Slavery and the Church….Again

Is the church responsible for slavery? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

So here we’ve had a terrible tragedy that has took place in Charleston and once again, supposedly racism is an epidemic sweeping the country right now. Now I’m of the opinion that no matter what you do, there will always be racism because people are sinful like that and because we view with suspicion that which is different from us. Of course, we must remember to never let a good crisis go to waste and so Huffington Post has a piece up by Carol Kuruvilla on how white Christians used the Bible and the confederate flag to oppress people. (Of course, one can be sure the implications of this are supposed to reach far past slavery and to Christians being great oppressors today.)

Of course, there’s no doubt there were too many people who used the Bible to justify slavery just like there were people who used science to justify the eugenics movement. This no more means we should discard the Bible than it does that we should discard science. It would be best to follow the adage attributed to Augustine that you never judge a philosophy by its misuse. What happened was horrid in the south no doubt, but absent from Kuruvilla’s report is any of the response to this. Sure, she says the Northern Baptists were opposed to slavery. What is not said is that most Christians around the world were already opposed to slavery. She wants to focus on one people group, though a sizable one to be sure, and say that these are the main representatives we should look at.

What made it so hard over here? Mark Noll says first off the arguments against slavery from a Biblical position depended on understanding the context of the Bible and looking deeper than many others did who just wanted what was “clear” to them. As he says in The Civil War As A Theological Crisis:

“On the other front, nuanced biblical attacks on American slavery faced rough going precisely because they were nuanced. This position could not simply be read out of any one biblical text; it could not be lifted directly from the page. Rather, it needed patient reflection on the entirety of the Scriptures; it required expert knowledge of the historical circumstances of ancient Near Eastern and Roman slave systems as well as of the actually existing conditions in the slave states; and it demanded that sophisticated interpretative practice replace a commonsensically literal approach to the sacred text. In short, this was an argument of elites requiring that the populace defer to its intellectual betters. As such, it contradicted democratic and republican intellectual instincts. In the culture of the United States, as that culture had been constructed by three generations of evangelical Bible believers, the nuanced biblical argument was doomed.”

So what made the Civil War a theological crisis? What separated us from the rest of the world? It was that we had a view about ourselves as a special people that God was guiding. It was a sort of manifest destiny. We believed in democracy greatly and so we treated the Bible the same way. The Bible should be just as clear to the man on the street and one does not need to do deep study to find out what is being said. This is still the approach of many fundamentalists today, which includes a large segment of internet atheists who read the Bible the exact same way their Christian counterparts do. They just believe exactly opposite.

It wasn’t the Bible then that was the problem so much as how we thought about ourselves. This is also prevalent in many Christian circles today where people are looking for signs for everything that they do, as if God is supposed to personally guide them. It shows up when people think the Bible was written in a style that is obviously apparent to 21st century Westerners instead of bothering to study its context. To many atheists, this can sound like an excuse. In reality, it’s simply saying to treat the Bible with the same respect you’d treat any other document from another time, culture, place, setting, and in another language.

Also noteworthy is that Kuruvilla ignores any ancient history on this. When Christianity first showed up, slavery was practically if not entirely universal in the Roman Empire. The thought of removing slavery and having a functioning empire would be like thinking we could do without something like automobiles or IPhones today. Make the suggestion and you will be met with uncomprehending stares. To us, it makes no sense because we have a moral background that has been so heavily influenced by Christianity. That was the Roman Empire. What system really brought about the end of it ultimately? I’ll give you a hint. It starts with Christ and ends with “ianity.”

The church had a history of treating slaves first with respect and then eventually setting them free. Philemon could be called the Emancipation Proclamation of the New Testament. Christians would often raise up money to buy slaves just for the purpose of setting them free. It was Bathilda, wife of Clovis II, who really brought slavery to a halt, but its death had long been started beforehand because Christians said everyone was in the image of God so no man should be the property of another man. Did it get started later? Yes. Unfortunately it did, but it was Christians again, like Wilberforce, who rose up to stop it.

Make no mistake. Many Christians have done stupid stupid things in the past. Many of them have done wicked things that we should all be ashamed of, but let’s be fair and not overlook the many good things that have been done. If all that is presented is one side of the story, then of course that one side looks compelling. Let us remember the main cause of slavery was really more of our egos about us being a special people than anything else. Of course, some people thinking they are special today is certainly not being used to oppress anyone else out there now is it?

In Christ,
Nick Peters

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