Sunday, August 31, 2008

Slavery's only wrong if you're a mean owner.

Many of the texts people find offensive can be cleared up with a decent commentary that puts the issue into historical context. Take the text "slaves obey your masters." The average reader today immediately and understandably thinks of the African slave trade of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, or of the human trafficking and sexual slavery practiced in many places today. We then interpret the texts to teach that such slavery is permissible, even desirable.

This is a classic case of ignoring the cultural and historical distance between us and the writer and readers of the original text. In the first-century Roman empire, when the New Testament was written, there was not a great difference between slaves and the average free person. Slaves were not distinguishable from others by race, speech, or clothing. They looked and lived like most everyone else, and were not segregated from the rest of society in any way. From a financial viewpoint, slaves made the same wages as free laborers, and therefore were not usually poor. Also, slaves could accrue enough personal capital to buy themselves out. Most important of all, very few slaves were slaves for life. Most could reasonably hope to be manumitted within ten or fifteen years, or by their late thirties at the least.

By contrast, New World slavery was much more systematically and homogeneously brutal. It was "chattel" slavery, in which the slave's whole person was the property of the master -- he or she could be raped or maimed or killed at the will of the owner. In the older bond-service or indentured servant hood, only slaves' productivity -- their time and skills -- were owned by the master, and only temporarily. African slavery, however, was race-based, and its default mode was slavery for life. Also, the African slave trade was begun and resourced through kidnapped. The Bible unconditionally condemns kidnapping and trafficking of slaves (1 Timothy 1:9-11; cf. Deuteronomy 24:7). Therefore, while the early Christians did not go on a campaign to abolish first-century slavery completely, later Christians did so when faced with New World-style slavery, which could not be squared in any way with Biblical teaching."

The Reason for God by Tim Keller.

What's bothering me about this particular section of the book is that I don't see any declaration that slavery is immoral. The whole defense started because Mr. Keller was approached by a young person who was infuriated by the particular Bible verse of slaves should obey their masters. Rather than be able to respond that of course the Bible doesn't support slavery, or of course slavery is wrong, the response seems more focused on "Of course the Bible holds no support for the New World slavery."

But where is the defense that owning another person, regardless of the circumstances, is immoral? Why do we suddenly have to apply a sense of relativism to when slavery is and is not bad? The author flat-out states that the Bible condemns kidnapping and trafficking slaves. Why can't we get just as vocal of a response to the idea of slavery itself?**

Not only that, but look what happens when I contrast this section of the book with what the PBS website says on slavery in Roman times:

Slavery in ancient Rome differed from its modern forms in that it was not based on race.

But like modern slavery, it was an abusive and degrading institution. Cruelty was commonplace.

A common practice

Slavery had a long history in the ancient world and was practiced in Ancient Egypt and Greece, as well as Rome. Most slaves during the Roman Empire were foreigners and, unlike in modern times, Roman slavery was not based on race.

Slaves in Rome might include prisoners of war, sailors captured and sold by pirates, or slaves bought outside Roman territory. In hard times, it was not uncommon for desperate Roman citizens to raise money by selling their children into slavery.

Life as a slave

All slaves and their families were the property of their owners, who could sell or rent them out at any time. Their lives were harsh. Slaves were often whipped, branded or cruelly mistreated. Their owners could also kill them for any reason, and would face no punishment.

Although Romans accepted slavery as the norm, some people – like the poet and philosopher, Seneca – argued that slaves should at least be treated fairly.

Essential labor

Slaves worked everywhere – in private households, in mines and factories, and on farms. They also worked for city governments on engineering projects such as roads, aqueducts and buildings. As a result, they merged easily into the population.

In fact, slaves looked so similar to Roman citizens that the Senate once considered a plan to make them wear special clothing so that they could be identified at a glance. The idea was rejected because the Senate feared that, if slaves saw how many of them were working in Rome, they might be tempted to join forces and rebel.


Another difference between Roman slavery and its more modern variety was manumission – the ability of slaves to be freed. Roman owners freed their slaves in considerable numbers: some freed them outright, while others allowed them to buy their own freedom. The prospect of possible freedom through manumission encouraged most slaves to be obedient and hard working.

Formal manumission was performed by a magistrate and gave freed men full Roman citizenship. The one exception was that they were not allowed to hold office. However, the law gave any children born to freedmen, after formal manumission, full rights of citizenship, including the right to hold office.

Informal manumission gave fewer rights. Slaves freed informally did not become citizens and any property or wealth they accumulated reverted to their former owners when they died.

Free at last?

Once freed, former slaves could work in the same jobs as plebeians – as craftsmen, midwives or traders. Some even became wealthy. However, Rome’s rigid society attached importance to social status and even successful freedmen usually found the stigma of slavery hard to overcome – the degradation lasted well beyond the slavery itself.

According to PBS, slavery was still abusive and degrading. Owners were perfectly entitled to sell their slaves as a whole, not just limited to time and skills. They were whipped, branded, and cruelly mistreated. If killed, there was no retribution. I'm pretty sure that's a big difference between a slave and an average free person (unless this could also happen to an average free person as well?) Yes, slaves looked like everyone else, but that's because the Romans feared a revolt if slaves knew just how many slaves there truly were. And once free, there was still the whole degradation factor of being slaves in the first place.

Now, I do happen to think that there are a lot of great things in the Bible. There are a lot of comforting things, as well. Given that I don't take everything in the Bible as literally true or directly communicated through God, I don't have to defend these verses.

What bothers me is the fact that these verses are defended to this degree at all. That we have to draw the lines between the particular types of slavery, and can't just say, "No, of course the Bible teaches that all slavery is absolutely wrong." Especially given the fact that all those Biblical verses were used as justification for the New World slavery.

**The author does note that there are people familiar with the cultural and historical aspects of the Bible who still get outraged by these texts. I'll touch on that point in my next post.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

You only think you're good ...

Christianity provides a firm basis for respecting people of other faiths. Jesus assumes that nonbelievers in the culture around them will gladly recognize much Christian behavior as "good" (Matthew 5:16; cf. 1 Peter 2:12). That assumes some overlap between the Christian constellation of values and those of any particular culture and of any other religion. Why would this overlap exist? Christians believe that all human beings are made in the image of God, capable of goodness and wisdom. The Biblical doctrine of the universal image of God, therefore, leads Christians to expect non-believers will be better than any of their mistaken beliefs could make them. The Biblical doctrine of universal sinfulness also leads Christians to expect believers will be worse in practice than their orthodox beliefs should make them. So there will be plenty of ground for respectful cooperation.

Christianity not only leads its members to believe people of other faiths have goodness and wisdom to offer, it also leads them to expect that many will live lives morally superior to their own. Most people in our culture believe that, if there is a God, we can relate to him and go to heaven through leading a good life. Let's call this the "moral improvement" view. Christianity teaches the very opposite. In the Christian understanding, Jesus does not tell us how to live so we can merit salvation. Rather, he comes to forgive and save us through his life and death in our place. God's grace does not come to people who morally outperform others, but to those who admit their failure to perform and who acknowledge their need for a Savior.

Christians, then, should expect to find nonbelievers who are much nicer, kinder, wiser, and better than they are. Why? Christian believers are not accepted by God because of their moral performance, wisdom, or virtue, but because of Christ's work on their behalf. Most religions and philosophies of life assume that one's spiritual status depends on your religious attainments. This naturally leads adherents to feel superior to those who don't believe and behave as they do. The Christian gospel, in any case, should not have that effect."

Tim Keller, "The Reason for God."

I've been sitting on this quote for a while, wondering if a few days would dull my reaction to it. Not so much.

On the one hand, it's nice to see a Christian acknowledge that those in other religions or no religions at all can be as nice, kind, compassionate, and overall as good as Christians.

That may be the only positive thing I have to say about this. What I'm really honing in on is the idea that Christians should expect to find non-Christians better than the Christians. One, because I don't see the New Testament as a whole espousing that view. If you are supposed to be the example for non-Christians, if you are supposed to let your light shine and people see your good works so God gets praised, then Christians should be better. I don't see Paul telling the churches that it's okay if they don't behave as well as the pagans. He tells them to stop behaving as the pagans, and be better, because of their connection to God. God/Jesus is supposed to change said believer for the better.

Two, it sounds like an excuse. Since Christians acknowledge their failure and sin-status, and aren't trying as much to merit anything, this is why non-Christians will behave better than Christians. It's okay for the Christian to be "less than" because that's how the Christian gets accepted by God.

Three, it pretty much reduces the non-Christians behavior to selfishness. Yes, the non-Christian may be better, kinder, morally superior and so forth. This is *only* because the non-Christian thinks s/he gets something out of it from God. It's not because the non-Christian might just think it's the best way to live one's life. No, the non-Christian is just being self-focused.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Changing the title, not the behavior.

"The difficulty of interpreting GAlations fairly is compounded by Paul's own extreme views on Judaism, both before and after his messianic conversion: both as a Jew and as a Jewish Christian, Paul was far from typical of Jewish belief and practice. In what he calls his "earlier life in Judaism" he was fanatical, to the point of "trying to destroy" the Jewish movement, people he perceived as enemies to the Torah. Now, despite having renounced his former fanaticism, he continues to believe that as a fanatic he was a model Jew. Once assiduously Torah-observant, he now takes his own past as the measure of what law-observant Judaism has to offer. Never does he consider that a less-strict version of observance might be acceptable to God. On the contrary, "Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey *all* the things written in the book of the law (Deut. 27:26 LXX). Any abrogation of any law brings God's curse. Ironically, the insistence on keeping "all" the laws appears only in the Greek tanslation of Deuteronomy; Paul's standard for legal observance actually exceeds that stated in the (Hebrew) Torah. Even leaders like James and Peter, who favored -- perhaps insisted on -- the full conversion of Gentiles, probably defined Jewishness in less rigid terms than Paul did. For Paul, the covenant was an all-or-nothing affair."

"The Reluctant Parting: How the New Testament's Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book," by Julie Galambush.

This paragraph seems to bring up a point I've only subconsciously considered. When most Christians picture Judaism, do they picture it in all the aspects in which it was taught? Or is taught? Or do they picture Paul's particular lens of Judaism only?

If it truly is an all or nothing affair for Paul, that would explain why I have a hard time meshing his viewpoint of the Torah with what I actually read in the Tanakh. I don't get the sense of the Torah provided to tell everyone how sinful they are, or that it's primary purpose is to show a need for a Savior. I don't get the sense that they dreaded being under it's power, or yearned to escape the burden of the Torah.

Perhaps if Paul held a less rigid view of the Torah and those who practice it ... would he still have proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah?