Seriously, folks, we’re going to have to be really careful about how we present atrocities to Christians. I’m about to tell y’all why we can’t have nice things, and hopefully I won’t lose power again (it’s been flickering on and off all afternoon here, which is obviously a divine sign of some kind; I’m taking it as a deity’s insistence that I make a PB&J and take a nap, because obviously that’s what it means).
Five years ago or so, I began noticing people throwing slavery at Christians to demonstrate why their Bible isn’t the total moral authority many of them believe that it is. “Oh yeah? You say the Bible is the inerrant word of a never-changing god who is the final word on what is moral? Then defend slavery!” You could all but hear us shout “Checkmate!” at the end. As zingers go, we couldn’t imagine ones better than slavery (or genocide, the other one we frequently suggested).
And we were right, I still think; slavery is always discussed in the Bible as a given. The Old Testament lists a slew of rules about exactly how slaves should be treated, right down to how long a man had to wait before sexually violating a new female captive and how to shave her hair and cut her nails to totally eradicate her sense of dignity and cultural identification. Nowhere in the Bible do we find the idea that slavery–the owning of another human being–is flat-out wrong. The Bible doesn’t like the enslaving of Hebrews themselves and sort of frowns on the idea of fathers selling their own daughters to foreigners (Exodus 21:7-11), but that’s about the only real restriction there is.
Indeed there are countless Bible verses regarding all the rules and regulations around slavery: Leviticus 25:44-46 advises Jews on exactly who can be bought and sold (pretty much everybody except Jews themselves) and gives permission to pass slaves down to one’s children as an inheritance. Exodus 22:3 advises that thieves who can’t repay their thefts should be sold into slavery. And one of the most-cited and I think most disgusting examples of this divine stamp of approval regarding slavery involves the slaughter and sexual enslavement of the Midianites that is outlined in Numbers 31, wherein Moses specifically commanded his troops to murder every man and child of that tribe, but to save alive any young woman who was clearly a virgin “for themselves.” They got 32,000 virgins that way, apparently.
It seems pretty obvious why only very young women (maybe even just girls, according to some interpretations) were spared, doesn’t it? Don’t you kind of wonder what it was like for those young women? And don’t you wonder how those murderers figured out who was a virgin and who wasn’t? I don’t; even as recently as February 2014, Near Eastern misogynists were performing virginity tests on dissident women–and I can’t imagine that these modern crude, humiliating invasions of young women’s bodies differed all that much from how ancient ones would have happened. It doesn’t seem like much has changed at all through the centuries; one young woman who suffered one such invasion a few months ago told the media, “I thought the tests were history. I thought we had left them behind in the days of Mubarak”–with “Mubarak” being, presumably, Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in 2011. So it isn’t hard to extrapolate how ancient Near Easterners might have made such a determination on the helpless, captive young women in their clutches–young women who, remember, had just watched the Israelites murder their entire families. But hey, at least they’d theoretically get a month to lament the unimaginable loss of family, home, and freedom before they were raped by their kindly new “godly” owners–and new haircuts and manicures besides! I mean, how awesome is that?
And through all this litany of rules for how to create such human misery, there’s always this assumption that some nationalities are just better than others, that it’s just not okay to have certain people as slaves but perfectly fine for others to be so–and those people who should never be enslaved just happen to be the favorites of the Bible’s god, and those who must be enslaved just happen to be from nations opposing that god’s favorite people. It’s worth noting that in the story of Exodus, it is only the Hebrew slaves who are freed, not any other slaves the Egyptians kept. Oh, did you suppose the Egyptians only kept Hebrew slaves? Why didn’t this supposedly global omnimax god (the term “omnimax” means omni-benevolent, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent) care about those other slaves? Exodus 11:5 specifically even mentions that the last plague–the one wherewith Yahweh murdered firstborn people and animals of all ages–would hit not only Pharaoh’s own family but that of the lowliest “slave girl that is behind the millstones.” Very clearly there was no trouble at all with the idea of slavery itself, just with the nationality and religious persuasion of those who were enslaved.
In the New Testament, this tacit approval of slavery continues: the character of Jesus himself never once said “Don’t keep slaves.” Not even once. (Nor does he ever say a multitude of other things that would have been hugely helpful to humanity, for that matter, such as a quick explanation of germ theory or any substantial refutation of rape culture, but we’ll focus on slavery for now.) Nor for that matter do any of his divinely-inspired ghostwriters through the rest of the Bible. Instead, the New Testament makes clear that it is a product of its culture, which is to say a slavery-condoning culture. Here are some examples (h/t to Conversational Atheist):
* Ephesians 6:5-9 lays out the general idea for slaves and masters both, with instructions that slaves should be good slaves for their masters just like they were to their god, and masters should remember that both they and their slaves are also slaves to their god. Notice that the verse and its echo in Colossians 3:22-25 do not instruct masters to free their slaves or give slaves any reason to strive toward freedom.
* Echoing those two aforementioned series of verses, 1 Timothy 6:1-2 and Titus 2:9-10 also lay out a vision of master and slave as working together in a happy, mutually-agreeable society; slaves are told to be especially respectful and obedient to bring more honor to the name of the religion (showing us as well that the Happy Christian Society illusion began very early on indeed).
* 1 Peter 2:18-20 goes so far as to say that slaves should submit without complaint to even cruel masters. The reason for citing multi-translation reference pages for these verses might become more understandable when you notice that the KJV and NIV versions of these verses make perfectly clear that this cruelty involves beatings. We’re not talking about getting yelled at or made to do excessive amounts of work. We’re talking about physical abuse. And the author of 1 Peter, who most Christians believe was either directly told by an omnimax god to write those verses or was “inspired” (whatever in the world that might mean) to do so, did not take his sterling opportunity to tell humanity in the countless eons to come that slavery and physical abuse are really bad any more than the previous authors took an opportunity to condemn the practice of owning human beings.
* Luke 12:44-48 is a whole parable centering around slaves slacking off, only to get caught when the master returns; Jesus even talks about how even lazy slaves who didn’t understand what their master’s will was will get beaten, just not as hard as the lazy slaves who knew perfectly well what their master wanted them to do. Oddly, this omnimax divine being neither condemned slavery nor the practice of physical beatings at all; instead, he follows up the threat of beatings with the threat of cutting the laziest, most disobedient slaves into pieces.
* And of course the entire short book of Philemon was written on the occasion of Paul sending an escaped slave back to his master, even though doing so violates Deuteronomy 23:15, which commands Israelites not to do that.
So yes, the Bible–all of it–not only does not condemn slavery but condones it, sets up rules for how to do it “right,” and encourages masters and slaves to live under the status quo. And we were right to throw that in Christians’ faces. The atrocity of slavery is just one of the Bible’s atrocities, and most Christians don’t even know what their idolized holy book says about it. I sure didn’t, and I can tell that the Christians I run into both online and in real life don’t either.
Unfortunately, this tactic of ours backfired hugely by introducing a new wave of what I’ve come to call atrocity apologetics. I doubt I came up with the term, but it does perfectly fit what’s going on: Christians have begun taking huge pains to justify the atrocities, slavery among them, that outsiders consider to be evidence that their religion’s sourcebook does not have a Supreme Morality at its center and is certainly not a timeless guide to life or a source of supernal morality. My heartfelt blog entry about atrocity apologetics, alas, went largely unheeded by Christians in general, so obviously we need to talk about it again, this time concentrating on this one part of it since I’m seeing it more than the others lately.
I know just what a terrible spot modern Christians, especially fundagelical ones, are in when they finally realize just what their holy book says about this topic. Very liberal Christians can easily assimilate that information and move on; they already know what non-Christians know: that the Bible is a record of its time, not a prescriptive document meant for all ages. They already know that the Bible’s god isn’t always depicted in the best light, and that our understanding of that god has evolved over time. So when they get confronted with verses about slavery, they’re able to outright condemn the practice along with us and try to understand those verses from the viewpoint of a modern, enlightened, moral human society. Jews themselves, incidentally, are perfectly aware of those Old Testament verses from their own holy book, and they’ve been wrestling with these verses for thousands of years.
Not so, for fundagelicals. See, they totally understand what even the Hebrews themselves haven’t fully finished wrestling with yet.
By contrast, totally unlike liberal Christians, non-believers, and Jews, they’re in a real pickle.
See, the apologetics over slavery have a very dark side. It’s not just about “is slavery as depicted in the Bible moral or not?” It’s about who has the right to own who. It’s about how much people should value human liberty and self-determination. It’s about autonomy and human rights, and how far religious zealotry should be allowed to destroy both of those things. It’s about the fight between progress and dogma; it’s about the idolization of the Bible as a printed document and how far that literalism should be taken. Challenges over slavery not only challenge things like Biblical inerrancy, but also the entire hierarchical worldview of fundagelical Christianity itself.
So fundagelical Christians begin with an assumption: “the Bible is a prescriptive, timeless document inspired/written by an unchanging, utterly perfect and moral, beyond-reproach divinity.” And they continue with a super-hierarchical worldview that they think they got from that document, a view that has their god at the top, white men right below that god, white women below that, and people of color and various sinners (including LGBTQ people) way below all of that.
If something arises that challenges that assumption, then they’ve only got a few options. Two of those are almost entirely ignored; the other two are what we see most often.
* They can adapt, growing in faith and understanding and discarding that childish view of their god and their holy book. Ha! As if. Fundagelical Christianity is more than just a set of beliefs; it’s a way of looking at the world, an entrenched, willful ignorance and persecution fantasy, and that ignorance and those fantasies do not care what the facts are, nor about subtlety either.
* They can utterly reject the entire shebang, of course, and some Christians do. A friend of mine, Godless in Dixie, did end up deconverting over one of these Biblical atrocities. I wish I’d been so strong, and most Christians aren’t either.* They can employ their infamous Christian revisionism skills to make slavery sound like just a slightly-more-onerous fast-food McJob. By redefining terms for all they’re worth and ignoring actual scholarship on the issue, by relying only on apologetics authors who suffer the same cognitive dissonance and willful ignorance they do, these Christians can soothe themselves by telling themselves that no no, slavery “back then” was totally different from slavery in the modern era. This is not true. Slavery might have some very superficial differences between then and now, but it is still the owning of another human being. An enslaved man or woman could be and was beaten, killed (or almost so, according to the Bible–mighty kind of them there, quite the prince, that god), sexually violated, and treated with any kind of cruelty, and liberal Christians themselves know that ancient slavery wasn’t different enough from modern slavery for us to ignore it as a Biblical atrocity (also see this link for a more elaborate explanation of why slavery apologetics is such a pernicious lie). Or they can completely misunderstand or mischaracterize how slavery worked in the Bible and in ancient societies, like claiming that all slaves got freed after 7 years so YAY! GO YAHWEH!–when no, it was actually just Hebrew men who’d enslaved themselves over debt problems who were so lucky. In this way, fundagelicals can feel like they’re on the right side of history, and can still view the Bible as a timeless moral code and advice book–and their god as an omnimax being–even when all the real evidence points away from those conclusions.
* They can drill down on slavery by adopting it completely into their worldview. Hey, if it was good enough for Moses and Jesus, shouldn’t it be good enough for Christians today? Slavery has some deep affinities with fundagelical thinking, and indeed, even in the 1800s, Christians were quite torn on the topic, with some opposing slavery and some wholeheartedly supporting it. And let’s not forget that it was Renaissance Christians, with papal approval, who began the practice of enslaving Africans in the first place. In the more modern era, I’ve mentioned before that fundagelical Christians genuinely regard being “slaves for Christ” as a good thing, and constantly talk about this slavery in a good light. They regard women’s rights as “the curse of independence” and modern conceptualizations of liberty and personal rights as bad things that tempt people away from the true freedom–which is, again, slavery to Christ. I personally, as in with my own two pretty pink ears, heard liberty and human rights called slavery more times than I can possibly count; these things are regarded as slavery as well, but to the world. Slavery to Christ was good, but slavery to the world was obviously bad. And everybody was a slave to something, even if they didn’t realize it or denied it. And, too, because slavery and race are so intertwined, it really plays to the racism inherent in the right wing mindset. Given this worldview, it’s not very surprising that fundagelical Christians put their feet in their mouths as often as they do about slavery, implying or even outright stating that things were sooooo much better back then when everybody knew their place and lamenting that nobody knows their place anymore (and of course white Christians’ place was way up at the top of the heap).
I didn’t realize how pervasive these last two approaches were until a few months ago. One lone Christian asked to be a Facebook friend of mine, and because he was the mutual friend-of-a-friend, I accepted. He had the standard operating toxic-Christian mindset including LGBTQ demonization, “love the sin and hate the sinner”–er, I meant “love the sinner and hate the sin,” misogyny-as-the-bonus-plan, a dependence on Faux Noise for his news, a serious case of Ayn Randian “screw all y’all, I’ma get mine” faux-libertarianism, and all the rest of the Fundagelical Package Deal, but one day he messaged me to ask me to go look at a blog essay he’d written.
The essay turned out to be a super-long piece (like longer than what I tend to write, even) about slavery apologetics. And let me inform you that he took the latter two tactics, going on at length about how Biblical slavery was actually totally not like “real” slavery, how sometimes people just deserved to be enslaved, and how slavery could totally fit into the idea of a merciful, loving omnimax god’s religion. It was thousands of words long, and it drew almost exclusively on apologetics faux-historians’ work to make its revolting case. Let me assure you of this: it was like reading a blog entry written by a pedophile to persuade people of the moral necessity and benevolence of child molestation. What made this essay all the worse was that this particular writer thought of himself as “a nice Christian” and a genuinely loving person, and he’d been a fundagelical for a long time. I got more and more chilled the further I read, and in absolute horror I de-friended the guy and blocked him.
As horrifying as it was to see that someone who thought of himself as a truly good and loving person could write something so shockingly evil, that episode got me thinking, and I began to notice more when I saw Christians try to excuse slavery. I began to notice the dog-whistles that fundagelicals use–the references to hierarchical thinking, the idea that there’s an ideal society wherein all people will be happy (and that this society just happens to involve slavery), the concept of everybody being a slave to something, the promotion of Christians (especially right-wing Christians) as the moral arbiters of society and the folks who know better than “lesser” humans do what is best for everybody’s lives, all of those ideas that swim below the radar of outsiders.
And I want you to notice this stuff too, which is why I’m talking about it.
The worst part, of course, is that this kind of talk does horrify sane, right-minded, moral people. Nobody moral can hear about the excusing of slavery or genocide or anything else the Bible advocates and react with anything but the utmost revulsion. Rachel Held Evans called this sort of apologetics the scandal of the evangelical heart, this idea that to be a Christian, one must check one’s morality at the door and accept–even endorse–even perpetrate–the cruelest and most depraved things, believing them to be loving and good.
And even worse than horrifying and repelling outsiders, these apologetics are absolutely irrelevant to the larger picture. When a literalist Christian hears atrocity accusations, he or she wrongfully thinks that these accusations are meant to discredit Christianity, but in fact they are meant to discredit only a particular very narrow-minded interpretation of Christianity. In the same way that the fight between science and religion isn’t actually “evolution versus Christianity” but “science acceptance versus Biblical literalism,” atrocity apologetics is actually a fight between morality and a particular kind of Biblical literalism. When even Christians themselves fight against atrocity apologetics–and make no mistake, a number of them do–you have to realize that the fight isn’t against Christianity itself but against one vile flavor of it (like that “wasabi” flavor I saw at one ice cream shop some years ago; I tried it and yikes, it was disgusting!).
As these saner Christians would quickly affirm, I’m sure, rejecting atrocity apologetics doesn’t entail a rejection of all of Christianity necessarily. It’s still important to point out these places where the Bible is very obviously not literally objectively factual, true, or morally superior to other worldviews, but I think it’s important to keep one’s eyes on the actual goal, which is to discredit Biblical literalism. We need to remember that it’s this literalism that leads to zealotry and the excessive overreach and privilege-defending chest-beating that marks modern fundagelical Christianity.
Between revisionism and outright adoption of the idea, slavery is part and parcel of Christian privilege at this point, an expression of racism and a most vile sort of unwarranted superiority. Slavery apologetics are not only a symptom of the disease permeating modern Christianity, but also a cause of it and a dark root of a sickly and blackened tree. But rejecting slavery apologetics means so many painful things for fundagelicals at this point, not the least of which is admitting that all their apologetics efforts were totally wrong and misinterpreted, mischaracterized, and sometimes even outright ignored the real data. It means moving past that sense of superiority and smug rightness; it means discarding childish things. It means apologizing to those they have wronged by defending such disgusting things as slavery. It means seeing the world in shades of grey rather than in the black-and-white, self-serving, and blatantly dishonest way that fundagelicals view the world.
It won’t be easy to disentangle from that mindset, I know. But Christians must, because with every passing day, with every new atrocity apologetics attempt, their religion repulses and alienates more people. Either way, to say it once again, I guess humanity wins: either they learn to stop doing something that is categorically outside their mission statement, or else their religion fails all the faster. Either way, it’ll be okay in the end if we just keep at it.
We’re going to talk next about one of the ways that Christians often try to silence dissenters, which is to denigrate or belittle our reasons for speaking out. Why do I blog? Why do I talk about the stuff I talk about? Why do I view speaking out as a moral imperative? I’ll tell you, next time. I hope you’ll join me.