Monday, August 20, 2007

The Listening Heart: Christianity and Slavery

[Number two in a series]

The Bible didn't approve slavery - not the Hebrew Scriptures, not Jesus, not Paul, not at all. However, perhaps the ante-Nicean fathers or later leaders of the church from 100 AD to around 1600 AD just did their own thing and justified it with the warping of scripture.A.J. Conyers (back to The Listening Heart) describes the general view (really urban legend) that this is post is structured around:

It is difficult to describe the modern emergence of slavery without first correcting the popular notion that slavery was gradually overcome by the forces of Enlightenment, having survived antiquity and the Middle Ages due to the ignorance in which the world was held bondage. The true picture is much more complicated than can be presented here, but fundamentally the Christian lands first yielded to the pressure of the Church in its prohibition of slavery. Slave trade and slave holding went into eclipse for more than half of a millennium. The invective of the Church against slavery was severe. Early adherents of Christianity (a "slave religion:' as it was called by the Romans) convincingly preached that Christian anthropology did not permit slavery or any such traffic in human flesh.
There are some distinct periods here (following the division of Philip Schaff - links in the titles are to his articles on Christianity and slavery in his multi-volume History of the Christian Church:
  1. The Apostolic church (1-100 AD)
  2. The ante-Nicene church (100-325)
  3. The Nicene and post-Nicene church (311-600)
  4. The mediaeval church (590-1073)
Schaff stops looking at slavery and the church at this stage - because slavery is basically gone in Christian dominated countries by this stage - other forms of servitude and bondage now exist. Slavery was indeed gone from Christian lands for over 500 years (but never gone from the rest of the world) - and the philosophical underpinnings about our equality as imago dei was the philosophical dagger in its heart.

Schaff doesn't really follow Conyers in the idea that the
The invective of the Church against slavery was severe
and says, for instance, that no Pope ever condemned slavery. He misses Gregory of Nyssa's [BTW: not a Pope] commentary, In Ecclesiastes Homiliae on Ecclesiastes 2:7 (mid 300's):
Does any of the things listed here, a sumptuous house, vineyards galore, beautiful gardens, a system of pools supplying orchards with water, suggest as much arrogance as the man's idea that he as a man can be master over his fellows? "For I acquired:' he says, "slaves and slave girls, and slaves were born in my house." Do you see the vast extent of his boastfulness? Such a voice as his is raised in open defiance against God. . . .

"I have acquired slaves and slave girls." What is that you say? You condemn a person to slavery whose nature is free and independent, and in doing so you lay down a law in opposition to God, overturning the natural law established by him. For you subject to the yoke of slavery one who was created precisely to be a master of the earth, and who was ordained to rule by the creator, as if you were deliberately attacking and fighting against the divine command. . . .

"I acquired slaves and slave girls." Tell me, what price did you pay for them? What did you find among your possessions that you could trade for human beings? What price did you put on reason? How many obols did you pay as a fair price for the image of God? For how many staters have you sold the nature specially formed by God? "God said, 'Let us make man in our image and likeness.'" Tell me this: who can buy a man, who can sell him, when he is made in the likeness of God, when he is ruler over the whole earth, when he has been given as his inheritance by God authority over all that is on the earth? Such power belongs to God alone, or rather it does not even belong to God himself. For, as Scripture says, "the gifts of God are irrevocable." Of his own free will God called us into freedom when we were slaves to sin. In that case he would hardly reduce human beings to slavery. But if God does not enslave what is free, who dares put his own authority higher than God's? . . .

When a man is put up for sale, nothing less than the lord of the earth is led onto the auction block. . .
and, as we roll into the period of modern slavery, Pope Leo X (1513-22) [pretty much an idiot every other way] said (in a papal bull)
not only the Christian religion, but nature herself, cried out against the system of slavery.
While Schaff seems right in saying that the church had always been a conservative organization in the sense of fomenting rebellion and uprising - its positions since the Apostles had been the equality of people in Christ regardless of their status corporally; and this position served to fatally undermine slavery until it died. As Conyers notes, Christianity preached hard against slavery (and the necessary degradation of humanity which is needed to support slavery); but did not preach against the institution of slavery or encourage slaves to rebel. The church also continued the teaching in scripture that we are all to serve, even slaves, as if we are serving Christ. Next, it taught that our freedom came in Christ and not in our secular relationships or position in the culture. Finally, it can really be said I think that the church thought slavery was the "will of God" but only in the same sense that it believed that everything was the will of God; and that slavery was a result of sin and the fall of man. There is no sense that the church believed some peoples, or groups of people, to be created to be slaves - or that slaves were beyond redemption, etc. Indeed, there are numerous examples of ex-slaves, and current slaves, becoming Bishops of the church and taking on vocation within the church.

Varying reasons other than the church's opposition are seen for the end of the first period of slavery in the Christian lands. Compton's was a little inconsistent internally: first, it said slavery died when the whole world was Roman - and no new slaves were forthcoming from conquest and war. However, then they say it died when Roman wealth disappeared in the barbarian invasions. Finally, that it gradually died out between the 4th century and the end of the 10th century. Those three statements were essentially in the same paragraph. There is probably some way to tie that together as the end of growth, mortal death wound, and the time it took to bleed out - but it is still ugly writing.

The progression in this earliest form was from restricting and moderating the slavery of Christians by Christians (and of course others); the sale of Christians into slavery by others; and then the overall abandonment of slavery as it relaxed into feudalism and serfdom.

According to my old Compton's, slavery was revived as Europeans came "into close and continued contact with" Africans as exploration, and then colonization, grew. The Portuguese were the first to introduce the African slave into Europe in the 15th century - and descendants of these slaves were taken to Haiti to work the mines after the discovery of the Americas in the early 1500's. The slave trade increased up until 1792 when the first western nation abolished the slave trade - Denmark. Denmark was followed by England in 1807 and the United States in 1808. This timeline traces the progress in the abolition of slavery from 1761 to the present. The rise of modern slavery along with the rise of modern society will be looked at deeper in the next post.

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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