Slavery, segregation and biblical literalism (cont’d.)

In his review of Carolyn Dupont’s Mississippi Praying, a history of white evangelical support for segregation, John Turner arrives at Dupont’s unavoidable conclusion and balks a bit: “While I agree with Dupont that one cannot simply blame a ‘culture’ while absolving a ‘theology’ … I hesitate to label ‘evangelical theology’ the problem.”

Why not? Evangelical theology certainly didn’t prove itself to be the solution.

Turner notes that, “One could take a rather literalist approach to scripture and arrive at very different conclusions about race and social justice.” And that is true, in theory. But the problem is that in practice, it didn’t happen.

I’m posting this picture of Orlando Jonathan Blanchard Bloom because he’s much prettier than the 19th-century abolitionist he was named after.

Some of my heroes are white evangelical Protestants who began with evangelicalism’s “rather literalist approach to scripture” but who rejected its arguments in defense of slavery or segregation to arrive at such “very different conclusions about race and social justice.” Donald W. Dayton tells the stories of many such justice-driven 19th-century Christians in Discovering an Evangelical Heritage — folks like Jonathan Blanchard or the Tappans. Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis includes the stories of many other abolitionist evangelicals. And I’ve posted excerpts here from the journals of evangelical missionary and abolitionist newspaperman Nathanael Brown.

In the more recent period discussed in Dupont’s history of “Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975″ we can look at people like Clarence Jordan, Will Campbell or Jimmy Carter.

All of those folks started out as evangelical Christians in the Bebbingtonian sense. They began with a typical white evangelical commitment to a proof-texting biblical literalism. But none of them stayed there. They all progressed to, in Turner’s phrase, a “more complicated view of scripture.”

They did so because they had to. Not because they went “liberal,” or because they exchanged a commitment to the Bible for a commitment to justice (as though the Bible has nothing to say about justice). They had to move on from biblical literalism because biblical literalism, when honestly pursued, falls apart.

The white evangelical abolitionists started with the same approach used by the white evangelical defenders of slavery: citing proof-texts and clobber texts they regarded as definitive. For every “slaves obey your masters” quoted by slavery’s defenders, the abolitionists could recite an opposite “break every yoke” and “let the oppressed go free.”

But unlike slavery’s defenders, the abolitionists came to realize that this theological dispute could not be solved by biblical literalism and a proof-texting approach to scripture. Both sides could cite proof texts. What was needed, then, was some approach that could adjudicate between those competing and conflicting claims from scripture. Biblical literalism is no help there because it refuses even to acknowledge that such conflicting views within scripture exist.

The white evangelical opponents of slavery thus adopted a “more complicated view” because biblical literalism was inadequate — incapable of offering wisdom, guidance or truth. As an approach to reading the Bible, it was not profitable for doctrine, for reproof or for instruction in righteousness.

What they required, sought and found, was some way to account for and weigh the competing claims of contradictory proof texts. One of the weaknesses of Noll’s mostly excellent history of the theological argument over American slavery is that he doesn’t fully appreciate this problem of contradictory proof texts — and since he’s unimpressed by the problem, he’s unimpressed by the solution to that problem.

Here’s a bit from Noll’s essay “The Battle for the Bible,” which summarizes much of his argument in The Civil War as a Theological Crisis:

In October 1845, two able theologians debated the Bible’s view of slavery in a public event in Cincinnati that went on for eight hours a day through four long days. Jonathan Blanchard spoke for the abolitionist position, Nathan L. Rice for the position that while the Bible pointed toward the eventual, voluntary elimination of slavery, it nowhere called slavery evil as such.

While Rice methodically tied Blanchard in knots over how to interpret the proslavery implications of specific texts, Blanchard returned repeatedly to “the broad principle of common equity and common sense” that he found in scripture, to “the general principles of the Bible” and “the whole scope of the Bible,” where to him it was obvious that “the principles of the Bible are justice and righteousness.”

… Nuanced biblical attacks on American slavery faced rough going precisely because they were nuanced. This position could not simply be read out of any one biblical text; it could not be lifted directly from the page. Rather, it needed patient reflection on the entirety of the scriptures; it required expert knowledge of the historical circumstances of ancient Near Eastern and Roman slave systems as well as of the actually existing conditions in the slave states; and it demanded that sophisticated interpretative practice replace a commonsensically literal approach to the sacred text. In short, this was an argument of elites requiring that the populace defer to its intellectual betters. As such, it contradicted democratic and republican intellectual instincts. In the culture of the U.S., as that culture had been constructed by three generations of evangelical Bible believers, the nuanced biblical argument was doomed.

 

Rice’s claim that the Bible “nowhere called slavery evil as such” is transparent bullshit. In some “specific texts,” the Bible certainly does commend and command slavery. But in other specific texts, the Bible also condemns and rejects slavery. It does both. Blanchard addressed this contradiction. Rice pretended it wasn’t there.

Would Blanchard have been a more persuasive debater had he adopted the mirror image of Rice’s strategy of defiant denial? Should he have abandoned the necessary project of discerning between conflicting claims of scripture and just resorted to a populist approach of repeating the clobber-texts one favors ever-louder while ignoring all the texts that contradict them?

Noll dos an excellent job of explaining why Rice’s simplistic literalism was attractive to a culture conditioned to accept such simplistic literalism, but, like Turner, he seems to “hesitate to label ‘evangelical theology’ the problem.”

It was the problem. It is the problem.

The white evangelical theology of biblical literalism is a device that functions to allow white evangelicals to claim a reverent devotion to biblical literalism while simultaneously refusing even to look at huge chunks and huge themes of the Bible. It is a mechanism that does exactly what it was designed to do: provide an excuse for “neglecting the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” It allowed people like Rice to make a “biblical” defense of “serving their own interests on their fast day and oppressing all their workers.” It is a tool that is used to defy, deny and disrespect scripture. That’s what it’s for. That’s why it was so effective as a defense of slavery and later as a defense of segregation — defending injustice was its intended purpose all along.

If you love the Bible, you cannot love a theology designed to distort, deform and disrespect it.

Noll is masterful at describing how this distorting, deforming device of biblical literalism was employed in 1860:

The procedure, which by 1860 had been repeated countless times, was uncomplicated. First, open the scriptures and read — at, say, Leviticus 25:45, or, even better, at 1 Corinthians 7:20-21. Second, decide for yourself what these passages mean. Don’t wait for a bishop or a king or a president or a meddling Yankee to tell you what the passage means, but decide for yourself. Third, if anyone tries to convince you that you are not interpreting such passages in the commonsensical, ordinary meaning of the words, look hard at what such a one believes with respect to other biblical doctrines. If you find in what he or she says about such doctrines the least hint of unorthodoxy, as inevitably you will, then you may rest assured that you are being asked to give up not only the plain meaning of scripture, but also the entire trust in the Bible that made the country into such a great Christian civilization.

The exact same process was used by Southern White Evangelicals, 1945-1975, in defense of segregation. The exact same process is used today — daily — by white evangelicals who oppose women’s equality and the full equality of LGBT people.

Let’s not hesitate to label that as the problem.

 

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    A “WORD” is in order to all this. As is a “woot!” :)

  • Stone_Monkey

    It does seem that, for all the disdain that a lot of white evangelicals show for the whole post-Modernist/post-Structuralist enterprise, they do, ironically, seem to take a paradoxically (for an outside observer, such as myself – neither adjective applies to me) post-Structuralist approach to reading the Bible; it says what they want it to say and not necessarily what it actually says or could be read as saying.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    One thing I found interesting in Noll’s book was the attitude of European Catholics, who were mostly anti-slavery*. They saw the theological struggle between different groups of American Protestants as not just a vindication of Catholicism as doctrine, but of the Catholic opposition to both democracy and the separation fo Church and State as well. Their contention was that this theological dispute could have been settled by a centralized religious authority, but lacking such an authority, war became the means of deciding who was right about Biblical exegesis.

    *This is vastly oversimplified.

  • http://www.oliviareviews.com/ PepperjackCandy

    And an “Amen.” For those into that sort of thing.

  • Carstonio

    When Fred starts talking about different interpretations, the question that pops in my mind is why one couldn’t simply agree that justice and mercy are important no matter what one’s stance on the Bible. But that’s useless when confronting an ideology whose intended purpose is defending injustice.

  • ReverendRef

    why one couldn’t simply agree that justice and mercy are important no matter what one’s stance on the Bible.

    Because justice and mercy don’t apply to Those People. It’s not for us to contradict God’s desire to send Those People to hell. It’s not for us to include Those People in places where only the people who commit the right kind of sins are allowed. And it’s certainly not for us to contradict God’s perfect and clearly stated law, turning it into nothing but culturally relativistic mush.

    “It’s not that we’re defending injustice; it’s just that Some People get what they deserve.”

    I think what happens is people misapply the statement, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything;” or the passage in Revelation about the church in Laodicea being neither cold nor hot. They fear a “nuanced” position only leads to weakness because you don’t stand for anything specific.

    When in reality a nuanced position causes (or should cause) one to think deeply about faith and belief, and allows one to make a strong stand for the Other, the downtrodden, the oppressed, and to stand in favor of justice and mercy.

    But that’s useless when confronting an ideology whose intended purpose is defending injustice.

    Or you could just say that.

  • Aureliano_Buendia

    “Rice’s claim that the Bible “nowhere called slavery evil as such” is
    transparent bullshit. In some “specific texts,” the Bible certainly does
    commend and command slavery. But in other specific texts, the Bible
    also condemns and rejects slavery.”

    I do not mean to provoke a flame-war at all, but could you please elaborate on this? I can’t help but think that any time slavery is condemned it is for specific exemptions and not an overall condemnation of the practice as evil. For example, slaves will be freed in the world to come, but not in this one. Hebrew men would be “slaves” for several years but set free after (unless they wanted to stay with their families). And so on and so forth. But none of that seems to be calling the practice of slavery “evil” – just that there are cases when it’s not fair or is only temporary.

    I fully admit I might have missed a blanket condemnation of the evil of slavery, but it seems like even the review admits that if such a condemnation existed it would have been trotted out to refute the “pro-slavery” passages in a debate. Thank you.

  • Alix

    Some verses condemning various kinds of slavery. Yes, a lot of those apply to specific circumstances, but so do a lot of the pro-slavery verses. You can’t use the “specific circumstances” argument as a reason to exclude one set of verses from consideration when it applies just as well to the other.

    It’s also important to note that the various texts in the bible were written and compiled at a time when slavery was very normative, and so it reflects that. That the bible treats slavery as normal and even occasionally good shouldn’t be a surprise; that there’s any limits to or condemnation of slavery at all is radical.

  • Aureliano_Buendia

    Thank you for the response!

    “You can’t use the “specific circumstances” argument as a reason to exclude one set of verses from consideration when it applies just as well to the other.””

    My bigger focus was Fred’s quote about Rice’s claim being “transparent bullshit.” This seems to imply that there are cases in the Bible where slavery, the overall practice itself, is described as evil. While the openbible link you provided does show, as you said “specific circumstances,” I was thinking that Fred meant there are clear-cut condemnations of the evil of slavery as an institution. I may just be misunderstanding his wording.

  • Em

    “I’m posting this picture of Orlando Jonathan Blanchard Bloom”
    Thank you very much.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    I think it’s because they don’t look at the bible and use it to decide how to live their lives. They look at how they want to live their lives, and then use it to decide how to interpret the bible.

  • chgo_liz

    My thoughts exactly!

  • Random_Lurker

    Rather then Bad Theology leading people to Racism, Slavery, Etc.™, I strongly suspect that it’s Racism, Slavery, Etc.™ that led people to Bad Theology. That is, the literalist Bad Theology was and is attractive precisely because it’s so easy to distort.

    So it is a problem, in that it enables and encourages Racism, Slavery, Etc.™. But it’s not the root problem, which is Racism, Slavery, Etc.™ itself. Calling out Bad Theology is thus another case of necessary but not sufficient.

  • Alix

    My reading of that was that Rice’s picking and choosing was rather plainly self-serving, and also that it doesn’t fit with what Christians claim is the larger theme of the Bible. Also, the pro-slavery pickers-and-choosers were rather obviously ignoring anti-slavery messages as well.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    Fred would likely point at the numerous times “love your neighbor as yourself” is emphasized and note that it’s hard to treat your neighbor like a piece of property and still claim to love them as yourself.

    Here’s where the multi-authorship of the Bible is frustrating as Hell though, because there are a number of verses which specifically contradict themselves. One of the worst of these is Deuteronomy 23:15-16, which specifically says that if an escaped slave comes to you, you are to treat him as a free man and do not return him to his master … and then in the New Testament, not only do we have several verses about how slaves must obey their earthly masters, we also get the story of Paul returning a slave to his master.

  • Bethany

    It seems to me that the fact that there’s no slavery in the Kingdom of God (which, remember, at some points in the Bible was something the author expected to come about in his lifetime, and referred to a new society on Earth, not the afterlife) *is* a condemnation of slavery. After all, in the perfect society — God’s society — slavery doesn’t exist.

  • Jamoche

    Ditto, plus now I’m curious about why his parents chose that name for him.

  • MikeJ

    After all, in the perfect society — God’s society — slavery doesn’t exist.

    They will argue that what’s going to happen in a perfect future world should have no bearing on their behaviour in the current, imperfect world. After all, at some point they’ll have to eat vegetables slathered in butter, but that won’t keep them away from bacon now.

  • MaryKaye

    If you don’t have to regard every word of the New Testament as advice directed at Christians for all ages, then it becomes possible to think: Paul was living under the Roman Empire. His nascent religion and congregation would survive only if they avoided attracting too much unfavorable attention, and preaching slave-rebellion was blatantly going to attract unfavorable attention. So no matter what Jesus would have thought of slavery, and no matter what Paul in fact thought of slavery, writing down an anti-slavery message was a hugely unsafe thing to do. In fact, later transcribers of that message might well have had to “fix” it or see their transcripts, and themselves, destroyed.

    Is Paul going to be a reliable source on how people ought generally to treat each other, or is he going to have more to say about how to survive when you’re an oppressed minority under a ruthless Empire?

    Modern Christians are not an oppressed minority under a ruthless Empire, much though some of them like to claim it. We can reasonably expect better of them.

  • Kenneth Raymond

    It’s really more one of those cultural chicken-and-egg scenarios. Vile attitudes and behaviors inform how people approach theology, but theological justifications push people into vile attitudes and behaviors, including people who in absence of such justifications would not have become so vile. It’s a cultural transmission thing, the influence of groups and cultural identity on personal identity and behavior. Racism isn’t really the root but damn if it’s not an opportunistic little virus when others provide an opening. Though as with viruses, the best you can often do is manage the symptoms to control its transmission and calling out bad theology is an important one when managing some (groups of) people’s symptoms.

  • Lori

    The Kingdom of God is also seen (at least sometimes, but some Christians) as a reference to the church. That would make it something that existed at the time the NT was written.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    Hmm, Judaism was still strong in ancient Rome for a long time, and the law about emancipating escaped slaves was Jewish in origin. I wonder how that factored into things.

    FWIW, the verses about slaves obeying their masters can be found in Colossians, Ephesians, Timothy, Titus, and Peter…

  • Kenneth Raymond

    I think what happens is people misapply the statement, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything;”

    It’s one of those statements I really dislike. It gets mostly used as a non-sectarian stand-in for the same kind of ideas behind “Biblical literalism” and “scriptural inerrancy.” The unspoken but nakedly obvious meaning is always that the only thing you can possibly “stand for” is what the speaker believes, and you can only “fall for” anything else. Such a horrible and small-minded little phrase masquerading as virtue.

  • Kristen Rosser

    The Abolitionists’ response was that Jesus’ talk of the “kingdom of God” was not just a pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die thing. It was intended to change human systems on earth.

  • Jon Altman

    Near as I can tell, she didn’t visit First Baptist Church in Greenville, MS in the 1970s, but she sure COULD have.

  • Alix

    Given how many times both Jesus and later NT writers told believers to go out and do things in this world to help people, I rather side with the abolitionists.

  • FearlessSon

    Hmm, Judaism was still strong in ancient Rome for a long time, and the law about emancipating escaped slaves was Jewish in origin. I wonder how that factored into things.

    Given how many slaves Rome held (and in fact much of their economy was driven by conquest and enslavement) I am guessing Roman laws were a bit more harsh about ownership of people.

    Jesus did say, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” after all.

    On the other hand, the Romans only performed crucifixion for the crime of treason, and rousing the population to a potential uprising would have been considered treasonous…

  • FearlessSon

    In other words, a meme in the classical sense of the term.

    That meme really does not want to die, and goes through so many damn mutations to stay alive.

    I want that thing extinct.

  • Kenneth Raymond

    Pretty much. I kind of wish I’d been able to study epidemiology alongside sociology because I have this feeling there’s a useful perspective there on how the memes of culture spread through populations. “Viral marketing” isn’t just a name.

    Racism is hard to kill I think because its root cause (or at least our vulnerability to it) lies in the neurology and psychology of pack bonding and group identity. You’d have to neutralize that somehow to entirely prevent racism, and, well… good luck. To continue the medical metaphor, it’s a pretty volatile and adaptive little virus too because group identity has so many ways to be expressed that the virus can mutate to fit almost any situation, not just race. All you really need is the basic components of “out group” and “in group” and the bastardly little meme figures out a way in to compromise your mind and propagate itself.

  • FearlessSon

    To an extent, the in-group/out-group instinct makes a certain amount of sense from an evolutionary perspective. It keeps us alive when competing for resources, keeps us from being taken advantage of by outsiders with few scruples. Unfortunately, it has the side effect of making us vulnerable to insiders with few scruples, and sabotaging our attempts to form larger collaborative structures.

  • Carstonio

    Very true. Salon argues that we’re dealing with two competing mindsets, one of human nature as competitive and the other of human nature as cooperative. The former believes that we live in a dangerous world. This may seem like classic in-group/out-group thinking, a generic fear of an Other, but to me it more strongly resembles an aristocrat’s fears of the peasants massed outside his estate’s walls. A more specific fear that the Other threatens not just life but also property.

    http://www.salon.com/2013/09/15/inside_the_conservative_brain_what_explains_their_wiring/

  • Nick Gotts

    What was needed, then, was some approach that could adjudicate between those competing and conflicting claims from scripture.

    Not really: what was needed (and still is) is an admission that “scripture” is useless as a guide to ethics, both because of its many internal contradictions, and because it was written, edited, redacted etc. in the Roman empire (NT) and even earlier societies (OT). We have to work ethical issues out for ourselves, among ourselves, in the circumstances of the world as it is now.

  • Jared James

    You’ve distilled the essence of the Lost Cause in American politics and in American theology: that republicanism is only possible among the Right Class of People, and the democratic instinct of including too many is folly, ignoring the Nature of Man as a competitive, class-driven organism. It’s the class warfare theory of Hobbes, rather than the class warfare of Marx, and it is strangely enough alive and zombified in post-Marxist America.

  • Michael Pullmann

    Apparently, “Death of the author” applies even when the author is God. Try wrapping your head around that one.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Which is a real kicker because the Catholic Church was also a late adopter when it came to Abolition.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    “The unspoken but nakedly obvious meaning is always that the only thing you can possibly “stand for” is what the speaker believes, and you can only “fall for” anything else.”
    -
    Factor in two or more speakers and “The Universe Cannot Have Two Centers” and the fight is on.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Fred would likely point at the numerous times “love your neighbor as yourself” is emphasized and note that it’s hard to treat your neighbor like a piece of property and still claim to love them as yourself.
    -
    A Jewish contact once told me this is an example of “subversive wisdom” and that it is all over Torah if you know where to look.
    -
    His examples were honor killing and slavery; the former near-universal among Semitic tribes’ definition of “honor” and the latter universal among ALL cultures of the time. In both cases, if Torah flat-out forbade them, everyone would blow it off and do it anyway. So Torah had to get “subversive” with its Wisdom.
    -
    The whole point of Honor Killing is to hush up a scandal within the family — “If nobody knows of my sin, I Am Not Shamed” plus “Dead Men (or dead daughters) Tell No Tales”. (For comparison, the other major branch of Semitic tribal culture — the Arabs — took a different approach, Mohammed locking in the older practice and attitudes by Divine Fiat.) So Torah allowed honor killings — as long as you got permission from “the elders at the gate”, i.e. from the authorities. In public. Which kind of defeats the whole purpose of Honor Killing to hush things up.
    -
    And for slavery, Torah regulates slavery to the point it becomes less hassle to just hire free workers. Doesn’t forbid it per se, but makes it much less practical. (Naturally, slaveowners took advantage of every loophole they could find or invent to keep their animate property; the Prophets were always calling them to task about that.)

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Unfortunately, “pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die” is a major side effect of a Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation. (Especially when you add “It’s All Gonna Burn” to the mix like we have today.)

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Who knows?
    There are all sort of websites cataloging “weird baby names”.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Racism is hard to kill I think because its root cause (or at least our vulnerability to it) lies in the neurology and psychology of pack bonding and group identity.
    -
    Racism is the dark side of wanting to associate with people who are just like you. “THEM NOT LIKE US!”

  • Carstonio

    I’ve never encountered the latter term outside of astronomy. Kepler discovered that planetary orbits were ellipses with the Sun at one focus. That’s theologically relevant because of the former belief that the heavens were perfect, which would rule out orbits being anything but perfect circles.

  • stardreamer42

    In fact, you could cite Kepler to argue that there must be two centers in the universe! You can’t have an ellipse without having two foci, and they are of equal importance.

  • arcseconds

    Ergo, there must be two suns!

    Now, why can’t we see the other one, I wonder…

  • Evan

    In practice, yes. In theory, though, the Pope issued a bull in 1537 condemning the enslavement of American Indians. I’m sure there are people who would point out that paying more attention to religious authorities would have ended this problem a lot earlier…

  • arcseconds

    Reminds me a little bit about the Rabinnical interpretation of the bit where you’re allowed to kill your son.

    It’s a bit ‘yes, you can, obviously, it’s in the Torah, but…’ and the ‘but’ is a big list of restrictions and procedures, all hermeneutically (some would say ‘creatively’) drawn out of the text, which together make it all but impossible to actually carry out this action in a way in which ‘scripture’ ‘allows’.

  • Dave Crisp

    Harry Bloom (who is not actually his biological father, but who was married to his mother at the time of his birth and was therefore his legal father) was an anti-apartheid campaigner in South Africa during the 50′s and 60′s.

  • Grendel007

    So you are saying ethics are simply situation-based? Then any majority opinion of what is ethical at any given time is, in fact, ethical

  • Grendel007

    From my understanding there are/were two different types of slavery, one being the largely Hebrew type of temporary bondage and the other being the more permanent type (such as the Romans) who had a more lifetime form of servitude. I think this could play a large part in the discussion

  • dpolicar

    The only way your question makes any sense to me is if you don’t see any possible choices other than “scripture defines my ethics” and “majority opinion defines my ethics,” such that rejecting the first choice entails accepting the second.

    Is that the case, or have I misunderstood you?

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    Affirming the consequent fallacy; strawman argument. “The circumstances of the world are not the same as the circumstances of the world in the year 3500 BCE” does not automatically mean that all ethics are determined by the bandwagon. In fact, Nick Gotts did not make a statement affirming any specific ethical system at all, only that we need to determine a system other than relying on the ethics of a society far removed from our own.


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