Slavery is referenced over and over again throughout the New Testament. This is not surprising, because slavery was a pervasive reality in the ancient world, embedded deeply in the fabric of society. Historians estimate that one quarter to one third of the population of the Roman Empire were slaves. That is the context in which the early church found itself, and therefore it is part of the language early Christians used to express their faith. But we who condemn slavery in the 21st century may be uncomfortable accepting that slavery was part of their world. It might make us uncomfortable to realize that some early Christians owned slaves and that the early Christian movement did not condemn slavery explicitly. It may have been part of their world, we think to ourselves, but couldn’t they have condemned it anyway? We feel the tension between their context and our own.
As modern interpreters, how can we deal with passages in the Bible that accept the reality of slavery without questioning it? I’d like to explore this question through a look at one of the passages in the New Testament that instructs slaves to obey their masters. 1 Peter 2:18-25 addresses Christian slaves with the following words:
18 Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. 19 For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 20 If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. 22 “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” 23 When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls. (NRSV)
Talk about culture shock. Here we have a passage in the Bible that tells slaves to submit to their masters even if they are harsh. It tells slaves to endure their beatings knowing that they have God’s approval while they are being beaten. It tells slaves to follow the example of Christ, who did not return abuse but silently entrusted himself to God. No indication that slavery is wrong. No call for justice, fairness, or equality. Not even instructions to the masters to be kind to their slaves. Just a call for obedience on the part of the enslaved.
What do we do with a text like this when we believe strongly that slavery is wrong? What do we do with a text like this when we live in a country that is still suffering from a legacy of injustice and racism wrought by the slavery practiced within our own borders? Why didn’t the author of this letter tell the slaves they had the right to be free and that they should resist their enslavement? Why didn’t he tell slave owners to reject this oppressive system and free their slaves? We may never be able to redeem this passage for modern life fully, but we can understand it better if we pay attention not only to the words themselves, but also to their context in the letter and their context in history.
If we look at the letter of 1 Peter as a whole, one thing we will notice is that the author refers to suffering throughout the letter. He refers to his readers as “aliens and exiles” and talks about the “fiery ordeal” they are undergoing. So, read within the larger context we understand that it was not only the slaves that were suffering but the whole Christian community. This is a common theme in the New Testament, as the earliest Christians dealt with the local persecution that resulted from opting out of the polytheistic rituals that were viewed as necessary for the stability of society. We can think of the first readers of 1 Peter as a small band of believers within a vast powerful empire. Some were slaves. Many were poor. Most were persecuted or at least felt threatened. None had the power to change their situation.
It is into that context that these words from 1 Peter come. In that context these words could be received as a blessing. No matter what you are enduring, Peter says, you can endure it knowing that God sees you, that God approves of you, and that you are not experiencing anything that Christ himself did not go through. In that context, nonresistance was a strategy of survival. Most likely it did not occur to early Christians to engage in political activity in an effort to change society. That was not part of the mind-set of most ancient people. Even if it did cross their minds, it would scarcely have been possible considering their position as mostly poor members of a small group within a powerful Empire. No political options were open to them. They were simply trying to survive, and to figure out how to survive in the most faithful way possible.
1 Peter’s description of the suffering of Jesus provides an example of endurance when you are in a situation of suffering that you cannot change, as those first Christian slaves were. But we must also remember that we live in a very different context than they did. 1 Peter speaks to those who are powerless to change their situation. This does not mean that you should not end your own suffering when it is in your power to end it. And it certainly does not mean that we should not work to end the suffering of others when it is in our power to do so. The testimony of the whole Bible teaches us to work for the benefit of others—to work for justice and to ease suffering wherever we can.
That is why it is an extremely unfaithful reading of Scripture to use a passage like this to justify slavery or to justify our own passivity in the face of any kind of injustice. 1 Peter’s words were not written directly to us; instead, we overhear words intended for people in a very different situation. These words were meant neither to condone nor to condemn slavery or any other kind of social institution. Rather, they were meant to give hope to people suffering injustice—people who had no political or social power. In our context, is it possible for us to reject slavery and injustice, and still hear some positive message from 1 Peter? For me the take-home message of this passage when I read it in conversation with its ancient context is that we must not become that which we abhor. When Jesus was struck he did not strike back because he refused to participate in that system of violence. When the oppressor strikes we must not strike back with the same methods. Their methods are wrong, and besides, using them won’t work.
And this reminds us that the dichotomy between nonviolence and resistance is a false dichotomy, because sometimes nonviolence is resistance. We’ve seen that in big ways, such as in the civil rights movement in America. And we also see it in smaller ways in our own lives when we refuse to participate in systems that oppress others, when we refuse to hate those who hate us, when we refuse to strike at those who would strike us.
But this nonparticipation in violence is not the same thing as the kind of passivity that perpetuates oppression. Nonviolent resistance is a far cry from behaving as a doormat and never standing up for yourself or others. As 1 Peter describes, Jesus did not strike back from the cross. But if Jesus had lived his life passively he never would have ended up on the cross. He ended up on the cross because he preached an alternate view of reality—a vision of justice, mercy, and equality that was threatening to those in power—threatening to the oppressors. That is the kind of nonviolent resistance that we can be inspired to adopt if we do the hard work of reading 1 Peter in conversation with its original context.
Unfortunately, none of the New Testament authors explicitly condemned the practice of slavery. I wish they had. But knowing more about their context helps us understand why they did not. And knowing why they did not actually helps us see why we must, in our own very different context, not only condemn slavery but also work to dismantle the suffering and injustice it leaves in its wake.