“slaves”?

Every Tuesday, I am blessed to join several of my sister and brother clergy in a Christian ecumenical, biracial group for Bible study. Our camaraderie is high and, concerning our shared ministry as preachers, our scholarship of the Word, broad, and our pastoral sensitivity regarding our people, deep.

Today, one of our passages of study was Luke 17.5-10:

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea’, and it would obey you. Who among you would say to your slave who has come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink and later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves. We have done only what we ought to have done!’.”

One of us commented that given her awareness that many black folk share a painful and indelible memory of institutional slavery as a part of their familial inheritance and their sense of our national history, she has difficulty saying the word, “slaves”, preferring to substitute “servants.” Our conversation expanded to encompass our considerations that the Greek doúlos can be translated “slave” or “servant”, that the principle meaning of the text focuses on what it is to be a slave or servant of Christ, thus making either term applicable, and that “worthless” does not mean “valueless” or “useless”, but rather “unprofitable”, signifying that in following and seeking to do Jesus’ will, we, as Christian slaves or servants, fulfill our calling; no more, no less.

All this I understand and accept. Still, as one who need trace back only five generations to find ancestors who were slaves, the word problematic for me. (I feel the same way about “master”, often the English rendering of the Greek kúriós [lord], which, when I encounter it [e.g., Luke 16.3, 5, 8], I favor “owner” [that is, of land or of a business, but not of people].)

For the remainder of this day and into this night, I have mused on this portion of this morning’s Bible study conversation.

In today’s mail, I received from a dear friend the program of God’s gonna trouble the water, a presentation of readings and spirituals in celebration of the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, held last week at the Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC. One of the recitations particularly arrested my attention:

In consequence of (my master’s) decease, it became necessary to sell the estate and the slaves, in order to divide the property among the heirs…My brothers and sisters were bid off one by one, while my mother…looked on in an agony of grief…My mother was then separated from me, and…was bought by a man named Isaac R(iley)…and then I was offered to the assembled purchasers. My mother, half distracted with the parting forever from all her children, pushed through the crowd…to the spot where R(iley) was standing. She fell at his feet, and clung to his knees, entreating him in tones that a mother only could command, to buy her baby as well as herself, and spare to her one of her little ones at least. Will it, can it be believed that this man, thus appealed to, was capable not merely of turning a deaf ear to her supplication, but of disengaging himself from her with such violent blows and kicks, as to reduce her to the necessity of creeping out of his reach, and mingling the groan of bodily suffering with the sob of a breaking heart…[1]

Reading and rereading these words, my soul wept. Yes, I’ve not known so horrendous an experience. Yet I am the fruit in my day and time of those in my family tree who, in their generations, bore the brunt of the lash, the choke of the chain, the brutality of daily inhumanity. Therefore, when reading scripture aloud in worship, I will not, I cannot say, “slaves.”

 

Footnote:

[1] The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself (1849), pages 3-4, by Josiah Henson (1789-1883); here, text amended for brevity

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3 thoughts on ““slaves”?

  1. Dear Paul,

    I made the mistake of reading this blog post sitting in a Government building awaiting the start of a Summit I’m participating in. I had to fight back the tears upon reading the selection you shared from God’s gonna trouble the water.

    I’ve always had trouble with the word “slave”. It’s painful to read the to hear. I heard stories from my great grandmother about our relatives who were slaves. I can’t even begin to imagine what their lives were like. I don’t believe you can even call what they endured a “life”. It was an existence in my mind and a bad one at that.

    Thanks for sharing your experience with your group and your feelings about the word. I commend the stand you’ve taken about the word and join with you. Bless you Paul for being the person you are. Much love and respect to you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Loretta, I replied to your thoughtful and sensitive comment, then had another thought…

      I, too, have wrestled with the words “slave” and “master” whenever I’ve encountered them in scripture. For quite the while, I used to think of the meanings in the original text, think of the centuries ago when the words were used, think of the social contexts and constructs to which the words initially applied. In other words, when encountering these terms, I did some variation of mental gymnastics so to combat my gut-deep visceral negative reaction rooted in my aversion to our American history of institutional slavery and its legacy, racism. For quite the while, this worked. It works no longer. (I’m given to think about what has changed for me that I now alter my reading of texts with these words!) So, now I substitute servant for slave and owner for master.

      Thank you again and again.

      Like

  2. Yes, institutional slavery remains, I believe, as long as we – American people, verily, America itself – live, a stain on our national psyche. We cannot erase hundreds of years of unbridled inhumanity and its lingering, ineradicable legacy – racism. What we can do, as a people, as races within our country, and as a nation – is labor to be conscious of that foundational aspect of our history, and then to address racism, both situationally when it arises between and amongst folk in daily interactions and systemically when it is embedded in our economic-social-political processes.

    Thank you for reading. Sorry for evoking your pain and tears.

    Much love and respect, always and in all ways, to you.

    Like

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