Reading the Scriptures with Nat Turner

Jackson Lashier

I was deeply convicted about my provincial ways of reading scripture recently by a work of fiction—William Styron’s 1968 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Confessions of Nat Turner (Random House, 1967). Nat Turner was a slave and preacher from Virginia who, in 1831, led the largest slave uprising in American history, inflicting numerous casualties. Though it is a work of fiction, Styron bases his narration on Turner’s own words that he dictated to his lawyer prior to his execution, particularly the preacher’s clear conviction that he was called by God to lead the revolt.

I first encountered the name Nat Turner in seminary while reading James Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation (J. B. Lippincott, 1971). Cone viewed Turner as a model for black Christians in their pursuit of liberation in 1970s America. As a young, white idealist, persuaded by a particular reading of scripture, which made normative Jesus’s peaceable teachings and example, I dismissed Cone’s embrace of violence as antithetical to the gospel of peace. To be sure, I believed in other facets of Cone’s work (and all liberation theology), notably the claim that our experiences as male or female, black or white, rich or poor, etc. necessarily shape the way we read Scripture. Nevertheless, I never made the connection between that truth and Cone’s embrace of violence as a tool for divine justice. That is, until I read Styron.

In Styron’s novel, Nat Turner’s theological antagonist is a white preacher named Richard Whitehead. Their varied scriptural interpretations emerge in two juxtaposed sermons that bookend the narrative preceding the climactic rebellion. Early in the book, Whitehead preaches to slaves a message of obedience, patience, and hope in the life to come. “If therefore you would be God’s freemen in paradise,” he proclaims, “you must strive to be good, and serve him here on earth. Your bodies, you know, are not your own; they are at the disposal of those you belong to” (97). I imagine Whitehead’s scriptural text was a household code from Ephesians or 1 Peter, quite popular among white preachers of that era for the commands to slaves to be obedient to their masters and to follow the example of Jesus who, when suffering unjustly, never fought back.

Toward the end of the book, Turner preaches a sermon that directly counters Whitehead’s: “White man’s religion don’t teach nothin’ to black folk except to obey ole mastah and live humbly . . . but them of you that recollects they Bible knows about Israel in Egypt an’ the peoples that was kept in bondage …. Them Jews was just like the black folk” (308). By this point, readers have grown to love Nat Turner, to believe in his deep faith and in his divine calling. Through the narrative, we have also witnessed the horrors of slavery and our rage has grown with his. We have read Scripture with him, and are now prepared to accept the message of his sermon, that God was on the side of the slave, as he always had been in Scripture, and that their faith would be shown not in obedience to their masters but, like Israel, in fighting with God’s help for their freedom.

My conviction came in recognizing my ways of reading Scripture more in Whitehead’s sermon than Turner’s. While I do not believe Scripture justifies slavery, I recognized as faithful the way of reading Scripture that Whitehead represents, namely, the use of Christ’s example in justifying a call for obedience and patience in the face of suffering. But I struggled to recognize as faithful the way of reading Scripture Turner represents, namely, its focus on the OT in justifying violence for divine purposes like justice and liberation. I realized, to my horror, that I read more like Whitehead because I am more like him than Turner.

Turner saw in Scripture a message that non-oppressed people struggle to see, the indignant rage of enslaved Israel, the cries for divine justice of the prophets, and the mighty acts of God to deliver the oppressed in this life. He saw it because he was oppressed; he lived every day the experience of Israel in Egypt. Their prayers for deliverance were his prayers. Their hope in the justice of God was his hope. While I admittedly still struggle to justify any act of violence as being in accordance with the gospel, reading Scripture through Nat Turner’s eyes helped me see and appreciate his faithful reading. And it caused me to reevaluate my own patterns of reading. While Jesus’s peaceable teachings and example must remain normative (he is the Word made flesh and, therefore the full revelation of God), those teachings must not simply cancel out the message of enslaved Israel and the prophets’ cries for justice, but rather, must exist in tension with them, in theory and in practice.

Although I do not know the full ramifications of this, I believe the first step, so desperately lacking in our current American context, is to come to the table (both of study and of communion) with people who look different from us, speak different from us, and come from different places than us. Only then will we see what they see in Scripture and will they see what we see in Scripture. Only then can we begin to understand one another and approach a common, more robust, and, ultimately, more faithful reading.

Posted Jul 27, 2020

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