During much of my boyhood I (Howard Thurman) was cared for by my grandmother, who was born a slave and lived until the Civil War on a plantation near Madison, Florida. My regular chore was to do all of the reading for my grandmother — she could neither read nor write. Two or three times a week I would read the Bible aloud to her. I was deeply impressed by the fact that she was most particular about the choice of Scripture. For instance, I might read many of the more devotional Psalms, some of Isaiah, the Gospels again and again. But the Pauline epistles, never — except, at long intervals, the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians. My curiosity knew no bounds, but we did not question her about anything.I am sensitive on this issue being a descended of African slaves myself. Although I am several more generations removed from slavery than Howard Thurman, all African-Americans have to answer the contradiction between what the Bible says and what the white American slavemasters told us it says. The Bible is infallible, but those claiming to be following Christ are not. my maternal side, I am six generations removed from slavery and she was kept in chains because her masters were afraid of her - she had too much spirit and personal power. She was the last woman from that side who was a slave that I am blood descended from. On my father's maternal lineage, I am four generations removed from slavery. Mary Lucas was her name. She endured the hardships and suffering of slavery, even having her husband sold away from her. By the grace of God, she was reunited with her husband after the Civil War and my great-grandmother Cynthia was born after that. Mary and her husband founded a church after they were free and thanked God for their freedom. I don't know how they understood Ephesians and Colossians passages about slavery, but I could talk to them today, or Thurman's grandmother, and explain how the following scriptures were corrupted and that there is no reason to avoid reading Paul's letters in the slightest. First the passages those racist heathens butchered are:
When I was older and was half through college, I chanced to be spending a few days at home near the end of summer vacation. With a feeling of great temerity I asked her one day why it was that she would not let me read any of the Pauline letters. What she told me I shall never forget. ”During the days of slavery,” she said, “the master’s minister would occasionally hold services for the slaves. Old man McGhee was so mean that he would not let a Negro minister preach to his slaves. Always the white minister used as his text something from Paul. At least three or four times a year he used as a text: ‘Slaves, be obedient to them that are your masters …, as unto Christ.’ Then he would bless us. I promised my Maker that if I ever learned to read and if freedom ever came, I would not read that part of the Bible.’”
5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. - Ephesians 6:5-8
22 Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. 25 Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism. - Colossians 3:22-24
If you were a slave, unable and prevented to become literate yourself, if someone just read this to you in context of course you would take Thurman's grandmother's position. I don't know what my great-great-grandmother Mary thought about these passages, but I'm sure it occurred to many slaves, as it does to me, the question as to why it was important that slaves did not learn how to read? One of the reasons was that the slave masters did not want the slaves to know what Paul said about slave masters. This is what I would want to tell Thurman's grandmother.
1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise— 3 “so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”
4 Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.
5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.
9 And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him. - Ephesians 6:1-9
I'm willing to bet money that the majority of slaves were not allowed to hear the whole passage. Paul is saying that slave-masters are accountable to God. God is their Master just like the slaves. Paul said that slaves should not be treated any kind of way. Notice that why slave-masters were trying to condemn slaves for wanting to be free and were rubbing the Bible in their faces, the Bible itself condemned them. Is the Bible wrong? No. Is there a need to put Jesus' teaching against Paul's and make a choice as to which one is right? No. I'm saddened for Thurmon's grandmother because some of the most grandiose and beautiful passages in the Bible were penned by Paul and she missed out on them because of a lie.
Forsaking Paul for Jesus’ Sake
The second post deals further with point Wilde tried to raise with the Thurmon's grandmother. He is making the point that for African Americans systematic theology and Biblical inerrancy and infallibility doesn't mean much to the religious experience of African Americans.
There’s a larger issue for grandma than the infallibility of the Bible. While the issue of infallibility might be one of the largest issues for us evangelicals who have labored to build up buttresses against supposed attacks from liberalism, we must remember that infallibility was our fight and not grandma’s fight.
Her struggle was against the white oppressors that tore families apart by selling black husbands and fathers to new slavemaster. Her struggle was against the stronghold that she was worth less than her white slave master. Her struggle was seeing her people beaten, mistreated and abused by men who claimed to be followers of Jesus.
The thing that is missing from this conversation is that if you allow the Bible to speak for himself and ignore the wicked slave master bent on controlling and dominating other human beings, you can see what the Bible is really saying and that it does have an answer for our people who are and were "beaten, mistreated and abused by men who claimed to be followers of Jesus." The Bible makes it clear that these men are not followers of Christ.
James Cone (to listen to his perspective, click here) makes a relevant statement. He writes that the Black community
“have not been preoccupied with definitions of inspiration and infallibility … it is as if blacks have intuitively drawn the all-important distinction between infallibility and reliability … how it is the true and basic source for discovering the truth of Jesus Christ. For this reason there has been no crisis of biblical authority in the black community” (102).Cone’s distinction is helpful for those who find themselves wanting to talk back to grandma, as it helps us remember that she wasn’t reading the Bible to find all of its infallible truths so that she could arrange them in a systematic array of scholastical beauty; no, she was reading the Bible so that she could be lead closer to the One the Bible speaks of: Jesus.
I disagree with much of Cone's work because he changes the Gospel. Of course God hates sin and racisim and sexism, but the Jesus did not die on the cross for just the oppressed but also the oppressor. Because of sin, sometimes - depending on the circumstances - you are the oppressor and sometimes you are the oppressed. No one is better or worse than the worst slave holder. We all deserve hell and if weren't for Jesus we would all be going to hell. This is what Liberation theologies twist and distort. The Bible's infallible truth are not just scholastic beauty, it is also truth good practical life that leads us to the one the Bible speaks of - all the Bible speaks of Jesus! Jesus said:
"You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me," - John 5:39
That is why I read the Bible - all of it.
Forsaking Paul for Jesus’ Sake: Part 2