speak purely about Peter’s advice to slaves as a practical matter.

This text might prove a lot of things, but it certainly doesn’t prove God approves of men who enslave their fellows today. The verse itself speaks of a hypothetical “unjust” master, and refers to enduring sorrows while suffering unjustly. Whatever crossed the minds of slaves reading the apostle’s words for the first time, it probably wasn’t that Peter was endorsing slavery, or that he was taking their situation lightly.

The Rebellion Option

It may come as a bit of a shock to a poorly-educated millennial living in a 21st century liberal democracy, but there have been times and places in history where men and women were not free to take to the streets with pickets or to stage a sit-in when they wanted to make a political point about injustice. The first century Roman empire was one of those places.

Professor Keith Bradley argues that up to 1/3 of its population were enslaved at any given time. Spartacus’ famous slave rebellion in 73-71 B.C. led to the death of its leader, the crucifixion of thousands of slaves, and the complete suppression of the rebellion.

Not much of a solution there.

The Revenge Option

Bradley goes on to tell of an anonymous slave who murdered his master in the mid-first century, shortly before Peter wrote this letter to fellow believers. The Roman response was not to put the murderous slave on trial, but rather to kill all 400 of his fellow slaves, many of whom were not even aware of his actions. After all, they had failed to defend their master.

Probably not a viable option unless you’re on a suicide mission and don’t much like your friends and family. “Think about the political statement your deaths will make! Think about the legacy you’ll leave to posterity! Think about the empowerment!”

Yeah. Not gonna sell that line of reasoning to many. Not unless you can throw in 72 virgins or something equally motivating.

The Unproductiveness Option

So I’m a bit confused: since when is it bad advice to counsel someone to “endure” a situation that almost surely cannot be changed at all, and where even the attempt brings a huge risk of loss of life to yourself and others who may not share your enthusiasm for revolt? One doesn’t need a dictionary to confirm that “enduring” does not mean “approving” or “validating”. It means suffering through a bad thing.

With no other ways to “empower” themselves, or to “forcefully express their humanity”, as Bradley puts it, slaves frequently took revenge in the only ways open to them.
“Owners complained that their slaves were lazy and troublesome — instead of working they were always pilfering food or clothing or valuables (even the silverware), setting fire to property (villas included), or wandering around the city’s art galleries and public entertainments.”
For a slave in the Roman empire, acting out on the sly was as good as it got.

Not Making Things Worse

So, for just a moment, put yourself in the sandals of a first century Christian slave, used to watching his fellow slaves cheat, embezzle, lie, misuse resources, and generally work against the interests of their master at every opportunity. In the end they are miserable, petty and accomplish nothing useful. Meanwhile, you have embraced the teaching of a Jewish rabbi who instructed his followers to love their enemies, and to pray for those who persecuted them, who had lived out every word he preached, and who had as a result (you believe) been exalted to the right hand of God and would one day return to rule over the earth that rejected him. Further, he offered you, a lowly slave, a place in his eternal kingdom ... as a free man.

Given your beliefs and your circumstances, how exactly could serving your earthly master respectfully and efficiently in the meantime make your life worse? Answer: It couldn’t, and it might even result in the sort of small rewards that would make your life and the lives of others around less miserable. Even better, it would be entirely consistent with the life and teaching of your real Master.

I’m failing to see what alternative Jessica might have proposed for this slave. (Answer: none.) Peter’s advice might be the kindest thing one could say to a Christian in that position. It assured him that even if his good behaviour didn’t serve to make his own situation better, God was pleased with him, and that ultimately there was a reward to be had for his godly conduct.

What Peter’s advice doesn’t do is endorse the institution of slavery. Not one bit.

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