Slavery is a fraught subject – and for too many, it’s no historical artefact or long-gone curiosity. Its effects are still pervasive. Furthermore, it’s not simply a matter of its legacy for African-Americans in the US or the Caribbean. UN estimates suggest that 20 million people were held in bonded slavery in 2004; and in that year, there were more slaves than were seized from Africa in all 4 centuries of the transatlantic slave trade combined. It is a matter of no small interest, therefore, that slavery is such a significant biblical theme – and for a large number it can form a stumbling block by itself.
Michael Card is a renowned singer, but he is also a careful student of the Bible (the result, in part, of a long mentoring relationship with William Lane, author of e.g. The Gospel of Mark in the NICNT series). More than either of those factors, however, is the fact that he has a pastor’s heart and passionate commitment to integration across racial barriers – so crucial in his home town of Nashville. It is through his many African American brothers and sisters that he has learned truths about slavery in the Bible. Particularly striking is the insight from one friend who said:
slaves generally referred to Jesus as ‘Master’ to let their earthly masters know they weren’t (p19).
Because being freed from human slavery doesn’t exempt us from all slavery – we are, if Christian, slaves of Christ, who was himself humanity’s slave.
This book is unusual for its effective combination of pastoral warmth and academic research. He very skilfully weaves between three eras of slavery in order to establish what being a slave of Christ is all about, and just as significantly, what it is not. He shifts with ease and learning between the covenant-tempered slavery regulations of ancient Israel, the harsh realities of Roman Imperial slavery and the horrors of the American Deep South. This approach is simply unavoidable for any treatment of this subject – but this is one of the best because Card is so personal committed to the discipleship implications of what he finds.
The chapters are short and pithy – and many are illuminating of familiar texts. It was particularly striking to see how many of Jesus’ parables were immersed in the world of slaves. The book closes with some very helpful appendices, listing such things as the slaves in the Bible’s story, the distinctives of the slavery from the 3 eras mentioned above, and chillingly, statistics about contemporary slavery. Having done a little work (but by no means as much) on this subject (The NT & Slavery), this is a book that I would love to have written, had I even half of Card’s insight and passion! If you’re looking for a more thorough and sustained handling of the topic, you could do much worse than Murray Harris’ Slave of Christ (in IVP’s fab NSBT series) but A Better Freedom is a great introduction and, more importantly, stirring devotional.
This is a challenging book but it is pastorally real and at times very moving, approaches some familiar truths with an engaging freshness.