Charlottesville, Slavery, and the Scriptures August 18 2017

(Part of BCF’S blog series: “Society, Selflessness, and the Scriptures")

I have been watching with a combination of amazement and horror as events in Charlottesville, Virginia have unfolded this past week. I grew up about 30 miles away, just over the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Shenandoah Valley – a quiet, serene, family-oriented place.  Nothing much ever happens there, at least not that you hear about.  The closeness of this event to my hometown somehow compels me to write about it here, and to bring the Scriptures into view as we think about what has happened in Charlottesville.

Virginia has a rich history.  It is the home state of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry (of “give me liberty or give me death” fame), James Madison (and Dolly), James Monroe, George Mason, Booker T. Washington (founder of the Tuskegee Institute), and many others, including Robert E. Lee. Virginia was also part of the Confederacy, on the wrong side of the slavery issue, which brought about the most brutal internal conflict the American homeland has ever seen.  The discrimination lasted far too long, and I well remember seeing remnants of it through my growing up years.

What strikes me is how relevant the message of Christ is to this situation and how radical it must have been to first century society, where prejudices existed in a number of forms.  If we had seriously heeded that message, the scourge of slavery could have been avoided.  Did slavery exist in Jesus’ day?  Absolutely.  Did prejudice against other cultures exist, and against women and children?  Yes.  Discrimination against the blind, the poor, and the infirm?  Definitely. Jesus and the New Testament writers acknowledged the existence of slavery, and Jesus even referred to it in some of His parables. But this does not mean that they endorsed or condoned it.  Yet the message of Christ in the New Testament did not focus on political solutions to slavery.  Rather, the message focused on transformation of the human heart in a way that could, as a byproduct, transform societies. The focus was on the principle that, no matter one’s heritage or state in life, we are all equal and precious in God’s sight.  As stated in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Jesus used a person of mixed ethnicity as the example of compassion that we still refer to today as the “good Samaritan.” Paul himself showed his compassion for the slave Onesimus, whom he had led to Christ while in prison.  Paul made an impassioned plea for Philemon to have mercy on Onesimus who returned to his master, urging Philemon to receiving him as a “beloved brother.”  
“For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.  If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me.  But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account;” Philemon 1:15-18

Sadly, greed is a great motivator, and the prospect of wealth, success, and economics, at both a personal and a governmental level, drove people to kidnap hundreds of thousands of human beings from Africa and sell them in America, England, and other countries.  Also sadly, some people, even Christians, compromised their principles, as slavery became a way of life in some areas.  Even though many slaves may have been treated well, there is no justification for selling human beings as a commodity.  Some of the Old Testament references to slaves, many of whom became that way as a result of military conquest, is another topic for another day.  Suffice it to say that the preponderance of Scripture is quite clear both that there are to be no prejudices in the Christian faith, and that both slave and master can be a powerful witness for the Lord in the way that they live (Ephesians 6:5-9).  The parallel of today would be employee and employer.

While we are aware of the dark side of slavery, history has seen some shining examples of principled leaders, motivated greatly by their faith, who put countries on a path to ending this scourge.  The most notable in America was, of course, Abraham Lincoln.  President Lincoln, who was a student of the Scriptures, had many memorable quotes about slavery in his speeches and letters, the most iconic of which is: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  But the President also had these:

  • “Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, cannot long retain it.” April 6, 1859, Letter to Henry Pierce
  • “In giving freedom to the  slave, we  assure  freedom to the  free  -- honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth.” December 1, 1862, Message to Congress
  • “If God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and wills also that we of the North as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God.” Letter dated April 4, 1864 to Albert Hodges

 In Great Britain, William Wilberforce was one of the primary legislators responsible for ending slavery.  He had become an evangelical Christian in 1785, leading to major changes in his lifestyle and a lifelong concern for reform.  He headed the parliamentary campaign against the British slave trade for twenty years until the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807.  In later years, Wilberforce supported the campaign for the complete abolition of slavery, and continued his involvement after 1826, when he resigned from Parliament because of his failing health. That campaign led to the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which abolished slavery in most of the British Empire; Wilberforce died just three days after hearing that the passage of the Act through Parliament was assured. He was buried in Westminster Abbey (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Wilberforce).

While local officials will need to navigate through the debate on how to deal with statues and remembrances of an ugly period in American history, we have the great privilege as believers from all walks of life (black, white, Hispanic, Asian, native American, Asian Indian, and a myriad of others) of being one in Christ.

This topic brought back memories of the children’s song that goes:
    Jesus loves the little children,
    All the children of the world;
    Red and yellow, black and white,
    They are precious in His sight
    Jesus loves the little children of the world.

My wife Shashi, being brown-skinned, says that in her family they would sing “Red, brown, yellow…”  It is so simple a song, but so profound and true, as we are reminded from Jesus’ embracing children when others wanted to turn them away: “for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Mark 10:14).

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Steve Smith