Sometimes, very rarely, I get mad enough to throw a book across the room.
But I think this week might be the first time I’ve thrown a library book across the room. (Don’t worry, I made sure it had a cushy landing spot, and anyway, the Minnesota library network already has me on a watchlist because I’ve owed seven dollars in fines for over a year.)
Here’s the context: Leticia Burwell, daughter of a plantation owner, wrote a memoir with the riveting title of A Girl’s Life in Virginia Before the War. It was basically a propaganda piece about how happy slaves were, how most masters were ultra-kind, and how slaves hated even the idea of freedom because they needed white people to house and feed and clothe them.
Annoying, yes. Unexpected, no.
My problem with the book was the multiple times it appealed to God’s sovereignty and absolute control over history to justify slavery. Here’s a little sampler. Try to hear them in an exaggerated, languishing Southern belle accent:
On the selling of slaves off to another plantation: “It appeared to me a great evil, and often did I pray that God would make us a way of escape from it. But His ways are past finding out, and why He had been pleased to order it thus we shall never know.”
“I think I have written enough to show the mutual affection existing between the white and black races, and the abundant provision generally made for the wants of those whom God had mysteriously placed under our care.”
“There is much in our lives not intended for us to comprehend or explain; but, believing that nothing happens by chance, and that our forefathers have done their duty in the place it had pleased God to call them, let us cherish their memory, and remember that the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.”
There are traces of good theology in here, in the same kind of way that some restaurants serve “honey-flavored sauce” instead of actual honey. Close, but not quite.
Yes, God’s ways are beyond our understanding (Isaiah 55:8-9), things like the gospel and our future bodily resurrection are referred to as mysteries (Eph. 3:4-6, 1 Cor. 15:51-52). The Lord God is omnipotent and does, in fact, reigneth (Ex. 15:18, all of Revelation, and half the Psalms).
But obviously you can think of responses to the completely bonkers applications of all of these truths to say slavery is acceptable. Just because God is above our understanding doesn’t mean our actions are above moral judgment. There is nothing mysterious about how the slave trade started, and it certainly wasn’t God placing Africans under the “care” of plantation owners. Nothing happens by chance…but a whole lot happens because we choose to act in sinful rebellion against God.
I’m guessing I don’t have a ton of slaveowners or white supremacists reading this blog, so chances are you all agree with me on this point.
But I’ve learned, whenever I go into Rant Mode, to stop and think, “Where do I do this exact same thing?” In almost every single case, there’s an answer. Here’s one way I pull a Leticia Burwell:
“Ooh, that’s a hard issue/book of the Bible/question. I don’t really have to think about it, though, because God is in control and works all things for my good! Yay!” (Totally had—okay, fine, have—that attitude toward the book of Revelation.)
It’s a personal pet peeve of mine when good-hearted Christians shut down discussion about something difficult right away by playing the “God is good and all-powerful and all-knowing” card. I don’t think everyone has to be super passionate about discussing eschatology, gender roles, and predestination. But God also wants us to think critically about him, our world, the actions we should or shouldn’t take in our everyday lives.
On the other hand, assuming you will come to a conclusive answer about every tricky theological subject you tackle is the height of arrogance. (And I do this too.) Particularly if it’s something related to the character or nature of God.*
Yes, there are some questions we need to realize will not be fully answered here on earth. That doesn’t mean we don’t have a responsibility to think about hard subjects. Much more importantly, it doesn’t mean we can just go along with whatever our culture says is okay and read that conclusion back into the Bible. That’s what Leticia did with slavery. I catch myself doing it from time to time. And I know a whole lot of churches who are doing that with a number of controversial current events because it seems easier.
Engage God’s word. Put aside your preconceived ideas and interpretations—you can come back to them later and see if they match up. Then read the Bible, praying that the Holy Spirit will reveal truth to you. Sure, it’s great to check out Christian books, listen to sermons, and talk with godly people you respect, but don’t forget to go with the main primary source you have access to.
Don’t let your theology be hearsay.
And be kind to your library books.
*Stuffy Theological Footnote for the Dedicated Reader: The morality of slavery as it was practiced in America is not one of those issues that is related to the character of God and thus mysterious. What the Bible says about it is fairly straightforward even in the Old Testament, much less with Jesus’ teachings about love and the equality of people before God. Most biblical justifications of slavery failed to recognize context, like the difference between debt slavery, and hereditary, starts-with-kidnapping slavery. And other things, but that could be a whole post on its own.