Martin Luther King Jr., Slavery, the Bible, and Us

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Today is the day we have set aside to give national recognition and much deserved  honor to Martin Luther King Jr.

The battle for civil rights was fought on many fronts.

Dr. King appealed to us as Americans, taking us back to our founding documents which declare  the “self-evident truths that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”  Politically, Americans had to choose between being an American as defined by the Constitution and Declaration of Independence or being racist.

The civil rights movement was a spiritual movement.  Dr. King was also Rev. King. On this point, the matter gets more complicated.  You wouldn’t think so.  To our minds, slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, racism, prejudice just don’t fit with the Christian life.    It was not always so.

Growing up in Little Rock, I am well aware of the stain of a segregation mentality. Growing up a Southern Baptist, I was not aware until sitting in a Baptist History class in a Southern Baptist college that the founding of the SBC was all about slavery.  Foreshadowing the Civil War, white Baptists in the South separated from their northern counterparts on May 10, 1845, and formed the Southern Baptist Convention  in order to defend the South’s practice of and dependency on slavery.

Slavery was biblical.  Abolition, therefore, was sinful.

On January 27, 1861, Ebenezer Warren, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Macon, Georgia, delivered a sermon in which he said, “Slavery forms a vital element of the Divine Revelation to man.  Its institution, regulation, and perpetuity, constitute a part of many of the books of the Bible…The public mind needs enlightening from the sacred teachings of inspiration on this subject…It is necessary for ministers of the gospel…to teach slavery from the pulpit, as it was taught by the holy men of old, who spake as moved by the Holy Spirit…Both Christianity and slavery are from heaven; both are blessings to humanity; both are to be perpetuated to the end of time …. Because Slavery is right; and because the condition of the slaves affords them all those privileges which would prove substantial blessings to them; and, too, because their Maker has decreed their bondage, and has given them, as a race, capacities and aspirations suited alone to this condition of life ….”

Wow.  Such a view, a view which its holder claims to be grounded in Scripture, staggers my mind. But he wasn’t alone.

All you history buffs may know Mark A. Noll.  He authored, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.
Great read.
Eye-opening.
Instructive for us in regard to Bible interpretation and application.  The book is a case study in hermeneutics.

It seems that pro-slavery pastors and Christians appealed to specific Scripture verses in support of their position, while anti-slavery pastors and Christians appealed to the general Biblical principles of justice, mercy, and love to support theirs.

Henry Van Dyke, Presbyterian pastor in Brooklyn, wasn’t comfortable with the abolitionists hermeneutics.  Noll quotes him as saying, “When the abolitionists tell me that slave holding is sin, in the simplicity of my faith in the Holy Scriptures, I point him to this sacred record, and tell him, in all candor, as my text does, that his teaching blasphemes the name of God and His doctrine.”

The problem was, the pro-slavery folks had a lot going for them in the way of proof-texts (Exodus 21:20-21; Deuteronomy 20:10-11; 1 Corinthians 7:20,21; Ephesians 6:5; Colossians 3:22; 1 Timothy 6:1 to name a few).

The same verses and interpretation used to support slavery were used to support segregation a century after emancipation.

What then was the Biblical basis for Rev. King’s call to unity and equality?
What’s the Biblical basis for us making the same call?

The same basis used by the abolitionist…

Noll says that the abolitionists appealed to the “broad sweep of Scripture” moving away “from the Bible’s ‘letter‘ of sanction for slavery to its ‘spirit‘ of universal liberation.”  In 1861, abolitionist Gerrit Smith said, “The religion taught by Jesus is not a letter but a life.”

Do you see the dilemma?

Noll’s book is not just a look at history.  It’s a look at ourselves and how we use the Bible.

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