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…
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.”
 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