White Fragility and Biblical Interpretation: The Case of Reading Paul on Slavery

The entrenchment of New Testament texts generally and the Pauline epistles specifically in slaveholding logics, rhetorics, and practices has been a thorny issue for modern scholars who wish to disentangle dehumanizing, violent legacies of New Testament interpretation from those which have been liberative. One common rhetorical move has been to divorce “barbaric” aspects of antiquity from “more enlightened” ethical standards of the present. And yet, scholars and activists of color especially have underscored the reiterative nature of enslavement’s legacies, in spite of (or even perhaps because of) expanded civil rights protections. In light of the persistent, pervasive nature of white supremacy, this paper seeks critically to elaborate the responsibility of white scholars to engage in explicitly anti-racist interpretation of the New Testament. As a test case, I read white scholarly responses to the apostle Paul’s treatments of slavery in terms of “white fragility” as delineated by Robin DiAngelo. That is, we might identify moves to defend Paul’s acceptance of and participation in slaveholding logics and rhetorics (e.g., “he was a man of his time,” “he could not have imagined otherwise,” “he was himself non-elite and minoritized”) as functioning to abstract Pauline texts and their interpretation from any racialized and racializing implications. To read such scholarly rhetoric as an expression of white fragility is to acknowledge how such intellectual maneuvers function to preserve white racial equilibrium, cordoning off critical consideration of race as primarily the purview of “minoritized criticism” rather than an essential responsibility of white scholars for doing anti-racist work. As a white scholar whose primary research is on slavery in early Christianity, this paper is a practice in taking seriously the impact of white fragility on historiography of enslavement and its legacies specifically, as well as an effort to center anti-racism in rhetorics of history and historiography generally.