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.

Sent from my iPad


8 thoughts on “An Abolitionist Bible?

  1. Perfect.
    You’ve said it all. There really is no wiggle room for the Christian on the question of slavery. Or misogyny, for that matter. Though women were likely harder to control, historically.
    Apologists like Rob are not unique, but they are all an embarrassment to their ilk. Some even go as far as to make a video, for those who can’t read.
    Thank God there was only one minute of it to endure.
    Much as it grieves me, I find nothing in your post to disagree with. Let me sleep on it.

  2. One always has to be careful approaching religious texts, to ensure that you’ve reached a proper understanding of the text. I think it’s inaccurate to suggest that Christians cherry-pick the Bible in their argument against slavery. That all people are created in the image of God (Genesis 1) establishes not just a major theme of the Bible, but also a logical basis for the denunciation of slavery.
    To suggest that Jesus has tacitly or otherwise condoned slavery by his reference to slaves being beaten in Luke 12, is a case in point in not reaching a proper understanding of the text. Jesus’ point was that the person doing the beating was in the wrong (and being a foolish servant); the parable was not a comment on the morality of slavery.
    I think contributions to this discussion are welcome, and the blog makes some good points, but let’s be sensible about the Bible does and doesn’t say.

  3. Ray, you wisely point out that we should be sensible about (what) the Bible does and doesn’t say. By “sensible” I presume you mean accurate. Or does it mean something else in this context?
    Aye, there’s the rub.
    History has shown that one man’s accuracy is another man’s heresy.
    All people are created in the image of God, yet in Exodus 21:20-21 we read: (my parentheses) “When a man (made in the image of God) strikes his male or female slave (made in the image of God) with a rod so hard that the slave (made in the image of God) dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave (made in the image of God) survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave (made in the image of God) is his own property.”
    Frances has asked a question which requires an answer, “…why did he not forbid slavery? “Thou shalt not own another person as thy property.” How hard is that?”

    Has God ever actively sought to free people from slavery? In at least one special case, yes, of course. The Israelites were miraculously freed from slavery in Egypt. For thousands of years subsequently, slaves everywhere else remained slaves.

    Ray’s “being sensible” would suggest that we should allow special treatment in at least one case. Many find this problematic. Especially slaves.

    • Thanks for the response Richard. I think you’ve illustrated my point about being sensible though: ‘sensible’ as I used it above has a clear, well-understood meaning, which is supported by the context in which it was used. I acknowledge that not all of the Bible (given there are 66 books, with a myriad of different literature genres) is perfectly clear, but much of it is! In fact, the New Testament (I refer you to Romans in particular) is clear that the Old Testament law, from which you have quoted above, no longer applies. The four gospels are also very clear in showing the character of Jesus – it is obvious far from being someone who encouraged the beating of slaves, who showed amazing and counter-cultural kindness to the lowly and outcast.

  4. I’m sorry but the exegesis of Luke here is appalling. Jesus never sanctions the beating of slaves. I appreciate the thoughtful critiques elsewhere (and they are real food for thought), but I had to respond to that one because the exegesis was so poor. Sorry 😦

    • Luke 12 has to be read in the light of Exodus 21 (which I quoted above).
      In both cases the issue is not the morality of owning slaves as human property.
      It is not even about whether slaves should be beaten/punished or not.

      The point of a parable is that it could only work if it was based on culturally familiar concepts.The readers of Luke would have been familiar with all the personnel problems that come with owning slaves. So Jesus uses that as the cultural reference point. As Frances points out, it is significant that Jesus makes no comment on the morality of owning and beating slaves.
      I suppose you want to draw an invisible line somewhere between sanctioning and failing to condemn.
      You should understand that non-Christians find that very odd, to say the least. I am sure we would all be interested in discovering the “correct” exegesis of Luke – well, Rob’s version of correct, anyway.

  5. Pingback: Jesus the slave beater? | Atheist Forum

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