How Good Was Jesus if He Didn’t Eliminate Slavery? (2 of 4)

How Good Was Jesus if He Didn’t Eliminate Slavery? (2 of 4) September 18, 2020

Apologist Tom Gilson says that Jesus was “too good to be false,” but how good was Jesus when he did nothing to eliminate slavery? Gilson steps in to defend his always-mute buddy, who is curiously never able to defend himself despite being a god. Part 1 responded to Gilson’s first four points: Jesus came to set the captives free, Jesus got killed to reconcile humanity with God, slavery can’t survive in the face of the Golden Rule, and Jesus was anti-greed.

Gilson replied to part 1 yesterday. He said that I didn’t understand Jesus’s role on earth.

Jesus came to found a revolution of love. He showed humans’ essential equality. He condemned the enslaving spirit at its very root, which is greed and self-centeredness.

Okay, let’s go with that. Let’s say that that was Jesus’s mission. Gilson is making my point: that’s what Jesus did, but what he didn’t do was declare that slavery was wrong. He had bigger fish to fry, and ending slavery wasn’t on his short list.

Let’s return to Gilson’s article about slavery. Maybe the next three points will be stronger.

5. “[Jesus] taught love for all, even enemies, which must lead to the realization that all persons have equal worth”

Oh, please. There’s the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and then there’s the miscellany of Iron Age rules that passes for morality in the Bible. One of these feels enlightened and familiar, and the other has to be propped up like a scarecrow. It’s easy to tell the difference.

The Old Testament prohibited inter-tribal marriage and demanded genocide and human sacrifice. Yahweh was the champion for just his Chosen People, not the world, since other tribes had their own gods. He found room for “no coveting” in his Ten Commandments, but “no slavery” didn’t make the cut.

Jesus in the New Testament said, “Don’t throw pearls before swine” (Matthew 7:6) and “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (Matt. 15:24).

Gilson’s “all persons have equal worth” is not a clear message from the Bible. In fact, any useful moral sentiment from Christianity is simply a regifting of human morality.

6. “[Jesus] taught sexual morality”

“[This] undercut one of the most unpleasant aspects of slavery as it was practiced then.”

Presumably Gilson is talking about sex being a job requirement for some slaves.

But how does Jesus look in this analysis? That very thing is presented favorably in the Old Testament. Numbers 31:18 has Moses telling his soldiers that, as spoils of the battle against Midian, the virgin girls are for them. That’s 32,000 virgins.

Part of “sexual morality” is the idea of consent, and whether these girls were treated as sex slaves, concubines, or wives, their wishes were obviously unimportant. Women were treated as property in the Bible.

Of course, one can always say that the Old Testament had some barbaric morality and that Jesus came to correct it. This can be understood through a sociological lens, where Christianity was an evolution of thought from Judaism. And Islam, Mormonism, Christian Science, and others are evolved versions of Christianity. But if we assume Christianity is more than just a cultural artifact and is actually the one correct worldview, Yahweh and Jesus are part of the same godhead. If Jesus understood correct morality, surely Yahweh understood it equally well. The apologist is left explaining how Yahweh got it so wrong.

7. Jesus’s overall anti-slavery message was clear

“[Jesus] may not have said the word ‘slavery,’ but his teaching cut every leg out from under it. No one could fully follow his teaching and continue treating persons as objects, as less than human.”

And yet no gospel rejects slavery. No epistle. Nothing in the Bible as a whole.

The indifference we find in Jesus we also see in Paul:

Were you a slave when you were called [to be a Christian]? Don’t let it trouble you. . . . Each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them (1 Corinthians 7:21–4).

Paul is sometimes said to take a bold stand against slavery in the epistle of Philemon, but that was just a letter with an appeal for clemency for one runaway slave that happened to be a friend of Paul’s. It was no attack on the institution.

The New Testament is actually supportive of slavery.

Slaves, be obedient in everything to your earthly masters (Colossians 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).

One passage even throws Jesus under the bus:

All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect. . . . If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, [they understand nothing] (1 Timothy 6:1–3).

An almost universal argument Christian apologists make is to handwave that whatever the Bible is talking about, it’s not real slavery, not slavery as it was practiced in the United States. Biblical slavery, they’ll tell us, was just indentured servitude—a temporary situation used as a last resort to pay a debt.

God himself makes clear that there was more to biblical slavery than that.

[God said,] “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. . . . You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life” (Leviticus 25:44–6).

With (temporary) indentured servitude and slavery for life, American and biblical slavery were pretty much identical.

[EDIT: Gilson wrote a second post in response here. Once all four of my posts are out, we’ll see what Gilson has to say in total. I hope it’s worth a response. So far, I’m getting a lot of “Seidensticker should’ve read my book.” The original post was primarily about his book, with slavery only used as an example, but the slavery issue seemed a lot more interesting than the book.]

Gilson’s final three points are considered in the next post.

Asking, “If there is no god, what is the purpose of life?”
is like asking, “If there is no master, whose slave will I be?”
— Dan Barker

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Image from Paul Brooker (license CC BY 2.0)
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