Why didn't the Bible—and Paul specifically—make their calls for justice more obvious?

Why didn't the Bible—and Paul specifically—make their calls for justice more obvious?
Photo by Denin Lawley / Unsplash

Why didn't the Bible—and Paul specifically—make their calls for justice more obvious? Why doesn't Paul more obviously call for the eradication of slavery? Why do modern readers have to do exegetical dances to get Scripture to mean what we want it to mean?

Let's say you have an assignment: write a helpful and encouraging letter to a recently incarcerated person, staring down life without parole. What do you write?

Dear Jailbound Jimmy. Prisons should not exist. They are a product of the American incarceration and police industrial complex, designed to subjugate Black and Brown minorities. Here are the steps for how we should get rid of the Prison Industrial Complex...

Now, I suppose Jailbound Jimmy might appreciate that sentiment. But a letter like that does nothing to help him navigate the intricacies of social life in a prison. How not to not get a shiv to ribs. Etc. Your ideals may be true. But are they, at that particular moment, helpful?

When we read Paul (and Peter's) letters and instructions to the enslaved, we must begin with this fact: 90% of people in the Roman empire were enslaved or originated in someway from the enslavement system. This was not a theoretical concept for Paul’s audience. Most of the people hearing Paul's words were living in this reality on a day-to-day basis. They needed practical advise on how to live their lives.

I suppose there may have been an occasion where Paul could have waxed poetic about a society without an empire and a world without slaves. But the more immediate need was to speak on how to live in the society they had currently.

Let's say you write an email to your friend on how to buy a car. "Get one with good gas mileage," you write. And then—2,000 years later—some archeaologist reads your letter and says, "What a fool! How could they encourage their friend to buy something that uses gasoline? How could they call themselves a Christian and perpetuate the evil fossil-fuel based economy?!"

Of course, in the back of your mind, you would love for our society to move past fossil fuels. To invest in public transportation and neighborhoods where driving was less necessary. But the question at hand was, "How should I choose a car?" not "What idealistic car-free society should I hope for?"

Imagine you write to Jailbound Jimmy, "Listen to prison guards. Keep your head down. Don't make trouble." And, again, 2,000 years later someone reads your letter. "Listen to prison guards?! Prison guards are a symbol of oppression and systemic racism. Don't listen to the prison guards—take them down!"

Paul's words, "Slaves, obey your masters," are the words that you give to your friends and co-workers—the majority of which are enslaved—who you don't wish to see die an early death. Paul has made clear his vision of the church. The church is meant to be a place of utter freedom, without division, class, or divide based on identity. But the rest of the world doesn't know that and doesn't live by those values. So what do you do you do in the meantime? You obey your enslavers in order to survive, to show them the subversive love of the Gospel, and to believe that even enslavers have the Divine spark within them; so work for them as if you were working for Jesus.

But, but, but. Paul's not done. Now, keep in mind, the Roman empire did not look kindly on upsetting the social order. Roman philosophers saw reversing the social order as going against nature itself. Women by nature were inferior to men. Children by nature were inferior to parents. Slaves were enslave-able by nature. Thus the philosophers claimed. To advocate for a change in that social order could get you jailed, beheaded, or crucified.

Also keep in mind that letters could at any point be confiscated by the authorities. There was no such thing as personal property for anyone but the elite. If you're Phoebe or Luke or Epaphroditus carrying a letter from Paul in your cloak, you best be prepared to have a Roman centurion read it through and—if you're lucky—laugh at it and hand it back. Or—if you're not so lucky—destroy it and you.

This, by the way, explains the oddity of the book of Revelation. Revelation is the most political and revolutionary book in the Bible. But you better believe that John the Revelator wasn't going to write, "And then the Roman empire and emperor will be deposed and lose all political power." No, John writes about a dragon and a beast thrown into the Dead Sea.

Anyway, how can Paul speak to his belief that slavery is an abomination against God's Kingdom without putting his letter carriers at unnecessary risk? He writes this:

As for slaves, obey your human masters with fear and trembling and with sincere devotion to Christ....Serve your owners enthusiastically, as though you were serving the Lord and not human beings

As for masters, treat your slaves in the same way.

Or look at Colossians 3 and 4

Slaves, obey your human masters in everything...

Masters, grant your slaves justice and equality [Isotēs, which traditionally gets translated in Colossians 4 as "fairness," despite being translated "equality" in every other use in the New Testament and the standard glossaries].

Which Paul has already said what this should look like in Colossians 3:

Take off the old human nature with its practices and put on the new nature, which is renewed in knowledge by conforming to the Image of the One who created it. In this Image there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all things and in all people.

If that's true, then what does it mean for masters to treat their slaves with justice and equality? Would could it possibly mean?

Paul is as explicit as he can be when he gives instructions to Philemon on how to welcome back his runaway slave.

V. 15-16 Maybe this is the reason that Onesimus was separated from you for a while so that you might have him back forever—no longer as a slave but more than a slave—that is, as a dearly loved brother.

What we're reading is called Encoded Resistance. It's the way oppressed people must speak to one another when they are under constant threat of persecution or death. It explains old Black spiritual songs and encoded messages about an underground railroad. Imagine getting angry that enslaved folks weren't more out loud about their attempts to become free. Of course they used encoded resistance. Their lives depended on it!

So imagine the anger Paul would feel if he saw American enslavers using his words of "justice and equality" used to keep people in slavery?

And imagine the frustration he would feel if he saw modern people throw his words away because they would rather let the oppressors define his words than do the work and Seize Hermeneutical Control. To bend the Bible towards love and justice. Which, in my opinion, is how it's bent already.

So, we must remember that just because someone misuses Scripture doesn’t mean that Scripture itself is wrong. It means the abuser is.

We remember that we should not surrender biblical interpretation to those who would use it to bring harm and oppression.

We remember that Paul had to write about both his ideals and his reality.

Anthony Parrott

Anthony Parrott

Washington, DC