Few parts of the Bible have had direr consequences in human suffering than the ones that urge enslaved persons to respect and obey their masters. The costs of these verses are on display in this photograph from the period of the American Civil War, taken near the capital city of Washington. This image is haunted by the shades of Scripture in the practice of chattel slavery, and with the protests of enslaved persons who bore the weight of biblical interpretation that fastened them in chains.
In her old age, Nancy Ambrose, grandmother of theologian and philosopher Howard Thurman, refused to hear any writings attributed to the apostle Paul, because of passages like 1 Timothy 6:1–2 (Thurman 1949: 30). She had been enslaved as a girl on a plantation in Florida, and had heard the preachers brought in by the slaveholder to preach biblical obedience to earthly masters. It is not difficult to imagine similar voices interpreting Scripture in this ‘slave pen’, where biblical discourses of captivity and servitude would have been whispered by captives and proclaimed by captors.
Pictures from the early days of photography, like this one, often receive attention for their documentary quality. But even as this image documents, it also functions as art that troubles and vexes the viewer’s perspective, and provokes pathos. This image is a profound commentary on and indictment of the practice of slavery, obliterating any myths about happy slaves or kindly masters. An iron-barred and double-latched door frames an inner yard, where more doors lead to cells where enslaved persons were kept. The most meagre of windows provide the only access to the world outside.
The photograph also evokes other spaces of subjection and violence, authorized and undergirded by biblical interpretation: the Inquisition, the colonial barracks, the Middle Passage, the concentration camp, the prison. It reminds us that not all readings of the Bible are life-giving, and indeed many come at great human cost.
Powery, Emerson B., and Rodney S. Sadler. 2016. The Genesis of Liberation: Biblical Interpretation in the Antebellum Narratives of the Enslaved (Louisville: Westminster John Knox)
Thurman, Howard. 1949. Jesus and the Disinherited (Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury)
6 Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be defamed. 2Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brethren; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved.
Teach and urge these duties. 3If any one teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching which accords with godliness, 4he is puffed up with conceit, he knows nothing; he has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, 5and wrangling among men who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. 6There is great gain in godliness with contentment; 7for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; 8but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. 9But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. 10For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs.
11 But as for you, man of God, shun all this; aim at righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. 12Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13In the presence of God who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, 14I charge you to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ; 15and this will be made manifest at the proper time by the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.
17 As for the rich in this world, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on uncertain riches but on God who richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy. 18They are to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous, 19thus laying up for themselves a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed.
20 O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you. Avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge, 21for by professing it some have missed the mark as regards the faith.
Grace be with you.