Doctrine Or Social Institution? (UPDATED)

A clergyman who goes to the south, for the first time, has usually some feeling, however vague, that slavery is wrong. The slaveholder suspects this, and plays his game accordingly. He makes himself as agreeable as possible; talks on theology, and other kindred topics. The southerner invites him to talk with these slaves. He asks them if they want to be free, and they say, “O, no, massa.” This is sufficient to satisfy him. He comes home to publish a “South-Side View of Slavery,” and to complain of the exaggerations of abolitionists. He assures people that he has been to the south, and seen slavery for himself; that it is a beautiful “patriarchal institution;” that the slaves don’t want their freedom; that they have hallelujah meetings, and other religious privileges.

What does he know of the half-starved wretches toiling from dawn till dark on the plantations? of mothers shrieking for their children, torn from their arms by slave traders? of young girls dragged down into moral filth? of pools of blood around the whipping post? of hounds trained to tear human flesh? of men screwed into cotton gins to die? The slaveholder showed him none of these things, and the slaves dared not tell of them if he had asked them. – Harriet Jacobs, Incidents In The Life Of A Slave Girl

For nothing better can I consider the present abolition rage. Not that I would consider the simple idea of extending liberty to the slaves, fanaticism, when and where it can be done consistently with the general good – But what are the prominent features of abolitionism?  They are no other than the avowed determination to force the freedom of the slaves, regardless of the injury herby inflicted on them, in opposition to the providence of God, to the constitutional compact by which the states have been confederated, and to the good of society….

But let us briefly review some of these positions. –

1st. Abolitionist, whether successful or not, is injurious to the slaves.  It scatters discontent, and therefore unhappiness among them in their present state; it increases their insubordination, and thus subjects them to severer usage: should it free them from bondage, it would at the same time free their masters from the care of providing for them, and leave them an improvident class unprovided for, to suffer in rags and starvation, or under crime and its effects.

2nd. The scheme is in opposition to the providence of God.  It requires but little acquaintance with the blacks as a people, to be convinced that by nature, they are fitted for greater usefulness, and the enjoyment of more comfort, in a state of bondage than in a state of freedom.  In this state the providence of God had placed them among us, before we became a nation, and the same providence which brought us into existence as a nation, and gave us the most perfect and favorable form of government on earth, left them in their bondage, with the masters control over them guaranteed by the Constitution.  Until, therefore, God by his providence deprives us of our happy form of government, or disposes the slave States to engage in the work of emancipation, these abolitionists are fighting against the indications of providence.

3rd. Abolitionist is injurious to society at large, because it seeks to remove the slaves, without benefiting them, from a state of subjection in which they are useful producers, and to throw them loose, to squander their time in idleness, and to live by stealth upon the labors of others. – Letter to Cincinnati Post and Anti-Abolitionist, published April 16, 1842 

Rev. Dr. Fullcreed. Why, as to keeping slavery out of the church, out of the pulpit and our prayers, Mr. Freeman, I know you abolitionists have been in the habit of making objections, but here are difficulties attending the introduction of slavery. Some of our church members think it improper, and we dread getting the church divided by introducing exciting topics. For the same reason we omit the notices and prayers. But for the poor heathen there is no objection against praying or paying. – Excerpt from Dialogue on Slavery, A Play, 1843

When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are.  If she does not please the man who bought her, he may allow her to be bought back again.  But he is not allowed to sell her to foreigners, since he is the one who broke the contract with her.  And if the slave girl’s owner arranges for her to marry his son, he may no longer treat her as a slave girl, but he must treat her as his daughter.  If he himself marries her and then takes another wife, he may not reduce her food or clothing or fail to sleep with her as his wife.  If he fails in any of these three ways, she may leave as a free woman without making any payment.  (Exodus 21:7-11 NLT)

Is marriage a Divinely instituted institution, as we claim in our ceremonies?  I personally do not believe so.  It is, rather, an institution of the legal community in which it exists, subject to changes as law, custom, and time dictate.  In the Bible, polygamy was assumed.  Even after the establishment of the monarchy and David’s successful revolt against Saul, not only was polygamy still a state institution, but for the king concubinage was also permitted by law.  To claim, somehow, that our current heteronormative, singular marriage for life, a relationship and institution rooted in love and ordained for all time by God has anything to do with the Bible is an example of Biblical illiteracy promoted by those who would control an institution whose right to control properly rests with the legislatures that create and regulate it.

There is far more clarity on another social institution than marriage in the Bible: slavery.  When the United States was struggling with abolition prior to the Civil War, while both sides appealed to religious texts to support their views, the pro-slavery side certainly had the advantage that nowhere in Scripture is there an injunction to free slaves, unless certain conditions are met, particularly if the slave in question is a fellow Hebrew.  The chattel slavery enforced on Africans need not follow the seven-year rule precisely because the differences between the persons involved were superficially profound.  Slaves of African descent looked so different from the Scots-Irish and English landholders of the south; the differences in physiognomy must be the basis for even more profound differences in everything from personality to intelligence.  With the testimony from slaves to curious northerners that the slaves were happy in their estate firmly established; with the discrediting of stories of cruelty because everyone knew the African-American freed slaves were liars and trouble-makers; with the backing of Scripture to support the on-going enslavement of millions of human beings – abolitionism was not only detrimental to the health of the nation.  It would do a disservice to those who needed slavery to civilize and even (partially) humanize them.  It also violated clear Scriptural mandates supporting the institution of human bondage.

Yet, slavery passed away, after five years of bloody war and the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.  Rather than enforce the legal equality of the freed slaves, the United States succumbed to white supremacy – already firmly entrenched since colonial days in our relations with both the native populations and the African slaves – and limited the social and political rights of the newly freed slaves.  Sixty years ago, with the Second World War showing the logical conclusion of racist policies (as if the on-going lynching of African-Americans in the south weren’t evidence enough that Americans were willing to kill those they thought “inferior”), African-Americans began to work, through the courts and in acts of local agitation, to overturn the legacy of legal discrimination.

The churches were as divided as the nation on the whole matter of racial justice.  Martin King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail was a response to “sympathetic” white clergy in the south who nevertheless urged King to work gradually for change.  Like “Rev. Dr. Fullcreed” in the play excerpt above, people get upset when controversial issues are pushed too hard in church.  King’s response, of course, was that the demands of justice, rooted in the revelation of God, demand action now.  Combined with a faith in the basic tenets of the American Constitution, King’s belief was a powerful force.

Yet, there is little doubt that King and other clergy working to overturn racial discrimination were pushing against not only three hundred-plus years of entrenched white supremacy; they were not only struggling against established law at both the national and state level; they were not only insisting that the customs of the American people were, in fact, anti-American.  They were also reinterpreting the Scriptures, ignoring many passages of Scripture that took slavery for granted as a legal, social institution.  Looking at the place of African-Americans in our national life not through a lens of pseudo-scientific racism; of a history that encouraged the bondage of millions of human beings; demanding that the wages families and even corporations earned as a result of slavery be transferred, at least in part, to those who had actually created those earnings pushed back against a simplistic view of capitalism; reinterpreting the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution as part of the Providential plan not to keep people of Africa and African descent in perpetual bondage, but guaranteeing their full legal humanity, as understood through the lens of the Gospel – these folks were heterodox, standing against Scripture and history, unlike the orthodox who always seem to insist they have those things on their side.

So, despite thousands of years of the general practice of slavery, over three centuries of chattel slavery in the United States, the combined claimed wisdom of observers, pseudo-scientists, and religious divines to the contrary, we have made great strides in understanding our African-American brothers and sisters as fully human co-creators of the American project.  While supported by Scripture and tradition, slavery in the United States came to an end, and we are a better people for it.

Marriage is no less a social institution with a long and varied history, not just here in the United States but around the world.  To insist there is some “thing” we call “marriage” that rooted in Scripture, well, folks can go find Scriptures to support pretty much anything they want.  We United Methodists are struggling to come to terms with the social and legal changes in the United States.  I think it best we take a lesson from our own nation’s history with chattel slavery, repent of the many ways we have supported the dehumanization of sexual minorities, and open ourselves to these social changes that are already taking place, viewing them not as some moral degeneration but the movement of the Spirit in American life, a movement to which we should hold firmly and faithfully.  Marriage isn’t a sacrament; it isn’t even a Divine institution.  It’s just a legal ceremony.  We in the churches get to bless these folks who pledge to spend their lives together, to help make one another, and our world, better because of it.  It’s time to separate out social institutions that are mentioned in the Bible and “doctrine” and the practice of ministry.  A living church is a church that feels the Spirit moving, even -perhaps especially – in ways that make us uncomfortable.  Let us embrace this Divine Discomfort together.

 

UPDATE: With a hat-tip to my friend Charles Horton, I came first came across this book review of the racist history of the Alabama-West Florida Conference during the Civil Rights era.  In reading, I discovered something called “The Methodist’s Layman’s Union”, an unofficial group much like both Good News and the Methodist Federation for Social Action, an organization across the south during the 1950’s and 1960’s that actively opposed desegregation.  From a brief discussion of the group on the web page of the North Alabama Conference, comes the following:

Interestingly, these same “Christian” segregationists whose organizations were formed to resist the Supreme Court decision, later maintained that the Civil Rights Movement was against the work of God since it disrupted law and order. An anonymous segregationist, states,

Do they ask that we obey man rather than God? Do they think there is law and order in the most integrated city in the United States? To accept integration is no guarantee of law and order. Quite the contrary is true. From the considered instructions laid down by God, it would seem some violence to prevent integration is better for a country than integration, with its widespread lawlessness (Bass 21).

The author of the piece on the Layman’s Union, R. G. Lyons, notes that there was actually a wide array of preferences across the Conference, from outright resistance to desegregation to embrace of desegregation immediately as  a moral act in keeping with the Gospel.  I highlight this, however, to note that even racism was thought to be orthodox and work at integration heterodox, at least by some.  So, pardon me for not buying the whole “orthodox/heterodox” nonsense.

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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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