Historical Parochialism: American Slavery is Not Ancient Slavery

Historical Parochialism: American Slavery is Not Ancient Slavery December 5, 2013

Americans do not know much about history and when know a little we tend to Americanize it.

Like American cheese product, this American history product is sort-of-like history, but also not very good: either for you or for consumption.  Examples of American history product abound: World War I was waiting until America came to get it ended. The League of Nations failed because America did not join it.

The American left often thinks America caused more problems than we have and the American right that we fixed more than we did. American Christian school textbooks from American Christian publishers often serve up American history product. Oddly, there is an example found on both the American right and American left of American history product.

Is there any change to Christian practice, any at all, that some American has not justified by comparing opposition to that change with opposition to slavery? 

Slavery is the United States was its own peculiar institution: its own horrid evil, but often Americans write as if slavery in the ancient world is equivalent to the American slave disaster that ended in a Civil War. This obscures important differences between the two that has the effect of making America’s original sin seem better than it was.

Christendom has agreed on many things and traditional Christians can unite on those issues (as Catholic, Orthodox, and traditional Protestants do), but American race slavery was never one of them not even in the United States. 

American slavery has as many dissimilarities to ancient slavery as similarities. Nobody in the modern world should be slave and wherever Christianity has gone slavery has died out,  but American slavery was a uniquely toxic and unacceptable form of slavery.

The reason is simple. For a Christian to justify or even make money off slavery, then ancient slavery had to evolve or it would naturally die. Ancient slavery was economic or military and the more rights a slave gained, since everyone knew a slave was human, the tougher things were for the master. Any person if they became poor enough or if their nation lost a war might become a slave. As a result, a slave owner realized that his or her slave might be superior in every possible way to the master.

Ancient slaves were human beings and some ancient cultures gave them rights.* A man or woman who was a slave was not “inferior” by nature, but unfortunate. Given how little wealth existed in the ancient world compared to the modern, the lifestyle and liberty of urban slaves could be superior to that of a “free” barbarian. Slaves were often better educated. More than one Greek slave taught future Roman senators Greek culture.

Slavery was a morally bad solution to economic problems, but in some cases it was arguably better than the plausible or immediate alternatives. Philosophers worried about slavery and though Aristotle would defend slavery as needed to care for certain humans that had a “slave mentality” this actually undercut the morality of keeping most human beings as slaves.

Judaism and Christianity reinforced the widespread idea that the economic slave was human. If a slave was a Christian, he or she must be treated as a brother or sister. This made the economic value of slavery very questionable in a Christian household. Other economic relationships supplanted slavery all over the ancient world as philosophy and Christianity spread. Some of those were imperfect, but still an improvement, such as being a serf.

Christian nations gradually learned better, more humane ways to handle economic loss or conquest of a people than slavery. If slavery was a barely permissible accommodation to barbarism and poverty, it was soon dropped. As Paul put it: slaves should take their freedom if they could get it, but he no place urged anybody to become a slave if they could!

Against all this tradition, in the radical Enlightenment spirit of those who defy the Faith, Americans did an evil thing: helped create a new even less justifiable form of slavery. It was parochial and really incomprehensible to outside observers.

American slavery in order to survive in Christendom depended on racism. American slavery was race based. Racism is not condemned in the Bible, because a strong differentiation between “races” was not common in the ancient world. “People groups” could contain (and sometimes did) more than one race. But now Americans and certain other Europeans outdid the ancients in evil: Certain races could be morally enslaved, because as a group they were “natural slaves.” European races were natural rulers based on racial differences.

Of course, one of the first Christian nations was Ethiopia so this racial theory was contradicted by the existence of  global Christianity. Race based slavery denied that African-Americans were fully human, despite the obvious humanity of this group of people. We were not acting like the ancients, but acting worse than the ancients by reviving slavery, but this time a slavery totally based on “who a person was” and not on economic status.

Against the historic and global experience of interracial marriage, the United States of America (and some other European groups) would ban “race mixing,” because it would dilute the power and purity of the “white race.”  A freed slave in the ancient world was simply a freeman, but a free African-American in parts of the American South became a practical impossibility.

The full humanity of the African American was denied, Aristotle’s dangerous idea of “natural slaves” found a home.

This horrible history culminating in our bloody, but redemptive Civil War is important. Every American should learn the lessons it teaches: defying history, common sense, and the rest of the world to remake morality was wicked. We denied marriage to those who always could marry in Christendom, even if geographical distribution had made such marriages less common in Northern Europe.

I have heard Americans say to shame us: “The Tsar of Russia freed the serfs long before the Republic freed the slaves.” Actually Peter the Great ended slavery in Russia long before the American Civil War: serfs were not slaves. America should be ashamed of slavery, but slavery and Russian serfhood were two very different conditions and institutions. Russian serfdom outlived its time and it was never good, but it was arguably better than race slavery.*

Serfs were human, serfs were Russians, serfs were subjects of the Tsar. An American slave was no man.

Tradition opposed “race based” slavery. Only American “traditions,” a blink of the eye in the history of the Church, supported the monstrous evil of race based slavery. I have seen Americans look at ancient monuments in Europe and when slavery is discussed import American categories and experience!

Americans will often say: “But the Church, at least some of it, opposed abolition or interracial marriage . . . so my particular reform, just like it, is good.” But this is highly parochial since the racism of some Americans (secular and Christian) was an aberration globally. In fact, so peculiar was American slavery, that interracial marriage was never illegal in huge parts of the United States. These regions were full of Church goers and actually were more traditionally Christian. 

Slavery is, of course, a complex topic. I have simplified both ancient and American forms of slavery, but the even grosser simplification of conflating the two phenomena, because they have the name “slavery” in common is worse.

Let’s all agree to avoid historically parochial examples.

*To argue that x was better than y is not to argue that x is good. I think the segregated South was better than certain regimes, say the Nazi one, but I have not sympathy for segregation.

Browse Our Archives