Biblical Slavery (3 of 3)

Biblical Slavery (3 of 3) July 4, 2014

Old Testament Bible SlaveryLet’s conclude this critique of an podcast that responded to Dan Savage’s claim that the Bible is “radically pro-slavery.” Italicized arguments are my paraphrases of arguments from the podcast. (Part 1 here.)

6. The Bible against slavery. Dan Savage and other atheists distort the Bible by imagining it supporting slavery. If Southerners used the Bible to support slavery during the Civil War, that was only because they distorted it. Consider the anti-slavery books of that time: The Bible Against Slavery (1837) or God Against Slavery (1857), for example.

Let’s consider instead the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination. It split with northern Baptists in 1845 because it insisted on maintaining its support for slavery. In 1995, on the 150th anniversary of the split, it published a resolution that repudiated racism and slavery. (Good for them for admitting their error, though the delay puts this correction in the same bin as the Catholic Church’s tardy embrace of Galileo in 1992.)

Looks like support for slavery is a plausible message to take from the Bible even if not everyone accepts it.

Were there anti-slavery books at that time? Were there Christians against slavery? Sure, but how that gets the Old Testament off the hook, I can’t imagine. The verses quoted in the previous post show that the Bible is very plainly pro-slavery.

7. Anti-slavery in the New Testament. Consider Philemon, a short book in the New Testament. Here Paul sends a slave back to his master Philemon with the request that he be “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (Philemon 1:16). This was radical stuff—it was designed to bring about change within the Roman slave system.

That’s wishful thinking. If Paul shouted in public, “Citizens, don’t you get it? Owning another person is wrong! Free all slaves immediately!” that wouldn’t have changed the Roman system. Paul instead asking in a private letter that one slave be freed wouldn’t change the system, and it’s not clear he’s even asking for this. No, there’s nothing radical here.

Abraham Lincoln convulsed America in a civil war, in part to free the slaves. In sharp contrast, Jesus didn’t lift a finger to overturn slavery. In fact, the New Testament is full of pro-slavery statements.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything. (Col. 3:22)

Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. (1 Peter 2:18)

All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect. (1 Tim. 6:1–2)

Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything. (Titus 2:9–10)

Were you a slave when you were called [to be a Christian]? Don’t let it trouble you. … Each man, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation God called him to. (1 Cor. 7:20–24)

The Christian can respond with nice verses in the Old Testament—“Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18), for example—but here again the Bible makes a clear distinction between Jewish neighbors and those other guys. So back to Dan Savage and his claim that the Bible is radically pro-slavery: looks to me like Savage wins. Whenever Christians make a careful distinction between Jewish slaves in the Old Testament and African slaves in America, they’re playing games.

Christianity makes you do weird things

Let’s take a step back to see where we’ve been. On this podcast, two well-educated Christians spent an hour trying to shoehorn actual biblical slavery (that is: slavery for life; slavery not too bad considering that slaughter was the alternative; beatings okay unless the slave is incapacitated; etc.) into a package labeled “indentured servitude.” They pretended that biblical slavery was far, far different from the slavery in America.

It makes you wonder if they’d be happy to see this godly biblical institution in effect here in America. (Maybe when the theocracy comes?)

I don’t know whether to be offended that they think I’m so uninformed that I don’t see the deception or to be amazed that they honestly don’t understand.

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But that’s not the worst part. Halfway through the second hour, the host and guest acknowledged the irony that they are both African-Americans.

So we have two African-American men defending slavery. One of them likened biblical slavery to an “employment contract” (again, blind to the fact that the six-year Jewish slavery is not the topic). “We’re in a form of slavery when we’re working on a job for somebody else,” he said. Uh, no—being a waiter is not even close to being a slave. When people complain that it’s the same, they’re exaggerating. Yes, we’re constrained when we’re employees, but who seriously equates present-day employment in America to the slavery for life we’re talking about?

So a white guy has to remind modern-day African-Americans of the problems of slavery. Wow. This is what Christianity can do to people. It makes them check their brains at the door—not all Christians, of course, but some. They defend the morality of biblical slavery, if such a thing can be imagined. They defend biblical genocide. They reject science for creationism. They support torture in proportion to their religiosity. They reject stem cell research and the best methods for preventing unwanted pregnancy. They don’t see the irony in defending churches’ closed financial records. They dismiss the injustice of eternal torment in hell by saying, “Uh … I guess the gates of hell must be locked from the inside!” They dismiss evidence that televangelists are charlatans. They rationalize away biblical genocide.

Slavery is a bad thing, and the Bible condones slavery. Admit it—Dan Savage was right.

Morality is doing what is right regardless of what we are told. 
Religious dogma is doing what we are told regardless of what is right.
— Andy Thomson at American Atheists 2009 conference

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 6/11/12.)

Photo credit: American Civil War Photographs

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