Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Listening Heart: The Bible and Slavery

[Number one in a series]

I received a free book to review because I am a blogger, and after reading the book it has been hard to deal with what I have wanted to say about it. Then, a conversation started here - in a comments section over at Evangelical Outpost - on slavery, and Christianity's (and the Bible's) supposed 1800 year love affair with it. I can certainly understand why a blogger with the handle "ex-preacher" would be an ex-preacher if he believed this

The Old Testament, Jesus, Paul, the church fathers, and almost all church leaders for the first 1800 years of Christianity thought that slavery was part of God's will. It was only after the Enlightenment and its emphasis on human rights that a number of Christian non-slaveholders decided that God was against slavery.
I believe this statement stands reality on its head in almost every point.

Before I look at this, the book that I am going to be weaving in and out of is The Listening Heart: Vocation and the Crisis of Modern Culture by A.J. Conyers. These are excerpts from the blurb at Spence Publishing:
A culture built upon the ideology of individual choice will be a culture of alienation, loneliness, and violence. In this provocative book, A. J. Conyers shows that Western culture was once informed by a sense of vocation, that men understood life as a response to a call from outside and above themselves. Beginning in the sixteenth century, however, the sense of vocation began to fade, to be replaced by the modern celebration of the unfettered human will. In such a society, Conyers argues, where relations among men are based on force, true community is impossible.
. . .
In a stunning insight, Conyers shows that the quintessential institution of modernity is slavery, for the slave is the ultimate autonomous individual. Stripped of every human tie, he belongs to no community but to a stranger. It is no accident, then, that the rise of modern slavery coincided with the Enlightenment itself.

This wide-ranging study, refreshingly free of sentimentality, makes the barbarism and unparalleled violence of the twentieth century explicable. For a society that casts off the burden of vocation abandons that which makes it human.
To get the review part out of the way, that is a pretty good overview of the book; and I highly recommend it.

Economic systems have gradually changed over the centuries, and a mixture of the major forms still remains.
  • The earliest form, that still remains in primitive tribes, is what Engels (yes, Marx's Engels) called primitive communism. There was no surplus gained by any member of the tribe because it took all the effort, of all its members, working all the time - for any and all of them to survive.

  • The first form of accumulated surplus was slaves - almost always those captured in conflicts on other tribes or groups. Tribes didn’t enslave their own; and slavery almost always included the ability of the slave to gradually integrate into the tribe, marry, have children - and stop being a slave. This, incidentally, was the state of the whole world nearly for the whole of the Bible period - Old and New Testament. The slave is owned by the master (with some variations), works for the master, all they produce goes to the master, and the slave's needs are met by the master. Developed slave cultures like Rome had free artisans and land holders, but there was really little wage labor except the hiring of artisans: for instance Jesus and his father as carpenters. If you worked for someone else you were typically a slave.

  • Slaves were freed from being owned, and instead bonded to the land itself. It was an improvement for the serfs, who paid land rent (and for protection from) powerful lords, yet produced for their own use. In exchange, as mentioned, the feudal lord was responsible for the protection and well-being of their serfs: the famous nobles oblige

  • Capitalism freed the serfs from bondage to the land, and simplified the relationship: the worker hires himself to the owner of the land, the machine, the service business in exchange for money - and there, in its "purest" form - the owner and worker have no other responsibilities to each other.
There was no reason for anyone in Biblical times to complain about slavery - it was the way of life. That said, let's look at the ex-preacher's points:

The Old Testament
Old Testament references to slave and slavery in the NASB

In the Old Testament there are 49 references to those two words, and only 14 of those are outside the Pentateuch. All of the uses of the word "slavery" are Moses and other prophets of God reminding Israel that God had freed them from slavery. Now we are down to 37, 11 of which are after the first five books. Of course, the first 8 are references to slavery in Egypt again. Down to 29/11. In that final 11, there is nothing that can be said to celebrate or even promote slavery - slavery is just a given; and it is never said to be "part of God's will". It is just a fact of economic life.

In the 29 that are left only 13 are talking about the how slaves are to be treated by Israel. On the linked list, that is from Exodus 12:44 to Leviticus 25:42. Now all of these laws assume the reality that Israel will have slaves - it was the dominant economic system and feudalism and capitalism were no where in sight. Israel making rules for the treatment of slaves is not celebration of slavery - indeed the frequent references to Israel's need to obey God because they were once slaves, and now are free, is a clear indication that freedom is better than slavery, even if slavery is a reality. The other split here mentioned in the discussion linked above is that the rules were different on Israel enslaving their own, and Israel enslaving foreigners. Someone called this race based slavery but this is nonsense. The tribes and groups bordering Israel were of the same Semitic race - it was tribal based slavery: which most slavery was for most of human history.

The restrictions on treatment of any slaves were impressive for the day, and showed you could not abuse a slave: if you struck your slave and knocked out a tooth or an eye they were free - it is nonsense to talk about the Enlightenment bringing the first thoughts of human rights to slaves. If they were Hebrew, after 6 years they were free - unless the slave chose to stay. Also, they could not be treated as a slave, but had to be treated as a hired man - and not sold into slavery at a slave auction.


Again, the 49 Gospel references to slave (there are no uses of the word slavery) talk about slaves as a fact of economic life, but never presents slavery as "God's will" even for the slaves being discussed. Slaves simply were an economic reality - with any other central economic system hundreds of years away. It is anachronistic to project that Jesus should have preached that slaves needed to rise up and become serfs, or further on yet, wage workers in capitalist enterprises.


All 5 uses of the word slave for saying slavery is God's will is welcome to try. While, again, treating slavery as an economic fact of life, he consistently, in every instance, uplifts slaves as being equal to free men in Christ; and that belief in Christ erases the distinctions between slave and free.

The greatest "crime" Paul committed vis a vis slavery was sending escaped slave Onesimus back to his master Philemon. I was really going to go through this to point out how very anti-slavery it is, but in reading it over again - that is so self-evident that I will let someone else try to do a pro-slavery exegesis from the book. They really can only end up looking silly to those who read what they write. Only one section is really needed here:
8 Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do what is proper, 9 yet for love's sake I rather appeal to you --since I am such a person as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus-- 10 I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, 11 who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me. 12 I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart, 13 whom I wished to keep with me, so that on your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel; 14 but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will.
Endorsement of slavery? Give me a break.

There is the word study: if someone really wants to make a case from these verses that the Bible says that slavery is God's will - put it in the comments or link your blog in the comments. The rule for it not to be deleted from me: no proof-texting - you have to make your case from the whole sweep of scripture on this issue adequately dealing with the counter-examples to your position. If not, I will whack it like a bad weed.

The next post will go on to the early church Fathers and Christianity up until the 16th century.

1 comment:

  1. JCH,

    I'm not familiar with the book you're critiquing here, but I think you've missed something important if you are asking the question, does the Bible explicitly claim that slavery is God's will. In reading pro- and anti-slavery Christian polemics from 19th century America, I learned that the crucial question was the more conservatively-phrased, "Does the Bible prohibit slavery?" After all, no one sat around reasoning theologically before instituting modern chattel slavery--it arose for economic reasons. The debate, when it developed, was between those who found in the Bible grounds for upholding the practice and those who argued against it. In this debate, from a textualist or "conservative" hermeneutical point of view, the pro-slavery Christians had much the better of the argument (see Thornton Stringfellow on this point, or Mark Knoll's recent writing). Text after text mentioned slavery, and in almost every case the plain meaning of the text upheld slavery as a practice that was sanctioned by God (and saying that the Mosaic laws on slavery only treated it as a fact of life would have been an unforgiveably liberal exegetical error in those days--God was legislating, after all, and God doesn't legislate in a historically-constructed manner). The New Testament was, if anything, even more damning evidence that Christians could rightly own slaves.

    To see what I mean, try reading Christ's slave parables as parables about Jim Crow--the bad, lazy slave is bound and lynched, etc. That the social arrangements described therein were a given is in part the point--by simply repeating it as a given, a reasonable reader would conclude that Jesus was, if not approving of the arrangement, certainly not objecting to it.

    The progressive exegetes who argued against this interpretation generally did so on two grounds: one, the frankly spurious reading of "setting the captives free" in Isaiah and Luke as referring to slaves; and two, the argument from the sweep of Scripture, that while it affirms slavery in every particular instance, the drift is against it on grounds of human equality, etc (and if I may be provocative, this is somewhat analogous to the arguments made by liberals today about homosexuality).

    I have not seen arguments from the mid-19th century to the effect that slavery was a feature of economic life in Biblical times and therefore Biblical statements had no relevance for modern slavery, but I can't imagine they would have been made by any but the most liberal congregationalists and Unitarians. It suggests that God's will is mutable and, moreover, that the Bible is inflected with human institutions and history.

    And indeed, the institutional church was not necessarily helpful in abolishing slavery. Rome never condemned modern slavery, though it did persistently argue for humane treatment of slaves. Many of the other traditions split geographically, with Southerners claiming Biblical warrant for slavery and some (though by no means all) Northerners claiming the opposite.

    This is all a long way of saying that while I find it plausible that the author you cite here overstates Christianity's historic endorsement of slavery, that is hardly the same thing as saying that Christianity didn't play a significant role in upholding modern slavery, with the aid of copious Scriptural evidence.


How to debate charitably (rules are links to more description of rule):
1. The Golden Rule
2. You cannot read minds
3. People are not evil
4. Debates are not for winning
5. You make mistakes
6. Not everyone cares as much as you
7. Engaging is hard work
8. Differences can be subtle
9. Give up quietly