Were you a slave when you were called? Do not let it trouble you – although if you can gain your freedom, do so. 1 Cor. 7: 21 (New International Version)
If a slave when called, do not accustom yourself to it; rather if you can indeed become free, make the most of it. 1 Cor. 7: 21 (Hart translation)
Notice the difference. David Bentley Hart in the footnotes to his new translation of the New Testament offers a persuasive case that do not accustom yourself to slavery is a more accurate rendering of Paul’s Greek than the grin and bear it translations that we have heard all our lives. The NIV prescription of passivity is far and away the norm and has been so since the Bible was translated into English.
All translations reflect the cultural, political, and socio-economic context of the translators and those who pay them and adopt their translations for Church use. The King James Version is said by some to be slanted with a decidedly monarchist bias. But my questions are:
1. What underlying assumptions would lead us to translate a verse as telling slaves to be content in their slavery when it is at least arguably possible to translate the verse to tell them to resist? The resistance translation makes more sense with the rest of the passage which says that Christ has turned all those power relationships on their head;
and it better accords with Paul’s usual teachings which constitute him as the original liberation theologian. For freedom Christ has set us free. Galatians 5: 1. Would the author of those words tell a slave to just put up with it?
2. Does the Bible, our sacred text, shape us into a domination system people – or has the denomination system shaped the Bible? Perhaps it is chicken and egg.
We no longer use the Bible to defend slavery. 1 Corinthians 7: 1 has been an embarrassment for over a century. But we have continued to translate it do not let (being enslaved) trouble you. I think this prescription for passivity reflects something broader than the slavery issue. I find a ubiquitous assumption that religion – or more aptly spirituality– is about cultivating indifference, a calm acquiescence to life with all itsslings and arrows, especially subservience to the domination system, what Paul called the Principalities and Powers of this present age – though Paul clearly called Christians to place Christ above those Principalities and Powers; and New Testament scholars from the liberal Walter Wink to the conservative N. T. Wright see Jesus as a lived rebellion against such worldly domination. But in popular religion, we shake our heads sadly at famines, epidemics, and atrocious violations of human rights saying such things as, It’s God’s will. Everything happens for a reason. We’ll understand it all by and by.
I see a consumer demand for an opiate of the people religion. Against that opioid spirituality, German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann[i]proclaims a hope that sets us at odds with the status quo. Moltmann, says,
. . . (E)xperience and hope stand in contradiction to each other . . . with the result that . . . man is not brought into . . . agreement with the given situation, but is drawn into the conflict between experience and hope.
In the Apostolic era, Christians were committed to transformation rather than passivity. Do not be conformed to the ways for this world. Rather be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Romans 12:2. In the Patristic Era, Christianity took a stand against Manichaeism, which saw evil as an active force in the cosmos while goodness was inherently passive and indifferent. Augustine rejected the Manichaeism of his youth in favor of Christianity and upheld a theology that participated in the world in a transformative way for the sake of God’s Kingdom Mission.[ii]
The orthodox tradition of Paul and Augustine insists on a tension between Christian hope and the worldly status quo. Against that orthodox tradition, there is decidedly a history of opioid spirituality and carrot and stick religion used to keep people in line. It is the Jurgen Moltmanns and the Leonardo Boffs, the so-called radicals, who are in line with the ole timereligion of the Early Church.
What do we expect from the Church in the face of wildfires, rising sea levels, genocide, and human trafficking? The do not let it trouble you translation, or stand up, raise your heads, the kingdom is near[iii] -- engage the world for Christ, engage the world with the transforming power of a love that shows mercy and demands justice.-->
[ii]That is an admittedly simplistic statement of Augustine’s complex political theology. He was no revolutionary, but he did insist that Christianity participate in the mire and the muck of worldly politics for the sake of insinuating God’s Kingdom values into the mix. See, Garry Wills, The Confessions of a Conservative.https://www.amazon.com/Confessions-Conservative-Garry-Wills/dp/0140055630/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1545520587&sr=8-1&keywords=the+confessions+of+a+conservative
[iii]Luke 21: 25-36