Tuesday, January 04, 2005

So-Called Christian School Teaches That US Slavery was 'Benign'

A school in North Carolina which calls itself Christian, is teaching very un-Christian things to its students. Mark Sides has posted the details, based on a story from Crosswalk, on his blog.

The school is teaching that the institution of slavery in the United States was not a systematic evil, but a benign institution. Many "Christians" who have advanced this notion through the years, as Mark Sides points out, have done so because of what Biblical scholars call the "household codes" in the writings of Peter and Paul, found in the New Testament. There, both of the apostles give advice on how people can conduct themselves in Christian ways within a variety of social relationships. Included are the relationships among masters and slaves, wives and husbands, parents and children, and governments and citizens, for example. The purpose of these codes was never to defend the institution of slavery as it existed in the first century, but to help Christians, whatever their circumstances, to present a positive understanding of what it means to follow Jesus Christ.

Several points need to be made here:

(1) Slavery, even in the period of the Roman Empire when Peter and Paul wrote, was never a benign institution. It was always evil. But slavery as practiced in the United States and Great Britain through the nineteenth century, was probably even more evil than that.

Often, in Roman times, slaves were able to buy their way out of servitude or others could do it for them. (This was known as redemption, a term that the early Christians borrowed to describe the manner in which Jesus gave His life on a cross, using Himself as the payment necessary to win our freedom from sin, death, and separation from God.) In later America and Britain, people were forcibly stolen from Africa and they and their descendants were consigned to life-long servitude.

(2) No matter how benignly slavemasters in this country may have treated their slaves, those slaves were still regarded as property, akin to cattle and hogs, by their masters.

In his new biography of George Washington, historian Joseph Ellis, recounts that Washington was probably a benign slaveholder, anxious to keep slave families together. The father of our country regarded slavery as an unambiguously immoral institution. (In that sense, Washington was light years ahead of his fellow Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, who notably held in the Declaration of Independence that all human beings are endowed by God with "certain inalienable rights...[such as] life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.")

But even Washington allowed economic considerations to trump moral ones when it came to slavery. He only freed his slaves after his death, and primarily did so, Ellis suggests on good evidence, because in the changing national economy, Washington feared that slaveholding would be too great a financial burden for his wife and other heirs.

Washington was deeply perplexed when slaves who had been with him for some time, escaped while he served as President in the northern cities of New York and Philadelphia. He had at least one slave forcibly returned during this period and at least one other successfully escaped, refusing Washington's enticements to come back to Mount Vernon. These were slaves who, by the standards of the time, were treated well. Yet, they longed for their freedom and their supposedly "benign" master was loathe to grant it to them. There was nothing benign about American slavery.

(3) While some "Christians" attempted to justify American slavery before its forcible demise during the Civil War, Christians were also in the forefront of attempts to abolish the evil institution.

The Beecher family, for example, dedicated Presbyterians, fought to end slavery in the US. The entire abolitionist and Underground Railroad movements were rooted in Christian beliefs. Perhaps America's most visionary and persuasive abolitionist was William Lloyd Garrison, who operated out of a Christian worldview.

In Great Britain, the dedicated Christian layperson, William Wilberforce, was slavery's greatest and most effective foe. Another forceful spokesperson for the abolitionist cause there was the former slave ship captain turned pastor, John Newton. (It was Newton who composed, Amazing Grace, among other great songs.)

Clearly, these Christians who had seen slavery "up close and personal" did not regard it as a benign institution, but as a violation of God's will for human beings.

(4) Lastly, just exactly what is so wrong about slavery from a Christian perspective? I would say that there are any number of problems with it, but I'll boil it down to a few.

First, it's a violation of God's first commandment, "You shall have no other gods before Me." Whenever one human being forcibly and without provocation, imposes himself on another person, denying that second person the capacity to function as human beings are meant to function and enforces that imposition with violence or the threat of violence, the first person is taking the place of God in the enslaved person's life. Or at least is doing so, in the mind of the slaveholder. American slaveholders worshiped at the altars of self.

Of course, there are legitimate coercive institutions in any society, institutions to which we all submit for the common good. But slavery was never for the common good.

Second, it's a violation of what we Lutherans reckon as the fifth commandment, "You shall not kill." In The Small Catechism, Martin Luther shows that this is more than just a commandment telling us to avoid murdering other people. As he explains it, it also means that, "We are to fear and love God so that we do not hurt our neighbor in any way, but help him in all his physical needs."

In so interpreting this commandment, Luther is echoing Jesus' explanation of it in Matthew's Gospel, "You have it heard that it was said to those in ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire..." (Matthew 5:21-23)

Slavery was an inherently, coercively violent institution that denigrated all held in its shackles, treating them like fools who were less than human.

What Jesus is saying is that anytime we dehumanize or objectivize others, we are guilty of murder. American slavery did that systematically.

Third, slavery is a violation of Jesus' 'Great Commandment,' that we not only love God with every fiber of our beings, but also love our neighbor as ourselves. No loving person would ever desire to enslave or imprison a neighbor unless that neighbor were guilty of some crime and represented a threat. There is a four-letter word then, that can describe slavery: hate.

It was a great good when slavery came to an end. Sadly, we still live with its after-effects, like tremors following an earthquake and no amount of irresponsible talk about its being "benign" can alter the fact that slavery was an unholy evil. No Christian can possibly believe otherwise.


Jeremy Pierce said...

Slavery doesn't in principle involve most of the things you say it involves. In fact, it was not just regulated by God in the NT but imposed by God in the OT. The difference between slavery and other legitimate things (employment, being subject to a king or other governmental authority, etc.) is a difference of degree and not kind, so you're going to have trouble at the borderline cases anyway, and I think anything that applies to the best conditions of slavery will also apply to most employment situations. American slavery was clearly evil from its outset because of manstealing, but that doesn't mean all slaverowners were evil. Particularly in the south among those who owned few slaves, slaves could have very close friendships with those they worked for and were sometimes treated as part of the family. It's the large plantations where there were truly despicable practices, and other southerners had particularly good relationships with their slaves in a way that northerners didn't with theirs.

Mark Daniels said...

I deem it entirely irrelevant to the question of slavery's legitimacy to consider whether some slave masters had good relationships with their slaves, a matter I already addressed in my original post.

Furthermore, whether God mandated specific institutions of slavery in Old Testament times or not, it does not follow that slavery in the US was defensible. It certainly was not instituted by God.

Slavery was an institutional evil and those who owned slaves were guilty of perpretrating evil, I believe on the grounds I delineated, and on others as well. Even if slave-owners were kindly, they violated God's will in the ways I spoke of in my original post.

Thank you for stopping by the blog.