You can make a bad argument in support of a good conclusion. That’s how I felt reading this column “The Cross and the Confederate Flag“, written by Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention in the aftermath of the Charleston massacre.
Unlike his predecessor Richard Land, who was an all-culture-war-all-the-time partisan, Moore has shown some genuine signs of wanting to listen to marginalized voices. In his column, he takes an unflinching look at the deep-seated history of racism and terror that the Confederate flag represents, and unequivocally calls on Christians to reject those evils and the flag that symbolizes them:
The Confederate States of America was not simply about limited government and local autonomy; the Confederate States of America was constitutionally committed to the continuation, with protections of law, to a great evil. The moral enormity of the slavery question is one still viscerally felt today, especially by the descendants of those who were enslaved and persecuted.
…The Confederate Battle Flag was the emblem of Jim Crow defiance to the civil rights movement, of the Dixiecrat opposition to integration, and of the domestic terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens’ Councils of our all too recent, all too awful history.
…Let’s watch our hearts, pray for wisdom, work for justice, love our neighbors. Let’s take down that flag.
All this is well and good, even laudable. The problem comes when Moore switches to apologist mode, arguing not just that slavery is wrong but that Christianity, rightly understood, never permitted it:
In order to prop up this system, a system that benefited the Mammonism of wealthy planters, Southern religion had to carefully weave a counter-biblical theology that could justify it… In so doing, this form of southern folk religion was outside of the global and historic teachings of the Christian church. The abolitionists were right — and they were right not because they were on the right side of history but because they were on the right side of God.
This is an audacious claim, especially coming from the head of a religious denomination that was founded for the express purpose of supporting slavery (a highly relevant historical fact that Moore never acknowledges in this column). But what’s really a sorry spectacle is when he tries to cite scripture in support of it:
What Moore is ignoring – and I must believe he’s intentionally concealing the truth, because there’s just no way he could fail to know this – is that slavery isn’t “counter-biblical” at all. To the contrary, slavery is a pervasive feature of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. It’s treated as normal, unobjectionable and even beneficial by the biblical authors. The Levitical laws explicitly allow it, setting out the rules and regulations for how to buy, sell and treat slaves. They permit slaveowners to beat their slaves, even to the point of death (Exodus 21:20-21).
The idea of a human being attempting to “own” another human being is abhorrent in a Christian view of humanity…. In the Scriptures, humanity is given dominion over the creation. We are not given dominion over our fellow image-bearing human beings (Gen. 1:27-30). The southern system of chattel slavery was built off of the things the Scripture condemns as wicked: “man-stealing” (1 Tim. 1:10), the theft of another’s labor (Jas. 5:1-6), the breaking up of families, and on and on.
In the gospels, Jesus condemned other common practices of the day, but he has not a word of objection to slavery. He treats it as the most normal thing in the world; in one parable, he favorably compares God to a slaveowner who beats his slaves for disobeying him (Luke 12:46-47). Paul’s epistles put great emphasis on the importance of submitting to existing authorities, slaves not excluded. He sends a runaway slave, Onesimus, back to his owner (Philemon 1:10-12). He tells slaves to be obedient, even to owners who treat them badly (1 Peter 2:18). He actually calls it blasphemous for a slave to disobey, as if rebellion against slavery was rebellion against God (1 Timothy 6:1-2).
Against verses like these, which consistently establish the legitimacy of slavery, Moore’s case relies on patching together dubious interpretations of unrelated passages. The verse about “man-stealing” was a condemnation not of slavery in general, but of kidnappers who abducted free people and sold them into slavery in ways other than those the law permitted (as is readily confirmed by a concordance). The one about theft of labor refers only to employers who hire free men as workers and then don’t pay what they promised. He doesn’t even have a verse to cite to condemn “breaking up families” – in fact, the Old Testament codes say that if an indentured servant marries and has children, the only way he can stay with his family is by accepting permanent slavery (Exodus 21:2-6).
While Moore is right to recognize that the Confederate flag is indelibly stained by its long association with slavery and racism, he averts his gaze from the extent to which Christianity itself is implicated in those same systems of oppression. This is what I call “the march of progress” – how later moral advances are read back into religious texts as if religion supported them all along. In fact, religion is always and everywhere the fiercest opponent of moral progress, and humanity has advanced only to the extent that we’ve thrown off its unsupported assertions and come together to determine for ourselves what is right.