Posted by: Dan | June 16, 2007

Three Angles on Slavery: Dorothy Day, Rudolph Bultmann, and Luke's Jesus

There was a great question in my mind. Why was so much done in remedying social evils instead of avoiding them in the first place? … Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves but to do away with slavery?
~ Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness, 45.

In the matter of slavery Paul's standpoint is maintained [by the early Church]… The fact that slavery exists is accepted as a part of the given world order which it is not the task of Christians to alter.
~ Rudolph Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament: Volume 2, 230.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners… to release the oppressed.
~ Jesus, quoted as quoting Isaiah, in Lk 4.18.

Dorothy Day asks herself about the whereabouts of the saints who confront slavery in order to do away with it. That she was unable to find such saints is, in part, due to the legacy of scholars like Rudolph Bultmann.

In his study of Paul, Bultmann makes two moves that result in a presentation of a Paul who is socially conservative in his approach to socio-economic and political issues.

The first move, which is apparent in the quotation that I provide, is the social introspection that Bultmann argues existed, and was encouraged, within the Pauline communities. Pauline Christians, Bultmann argues, were not concerned with the given world order, they were simply to be concerned with themselves. Thus, that slavery existed in the world, was irrelevant for Christians who were no longer to see the distinction between “slave” and “free” as operative within the Christian community.

Now this could be a promising way forward, but Bultmann takes away what he gives in his second move, wherein he spiritualizes the transformation that occurred within Pauline Christianity. Thus, he goes on to argue that, within the Christian community, there were still Christian masters with Christian slaves; the point was that, even though nothing physical was altered, the distinction between masters and slaves should not be considered of any significance at a spiritual level.

The result of both of these moves is a depoliticized, or apolitical, Paul. However, an apolitical Paul becomes, necessarily, a conservative Paul; to show no interest in politics is to perpetuate the reign of the powers that be.

Not surprisingly, I would take issue with both of the moves that Bultmann makes. The second move is simply, IMHO, a misreading of the texts (Bultmann quotes 1 Cor 7 and Philem). As far as I can tell, the abolition of distinctions, like those between “slave” and “free,” (or those between “male” and “female”) had significant concrete, physical outworkings in the Pauline churches. The first move, however, is more troubling because it is a much more common move to make. Bultmann argues that the Pauline churches were not concerned with the “given world order” because they believed that the world order was passing away, they believed that “The End” of the world order would come within the life-span of their generation. Thus, despite their many differences, this is one place in which Bultmann is in agreement with Schweitzer and Dibelius (not to mention the host of others who have followed these two in seeing Paul as socially conservative because he believed that the End of the world was just around the corner). I would object to this on two grounds: (1) I believe that socio-rhetorical criticism has shown that Paul is very interested in socio-economic and political issues; and (2) I am not convinced that Paul was so sure that the world was coming to “The End” as some of these scholars assert. We must remember that for Paul, as a faithful Jew, the “end” of the world was really about the remaking of the world. Therefore, if, after the resurrection and Pentecost, the Pauline churches found themselves living in a time when the future was invading the present, it seems to me that they would have had an express interest in beginning to embody the new creation as it applied to all areas of life. Consequently, far from encountering a conservative Paul, I am inclined to discover a “subversive” Paul.

Be that as it may, the legacy of Bultmann (and others) lives on. We read Bultmann on slavery and we substitute a whole host of other issues — from homelessness in N. American urban centres to the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa — and we conclude that it is “not the task of Christians to alter [these situations].” Thus, it comes as no surprise that Day was unable to find the saints for whom she searched — most saints never imagined that they were to do anything more than to minister to slaves, for as long as the world continued being the world (however, I wonder about the extent to which Bultmann would apply these words to anything beyond what he sees as the Pauline perspective on slavery. After all, he was a member of the Confessing Church in Germany during WWII, and his family was involved in sheltering Jews from the Nazi regime).

All this, then, leads me to my third quotation — the one from Lk. What I find intriguing about the passage is the way in which Jesus uses the language of slavery (when he speaks of “the prisoners” and “the oppressed”; this is, of course, exilic language, but exile itself is properly understood as a from of slavery) in a way that opens that language up to an application beyond the situation of slaves in the first-century. Jesus calls for the abolition of all forms of oppression, and for freedom from all forms of bondage. Thus, whereas Bultmann “spiritualises” talk of slavery in way that results in something less than the physical emancipation of slaves, Jesus employs the language of slavery to refer to much more than, and certainly nothing less than, the physical emancipation of slaves. Consequently, we see Jesus embodying this proclamation by freeing the sick from the bondage imposed by illness, freeing the wealthy from the bondage imposed by money, freeing the poor from the bondage imposed by the religious structures, freeing the possessed from the bondage of demons, freeing the outcasts from the bondage imposed by social structures, and freeing the exiles from the bondage imposed by godforsakenness.

In light of these things, my question is this: how do we begin, like Day, to follow Jesus and confront the slaveries, and slave-traders, of our day, in order to do away with all forms of slavery?

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