Dr. Jennifer Glancy offers perspective on Jesus and slavery

Dr. Jennifer Glancy speaks in Gailor Auditorium on February 5. Photo by Robert Mohr (C’21).

By Robert Mohr
Executive Staff

“What I’ll be doing this evening is speaking about Jesus speaking about slavery” Dr. Jennifer Glancy said, introducing her lecture which discussed the relationship between Jesus and slavery, both in His contemporaneous Roman time and the American era. This talk was sponsored by the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation along with the University Lecutres Committee, the School of Theology, and the departments of Humanities and Religious Studies. The Roberson Project, per the Sewanee website is “a six-year initiative investigating the university’s historical entanglements with slavery and slavery’s legacies.”

Dr. Glancy, The Rev. Kevin G. O’Connell, S.J., Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Humanities at Le Monye College, first engaged her own relationship with slavery, both in her life and those of her ancestors. She received her Doctorate in New Testament studies from Columbia University. Columbia University received widespread media attention in 2017 after it began exploring its relationship with slavery, including its beginnings under the banner of King’s College. As Dr. Glancy points out, one of its key donors to its endowment, the Livingston family, made its fortune through the slave trade.

She also discussed her husband’s family history of slaveholding, including a letter from Caesar Phelps, a slave owned by the family, requesting his owed wages for surrogate service in the Continental Army. This introduced the idea of substitution, especially using the idea of the slave as a substitute for the human relationship with Christ.

Her lecture focused on three main ideas. First, she set the context of the Roman slaveholding world of Jesus. Next, she introduced the field of Christian doulology, which studies the relationship between Christianity and slavery, and analyzed Jesus’s teachings and thier interaction with slavery.

The system of slavery in the time of Jesus, though similar to the American system through its commodification, seperation, and violent punishment of its victims, differed in terms of manumission and social mobility. Many slaves in Roman times, unlike American slaves, were either released or bought their freedom, and once free, enjoyed greater social mobility. The largest difference lies in the racialization of slavery, which was not present in Jesus’s time.

According to Dr. Glancy, Jesus encountered slavery frequently in his time. Using Romano-Jewish historian Josephus’s account of the Siege of Masada, where he claims that the Jewish community in the Masada fortress committed mass suicide to avoid slavery as an example, Dr. Glancy said, “Jesus grew up hearing that large numbers of residents of a nearby town had been sold into slavery to distant parts of the empire.”

Speaking on the role of slavery in Jesus’s teachings, Dr. Glancy said, “There’s nothing in the [Christian] tradition to suggest that Jesus ever instructed enslaved people to obey their masters…on the other hand, there is no suggestion that Jesus ever suggested to a wealthy person to manumit their slaves.”

 Dr. Glancy then concluded by putting her observations in conversation with the 21st-century relationship Christians have with slavery saying,  “As I think about our churches and our society beginning to repair the harm done by the age old mass of human rights abuse of slavery, priority needs to be given not to the desires of those who benefitted from the system for forgiveness or redemption, nor even to the help of those who enjoy mastery to live in a community without masters. Priority needs to be given to listening to the claims of communities that have suffered centuries of harm, for payment of what is owed.”