Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. For it is to your credit if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, where is the credit in that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
‘He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.’
When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
This is one passage where context is hugely important. Some passages can transcend the original context and still make sense today. Christ’s words urging us to love our neighbours are as relevant today as they were 2000 years ago … but how are we to make sense of Peter urging us to embrace slavery?
When this passage was written the entire Roman Empire flourished because of its wholesale use of enslaved human beings. It has been estimated that, at its peak, the Roman Empire deployed about 60 million slaves, originally, mainly taken as prisoners of war. The Romans enslaved people not just as agricultural workers but also as doctors, teachers and musicians, in fact any role that prevented them from having to do work!
It is interesting to note that the audience for this letter would, in the main, be slaves and servants, as they formed by far the greatest part of the early Church. So, why this instruction to accept this dehumanising way of life? The simplest, and for me the most credible answer, lies in Peter’s pragmatic acceptance of Roman power. Should Peter have called for the abolition of slavery or for slaves to revolt the Roman response would have been brutal and immediate. The Romans could not afford to lose their enslaved workforce and would have done everything in their power to crush the rebellion, and in doing so eliminate the early Church. With this acceptance of the status quo the Christian Church flourished. You could say that today’s Church is built on the sacrifices of enslaved human beings 2000 years ago. Even with this contextual explanation it’s not clear to me that sacrificing freedom and equality for survival was right, all I know is that I would not have wanted to risk a brutal and inhuman retaliation against my fellow Christians.
In 1807 when the ‘Slave Bible’ was produced this would have been one of the key passages used to ‘explain’ how the enslavement of Black bodies was ‘justified’. I thank God that by understanding context we can see this passage through a lens which does not blur the image of God in any of us.
Heavenly Lord, We praise you that you created us all in your image and likeness, and that you see worth in each and every one of us. We confess that we have not always treated everyone as your children, with all the worth that that should imply. Help us, we pray, to recognise where and when we fall short of your high standards, and to make amends so we can be right with you again.
Alan Yates, Convenor, Education & Learning Committee and an Elder in Trinity URC, High Wycombe