On Slavery: An Object Lesson In The Careful Use Of Scripture In Christian Ethics

Tunisian Mosaic, 2 century CE, Roman slaves in typical slave garb

Tunisian Mosaic, 2 century CE, Roman slaves in typical slave garb

In all the back and forth about sexual minorities in the United Methodist Church, one of the biggest complaints lodged against those, like myself, who support full inclusion, is that we ignore Scriptural injunctions from both the Old and New Testament that either directly (as in Leviticus) or indirectly (Romans, the Pauline Epistles) condemn sex acts between persons of the same gender.  That such verses are few and far between is irrelevant, so the argument goes, precisely because of their clarity: there is no direct support in the Bible for God blessing the love between two persons of the same gender.  So the argument goes, since this is the case, the argument itself is over.  Any attempt to include sexual minorities in the life of the church, including ordination and blessing same-sex marriages, violates the clear Scriptural mandate against it.

While it might seem a stretch, I believe that a comparison of Biblical attitudes toward slavery, and subsequent Christian social and ethical teaching on the subject, is a good way to understand several things: (a) How to use what Bishop Arichea called “the canon within the canon”, i.e., the revelation of God’s love for creation in the incarnation of the Son of God in Jesus Christ, as a way of entering in to Scripture faithfully; (b) how taking historical context seriously in our exegetical work includes understanding the unspoken assumptions of the culture from which the Biblical materials arose, including those that are not only completely foreign to us, but those that are antithetical to our contemporary moral sensibilities; (c) understand how the intervening centuries have altered the social, cultural, and moral landscape in such a way that many social practices considered both normal and acceptable are no longer so.  If we are going to be serious about how we are faithful to the Spirit that gives us, the Church, our life, our mission, and our ministry, then we have to think clearly and honestly, work through things that might be unpleasant, and sometimes – sometimes!  not all the time – accept that Scriptural authority must rest not upon any particular set of words, but upon that to which the Scriptural testimony points: the revelation of God’s love for creation, and our increasing understanding over the centuries of how that can best be expressed.

First, it should be noted that slavery was an integral part of the societies that produced the Biblical literatures.  There are no arguments for or against slavery in the Bible precisely because such a thing was, literally, unthinkable.  Not to say that there weren’t slave rebellions, the most famous led by the Roman Spartacus, which resulted in hundreds of crucifixions, the bodies left along major highways as a reminder to what happened to those who disrupted the Roman social order.  St. Paul infamously ordered Philemon to accept back his slave Onesimus.  Both were Christian.  Onesimus, however, had – according to St. Paul – misunderstood the whole idea of “freedom” Paul was preaching, and had run away.  All St. Paul wrote was that Philemon not treat Onesimus too harshly, as he was a fellow Christian.

In the fourth century, some Manichaean Christians began encouraging slaves to revolt against their masters.  In response, at the Council of Gangra released the following rule:

If anyone, on the pretext of religion, teaches another man’s slave to despise his master and to withdraw from his service, and not serve his master with good will and all respect, let him be anathema.

In the fifth century, St. Augustine argued that slavery was neither forbidden nor acceptable under natural law, and should therefore be regulated to mitigate its worst features.

By the time the continents in the western hemisphere were discovered and colonization began, the emergence both of racism and proto-capitalism changed human attitudes toward slavery in many ways, few of them good.  When the Spanish conquered Mexico and South America, they immediately enslaved the indigenous populations.  One local priest, Bartolomeo De Las Casas, insisted they be freed.  The argument used against this was that, not having been exposed to the Christian faith prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, the indigenous population was child-like, even, perhaps, lacking in that most basic human essence, a soul.  De Las Casas worked hard for years, finally successfully emancipating the locals; he did so, however, by encouraging the creation of the capture and enslavement of west Africans, who started to arrive in west in the 16th century.

With the British colonization of North America, slaves arrived as part and parcel of the nascent capitalist economy known as mercantilism.  With the increased legal protections for property necessary to support a growing economy, human property came to be seen and understood less and less as human and more and more as property, necessary capital to increase the economic strength of the colonies to support British Imperial designs.

Along with capitalism dehumanizing African slaves, the beginnings, first, of a Biblically-based racism, followed quickly in the 18th and 19th century with a scientifically-based racism, solidified the view that American slaves of African origins need not be considered fully human, therefore in no need of enjoying the rights and freedoms other (white, non-property) men (and not women, to be sure) understood as rights not only guaranteed by God, but as part of natural law.

The most-often used Biblical text supporting the enslavement of Africans was the end of the story of Noah.   Noah entered a tent, got drunk, and passed out naked.  His sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, entered the tent.  Only Ham did not turn his eyes away.  He was condemned, as the Scriptures say, to be hewers of wood and bearers of water, i.e., slaves.  The Africans were assumed to be descendants of Ham, therefore receiving their just, Scripturally-based, reward.

By the time the American Civil War erupted, the arguments from Scripture and the Christian faith endorsing chattel slavery in the United States were fixed.

bullet “[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.” Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America1,2 
bullet “There is not one verse in the Bible inhibiting slavery, but many regulating it. It is not then, we conclude, immoral.” Rev. Alexander Campbell 
bullet “The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example.” Rev. R. Furman, D.D., Baptist, of South Carolina 
bullet “The hope of civilization itself hangs on the defeat of Negro suffrage.” A statement by a prominent 19th-century southern Presbyterian pastor, cited by Rev. Jack Rogers, moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA). 
bullet “The doom of Ham has been branded on the form and features of his African descendants. The hand of fate has united his color and destiny. Man cannot separate what God hath joined.”  United States Senator James Henry Hammond.

Even as late as the 21st century, one theologian admitted the sad truth:


“If we apply sola scriptura to slavery, I’m afraid the abolitionists are on relatively weak ground. Nowhere is slavery in the Bible lambasted as an oppressive and evil institution: Vaughn Roste, United Church of Canada staff.

While it is the case that Africans and their descendants enslaved in the United States found comfort and even the strength to rebel in the same Scriptures that nowhere condemn slavery, particularly the Exodus story, the sad truth is there is really very little in the Christian canon that supports emancipation of slavery on principle.  While the abolitionists used Scripture, too, the sad reality is the pro-slavery agitators really had the bulk of the Scriptures behind them, as well as the coalescing economic system that needed the free labor slaves afforded.  Finally, of course, there was the dawn of the science of anthropology, that saw in Africans and their descendants less-than-fully-human persons who were not in need of the same level of care or concern as others.  Religion, bolstered by scientifically-based racism and the needs of a burgeoning capitalist economy conspired to keep those of African descent enslaved to support the growing American economy, while protecting the population from what was clearly a foreign, less-than-fully-human source of social and biological contamination.

Yet, slavery was finally ended, at the cost of three-quarter of a million American lives.  For a century, a kind of racial peonage was enforced, both north and south, hold in place by arguments similar to those that had enforced chattel slavery on Africans and their descendants.  Finally, over the past generation and a half, the legal status of African-Americans is recognized as full members of American society, even if the deep stain of racism continues to hold down far too many young men and women solely because of their race.

Of course, this history ignores the long, detailed story of the appropriation of other parts of the Bible by Christianized African slaves and their descendants, who used the Bible to uphold their fundamental humanity; to tell the Exodus story as a paradigm of God’s deliverance of the enslaved to freedom; of the songs they sung that incorporated Biblical themes that were code for the desire for freedom from slavery.  This undercurrent, an important part in particular of our North American Christian heritage, was long known by African-Americans, but little noticed until James Cone and other theologians of Black Liberation brought out this history hidden to the majority of white American Christians.  This story demonstrates the faithfulness of the slaves and their descendants, the powerful current of the Holy Spirit for the full humanity of all persons, for the inclusion of all persons in the family of God.  It ignores, however, the overwhelming, and dominant pro-slavery narrative that flows from the Biblical text itself.

Relying solely on different parts of the Biblical narrative, white and black North Americans told very different stories about how we human beings are to relate to one another.  Aided by growing capitalism, which put a premium on property rights, even human property, as well as the budding science of anthropology that saw non-Europeans as less than human, however, the undercurrent of liberation flowing from the African-American Christian tradition was drowned in a combination of scientific, cultural, and religious ideologies that kept white America from seeing and accepting the full humanity of all persons, regardless of race.  We continue to struggle with this legacy today.

The slave churches, then the free black churches after the Civil War, continued to emphasize the story of Exodus as God’s defining moment in relationship with suffering humanity.  Seen through the lens of the cross and resurrection in particular, this story became the story of human freedom, not only from sin and death, but social, political, cultural, and religious dehumanization.  Our mainstream, dominant, mostly white denominations have made long strides in learning how to listen to these stories, understand their meaning for our faith, and incorporate them in our common life, practice of mission and ministry, and our work to better the lives of all persons.  The great gift we received, however, has yet to be embraced by all, and racism in its political, social, cultural, and religious forms continues even as we as a nation, and churches within a nation, have worked hard not only to do better, but be better.

Had we as a nation relied solely on Scriptures to wean ourselves from slavery, the cause never would have begun.  Other forces, from the birth and expansion of capitalism, the creation and expansion of modern then scientific racism, to simple political expediency, would have combined with the overwhelming evidence from Scripture to deny even the basic full humanity of the African-American slaves.  It was only by reading the Scriptures in new ways, whether it was the slave churches appropriating the Exodus story as their own, or abolitionists demanding freedom rooted in the freedom we have from Jesus Christ that there was even a glimmer of hope, albeit from a small slice of the American churches, in overcoming the overwhelming ideology and infrastructure that supported chattel slavery.

As with slavery, so, too with how we view sexual minorities.  Anyone would be hard pressed to find a Bible verse supporting romantic and sexual love between two men or two women (with the possible exception of David and Jonathan in the Old Testament).  Were we to rely solely on particular verses, our churches wouldn’t even be contemplating supporting the full internal and external emancipation of sexual minorities here and abroad.  Lucky for us, however, there are ways to read, understand, and apply Scriptural texts that undermine the ethical and moral contradictions between some of its mandates and our contemporary sensibilities.  What Bishop Arichea called “the canon within the canon”, naming Jesus Christ as shorthand for the history of the revelation of God’s love for humanity the Christ-event represents, rather than begin with Leviticus or Ephesians or Romans, we can instead begin, as I did recently, with the declaration from 1 John that all love is from God.  This is the sense in which Bishop Arichea spoke of a canon within the canon – we begin with a particular hermeneutical principle to guide our reading of the whole of Scriptures so that we can do our theologizing, our mission, and our ministry, as Karl Barth famously said, with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

The United States has made great strides toward full inclusion of sexual minorities in our economic, social, and cultural lives.  Some Christian denominations – the UCC, the Episcopalians, the Presbyterians, and the ELCA – have also opened their churches to full inclusion of LGBT persons in the life of the church, including ordination and officiating at marriages in those jurisdictions where it is now legal.  These changes will not disappear; the spread of acceptance of gay marriage and gay civil rights in general is only growing.  We United Methodists should learn that we cannot rely solely on a few scattered verses condemning something that we as a society in general no longer understand as a social wrong.  Just as we have learned to read the Bible differently in regards to slavery, so, too, must we learn to read the Bible differently when we begin to consider how to include all persons, including gay, lesbian, bisexuals, and trans persons in our lives.  We must be ready for the Spirit to guide our life together so that we can not only survive the controversy ahead, but having reached the far shore, thrive as those who now practice our claim that God’s grace is open to all persons, and that the life of the church is enriched by all its members.

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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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