Monday, May 15, 2017

When Christians Were Divided Over Slavery

Lola in The Atlantic June, 2017

Lola was the slave next door. An American author, Alex Tizon, tells the story of his family slave--a gift from his grandfather to his mother. The troubling story of the unpaid household servant appears in the June 2017 edition of The Atlantic.
Christians were “A House Divided” regarding slavery. As with most other moral issues, Christians quoted the biblical texts to support and condemn slavery. From the perspective of the 21st century it seems absurd until you realize that a particular approache to scripture provides the moral foundation for slavery. A look back may help some Christians be more careful when it comes to slavish biblical interpretation.

When Christians Argued the Moral Case for Slavery

The Christian moral case for slavery can be found in the laws of Moses and the biblical leaders who owned slaves. It is perhaps ironic that the Exodus experience used as a metaphor for God’s deliverance from slavery during American history should contain the laws governing the institution of slavery.

‘’2 When you buy a Hebrew slave,[a] he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. 3 If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. 4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master's, and he shall go out alone.5 But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ 6 then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.” Exodus 21 ESV.

Christians could of course point to support from the Apostle Paul who advised slaves to “obey your masters” (Ephesians 6: 5-9).

Paul’s advice in Ephesians is consistent with his general moral approach, which emphasizes the moral foundation of authority. Other writings provide examples of the moral foundations of purity, care-harm, loyalty, liberty, and equality. In short, Paul provides an example of a conservative approach to Christian morality by integrating Scripture into his thinking to create a Christian worldview and emphasizing certain moral foundations in his discourse.

Paul’s teaching about slavery occurs in the context of rules about households. The meta-metaphor is the relationship of God to the church via Christ who is the head of the church. God is the quintessential Father and all Christians are his children who have the right to a divine inheritance. In Ephesians 5-6, he turns from the spiritual kingdom to address more practical concerns in the Christian household, which reveals his respect for authority and order. Like Christ is head of the church, wives submit to husbands, children honor their parents, and slaves obey their masters.

When it comes to slaves, Paul emphasizes two moral foundations: authority and care-harm. The authority emphasis is evident in the words about submission and obedience. People focused on authority will look for evidence of "moral authority."

The Christian Moral Case Against Slavery

Interestingly, the moral case against slavery can also be derived from the words of Paul. At the immediate level of living within a slave-holding Roman culture, Paul does not just encourage obedience but he directs masters to treat their slaves as they would be treated in recognition that their Master in heaven is the Master of both earthly masters and slaves. The case of Onesimus is often used as an example of Paul’s pleas for Onesimus’ freedom from his master, Philemon. It is frustrating from a contemporary perspective to read Paul's call for slaves to obey their masters.

The moral foundations found in the words of Jesus and Paul provide two bases employed by progressives when they argued against slavery. The love ethic of Jesus, most obvious in the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Mark 12:31), is the preeminent principle. Before advising men about how to treat their slaves, Paul has reminded them of the love of Christ for the church (Ephesians 5). Paul makes the case for Christian love in his writings. Unfortunately, for many, Paul did not condemn slavery as a practice not characterized by love.

Perhaps most relevant to the discussion of slavery is the moral foundation of equality in God’s household where Paul finds“there is neither…slave nor free…for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28. Here in Galatians there is a glimpse that Paul could envision a better world where there would be no ethnic, gender, or class distinctions. 

It would be many centuries before people would make significant progress in reducing inequality among people. Battles have been fought and won but the war is not over.

Twisted Texts

It is easy to accuse Christians who quote scripture when disagreeing with us of twisting biblical texts (e.g., Keener, Slaves and slaveholders). No doubt some play fast and loose with scripture to serve their own ends. Slaves benefit their masters and entire nations as sources of cheap labor. Selling children provides poor families with funds for survival. However, in the case of slavery and scripture, the argument for twisting scripture is not so evident. People who wish to remain true to a close reading of the Bible easily find support for slavery and do not find any condemnation of slavery. It is little wonder that slavery persisted for centuries in Christian cultures.

Justice as Fairness

The case against slavery is derived from the moral principle of justice as fairness and the moral foundation of equality. The case is bolstered by the common accounts of horrific treatment of slaves as less than human property subject to the whims of men motivated by greed and selfishness concerned only with satisfying their own appetites and freely expressing anger upon nearby possessions when some aspect of their desire is frustrated. Alas, principles of morality rarely hold human nature in check. Laws backed by force and informed by moral principles are needed to protect the vulnerable from abuse.
(For readers familiar with philosophy-- I am influenced by John Rawls.)

Notes on Israelite Slavery

Slavery has been common in the world since ancient times. The formation of the nation of Israel from expanded tribal families begins with the well-known story of Moses who leads his enslaved people to freedom.

The Exodus story continued to inspired enslaved people for centuries.

Soon after the Israelites entered their promised land and kingdom formation got off the ground, we see rules governing master-slave relationships. Slavery was indeed a part of Hebrew culture.

Using the Ezra text, scholars figure the ratio of free people to slaves was 5 to 1.

The Bible does not condemn slavery. But the Hebrew laws do identify slave rights and Paul warned against abuse.


Notes on Roman Slavery

Slaves were foreigners, which included POWs and people bought outside Roman lands.

Fathers could sell their children into slavery.

Owners could sell or rent their slaves to others.

Treatment included whipping and branding.

They worked everywhere e.g., homes, farms, mines, roads, buildings

Manumission was a practice of freeing slaves. If by court order, they could become Roman citizens but could not hold office. Any children they bore would be free. PBS

Moral Foundations and Christian Cultures

To read more about moral foundation theory and divisions within Christian cultures, read A House Divided.

Lest we Forget...

“...I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of the land... I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. Never was there a clearer case of 'stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in.' I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me. We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. . . . The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity. Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other—devils dressed in angels’ robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.”

― Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

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