Biblical Slavery, Part 3

(See Parts 1 and 2 of this discussion.)

Let’s conclude this critique of a podcast titled “Sex, Lies & Leviticus” from apologetics.com that responded to Dan Savage’s criticism of the Bible.  Italicized arguments are my paraphrases from the podcast.

Slavery doesn't make the Bible look too goodDan Savage and other atheists distort the Bible by imagining it supporting slavery.  If Southerners used the Bible to support slavery during the Civil War, that was only because they distorted it.  Consider the anti-slavery books of that time: The Bible Against Slavery (1837) or God Against Slavery (1857), for example.

Let’s consider the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination.  It split with northern Baptists in 1845 because it insisted on maintaining its support for slavery.  In 1995, on the 150th anniversary of the split, it published a resolution that repudiated racism and slavery.  (Good for them for admitting their error, though the delay puts this correction in the same bin as the Catholic Church’s tardy embrace of Galileo in 1992.)

Looks like support for slavery is a plausible message to take from the Bible even if not everyone accepts it.

Were there anti-slavery books at that time?  Were there Christians against slavery?  Sure!  How that gets the Old Testament off the hook, I can’t imagine.  The verses quoted in the previous post show that the Bible is very plainly pro-slavery.

Consider Philemon, a short book in the New Testament.  Here Paul sends a slave back to his master Philemon with the request that he be “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (Philemon 1:16).  This was radical stuff—it was designed to bring about change within the Roman slave system.

Wow—that’s wishful thinking.  If Paul shouted in public, “Don’t you get it?  Owning another person is wrong!  Free all slaves immediately!” that wouldn’t have changed the Roman system.  Paul instead asking in a private letter that one slave be freed wouldn’t change the system, and it’s not clear he’s even asking for this.

Abraham Lincoln convulsed America in a Civil War, in part, to free the slaves.  Jesus didn’t lift a finger to overturn slavery.  In fact, the New Testament is full of pro-slavery statements.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything. (Col. 3:22)

Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. (1 Peter 2:18)

All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect. (1 Tim. 6:1–2)

Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything. (Titus 2:9–10)

Were you a slave when you were called [to be a Christian]? Don’t let it trouble you. … Each man, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation God called him to. (1 Cor. 7:20–24)

The Christian can respond with nice verses in the Old Testament—“Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18), for example—but here again the Bible makes a clear distinction between Jewish neighbors and those other guys.  So back to Dan Savage and his claim that the Bible is radically pro-slavery: looks to me like Savage wins.  Whenever Christians make a careful distinction between Jewish slaves in the Old Testament and African slaves in America, they’re playing games.

Let’s take a step back to see where we’ve been.  On this podcast, two well-educated Christians spent an hour trying to shoehorn actual biblical slavery (that is: slavery for life; slavery not too bad considering that slaughter was the alternative; beatings okay unless the slave is incapacitated; etc.) into a package labeled “indentured servitude.”  They pretended that biblical slavery was far, far different from the slavery in America.

It makes you wonder if they’d be happy to see this godly biblical institution in effect here in America.  (Maybe when the theocracy comes?)

I don’t know whether to be offended that they think I’m so uninformed that I don’t see the deception or to be amazed that they honestly don’t understand.

But that’s not the crazy part.  Halfway through the second hour, the host and guest acknowledged the irony that they are both African-Americans.

So we have two African-American men defending slavery.  One of them likened biblical slavery to an “employment contract” (again, he seemed blind to the fact that the six-year Jewish slavery is not the interesting topic).  “We’re in a form of slavery when we’re working on a job for somebody else,” he said.  Uh, no—being a waiter is not even close to being a slave.  When people complain that it’s the same, they’re exaggerating.  Yes, we’re constrained when we’re employees, but who seriously equates present-day employment in America to the abhorrent kind of slavery we’re talking about?

So a white guy has to remind modern-day African-Americans on the problems of slavery.  Wow.  This is what Christianity can do to people.  It makes them check their brains at the door—not all Christians, of course, but some.  They defend the morality of biblical slavery, if such a thing can be imagined.  They reject science for creationism.  They support torture in proportion to their religiosity.  They reject stem cell research and the best methods for preventing unwanted pregnancy.  They dismiss the injustice of eternal torment in hell by saying, “Uh … the gates of hell must be locked from the inside!”  They dismiss evidence that televangelists are charlatans.  They rationalize away biblical genocide.

Slavery is a bad thing, and the Bible condones slavery.  Dan Savage was right.  Just admit it.

Morality is doing what is right regardless of what we are told. 
Religious dogma is doing what we are told regardless of what is right.
Andy Thomson at American Atheists 2009 conference

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Related posts:

6 thoughts on “Biblical Slavery, Part 3

  1. Pingback: Biblical Slavery, Part 2 | Galileo Unchained

  2. Pingback: Old Testament Slavery—Not so Bad? | Galileo Unchained

  3. Just a couple of updates to the American history part of what is otherwise an unassailable analysis of the Biblical attitude toward slavery.
     
     • In addition to the Southern Baptists splitting off from the once-nationwide denomination over the issue of slavery, the Southern Methodists did as well.
     
     • Bob writes “Abraham Lincoln convulsed America in a Civil War …”, which makes it sound as if the war were Lincoln’s idea and he started it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Southern slavers, paranoid that Lincoln was going to take their (human) property from them without compensation, didn’t even give him a chance to try. He was due to take office on 1861 March 4, but the South seceded before that, and the attack on Fort Sumter occurred on April 12. Lincoln was barely a month in office before he was confronted with the greatest crisis our nation has ever faced.
     
     • Tho Lincoln personally was an abolitionist, he paralleled the attitude of John F. Kennedy a century later about Catholicism: He didn’t intend to impose his personal beliefs on the nation simply because he had the power of the presidency. He was willing to work within the system to achieve political results. He made his priorities clear mid-war in a letter to abolitionist firebrand Horace Greeley: “I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. … If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that…. I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.” (letter to Horace Greeley, 1862 Aug. 22)
     
     • Finally, in one of those odd little quirks of history that the superstitious are always going on about but the rationalists properly treat as mere coincidence, Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on the exact same day, 1809 Feb. 12.

  4. Apologetics on this issue has no choice but to employ misrepresentations. Slavery in the biblical era — except for the voluntary indentured bondage of Hebrew slaves — was chattel slavery. Pure and simple. Period. It was upheld by God and Jesus.

    Any Christian worth his salt should be advocating that humanity roll back our moral progress and renormalize slavery because of its innate moral goodness. After all, it was upheld by Jesus himself.

    • I frequently hear “Yeah, but Old Testament wasn’t anything like slavery in America.” Wow–why is the atheist the one who has to teach Christians about their own holy book?

      Thanks for the link.

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