Scripture and the long shadow of American slavery

April 3, 2017

The institution of slavery has been called America’s “national birth defect.” “Black Americans were,” in the words of one professor of political science, “a founding population [of the American colonies]. Africans and Europeans came here and founded this country together, Europeans by choice and Africans in chains.”

These events happened far more recently than many Americans seem willing to acknowledge. Last year, 99-year-old Ruth Bonner was present at the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture; her father was born a slave. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that the shadows of this exploitation and dehumanization still shape the lives of Americans today.

But why was this enslavement of Africans morally wrong in the first place?

Many 19th century Christians defended the institution of slavery on the basis of the apparent acceptance of slavery in the Old and New Testaments. And it’s true that some forms of slavery do seem to have been accepted in the New Testament—though freedom was presented as the ideal even then (1 Cor. 7:21-24). Yet, if the scriptures seem to have accepted some forms of slavery, why should Christians today view the enslavement of African Americans as a depraved and dehumanizing system from its inception? More important, how can a renewed recognition of the sinfulness of this system help us to understand better the struggles that we face still today?

1. Scripture and the stealing of human beings

The systematic enslavement of African Americans would have been impossible without the theft of human beings for profit—an act that is explicitly identified in the New Testament as a vile and perverse evil. In one of his letters to a young pastor in Ephesus, the apostle Paul positioned this offense alongside murder, fornication, perjury and the practice of homosexuality. “The law is not laid down for the just,” Paul wrote, “but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching” (1 Tim. 1:8-10).

The term translated enslavers in Paul’s letter to Timothy can hardly imply anything other than the taking of persons for the purpose of selling them into slavery. The verb form of this word appears in the Historiai of Herodotus with precisely this meaning (ἠνδραπόδισαν…ἐόντας ὁμαίμους, 1:151:2). In Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War, the term even encompassed the trade of persons who had been conquered in a time of war (Ἠιόνα τὴν ἐπὶ Στρυμόνι Μήδων ἐχόντων πολιορκίᾳ εἷλον καὶ ἠνδραπόδισαν, 1:98:1).

The enslavement of Africans clearly fell within Paul’s prohibition of Christian participation in “enslaving” or “manstealing.” As Thomas Kidd has pointed out,

When the slave trade became a truly massive undertaking in the 1700s, many Africans were stolen into slavery. … The United States closed its transatlantic commerce in slaves in 1808, shifting the focus to the domestic sale and transfer of slaves. Outright kidnapping was less common in this system, but every slave owner was associated with a system that, at a moment’s notice, could rip a slave away from husband or wife, parent or child, community and church. Countless churches in the antebellum period had to discuss what to do with a slave who had been sold away from a spouse back east, and now wished to remarry. … Historians estimate that perhaps one in three young slave children were separated from a parent, and one in three eastern slave marriages were broken up by the sale of a spouse to an owner further west in America, in places from Georgia to Texas.

Even after the transatlantic commerce in slaves ended, African Americans continued to be stolen—removed by force from their families—for the sake of profit for their masters. The result was an ever-repeating series of shattered families as long as the system of slavery remained in place.

2. Scripture and the racist foundations of American slavery

The American system was, furthermore, racially-based slavery. Britons and Americans perceived Africans as enslavable precisely because they were dark and not white, African and not European in their origins. The Great Awakening evangelist George Whitefield was instrumental in introducing slavery in the state of Georgia. In a letter dated March 22, 1751, Whitefield revealed his rationale for the enslavement of African Americans in Georgia:

As for the lawfulness of keeping slaves, I have no doubt. . . . It is plain to a demonstration, that hot countries cannot be cultivated without Negroes. What a flourishing country might Georgia have been, had the use of them been permitted years ago? How many white people have been destroyed for want of them, and how many thousands of pounds spent to no purpose at all?

These words from Whitefield reek of racial prejudice, and they reveal the deep racism embedded throughout the American system of slavery. Such racism cannot, however, be reasonably or consistently sustained by worshippers of a God who “made from one man every nation of humanity” and who now “shows no partiality” toward any ethnicity (Acts 10:34-35; 17:26).

At the time when George Whitefield argued for the expansion of slavery, newly-obtained African slaves endured the Middle Passage, a voyage from Africa to the West Indies wherein human beings were chained in their own waste for weeks at a time. More than two million Africans died from torture, disease and sheer despair during the Middle Passage. And yet, Whitefield used his privilege and popularity as an evangelist to promote the expansion of this system, to save those whose flesh was lighter from the labor of cultivating the fields of Georgia.

The long shadow of American slavery

More than a century after African American slavery came to an end, shadows of these systems remain. Despite much progress, patterns of privilege and power remain in place that prevent equal access to justice and economic opportunity.

These are the poisonous fruits of centuries-old thefts and continuing prejudices. In recent months, this festering poison has risen to the surface in the shape of so, so many painful hashtags—each one representing the loss of one more life created in God’s image.

So what can each of us do to move in the direction of healing and justice?

A good place for each of us to start would be to locate, listen, learn and leverage.

Locate and cultivate friendships that can challenge you. Do you have friendships with people from other ethnic backgrounds that run so deep that these individuals are able to challenge your prejudicial assumptions or attitudes? If you aren’t certain whether or not you have such a friend, you don’t.

Listen and weep before you speak. What is your first impulse when it appears that an unarmed person of color is killed by law-enforcement officers? If your first impulse is to score political points or to seek justification, stop. Be broken over the loss of a life formed in God’s image and grieve the way that the brokenness in our world has taken a disproportionate toll on communities of color. Listen to your brothers and sisters whose skin is a different color than yours, and consider how this event looks from their vantage point.

Learn the African-American experience. In many educational institutions, a white student can pursue degrees all the way from a bachelor’s to a Ph.D. and never read a single word about African American history or a single work written by a black or brown scholar. A student of color, however, can’t make it through the first semester without studying the story of white civilization. If you aren’t familiar with such events as the Middle Passage, the Stono Rebellion, Nat Turner’s uprising, Jim Crow, the Great Migration and the murder of Emmett Till, do some remedial reading before you do any more talking or tweeting. Start with Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? then move on to Divided by Faith,  A Stone of Hope, and other books about the black experience in America. Let those works be the seedbed for a more diverse reading list in your future.

Leverage your privilege for the sake of others. If any one of us is in any position of privilege or power, we must not be silent. God gives privilege and power so that these tools can be purposefully deployed to seek justice for the oppressed. “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy” (Ps. 82:3-4). Speak out against injustice, regardless of what it may cost you. Refuse to be silent in the face of racial inequity. Talk to your brothers and sisters of color about how your voice can be used to seek justice in a manner that is shaped and driven by the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This post originally appeared here.

Timothy Paul Jones

Timothy Paul Jones (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is associate professor of leadership and family ministry at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of more than a dozen books and serves in the SojournKids ministry at Sojourn Community Church. He lives in St. Matthews, Kentucky, with his wife, … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24