Are you sometimes amazed about how long it takes for the obvious to dawn upon you? I've been guilty of rather uncharitably laughing at church growth guru and pastor Rick Warren, who's come to the late realisation that there are over 2000 references in the Bible to the poor and justice and can't believe he never noticed before. However, it seems that all of us can be prone to missing the obvious sometimes.
Recently, while listening to a podcast of Dave Batstone talking about the anti-trafficking movement, I realised for the first time that the Bible is not universally in support of slavery. Like many others, I have previously had to acknowledge that the Bible condones slavery. It's pretty difficult not to do so and it is, to some degree, entirely understandable. Slavery appears to have been an accepted, cultural norm of the ancient civilisations out of which our Scriptures have emerged.
However, like many other matters, there isn't just a single voice on slavery in the Bible. I think we miss it because we've spiritualised so much of the Gospel. Usually when we talk about how 'Jesus sets us free', what we really mean is that Jesus frees us from some kind of spiritual bondage, perhaps to sin or maybe if we're really progressive we might be freed from bondage to materialism or commercialism. If the freedom offered by the Gospel had some kind of tangible, historical meaning for people oppressed by concrete social conditions such as slavery, surely there would have been some other clues in the Bible?
Is it possible that by spiritualising the good news, we have missed something critical in that pivotal event of the Hebrew Scriptures - the Exodus? Could the story of God freeing the Israelite slaves from Egypt possibly be a counter message to the cultural expectation that slavery is ok? What about those who were exiled to Babylon and were finally released to return to their own land? And then there's the rather obvious reference in Jesus' inaugural mission statement (Luke 4:16-21) where (quoting Isaiah) he claims to have been sent to proclaim 'release to the captives'. I have to wonder whether perhaps the situation isn't quite as straightforward as I'd been told.
Some people have difficulty with the thought that there are contradictions in the Bible. I believe that the Bible is the record of a series of human attempts, in different times and cultural contexts, to capture the meaning of life in the light of the sacred. Sometimes the writers get it so right that their words continue to speak to and inspire us thousands of years later. Sometimes, like the rest of us, they don't. Sometimes they are clearly inspired by God to stand against injustice and those natural human leanings that we sometimes call sin - violence, oppression, apathy, hatred, tribalism. Sometimes those things break through and we are disappointed (though if we are honest about our own failings, we should also be understanding).
So, there are references in the Bible that seem to condone or at least expect slavery to be the norm of society, as well as those that passionately advocate for freedom for those in captivity. This doesn't mean that we are unable to take a stand on any issue, destined forever to be soldiers in the trenches of prooftexting wars. Surely there are some key questions that can help us begin to sort through apparent contradications. At the risk of being accused of 'picking and choosing from the Bible', I'm beginning with something like "Which speaks to you more of a God whose nature is love and compassion?"