We’ve read ten points in Tom Gilson’s argument that Jesus was ardently anti-slavery despite not saying a word against it in the Bible. Let’s wrap up some loose ends in this final post in the series, looking at what the American Civil War can teach us about which side made the stronger biblical case for its position, the reason you wouldn’t expect Jesus to care about slavery, and some final thoughts. (Part 1 of this series is here.)
American Civil War: which side had the stronger biblical case?
I’ll agree that we can do the Gilson two-step and select only Bible verses that reject slavery (or, given that there are none, verses that speak of peripheral issues like brotherly love or sexual morality). Christians did this in the lead-up to the American Civil War. But of course their pro-slavery opponents did the same thing, making their own argument necklace by stringing a very different set of beads.
Here is a comparison of the Northern and Southern biblical arguments from a modern American historian. Not only did Jesus not make a clear anti-slavery statement, but the Bible was the more effective weapon in the hands of the pro-slavery South.
Professor Eugene Genovese, who has studied these biblical debates over slavery in minute detail, concludes that the pro-slavery faction clearly emerged victorious over the abolitionists except for one specious argument based on the so-called Curse of Ham (Gen 9:18-27). For our purposes, it is important to realize that the South won this crucial contest with the North by using the prevailing hermeneutic, or method of interpretation, on which both sides agreed. So decisive was its triumph that the South mounted a vigorous counterattack on the abolitionists as infidels who had abandoned the plain words of Scripture for the secular ideology of the Enlightenment.
Why Jesus didn’t reject slavery
Jesus didn’t end slavery because the harm it caused in society wasn’t important to him.
Life for the common people was hard, and for more reasons than just slavery. There were taxes, droughts, famines, war, highway bandits, disease, and more. Life wasn’t easy in first-century Palestine.
Jesus cured a few people to prove that he was supernatural (see John 5:36), but he didn’t eliminate any diseases. He magically fed crowds a few times, but he didn’t end hunger. He didn’t free Judea from Roman rule. Improving this life wasn’t his goal—why tidy your cabin if the ship is sinking?
Jesus was an Apocalypticist. He felt that the current corrupt Age, ruled by an evil being, was soon to end. This would usher in a new Age with a benevolent ruler. Under this thinking, even the problem of Jesus the god who failed to end slavery goes away because Jesus was just the messenger.
Jesus made clear his short-term focus when he said, “This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (Matt. 24:34). A few verses earlier he identified “these things” as the sun and moon darkening and the stars falling to earth.
Jesus didn’t end slavery because, in his mind, the end of this Age was at hand. Slavery would end at the same time. (I explore the consequences of Jesus’s short-term focus in more depth here.)
Now I’ll undercut my own defense of the logic of Jesus’s position. If the end were nigh, why worry about any social ill? If you’re not going to bother with slavery, why worry about the poor? The near-term future held, not simply a decent meal each day, but life with every pain removed.
And how anti-slavery can the New Testament be when Paul uses the idea in a positive way when he calls himself a “slave of Christ Jesus” (Romans 1:1)?
Seeing Jesus as a failed Apocalypticist doesn’t help Gilson. Jesus as a failed anything won’t do, and Gilson is left handwaving why Jesus was the Great Emancipator but the Not-So-Great Communicator. And we come back to the fact that if Jesus wanted no slavery, he would have said so or poofed it out of existence. The simplest explanation is that Jesus didn’t care.
Compare that with something that Jesus very much did care about—compassion for the disadvantaged, to take one example. Here is what that looks like in the Bible.
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world (James 1:27).
If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? (1 John 3:17).
We see Jesus’s compassion for the disadvantaged in:
- the story of the widow’s mite: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all the others.”
- the story about the rich young ruler: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor.”
- the parable of the sheep and the goats: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
- the Beatitudes: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
You want to know what Jesus would say about something he cared for deeply? Like that. And that’s what you don’t see for slavery.
Tom Gilson has replied to these posts. I respond here.
how the Bible seems okay with slavery and polygamy,
don’t tell them not to worry and that 2+2=5 after all.
2+2=4, and the work of Christianity
is learning how to deal with 4.
— Laura Robinson