Over the past couple of weeks, my personal devotion time has been spent in the non-Pauline epistles. Today I was re-reading 1 Peter and found myself gasping at the instructions he utters to slaves.
As a Christian who views Scripture to be divinely inspired, I can’t just chuck it out the window because it doesn’t mesh with my modern sensibilities. And yet, so many of the passages we read seem to have little relevance to our lives today, or in the case of 1 Peter 2:18-25, the subject matter and instruction are a direct violation of our faith sensibilities.
This passage appears in the middle of a household code the author is providing for Gentile believers living in what is modern-day Turkey. They had not been raised in the Jewish faith as the author and other early Christians had been and were not only learning to live in harmony with this new faith, but were learning what their identity was in relationship to Israel. Peter helps them along by providing this code–a common custom in the ancient world–which would define relationships to one another.
Peter’s household code essentially covers three broad topics: relationships with the government, relationships of a slave to his/her owners, and relationships between spouses.
It is that second topic that knocked me for a loop. Essentially, Peter tells slaves that they should submit to their owners and be obedient, regardless of how their owners treat them. He even goes on to suggest that those who are treated harshly by their owners are being glorified–that somehow, being abused by someone who hold total power over an individual, is proof that the individual is living in faithful harmony with God.
That passage always causes me to have a mini-stroke–but on a day when I had begun my Bible study after reading prayerfully through a list of the names of the young Nigerian girls who were kidnapped a few weeks ago, this was particularly hard to stomach.
I thought of those innocent girls–and I thought about the recent autobiographical account of Malala Yousafzai I recently finished reading–and I felt something deep in my heart break into a million little pieces.
By all accounts, my life has been one of privilege. I was raised in a middle class family in the United States of America by married parents who are still married. My mother and father are both well-educated and encouraged me to dream big and to seek the education needed to make my dreams come true. When I was sick, I had health care. When I laid my head down at night, I did so in a nice home. I never had to worry about being accidentally shot in a violent episode. I never had to worry about war. And the biggest obstacle standing between me and school was the allure of my bed.
But so many girls around the world don’t have that privilege. Malala and the Nigerian girls were targeted for no other reason than they were girls. They were deemed unworthy by men with guns and power–they were told their place was not in school room, but in a bedroom, a virtual sex slave to whatever man would purchase them for the purpose of “marriage”.
And then to read Peter’s words, telling such slaves to listen to their “masters”, to submit, to be obedient, and if treated harshly, to rejoice.
Of course, there was also a time in our country, not too terribly long ago, that this very passage was used to justify the enslavement of human beings (read: Nigerian girls). It was claimed that slavery was ordained as a natural human condition by God–that God intended for some people to be held in slavery and that it was the God-given duty of those slaves to be obedient and to take their harsh treatment with humility and without complaint.
This was such an important and divisive issue in the history of our country that brother took up arms against brother. It nearly tore our young country apart. And through the devastation and the difficult years of rebuilding that have followed, I would like to think we’ve gained a much clearer image of God and God’s relationship to us.
Now, it is pretty much universally accepted that slavery is wrong–despite the fact that it still happens. When bandits and terrorists kidnapped hundreds of little girls from their school rooms, we all pretty much had the same reaction: How is this happening in the twenty-first century. This isn’t right. This is sickening.
And yet, our own holy book reminds us that it is a shameful part of our own recent history.
So what has changed? What has changed in our understanding that we now can look at passages like that of 1 Peter and know that despite what the apostle is saying that it is not the will of God than any human being be sold into slavery?
When you look at the passage out of context, it looks pretty persuasive. God means for some people to be slaves. Slaveholders throughout the ages have clung to passages such as this one as proof that they are righteous in their actions. But taking a passage out of context is always dangerous territory.
We can essentially choose any idea and cherry-pick a handful of verses that will justify our stance–The Westboro Baptist Church does it to justify their theology of hatred, slave owners in the American South did it to justify the inhumane treatment of an entire race of people, and on any given day Christians are doing it today to defend their ideas. It’s a practice called prooftexting, and it gets us nowhere. Worse yet, it stands between us and God.
Instead, we have to learn to let scripture inform us of God’s expectations for us. And we must read any given scripture in relation to the Bible as a whole.
When I read 1 Peter, I have to ask myself for what purpose God created us? Plain and simply, God created us, male and female, in God’s image–how can we justify enslaving any part of God’s divine image? That alone renders 1 Peter’s words of advice to slave false. And as we look through the rest of scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, we see God constantly seeking justice for humanity. God hears blood crying from the ground and comes seeking the one who shed it, God hears the cries of those who are oppressed and seeks to free them, God sees the suffering of humanity and becomes flesh and blood to suffer for us.
Outside of a handful of passages here and there, God’s overwhelming concern seems to be on behalf of those who have been stripped of power (widows, orphans, etc…) and on seeking justice for those who have been oppressed.
Humanity created slavery and with it we have created a great deal of suffering and evil. It was not God’s will. There were no slaves in the Garden.
Our country was built on the backs of slaves, but as time passed and God’s true will became more and more clear, it was evident that this was wrong. Slowly, people began to see the horrid and gory mistake that had been made, how God’s divinely inspired word was being twisted and perverted to endorse a practice God would never condone–thanks to brave souls like Frederick Douglas, Sojourner Truth, and many others, we began to see a human face and a human soul within the most oppressed in our society–God was shining forth in those eyes as they stood courageously in the face of persecution to advocate for their brothers and sisters still held in shackles.
Sadly, when the Nigerian girls first went missing, we didn’t pay attention. It wasn’t until the people of Nigeria cried out to the heavens so relentlessly that we began to listen.
And I hope, that as we continue to listen, we will hear God’s word to us through those agonized voices–God’s will is not for them to suffer, but for us to hear their suffering and to seek justice. And until God’s justice is served, until every last girl is brought home, until every last human being on the face of this planet is seen as being a part of God’s image, we must suffer with them. We cannot hide in our privilege lest we lose sight of our own divine image.
I can say that Peter was mistaken–it was never the place of slaves to submit, but our place to demand justice. Peter put the burden of survival on the wrong individuals. God’s purpose has always been for justice. Let us demand it from every corner of this world until it shakes the very foundations of the earth–until no band of terrorist or no army can stand against it.
May we never rest until every little girl is free.
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