Anyone watching news from Harrisburg, Pa., has undoubtedly come across a recent flap over a billboard sponsored by a group of atheists and unbelievers (I’ll let them quibble over the difference). The billboard, placed in a predominantly African-American community, consisted of Negro (the word being used at the time supposedly represented) in neck shackles, above which were the words, “Slaves, Obey your Masters. Col. 3:22.”
The ad was in response to the Pennsylvania legislature’s declaration of 2012 as The Year of the Bible, something about which this blog commented a few weeks ago. The intent of the prominent sign was to show that the Bible is in fact an evil book, one which is totally inappropriate for the dignity granted by the legislature. There are a couple of additional posts which come to mind, one dealing with stupidity and several dealing with the issue of biblicism. As to the former, the working definition was “poor reasoning, entrenched mental habits and unexamined assumptions.” The reader may draw her or his own conclusions as to whom the label may apply; I’ll draw mine. As to the latter, however, there is little doubt that the atheist responsible for the choice of messages was doing just what too many Christians have done for far too long: using a non-contextual verse or phrase as the entirety of what “biblical” teaching is on a given subject.
The ad seems to have backfired, though they have promised to give us more of the same. It backfired for a couple of reasons. First of all, it failed the sensitivity test. The persons in charge had no understanding of the people who would have to look at this billboard, thinking nothing of how deeply the very image was to them, as it has been for several generations. Compounding this failure of discernment, however, is the fact that many of these same people are devout Christians. While the intent was to show them from the Bible that Christianity was inherently contrary to their own interests and well-being, the opposite happened. The believers in the community know their Bible better than that; and more than that, they know the purpose of the Bible better than that.
The purpose of the Bible is Jesus the Christ; Jesus, the Liberator; Jesus, who frees from oppression that goes even beyond the horrors of slavery and relegation to second-class status; Jesus, the one who gives hope, a commodity never delivered on by any form of atheism, in spite of the false inspiration of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” And the irony is that they know it better than most White American Christians, who rightly or wrongly are associated with those who use the very verse in question as the devil’s justification of nineteenth century slavery. And, by the way, that form of brutal slavery had very little in common with the practices of the first century world in which the words of Paul were offered. In that context, servants were far more like household helpers, with their families being considered the responsibility of the homeowner. Some were well treated and loved; some were not—just as employees experience in different work settings through the ages. But none were treated the way all too many plantation owners treated those whom they bought and sold.
I am curious to see the promised future ads from the atheists and unbelievers; maybe some of them will last more than the one-day run of the billboard in Harrisburg. I do hope they’ll be better reasoned and more worthy of debate. This one was just plain stupid.