An Abolitionist Bible?

Rob Martin has recently blogged here and here
on the subject of the Bible and slavery.

Can Christians take pride in the abolition of the slavery as a Christian achievement? Yes and no. Yes, because the most high-profile and dedicated abolitionists were indeed Christians, who used the Bible to support their position. And no, because the most high-profile and dedicated supporters of slavery were also Christians, who used the Bible to support their position. For every William Wilberforce there was a George Whitefield and both claimed to be sailing under the flag of Christianity.

Why did the apologists for slavery claim that the Bible sanctioned slavery? Because it does. The abolitionists had an uphill struggle because, whilst there are some passages in the Bible which can be used to argue against slavery, they are easily outnumbered by the passages which show implicit approval of slavery. Christianity was a house divided until the argument was eventually won by the abolitionists, not because there is any sound theological basis for rejecting slavery, but because the factual and moral bases for slavery failed.

Thereafter Christians picked out the egalitarian plums of Biblical teaching and threw away the duff of pro-slavery texts. So the Bible was made to fit morality as morality could not fit with what the Bible actually said on the subject.

Historically, the Christian church had little to say on the subject of slavery. It was not until the 17th century that any significant Christian movement arose to oppose the slave trade, in which the Quakers were a prominent part. If the Christian message is irreconcilable with slavery, why did it take more than one and a half millennia for Christians to notice?

Rob says that the Bible acknowledges the institution of slavery and gives instructions for the treatment of slaves. Indeed it does. In fact, in the 10 commandments number 10 prohibits coveting your neighbour’s house, wife, ox, ass or servant (i.e. slave.) The Bible says that we may do a Great Wrong when it comes to slavery. The Great Wrong being that we may envy somebody else’s slave. That’s it. Not a word of condemnation about the fact of owning another person as property. So when slaveholders came to defend their ownership of people it’s hardly surprising that they argued, as did Jefferson Davis that slavery “was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation…it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts.” It is hard to argue otherwise. Indeed, it is only possible to argue otherwise because of a grim determination on the part of Christians when reading the Bible to see what it ought to say instead of what it does say.

Jesus said not a word against slavery and implicitly approved it by using it in a parable in which he sanctions the beating of slaves, more harshly or less, according to their culpable failure to follow their master’s wishes (Luke 12:45-48).

The usual response by apologists to such challenges is to say that the institution was embedded in the local culture and whatcha gonna do? The only option was to try to regulate it so as to curb its worst excesses. But this is an abysmal excuse. Adultery, murder, lying and theft were even more deeply embedded in the culture, but God did not feel compelled to accept the inevitability of those things so why did he not forbid slavery? “Thou shalt not own another person as thy property.” How hard is that?

Jesus frequently challenged contemporary thinking and institutions. The existence of money changers in the Temple, for example. But he never raised a hand, literally or figuratively, against slave traders, although he must have been aware of them.

The Christian church has moved from tolerating slavery (at best) and actively championing it (at worst) to universally condemning it. Hooray! But this move came from the human ability to extend the basic principles which underpin all morality to those outside the immediate social group. It did not come from anything in the Bible. Any reading of the Bible as being anti-slavery is merely an exercise in eisegesis.

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