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In living color

All of us are children of God through Jesus, yet too often we fail to understand what that means.

I can still remember when my family got our first color television. The old black-and-white box was good, but now we could view the world in living color.

I had a similar experience a few months ago when I read some books that challenged the way I read Scripture and viewed slavery and racism. They encouraged me to read the Bible through the eyes of a Black person and see racism from a Black perspective. I had never done that before, at least not as much as I should have. I was looking at these matters using the old black-and-white box. My reading helped me see things in living color.

Slavery in Scripture

For example, with my White eyes I hadn’t fully realized that a Black person would see the events of Exodus differently. God heard the cry of his people, and he delivered them. They had been slaves in Egypt for over 400 years. They were physically and emotionally oppressed, but then God saved them. I had tended to focus on the important spiritual deliverance the Passover lamb foreshadowed. I overlooked God’s concern for the physical suffering of his people. I didn’t realize how meaningful and comforting the deliverance is to a Black person whose heritage flows from centuries of slavery and who lives with racism every day. God cares. God delivers. He not only cares about my eternal welfare but also my day-to-day physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering. The Lord told Moses, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them” (Exodus 3:7,8).

Consider also the “slavery” accounts in the letters of Paul. In Colossians 3:22, the apostle tells slaves to “obey your earthly masters in everything.” In Ephesians 6:5, he tells slaves to “obey your early masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.” In 1 Corinthians 7:20,21, he adds, “Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them. Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you.” And then there’s the book of Philemon where Paul addresses slavery in a personal way. He sends Onesimus, a slave, back to his owner, Philemon. My White eyes failed to see how a Black person would read these sections of Scripture. I tended to reason that slavery and racism are social issues, and as a Christian I should stick to spiritual truths. Once more I dragged out the old black-and-white box and failed to see things in color.

Listen to understand

I don’t need to paint the picture of American slavery in living color. It included kidnapping, breaking up families, sexual abuse, being treated like property, brutality, and being subjected to terrible living conditions. God abhors and condemns these sins. They are the opposite of showing love to my neighbor, whether that neighbor is Black or White.

What is worse is that slave masters sometimes used Scripture, including the earlier passages, to justify their sinful treatment of slaves and the institution of slavery as a whole. In some cases, the Christian church affirmed its right to do so. The Christian church, including the Lutheran church, as a result may have been blind to the evils of slavery in the United States. The Scriptures don’t give a nod of approval to the atrocities of slavery in the United States. When our founding fathers wrote that our Creator endowed us with certain unalienable rights, they weren’t including Black people. But our Creator and Savior God does.

I recall how Jesus reached out to the Samaritan woman. Or how Philip ministered to the Ethiopian man. Or how Peter shared the gospel with Cornelius and concluded, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts [people] from every nation” (Acts 10:34,35). Jesus came to save all people, regardless of their race or ethnic background. He modeled that in his ministry. He commanded us to go into all the world and preach the gospel to all nations.

We may be tempted to view the civil rights movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, and critical race theory from a black-and-white perspective. We often fail to realize that they rise from centuries of pain, oppression, and abuse. Whether we agree with everything they stand for or promote is not the issue. The reality of racism is.

If you are like I am, you are concerned about protecting the lives of unborn children. We consider abortion not only a political issue but also a biblical, moral issue. God’s Word is clear. Life begins at conception, and it is wrong to end the life of an unborn child. But somehow my White eyes saw things differently when it came to racism. That’s part of the civil rights movement—a political matter. I failed to see that it is also a moral matter that God condemns. God does not show favoritism—but I have at times and for that I need to repent.

John Schuetze and his Grandson
John Schuetze pictured here with his grandson, Josiah.

Or consider polygamy. Even though some Old Testament passages regulate this practice, I have taught that taking multiple marriage partners is contrary to God’s original design for marriage. Yes, God regulated this practice in the Old Testament, but that doesn’t mean he condoned it. How quickly my approach changed when it came to slavery. I reasoned that since God doesn’t come right out and condemn slavery, it must mean he was okay with this practice. Yet slavery was no more God’s plan for his world than polygamy. Both are sinful actions that do not reflect the loving relationships God wants.

I admit that my desire to read Scripture from a Black perspective has a personal side. A few years ago, my daughter and her husband adopted a Black child at birth. His mother chose them because she wanted Christian parents for her newborn son. God chose them because he wanted to bless them with a child. He also chose this child to be his through Holy Baptism.

In my seminary counseling course, I encourage students to listen to understand rather than listen to respond. This is a skill that we all need to apply to each other, regardless of our race or ethnic background. When we apply this skill, we will hear the hurt that lies beneath angry words. We will also see our own sins more clearly. More importantly, we will see our Savior and his love in living color. He paid for my sins of racism, favoritism, prejudice, and complicity. He gives me a glimpse of heaven in colors I can only imagine—that great multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing at the throne of the Lamb.

Remember, there are no black-and-white television sets in heaven. Only color.

For further reading

Prof. Schuetze wrote the following for the Fall 2021 issue of the Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly (reprinted with permission)

Reading While Black—Some Reflections

What is it like to read the Bible from the perspective of a Black man? This is something this writer had never considered. But when I read the book, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2020), things changed. This article will not provide a review of the book but rather reflect on some insights gained in the process of reading. The author, Esau McCaulley, is an assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and a priest in the Anglican Church in North America.

First, this book made me realize how much I read the Bible as a white male. Not only do I read Scripture with white, male eyes, but also with Lutheran eyes. I have been shaped by a theology that has, for the most part, been transmitted by men who, like me, were Lutheran and white.

Second, it forced me to rethink how I understand certain sections of Scripture as well as events in the history of God’s people, especially those that relate to slavery. The author relates that as a boy “my imagination was captured by the God of the exodus who called a people to freedom from slavery. I grew up hearing about a God who looked upon the suffering of his Black and Brown children with righteous indignation” (138). McCaulley found significance and hope in this historical event that I had never fully appreciated. God cared about the oppression of his people, and he delivered them from it. Often, I have simply focused on how this event, and the Passover which was a part of it, foreshadowed our eternal deliverance through Christ, but did not fully appreciate that God was also moved to compassion by the physical plight of his people.

In fact, this book helped me realize how I have misunderstood and misapplied those sections of Scripture that speak about slavery, both in the Old and New Testaments. I have been inconsistent and applied a different approach to slavery than I did to such subjects such as polygamy. I have taught that polygamy was not God’s original design for marriage and therefore we should reject it even though there are passages that regulate it (e.g., Deuteronomy 21:15–17). But I have failed to say that slavery was not God’s design for his world and therefore we should work to end it.

How, then, are we to understand those passages in the NT where the Apostle Paul tells Christian slaves to submit to their masters? Isn’t he condoning the practice of slavery by not condemning it outright? McCaulley helps us see these sections in a different light. He notes that “no one in Paul’s day or in the centuries that follow ever seemed to envision the end of slavery as an institution. Paul doesn’t appear to believe that his small and fledging communities could do anything so dramatic as to change Roman law” (151–52). McCaulley uses the example of Philemon and Onesimus to unravel the apostle’s approach. Paul addresses the issues from the perspective of vocation. He points out how Christ came to this earth and became our slave to set us free. As those who are free in Christ, we are now slaves to Christ and to one another. In speaking about slavery in America McCaulley states,

Slaveholders argued that Paul dutifully returned the slave and used that argument to justify slavery. I want to argue that Paul does two things that undermine slavery in this passage: (1) Paul transforms social relationships and status in the light of Christ, and (2) Paul requests that Philemon free Onesimus.

Paul refers to himself and others as prisoners of Jesus Christ (Philemon 1, 9, 10, 12, 13). This lower status has the effect of placing Paul on the same level as Onesimus in the eyes of society. If some were tempted to view Onesimus as a criminal for escaping, they would also be forced to condemn the apostle. Paul, then, does not begin his pastoral intervention from a place of power, but one of weakness . . .

Paul’s rhetoric makes it difficult for Philemon to make much of his status as owner and Onesimus’s status as a slave. Paul also uses familial language, calling Philemon his brother. The point is clear. Oneness in Christ transforms relationships. Society values those with power and status. Christians treat all people—slave, free, or prisoner—as family. This idea that slaves and masters are family undermines slavery. Who would enslave a brother or a sister? (152–53)

Our status in Christ changes how we view our roles and relationships. It also changes how we view those passages where Paul tells slaves to obey their masters. Such obedience does not provide the person in authority with a blank check. When Paul tells wives to submit to their husbands, this does not mean that a wife should submit to a husband’s abuse. When God tells children to obey their parents in everything, this does not include submitting to child abuse. So also, when God tells slaves to obey their masters, this does not mean they should do what is contrary to God’s will and submit to sexual and physical abuse. McCaulley notes,

It is wrong to construe Paul’s call to submit as implying that he wanted Christian slaves to do whatever their masters wanted. There were examples in the biblical text (emphasis original) of resisting the sexual advances of slave masters as a means of honoring God’s name. I propose, then, when Paul speaks of slaves honoring their masters, he does not mean unquestioned obedience. Drawing on the prophetic tradition, he has in mind behaving in such a way that their masters are drawn to God. This included, according to the Old Testament testimony, periodic refusal to obey. (161)

He concludes, “So what are we to make of this passage? I think that we should see 1 Timothy 6:1–3 in much the same way that we see the slave laws of the Old Testament. Paul is trying to make pastoral sense of a difficult situation…. Paul, despite claims to the contrary, sought to limit the damage done by slavery and rethought the whole institution in the light of the cross and resurrection.” (162)

What are some simple lessons this writer learned from reading this book? First, I realized my tendency to approach Scripture with a bias. I need to have the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus, who took on the very nature of a servant. Second, I need to recognize that my past misapplication and even silence on the matter of slavery and how it affects the Black community even today is something for which I need to repent. Third, I can better appreciate how my status as a child of God changes my roles and relationship in life, including my relationships with my Black brothers and sisters in Christ, or any Black person for that matter. As one who is both a free person and a slave in Christ, I want to share that amazing freedom and servitude with others. Finally, it changes how I speak about slavery on the basis of God’s Word. The slavery passages must stand alongside of other passages that speak about how I as a child of God will live my life in a broken world, seeking to give glory to God by all I do. Nowhere does God tell me this will be easy. But it is my privileged role as his child.

Author: John Schuetze
Volume 109, Number 02
Issue: February 2022

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