Posted by: Ken Brown | November 21, 2010

Slavery, Segregation and the Society of Biblical Literature

In an effort to combat jet-lag, I came to SBL on Thursday and spent Friday seeing a bit of the city. In particular, some friends and I took a walk through Olympic Park, then over to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Site. It is the location of Dr. King’s childhood home and one of the churches he preached in, as well as his tomb, and the site celebrates and memorializes Dr. and Mrs. King’s lives and roles in the Civil Rights Movement. It is well worth visiting if you get a chance, and only a 20 minute walk from the conference hotels.

What I found especially striking, however, was the contrast between the situations in Dr. King’s day and our own. The museum emphasizes especially the many non-violent demonstrations organized by Dr. King and others, demonstrations that were often greeted with rage, assault, imprisonment and even murder. The Civil Rights Movement as led by Dr. King was built on the belief, not just that people of color have as much right to be treated with dignity as any other human beings, but that the work of freedom can only be achieved through peaceful and self-sacrificial means: not to destroy the oppressor, but to redeem him. To “turn the other cheek” is not done out of cowardice, but as a fundamental declaration of dignity and personhood, saying: No matter what you do to me, you cannot make me join in your evil; you cannot make me your slave.

Nearly 50 years after the assassination of Dr. King, it is tempting to look back at those times with haughty disdain at the racism he fought, to think that we really have overcome the darkness of prejudice and segregation. But have we? When we visited Olympic Park on Thursday, we passed by a modern-day “Civil Rights” demonstration. Some 50 or 60 black people (I do not recall seeing any whites) were holding a peaceful demonstration in front of the CNN building, urging greater awareness of the disenfranchisement and genocide taking place in Africa. No one was shouting at them, spitting at them, or blasting them with fire-hoses. No one arrested them for trespassing, much less attacked and murdered them. The right to demonstrate, like so many other rights, has indeed been won. But the larger issues of segregation and prejudice persist.

Fifty years ago, people of color protested segregation, and were spit upon and attacked. Today a similar march protesting the still greater evil of genocide receives no such violent reaction, for it receives no reaction at all. No one mocks or attacks the demonstrators, because hardly anyone notices them in the first place. Men and women and children are, right now, enslaved and destroyed all over the world, and most of us don’t really care. Oh sure, we may spare a few moment’s thought to the subject now and then—we might even write a polemical blog post—but we don’t really do anything. Even a public demonstration of solidarity receives, at most, a brief acknowledgement from passers-by, who then go on with their lives unchanged. Those suffering persecution are so far away, and we’ve got more pressing concerns to deal with, like where to go for lunch or how much Internet access costs at the conference hotel. Segregation is alive and well today, we just call it nationalism, or social inequality, or we ignore it completely.

On Saturday morning I went to a session on the book of Job, in which Kirsten Dawson explored the role of systemic violence in the book, looking particularly at the ambiguous role of slavery. Job is described as a wealthy and righteous man, yet a great part of his wealth is his many slaves. Here then slavery is assumed to be completely unproblematic, unremarkable even. Certainly the keeping of slaves is not viewed as impinging upon the innocence of Job, which is affirmed by God himself. Yet further, when God allows the Satan to “test” Job (or rather, to test God), this occurs first and foremost, not through the affliction of Job himself, but rather through the destruction of his “property,” including his slaves. Untold numbers of people and animals are wantonly destroyed with hardly any notice at all, neither from the text itself nor from some commentators. The focus remains upon the suffering this inflicts upon the “righteous” man Job, the one whose position and prosperity had depended upon the slavery of the people who have now been destroyed “for no reason” (2:3). Here is violence assumed and ignored, systemic evil that dismisses the oppression and destruction of whole groups of people, who are implicitly denied the same status as human beings that Job himself is afforded.

As Dawson helpfully argued, however, this apparent acceptance of slavery stands in tension with the book’s later use of slavery as a metaphor for suffering itself. Thus in his first speech Job longs for death, for “There the prisoners are at ease together; they hear not the voice of the taskmaster. The small and the great are there, and the slave is free from his master.” (3:18-19 ESV). Slavery is recognized to be evil, yet Job’s own participation in it is overlooked. The ambiguity of this situation is seen especially in the epilogue, where Job is given back twice the cattle and flocks he had before, and seven new sons and three new daughters in compensation for those he lost (as if such a replacement were possible!), yet there is no mention of servants. As Dawson asked: Is this because Job no longer possessed slaves, or because (like Job’s wife) their presence is simply assumed, and slavery’s evil once again and finally overlooked?

To go beyond Dawson, I must ask to what extent we in the post-Civil Rights era find ourselves in the same position as Job. We have seen the suffering of people like Dr. King, and have come to recognize the evils of slavery and segregation. Indeed, far more even than in Job 3, today slavery is often paraded out whenever someone needs a convenient example of unmistakable evil. We may not agree on abortion or immigration or social welfare, but we can all agree that some things are evil, slavery and genocide being the usual suspects. Yet for all our rhetoric, most of us pay little if any attention to those who actually suffer from these evils. Like Job, we can trot out slavery as an example of ultimate evil, but never actually do anything to help those who, even today, live in slavery. Perhaps Job’s friends where not so wrong, after all, to insist that Job’s “innocence” was illusory, whatever God may say. Perhaps we also are far too quick to view ourselves as innocent of the systemic violence that Dr. King fought, while ignoring the same evil in our own world. Slavery and genocide may be going on in Africa and other parts of the world, and sure we feel really bad about that, but we’ve got other things to worry about, and Africa is sooo far away.

All of which brings me to last night’s Presidential Address by Dr. Vincent Wimbush. Our new society president is the first person of color to hold that position, and it is fitting that he should give his first address here in Atlanta, the home of Dr. King. Nor did he shy away from the theme, using his speech to insist that we ourselves, as a society, are not innocent of the segregation and slavery that we so casually dismiss. This society was founded in 1880, and he noted that it was not until the 1950s that we had our first black member, and not until the 1980s that we had our first session specifically focused on African American issues. Even today the academy evidences a distressingly elitist tendency to dismiss the popular religion of black (and, I would add, other “fundamentalist”) preachers on the basis of a supposedly neutral “historical” reconstruction. We, as enlightened, learned scholars, know what the Bible is really about, unlike the ignorant masses who seem to think it has some relevance for their contemporary lives.

I exaggerate, but in truth we have too often been a kind of old-boys club, and sometimes even ostensibly academic concerns with maintaining a “critical” approach to the Bible can hide an uncritical dismissal of popular religion or social concerns. Moreover, even as we as a society have sought to open up discussion with a wider range of issues, one need only glance through the program book to see that segregation is still a fact of life in the SBL. Why should we have specific sections devoted to African-American Biblical Hermeneutics, Disability studies, Queer Theory and Feminism, yet see little if any impact of such concerns within most of the other sessions? Certainly ideological criticism has made inroads in various places—it was after all a session on Job, not a session on Post-Colonialism or some such, that Dawson presented her paper on slavery and systemic violence—but such things remain the exception rather than the rule.

Admittedly, there is far more to biblical studies than ideological criticism, and I must say the session I have enjoyed most so far this year–on Hebrew poetry and theology–had little direct connection with such issues, nor did it need to have any. All of us are faced with too little time and too many things that would be worth pursuing for us to indulge every potential angle in every session. We must choose where to focus, and so we build program units in accordance with our interests, and perhaps also with a view to drawing the largest possible crowd. We may lament that there are other sections we would also have liked to attend, but ultimately we all must make choices about where to spend our time, and overwhelmingly we choose to spend that time on questions of history, theology, literary criticism and the like.

Yet for that very reason, and others, I found the conclusion to Wimbush’s Presidential Address rather unfortunate, particularly his claim that in this century of multiculturalism, we as a society can no longer limit ourselves solely to “biblical” literature, but must also expand our scope to embrace all “scripture” more generally. At the risk of throwing my lot in with the bigots, I cannot agree. There are other learned societies available to discuss “scriptures” more broadly, and we can all be grateful that the SBL will once again be meeting alongside the American Academy of Religion next year, without having to remake ourselves in its image. If we truly want to take more serious account of our and the Bible’s history with and ongoing participation in slavery, segregation and other systemic evils, we would be better served to do so through a more sustained engagement with such issues in relation to our already existing shared interests, than in ballooning our mission out to some amorphous discussion of “scripture” the world over.

However valuable it certainly is to learn from traditions quite different from our own, and however vital it must be to broaden our horizons beyond the academy to the world we all live in—even those suffering so “far” away–we as a society have quite enough to divide and distract us already, without abandoning the one thing that unifies us: a shared interest in biblical literature. Indeed, as N.T. Wright’s address on Friday night so well argued, an informed and intensive investigation of the Bible in its original historical settings can and should itself lead us into participation in God’s work of remaking the world, of freeing the oppressed and setting the captives free. That it so rarely does says nothing good about our claim to be a society of biblical literature, whatever the future of our discipline may be.


  1. Enjoyed this post immensely, but I think maybe you made a leap that I see made constantly.

    Genocide and Slavery exists here, today in the U.S. in our own backyards. It is easy to think about the Africas, and the Eastern Asias, and the South Americas etc and think about “doing something” and maybe even actually doing something.

    But we could be doing something in our own communities. Hello Projects! Hello Whores! Hello Drug Addicts! These are the slaves today. These are the ones being killed today I think in America. Slaves to drugs and poverty. Slaves to sex. Slaves to escapism. And then people being murdered by those slaves.

    I’m enjoying your blog. Keep up the good work!

  2. I agree completely, and regret that I did not make it explicit. Certainly Dr. King did not need to leave the US to find injustice to fight, and neither do we.


  3. […] Brown (C. Orthodoxy) comments on the first SBL Presidential Address by new president, Vincent Wimbush, and in particular on his black…. Ken’s point of departure was an exceptional SBL paper by rising biblical studies star […]

Conversation is what makes blogging worthwhile. Leave a comment.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: