Slavery and same-sex marriage (cont’d.)

Stephen Prothero’s CNN op-ed from earlier this month titled “On gay marriage, Obama, Billy Graham and a tale of 2 Christianities” touches on some of the points in the previous post here.

Prothero notes that the Rev. Billy Graham (or, at least, his children on his behalf) spoke out against marriage equality in North Carolina, citing the Bible as the basis of his opposition. President Barack Obama, a day later, cited the Bible in explaining his support for marriage equality. Prothero writes:

It is striking how closely this debate mirrors the slavery debate in antebellum America. Then, pro-slavery forces read key passages in the Bible in a “commonsense” manner and concluded that God was in favor of slavery. Meanwhile, anti-slavery activists, seeking after the “spirit” rather than the “letter” of the Biblical text, concluded that slavery flew in the face of both “love your neighbor” and the Golden Rule.

As Mark Noll argues in his book America’s God, the fact that the Bible seemed to most “commonsense” readers to support slavery brought on a crisis of authority that helped to produce what we now [call] liberal Protestantism. Many American Christians at the time just knew slavery was wrong, so they learned to read the Bible in a different way.

Well, to some readers the “commonsense” reading of the Bible seemed to support slavery. Others — usually those without a direct interest in the ginormous heaping scads of money involved in the continuation of Slavery, Inc. — regarded slavery as an atrocity that violated every principle they ever learned from the Bible, from the prophets, from Jesus Christ.

Those Christian opponents of slavery didn’t somehow “just know” that slavery was wrong — it seemed to them a gross denial of the Golden Rule. They read the Bible in a different way than the “commonsense” literalists who defended slavery, but it didn’t require some new, innovative form of liberal Protestantism. It simply required them to stop the “commonsense” practice of pretending that the book of Exodus didn’t exist or to stop relying on the “literal” reading that pretended Jesus did not announce his ministry by proclaiming Jubilee or …

Well, you get the idea. The truth is that plucking out prooftexts and clobber-verses to defend slavery in contradiction to the overwhelming sense of the whole of scripture is neither commonsense nor literal.

I mentioned in the previous post that anti-slavery interpreters of the Bible also often had a self-interested reason to read the Bible the way they did. In their case, that self interest did not involve the protection of vast wealth and huge profits without labor. It involved, instead, the deeply felt desire not to be treated as property.

“In reading my Bible, I found that the white man had no more right to make a slave of me than I have to make a slave of the white man,” Sam Sharpe wrote.

Sharpe “was a slave, a Baptist preacher, a freedom fighter and the main instigator of the 1831 Slave Rebellion in Jamaica which was instrumental in bringing about the abolition of slavery.”

“I would rather die upon yonder gallows than live for a minute more in slavery,” Sharpe also said, so I suppose one could argue that Sharpe’s exegesis was influenced by his personal dislike for having been a slave.

Or one could argue that his personal experience allowed him to see the Bible without the blinders of privilege that distorted its meaning for his pro-slavery fellow Baptists who were busily proclaiming their commonsense literalism.

I pick the second option.


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  • Y’ever notice how people talking about slavery in the US in the period leading up to the civil war sort of implicitly assume that the slaves aren’t people?

    They talk about the casualties of the civil war, but not about the casualties *of slavery*. (Especially people who say things like “If only the north had tried a non-violent option to slowly phase out slavery instead of using force! So many lives would have been saved!” That’s *white* lives. The fact that the *slaves* were still dying in huge numbers doesn’t enter into the math.) Or the sense that the civil was was fought by “us” (ie. White Northerners) against “us” (ie White Southerners) to free “them” (Slaves), as if the slaves were part of the *spoils*, rather than being part of the *us* who were at war. 

    Anyway, thanks for writing this, Fred. When I hear someone claim “A commonsense, literal reading of the bible says that slavery is okay,” the first thing I think is “Not if the person doing the reading is a slave.” 

  • Otrame

    It seems to me, admittedly from the outside, that Christians need to stop worshiping that idol they call the Bible. That won’t solve everything, because Bible worship is not a major tenent of many Christian sects, including the RCC. The idol the RCC worships is its own hierarchy.

    I noticed when I was still a teenager that most pastors spent a lot of time not talking about what the man they believe was the Son of God had to say. That’s when I began to realize that religion was a complicated process in the minds of the religious.

    Of course about that time I decided that I should treat the Bible seriously and read it, not in a verse here and a verse there format, but starting on page one and going right on through. I came out of that little exercise convinced that any decent human being who wants to stay religious should avoid doing that.

  • Stella O

    It really really bothers me that our President uses the bible to justify basic human rights.

     I am not a christian. This is not a christian country. When the President uses the christian bible to make an argument for civil liberties, he gives it an authority that it does not have.

    If his opponents use the bible to argue against human rights, he should simply state that the bible is irrelevant to the discussion.

    But then I don’t suppose a christian in a western country could possibly understand how offensive and upsetting this is to non-christians.

  • Hellboy

    Back when I was a xtian I was very much on the anti-gay bandwagon (grew up evangelical baptist, Focus on the Family reading materials all over my house, ect.). It wasn’t straight-up vitriolic hatred, rather the kind of patronizing “love the sin, hate the sinner” attitude that stems from growing up in the xtian bubble with the subtle “us vs. them” mentality of the culture war paired with the belief that one is commanded by a higher authority to “love everyone.”

    Eventually, thanks to the internet and college, I came across many facts that conflicted with my worldview, particularly homosexuality. I learned about the failure of repairative therapy and its tendency to lead to suicidal ideation, the evidence for homosexuality being inborn and not a “lifestyle choice” ect.

    The cognitive dissonance resulting from this set me on the path to a more liberal interpretation of scripture. I began to read W.S. Countryman (“Dirt, Greed, and Sex” was pretty informative on cultural attitudes surrounding sex during biblical times).

    Then I realized that I was spending hours upon hours looking through an old book of stories (and books of men’s opinions on those stories) looking for an excuse to do the right thing and thought to myself: “F*** this.”

  • Well, Obama is using the Golden Rule to justify it. I think that “treat others as you would wish to be treated” is something that nearly everyone can agree on, regardless of faith or lack thereof. (Not everyone follows through on the implications of that rule, though.) In 2008 Obama made a speech in which he said that when a person of faith like himself wishes to use the moral direction that religion gives him to make secular law or policy, it is incumbent upon him to first reconstruct the purpose into a secular one that people of any faith or no faith can discuss on its own merits without reference to any holy book, and that if no such reconstruction is possible, that the law or policy should not be put into place. (At least, that’s my recollection, I don’t have the energy to look for a quote.)

  • MikeJ

    It really really bothers me that our President uses the bible to justify basic human rights.
    Buck up buttercup.  You’re going to run into a lot of things in life that don’t really have anything to do with you but for some reason you don’t like. [1]

    Obama never said the bible is the only justification of human rights, but it is one that many people will pay attention to.  For the most part people who don’t care about the bible one way or the other don’t need to be convinced. He’s tailoring his argument to those who do. That doesn’t make other arguments invalid. So if this argument for equality means nothing to you, you don’t have to believe that it’s the only argument.

    [1]This is a lesson that the so called religious who oppose equality need to learn to. 

  • “Buttercup”? Could you have been any more condescending? 

  • Congrats, you just gained a jackass point. (you get a free frozen yogurt if you get ten) Way to tell other people what they should feel.

  • LouisDoench

     Oh yeah, he could definitely have been more condescending.

  • Tonio

    I admit that when any politician invoke the Bible, I steel myself to then hear a theocratic rant. But from my listening, Obama the president has followed the principle that he outlined back in 2008.

    It’s still valid to question the purpose behind a politician publicly invoking a sectarian book for a lawmaking argument that’s fundamentally secular. Perhaps the goal is to win over recalcitrant members of the politician’s own sect. At best, the invoking should be done with a great deal of care and reserved for exceptional circumstances. Done too frequently or carelessly, it has the opposite effect and alienates citizens who belong to other sects.

  • Tonio

     Rats – I had typed “I hear” between “when” and “any politician,” deleted it, and forgot to change “invoke” to agree with the sentence subject.

  • I think that “treat others as you would wish to be treated” is something that nearly everyone can agree on

    You would think so, but history say otherwise.

    As does, you know, the present.

  • Lucia Hicks

    The Golden Rule in some form has been around since at least 500 BCE. It is a simple principle that anyone with a functional conscience can understand and agree with, since we’re all hard-wired for empathy, the wellspring of all morality. Its appearance in the Bible gave Obama a convenient hook on which to hang an appeal to people of faith, but it’s not really about faith, it’s about a concept that a three-year-old can understand: how would you feel if someone treated you that way? All else is commentary.

  • Tricksterson

    Unfortunately, culturally this country is overwhelmingly Christain.  Even those who aren’t probably grew up in at least a nominally Christian householld and if they didn’t (nod to the Jews, Muslims etc im the audience) then they still grew up surrounded by said culture.  So, even ignoring (as so many of his enemies do) that Obama is himself a Christian if he wants to sell it he has to couch it in Christian terms.

  • Tricksterson

    He could have called her “poopsie” or “hunnikins”.

  • TheFaithfulStone

    People always talk about how violence doesn’t solve problems – but they’re wrong.  I’m not saying it doesn’t make fresh, new problems, but the fact of the matter is that if you use enough of it, violence solves problems pretty effectively.

    How exactly are you going to non-violently convince half of a country to give up the great majority of it’s assets, the mere holding of which is a form of violence?  How exactly are you going to convince genocidal madmen that we can all get together and talk it out?

    I’m always skeptical of people who say things “oh we could have found a way if only we’d tried harder.”  – How exactly are you going to negotiate with a person or regime or system whose parameters for success are your total destruction and/or subjugation?

  • AnonymousSam

    Hmm, so when the Republicans try to pass laws to take all my basic freedoms away, including the right to vote…

  • JonathanPelikan

    Whenever this sort of thing comes up my first thoughts go, of course, to Hitler. What if Hitler was slightly different, and really had stopped at the Sudetenland or something? What if peace had been possible with Nazi Germany? We all say peace is the best, but making peace with Hitler still means Hitler is Hitler and he’s Hitlering his country and his people.

    And after Hitler, the world swore Never Again, and when it happened Again, and Again, we decided we just Could Not Interfere because Interfering is Bad or it would be Too Hard or let’s just argue whether this constitutes genocide or merely ‘acts of genocide’. 

    What stopped the Khmer Rouge? Vietnam going over and stopping it. What stopped Rwanda? Kagame and the RPF. [Neither of these savior forces are exactly what we might call perfect, at all, but I’m willing to award big points for the Stop The Goddamn Genocide category.)

    We can go knock over random countries for their oil ministries and to make conservatives feel like real men for like a month, though.

    EDIT: Might be going off on a little bit of a social studies nerd tangent or something; sorry.

  • JonathanPelikan

    You find an imaginary liberal to punch in the face and grind into  hamburger to make sure that, no matter what crime against this republic, its principles, and its people Republicans commit without a single legitimate justification, you can still say, “Well, you know, #BothSidesDoIt.”

  •  “Schnookums” would have been much more alliterative.

  •  You can make hamburger out of straw?

  • AnonymousSam

    Well, if your name happens to be Rumpelstiltskin.

  • The analogy fails on a number of points.  First, while both are important issues
    touching upon human identity, the matter of slavery and human dignity is far
    more foundational.  Second, it would be
    wrong to absolutely equate American slavery with the more provisional slavery
    or indentured status in Scripture. 
    Particularly in the New Testament, the slave clearly has rights and is
    reckoned to be equal in grace to his master. 
    Indeed, the theme of slavery becomes a means by which our Lord commissions
    his apostles.  The greatest among them
    must become the servant, i.e. the slave, of all.  It is a social institution, sometimes the
    result of spoils from war and sometimes voluntarily embraced for economic
    reasons.  By comparison, American slavery
    became a multi-generational racism that increasingly treated the slave as a
    sub-human without rights of any kind.  While
    the seed was planted by the Gospel that would invalidate all slavery over time,
    the brutal elements of American slavery would have earned rebuke even from the
    early Christians.  Third, while social
    teaching on some issues necessarily changes or adjusts to reflect new
    structures and historical realities, like the replacement of ruling monarchs
    with representational democracies; moral teachings about matters like human
    life and sexuality are not nearly so elastic. 
    Fourth, teachings about human life, marriage, sexuality, etc. are also
    reflective of the natural law.  This
    gives certain truths a level of immutability. 
    The basic truths emerge:  human life
    is incommensurate; the marital act is reserved to a husband and wife; and so
    forth.  Fifth, a better analogy, focusing
    not on the Bible but the Constitution is between slavery and abortion.  Both cases regard classes of human beings
    categorized as non-persons, denied citizenship, with rights stripped away,
    particularly that of life.   


  • Kiba

    Fifth, a better analogy, focusing

    not on the Bible but the Constitution is between slavery and abortion.  

    Yes, because they are totally similar. 

    You know, it’s particularly odious, considering the recent activities of your church, to have to come and moralize on anything. Glass houses, stones and all that. 

  •  Fifth, a better analogy, focusing

    not on the Bible but the Constitution is between slavery and abortion.  Both cases regard classes of human beings
    categorized as non-persons, denied citizenship, with rights stripped away,
    particularly that of life.  

    Quite right. The abortion debate is about tryign to declare adult women to be non-persons and depriving them of self-ownership, effectively making their uteruses the property of men, declaring that women are not people, free to do as they wish, but rather must surrender their bodily integrity for the benefit of others, without any recompense, forced to endure life-changing physical hardship, not permitted control of their own destiny and subject to harsh penalties if they refuse.

    Oh, you  meant some other way of drawing that analogy that doesn’t really make any sense, didn’t you? Oops. 

  • Tonio

     Are you assuming that Fr. Jenkins is Catholic? He could be Anglican or Lutheran or Greek Orthodox.

  • aklab

    @ac18e5d1af30e9562e88eac9754e929c:disqus , our current models of marriage are about as different from biblical marriage as American slavery was from biblical slavery.  That has no bearing on Fred’s point in this and the preceding post, though: that American-style biblical literalism was developed in defense of American slavery.

    Whether first-century Christians would have rebuked American slavery is very much beside the point.  The point is: present-day Christians using a selectively literal reading of the Bible to argue against marriage equality need to realize that they are using the same tactics, for similar reasons, as 19th-century Christians who wanted to defend slavery.  

  • Lunch Meat

    Arguments I have heard from conservative Christians:

    American slavery is totally different from biblical slavery, so the Bible can’t possibly be mistaken or morally ambiguous in its support of slavery.

    Modern poor people are totally different from poor people in the Bible (they are lazier and more arrogant) so Jesus can’t possibly have expected us to provide for poor people today who might not deserve it.

    Homosexuality today is exactly the same as homosexuality in the Bible. How could it possibly be any different? It’s the same word, so any common-sense interpretation would have to be that it means the same thing.

  • Kiba

    I’m going off the natural law argument. I know, being an ex-Catholic, that the church loves the natural law argument. I’m not sure if anyone other than the Catholics use it though. If I’m wrong about that then I’ll apologize for thinking he’s Catholic.