The Golden Rule vs. Slavery

I have long had an interest in the Bible and slavery. The same arguments that were used by slaveholders to justify the institution are recycled again in later times in relation to gender roles, homosexuality, and other issues.

This subject illustrates nicely the difference between those who at least claim to focus on the details of specific passages, and those who focus on the foundational principles. Once one’s focus is on doing unto others what you would have them do unto you, how can one enslave another human being? Once our focus is rightly on the Golden Rule, what other changes and decisions will we have to make if we wish to keep that as our highest aim and ideal?

See the blog In A Godward Direction for an excerpt from what a bishop had to say on the subject in 1861. It is not the case that times have not changed since then. But it is the case that many of us, having “learned from the past” in one area, continue to approach other topics and issues as though the light of these earlier events has no relevance to them.

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  • Eric Rowe

    If one focuses on the Golden Rule as a foundational principle that trumps the details of Scripture, then doesn’t it also overrule the need to punish criminals or expect debtors to pay what they owe?The problem with attempting to use Scripture in defense of American slavery is not that it relies to heavily on specific passages at the expense of foundational principles. It’s that it relies to little on the full scope of all relevant passages, selectively choosing the ones that might support the institution. But American slavery was based on kidnapping innocent people who were minding their own business in their own land, something that is clearly outlawed throughout Scripture, regardless of what the Bible may say about slavery in other cases.

  • Tobias Stanislas Haller

    Eric,Actually scripture does record God’s mandate for taking of slaves from the territory surrounding that which the people of Israel came to occupy. (Lev 25:44ff; Joshua 9:22ff. Note that neither is conditional, even though modern translators soften the force of the commandment in Leviticus by using “may” instead of “shall” — the Hebrew is as directive as the Ten Commandments! Perhaps not exactly the same thing as bringing slaves from overseas, but the fact that these were “innocent people minding their own business in their own land” is obvious.)But yes, ultimately the Golden Rule overthrows slavery, even though it took the church a long, long time to come to realize it. Obviously it doesn’t overturn the trial and punishment of criminals, or the repayment of debts. One should naturally expect, in a civil society, to want crimes not to be committed against oneself and debts to be repaid, and be willing to accept punishment for ones own crimes and the requirement that one repay ones debts. A sociopath, of course, would not have this desire to “do as he would be done by” but sociopaths are not the basis of the Golden Rule!

  • Eric Rowe

    Tobias,I don’t dispute the biblical institution of slavery. What I dispute is that American slavery could possibly be justified by the Bible, whether in its foundational principles or in its details. The details you mention are no exception, as they could hardly lend any legitimacy to European slave traders paying Africans to go kidnap people for them to sell in America, unless that justification be by way of some hermeneutic that, by its allegorical nature, undermines the very reliance on scriptural details that is being supposed.It is true that inerrantists are obligated by their view of Scripture to believe that slavery was ordained by God in at least some cricumstances, and that it therefore cannot be relegated to the automatic status of a sin. But it is equally true that the very same approach to Scripture would have demanded the abolition of slavery in our country no less than a hermeneutic of foundational principles or a trajectory of redemption history would have.

  • Ken Brown

    Tobias,Lev 25:44ff is not explicitly conditional, but this is very strongly implied by the context. Chapter 25 includes the following conditional statements: “If (ki) you sell land to one of your countrymen…” (v.14), “If your brother becomes poor and sells part of his property…” (v. 25), “If a man has no one to redeem it and then himself becomes prosperous…” (v. 26), “If anyone sells a dwelling house in a walled city…” (v. 29), “If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you…” (v. 33), “If any who are dependent on you become so impoverished that they sell themselves to you…” (v. 34), “If resident aliens among you prosper, and if any of your kin fall into difficulty with one of them and sell themselves to an alien…” (v. 47).25:44-46 fall right amongst these and should almost certainly be read in their light (indeed, it is probably intended to be a continuation of vv.39-43, which are governed by a conditional ki). It is not a command that they should take slaves, but that if they do take slaves (granted, it does allow the possibility), they must not be Israelites (since the Israelites are already God’s slaves! [vv. 42, 55]) and they must not be treated harshly. Note also the important perspective provided by v. 35: “If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you” (emphasis added).Joshua 9:22ff is also clearly concessionary in context. Though that doesn’t help the innerantists much, as the proper response would, apparently, have been annihilation….

  • Tobias Stanislas Haller

    I agree that those who used the Scripture in supporting slavery in 19th century America were not being as literal as they may have thought: after all, the commandments I cite apply only to Israel, who was given a mandate to hold non-Israelites as chattel slaves. The problem, of course, is that the Church took up a kind of “New Israel” mentality when it was convenient; neglecting it when less so; thus at the same time continuing slavery but allowing usury! This was their way “around” the “literal” reading, and I think that is why you are mistaken in thinking that adherence to the “details” would have forced them to abandon slavery in the 19th century. Their hermeneutic allowed them to read the details so as to support their view. (To say nothing of the various other defenses of slavery in pre-Reformation teaching, which by that time had created a bulwark of doctrine in favor of maintaining the institution, with very little against it — Bartolome de las Casas, a rare voice in opposition, applying (unpersuasively, sadly) the old Roman legal principle of Qui omnes tanget. By the Reformation, slavery was held to be a matter of right protected by divine law.)However, at the same time I don’t think it is possible to argue for a strictly scriptural overthrow of slavery on the basis of redemption history alone: the Israelites were given only conditional freedom: that is, they were delivered from Pharaoh because they belonged to God as God’s servants. And certainly Paul sees the slave / master relationship as adiaphorous at worst so long as the master treats the slave well and the slave is obedient. FOr Paul, salvation / redemption takes place perfectly well within this context. Thus the “institution” of slavery is irrelevant to Paul’s concerns. Only in Galatians do we see that eventual termination of the “slave/free” dichotomy — but as with the ending of the “male and female” it would press the case to far to think Paul meant the institutions of slavery and marriage had actually ended. It was just that they were no longer to be “governing.”As Dr McGrath is suggesting, the foundational principle here is not “redemption” or “salvation” but the Golden Rule — it is an ethical rather than a theological principle as such — and it works because no one would “want to be enslaved.” The suggestion is that the Golden Rule is applicable in our discussions of other issues in much the same way as it undermined the validity of slavery in spite of slavery’s mandate or salvific neutrality.By putting, for example, faithful, life-long committed same-sex relationships in this light, one could easily say that the Levitical injunction (also only addressed to Israelites, btw) and the Pauline opprobrium are out of keeping with the Golden Rule’s moral touchstone, and the Commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself — for people actually do find that such relationships are, emotionally and socially, mutually supportive and positive. The relationship as locus for charity and fidelity is clearly morally significant in a positive way.Ken,I take your point, but I think the absence of ki from the verse in question might rather be argued as a proof that unlike the other conditional or situational verses, this is a commandment. I know it became an issue for A.J. Jacobs, in his Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. He found there are any number of biblical commandments with which compliance was virtually impossible. He noted in a recent NPR radio interview, the closest he could come to carrying out the mandate to hold slaves was to have an intern!The simplest way to read the text, as with other parts of the Levitical code (as in Chapter 20) is to take the beginning of the verse as a “topic statement” — thus an accurate translation would be “Male and female slaves that become yours: from the nations round about, from them you shall buy male and female slaves.” (The contrast with Israelite slaves is telling, of course. They are not to be held for life, and the possibility of temporary indenture by an Israelite is expressed conditionally. But that, I think, is the difference.)Please do understand I’m not trying to argue on behalf of slavery! But I am trying to show that the biblical literalist is constrained by his inability to accept that the Scripture is, at least in part, very much touched by fallible human hands in its writing as well as in its reading.

  • David Keating

    I have Google set to send me email when it finds references to the Golden Rule, which is what led me to your article.There seems to be a resurgence in interest in the Golden Rule, perhaps because of its universality. It’s a good question – “what other changes will we have to make?” I thought that you might be interested in my “7 Questions”. Drawn from the Golden Rule, they’re a sort of short hand for its application in daily life.Thanks for a good conversation starter.David KeatingGolden Rule Radical