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.

Manumission

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.

14 comments:

Pastor Bob said...

Interesting post. Your description of slavery in the Roman world is accurate as is your description of New World slavery.

Curiously in the early days of slavery in what became the United States slave owners didn't want their slaves to become Christians because they were afraid that the slaves would claim equality with their masters and demand freedom. The slave owners dealt with this through the myth of the curse of Ham. What is most curious about this interpretation is that while in the Noah saga Ham does indeed uncover the nakedness of his drunk father, (which some interpret to mean that he raped his unconscious father), the curse is put not on Ham but on his son Canaan. One can guess that there was some politics involved in this . . .

As for slavery in the New Testament it depends on where you read. Peter just tells the slaves to obey the masters. Paul says different things depending on where you read. Clearly both assume slavery is an integral part of the current world order. The only excuse I ever hear is that Paul in particular expected Jesus to return real soon and wasn't trying to change the world.

One the other hand there is his very curious letter to Philemon which just about commands Philemon to free Onesimus because he had become a Christian, therefore a brother, therefore an equal, the very thing that early American slave owners feared.

If people are going to interpret the Bible to give them guidance for today they need to consider the text in the time in which it was written.

Having said all of that I would argue that the proper place to look for an argument against slavery in the Bible is in chapter 1 of Genesis: that all humans are created in the image of God.

Oh, and by the way, let's make sure we talk about slavery today. There are millions of slaves around the world including a good sized bunch in the USA. Let's both examine the Bible AND fight against the wrong of slavery today. Get your local, state and federal politicians to cough up enough money to chase down the slave holders, put them in jail, and give the slaves citizenship!

OneSmallStep said...

Pastor Bob,

**Your description of slavery in the Roman world is accurate as is your description of New World slavery. **

And that's my biggest problem with how the book presented Roman slavery. If we went based on that description alone, would we have any indication that it was like PBS described? Instead, it's almost been whitewashed to the point where there's no difference between a slave and everyone else -- and there was.

One the other hand there is his very curious letter to Philemon which just about commands Philemon to free Onesimus because he had become a Christian, therefore a brother, therefore an equal, the very thing that early American slave owners feared.

**I would argue that the proper place to look for an argument against slavery in the Bible is in chapter 1 of Genesis: that all humans are created in the image of God.**

The only difficulty I have with this is that we don't see a flat-out argument against slavery from any Biblical writers. Rather, it has to be inferred from verses, or situations. Yet we can point to clear-cut verses forbidding the trafficking of slaves. Even in Philemon, it's the perfect opportunity for Paul to say "You know slavery is immoral." And yet, he doesn't.

Yes, cultural context must be taken into account. But elements like slavery are what disturb me when we have people who feel that the Bible is the best moral guide to behavior, because the Bible is influenced by the culture in which it's written. And the fact of the matter is -- wrong or rightly interpreted -- it has been used to justify things such as slavery and oppressing women.

**Oh, and by the way, let's make sure we talk about slavery today.**
Agreed.

Pastor Bob said...

As you know I am a Christian. But I never defend the Bible. The Bible can defend itself quite well.

The basic method of interpretation is decide what it meant in the original context, taking into account the original historical context and then apply it to the current context. Doing it backwards only brings confusion.

Part of the problem is that people bring modern questions to the text and sometimes the text just doesn't say. And then we have to say that the text doesn't say.

So when it comes to the question of slavery you are absolutely right. There are texts that put limitations on slavery, (see the Penteteuch texts on slavery of Israelites) and Paul's commands to masters in Eph. 6 but no there are no texts that say directly that slavery is wrong. As I said in my earlier post we have to infer it from other basic texts. That's why I use the passage about humans being created in the image of God as a basic text for ethics.

But trying to make the text say what it doesn't say? That's bad scholarship. And bad Christianity for that matter.

Lorena said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lorena said...

Pastor Bob said:
The Bible can defend itself quite well.

Lorena responds:
Wow! And to think that I usually say that to debunk Christianity we don't need Dawkins or Harris. The Bible is good enough. It worked for me anyway, after I'd read it some 20 times or so.

OneSmallStep,

My biggest thing against the Bible is that since it is so vague and, well, old, it is easily manipulable. Most teachings can be taken and used to support or debunk anything you want.

Christianity, to me, more than a religion is a tradition, where the Bible is manipulated to support the traditional values and to condemn new ideas.

I see the Bible as a book of historical fiction, which usage should be limited to learning about the art, writing style, traditions, philosophies, and religious ideas of the ancient Israelites.

societyvs said...

I would assert slavery is always wrong - but exists. I think the bible is clear that slavery is not the ideal condition of humanity...and the bible does deal with ideals.

If slavery is okay by God - one question to be answered alone - why do the Israelites in the Exodus story deserve/cry for freedom from it? Why cry - no reason to?

OneSmallStep said...

Pastor Bob,

**The basic method of interpretation is decide what it meant in the original context, taking into account the original historical context and then apply it to the current context.**

How do you apply this to the idea of sola scripture? I do agree with you that historical context is important, yet there's also the idea that one can fully understand Christianity by reading the Bible alone, and if everyone needed that level of knowledge -- the historical context -- the Bible wouldn't be as useful. Do you have a line between when the Bible stands on its own, and when historical context is required?

**As I said in my earlier post we have to infer it from other basic texts. That's why I use the passage about humans being created in the image of God as a basic text for ethics.**
The only complication I can find for inference is that it can run the risk of being vague -- for instance, as you stated, there's no text saying that slavery is wrong, it becomes an inference. But in looking at history, and how slavery was justified through Biblical texts, I think that would have been a lot harder if we had a sentence: "Slavery is wrong!" Instead, we have the idea that "Humans are created in the image/likeness of God, and so slavery is immoral." There's more "wiggle-room." There's more ways of justifying slavery, because someone could say that while we're all made in the image/likeness of God,

Society,

**If slavery is okay by God - one question to be answered alone - why do the Israelites in the Exodus story deserve/cry for freedom from it? Why cry - no reason to?**
Would you also assert that the author is doing the same thing in terms of saying slavery is wrong? Because if so, I'm having a very hard time seeing it. I don't see him saying that slavery is wrong, regardless of the type of slavery. I don't see him saying that the Bible says slavery is wrong. If anything, I see him diluting what Roman Empire slavery was truly like.

Which is my biggest problem with this section of the book: I see a sense of relativism applied to the concept of slavery. That the author can't simply make a moral statement about slavery, he has to tell the person who is upset, "You're applying the wrong sort of slavery to those sentences you object to."

I also have a problem with the fact that he doesn't address the fact that many Christians were able to use the Bible to justify New World slavery.

As for your question I'm quoting, I assume you are using the Exodus situation as a blanket example? Since God resuced His people from the Eygptians, who were enslaving His people, we can infer that slavery is not an ideal condition? After all, there is a later situation of God's people keeping all the virgins after a battle. Or a verse that allows owners to beat the slaves only so long as the slave doesn't die in the next 24 hours, and I believe could function in the next two days. Beating slaves is allowed because slaves are property.

Or the contrast that Hebrew slaves could be freed in the year of Jubilee, but non-Hebrew slaves didn't have the same requirement.

Of course, I'm now getting relative to some degree, in terms of contrasting Hebrew slavery to non-Hebrew slavery.

There could also be the question of why this defense wasn't used at least in the New Testament ...

Pastor Bob said...

Westminster Confession, Chapter 1

The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in
Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless we acknowledge
the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary
for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word; and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

Remember this was written when most of the population couldn't read. Due use of ordinary means meant go to church and listen to the sermon. I would argue that some things are plain to those who can read and other things are not plain and need explanation by those who have some training.

BTW sola scriptura means by the Scripture alone, not that anyone who can read will necessarily understand it.

I was thinking this morning about the parable of the good Samaritan. It starts off with, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho," and right off the bat to really understand the sentence you need to know a bit of geography, that down meant down hill, not south or some other kind of down (like Maine is down east from Mass. because of the wind). The difference in height above sea level in comparison to the distance and the surrounding topography make a difference in the rest of the story. So do some other things like priest, Levite and ? jokes of the time and the Law concerning priests, Levites and dead bodies, to say nothing of the relationship between Jews and Samaritans. All of that would have been understood by the people of the time. But, if you know that Jews and Samaritans didn't get along you can get a basic sense of the story.

There are always levels of study. I can type E=MC squared but I can't amke an atom bomb. If anyone could understand everything in the Bible people like me would be out of a job!

D said...

I don't think we can make the Bible say that slavery is wrong, unfortunately. I think we can ethically extrapolate that from what the Bible teaches and says.

But I think what your post touches on is the need for some intellectual honesty. To simply say, "Look, the Bible got this wrong. These folks couldn't see past their culture and how they exploited their fellow humans. They got it wrong and for centuries Christianity got it wrong."

Maybe then we can look at the ways we get it wrong today, too.

societyvs said...

“I see him diluting what Roman Empire slavery was truly like.” (OSS)

Agreed – but I don’t necessarily think the author is using the most refined argument either…he’s basically conceding slavery was ‘okay’ – even within Christendom. I tend to agree with him 100% on that. So I made my statement – hoping Tim Keller would read (lol).

“That the author can't simply make a moral statement about slavery” (OSS)

True, and that is rather troublesome – since slavery sucks no matter time and era. Tim should of went out on the line – and made a statement to condemn the practice – but his ambiguity on the subject has left us to believe – if he is not ‘pro slavery’ he is not ‘anti slavery’ enough from a biblical stance.

“I assume you are using the Exodus situation as a blanket example?” (OSS)

I do – and I think God got it right – slavery is not good – so much so people need ‘saving’ from such an event. Now this does arise in the law again – but I don’t think it is the ‘ideal condition’ for anyone involved (as you mentioned aspects of war in your examples). The law actually allows for the freedom of the slave at some point – which was the ideal state. Then you factor in the idea – from Yael’s ordering of importance – that the stranger/foreigner is the first on the list to be treated hospitable – yeah – I would say slavery is never an ideal situation.

But I am using Jewish examples here – the Exodus…may I ask…did Jewish people during the Roman time have many slaves? How about after that period? Did they justify their need during the British and American use of slaves to rally around the idea for slaves in their community? I mean this is what is bothering me these days on this issue.

People are quick to go back to examples in Torah/Law – go from the literal – and exclaim from roof-tops – ‘Torah supports slavery’. If this is so, then it should dominantly be found in one group of people that follow the Torah faithfully – the Jewish faithful – now and in history past (leading the charge I would think). Yet the opposite is found – and rabbi’s are not quick to throw support behind slavery – nor are their communities adopting slaves left and right. To me, if we are going to use their texts to support our claims slavery is supported by the bible – then we need to make sure the people that use those sections (more than Christians) actually do that very thing.

I personally think the Jewish faithful celebrate the Exodus annually as a sign concerning slavery and its abuses (like the commemorating of Ha-Shoah/Holocaust yearly – so it never happens again).

“There could also be the question of why this defense wasn't used at least in the New Testament ...” (OSS)

True – it is never used. But the non-use does not mean it is not true either or did not exist. It’s not like the Exodus rituals/festivals were non-existent at this time. Why Paul or Jesus do not reference these festivals and meanings is beyond me.

What I do know is slavery is the condition of the day – and many Christians were slaves. Paul has to address the issue - being in Gentile territory – and tries his best to address slaves and owners – in situations he has no power and could be costing them their life to free them (or go against Roman rules). I don’t really blame Paul for giving instructions to slaves and owners – it was the most he could do – and he wanted to ensure the church treated slaves with equality.

Which raises the obvious point – in the gospels how many slaves does Jesus address in Israel? If the number is really low then I have to wonder – why doesn’t Israel have a slave problem – are they not the one’s with the teachings upholding slavery?

societyvs said...

"I tend to agree with him 100% on that." (Svs)

Shoild read 'I tend to NOT agree with him...' (my typo)

OneSmallStep said...

D,

**But I think what your post touches on is the need for some intellectual honesty.**

That, as you can probably tell, is what pissed me off about this section the most. It's mean to present rational reasons for believing in God and yet it hides the truth of what slavery was back then?

Society,

Your comment is going into historical areas I'm not familiar with, so all I can offer is conjecture.

**The law actually allows for the freedom of the slave at some point – which was the ideal state.**

Doesn't this depend on who the slave was, though? Hebrews was something like every seven years, but the non-Hebrews could be slaves for life.

**But I am using Jewish examples here – the Exodus…may I ask…did Jewish people during the Roman time have many slaves? How about after that period?**

This, I don't know. I think they feel more into the occupied territory in Roman times, so I'm not sure if owning slaves was something they could do.

In terms of people using the Torah to support slavery -- I find a difference between saying the Bible supports slavery/the Bible saying that slavery is great, and the Bible finding nothing immoral about the practice. Slavery back then simply was, much like in today's times, getting a license at 16 simply is. There's nothing moral/immoral attached to the practice. That's how slavery could'v been seen back then -- in fact, was by the Roman society as a whole.

**and tries his best to address slaves and owners – in situations he has no power and could be costing them their life to free them (or go against Roman rules).**

I'm not sure what you mean here ... why couldn't Paul tell Christian owners to simply free their slaves?

**Which raises the obvious point – in the gospels how many slaves does Jesus address in Israel?**

I don't know how many he addressed, but even in many of his parables, the word often translated today as "servent" is better translated as "slave." (from my understanding).

societyvs said...

“Your comment is going into historical areas I'm not familiar with, so all I can offer is conjecture” (OSS)

That would make 2 of us – some of my stuff is also based in historical fact – but some supposition as well.

“Doesn't this depend on who the slave was, though? Hebrews was something like every seven years, but the non-Hebrews could be slaves for life.” (OSS)

Good point but this depends on how you read the law. If I were to simply go by Yael’s simple example of being hospitable to the stranger first and foremost – even higher than fellow countrymen (which is something Jesus also hits on in Matthew 5) – then it makes sense to not enslave them. Although laws exist on the books – they do not have to be enacted unless they are asked to be enacted. As far as I know (or at least I have never heard this from Jewish sources) – slavery is a law to be followed – for the stranger. It rather baffles me, us non-Jewish people, would be finding these laws – making a claim about them – when Rabbi’s study this stuff (halakah) in fine detail.

“Slavery back then simply was, much like in today's times, getting a license at 16 simply is. There's nothing moral/immoral attached to the practice” (OSS)

In all honesty – you may very well be right on the money with this observation. However, the interpretation of the law has changed with the times – or has been viewed differently as to what it all means concerning this issue…it’s progressive in that sense. I think we also need to be progressive on the issue concerning our interpretation of such an idea.

For example, when it was written slavery is in the Torah as a law – concerning the practice. Rabbi’s over the years have likely debated this subject to decide on law concerning it. Now I am not sure the Jewish community would embrace an idea of slavery concerning the interpretation of the law for today or many of yesteryears societies. I think as Christians we need to be as pro-active as those rabbi’s in our interpretations also.

“I'm not sure what you mean here ... why couldn't Paul tell Christian owners to simply free their slaves?” (OSS)

The crux of the argument I am making is ‘who is Paul?’ Paul could have ordered their imminent release – but how are Roman societies going to take this coming from some upstart faith that is in direct rivalry with Roman authority? Paul is such a nobody to them – they might not take kindly to his advice all over these Gentile communities and setting new rules in place – thus possibly asking for societal change he had no authority to make.

It wouldn’t be that Paul would be ‘wrong’ for doing so – he’d actually be ‘right’ – but sometimes being ‘right’ does not make for the best scenario. Who is to say these slaves would not have been ordered back or even worse – problems made for the master and the slave – like violence of some sort? Maybe Paul was wise to make the rules determining slavery – since he had no control of Roman law.

“but even in many of his parables, the word often translated today as "servent" is better translated as "slave."” (OSS)

True. But using a word does not make the practice normative (or outright support of it). I would contend that Jesus does not use this term concerning a human person and a human master – only in parables is such an idea related – which could merely connotate the idea of submission or humility (and parables are not necessarily about actual/literal situations). I am guessing Jesus knew slavery existed – but only ever directs the term to be used from human to God – not from person to person (which is keeping with Torah).

OneSmallStep said...

Society,

**Although laws exist on the books – they do not have to be enacted unless they are asked to be enacted.**

It's the fact that it's existing on the book at all, if there is a claim that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. Now, I don't think that either one of us are taking everything in the BIble as literal truth, or literally delivered from God. We both approach it from a progressive lens. Now, if we're going that it was a cultural influence thing only, I can buy that. But as soon as it starts to get defended in the sense of a good, moral God delivering laws on slavery, that's when I run into difficulties.

**Paul could have ordered their imminent release – but how are Roman societies going to take this coming from some upstart faith that is in direct rivalry with Roman authority?**

But why would this concern Paul? He's already angering people by preaching what he considers to be the Gospel, regardless of how the Roman societies are reacting to his message. Even if they didn't take kindly to his message, why would that prevent him from saying that slavery is morally wrong, or that all slaves should be released? Or making a statement on Roman society in terms of slavery? He had no problem making statements about other aspects he didn't find good, and it would have no doubt caused huge ripples in the Roman society, based on how later Christians were persecuted.

Or even if we look at the beginnings of the abolitionist movement -- we could easily say that they were in no position to be making claims on slavery and it would've caused too much of an upheavel if they tried to order everyone to let the slaves go. Yet they did fight to end slavery, because they knew slavery was immoral. Why not the same in Paul's case?

**But using a word does not make the practice normative (or outright support of it). **

But it can indicate how normative the practice was, and indicate just how widespread it was. It's commonplace enough that Jesus used the aspect of slavery in quite a few parables. Not only that, but in relation to how God/man interacted (and of course, I make this statement when absolutely no parables jump into mind. Go figure). To me, it's another indication of just how slavery was. That, and imagine if we had a parable describing God and it used child labor, and just that two of the child laboreres had done something that pleased God, and one had done something that hadn't pleased God. The fact that the child laboreres are used as a parable at all wouldn't be somewhat disturbing? Especially if people are meant to put themselves in the child laborer's place?