The Bible and slavery revisited

Wasn’t it just a few days ago I talked about the Bible’s views on slavery in relation to Adam Hamilton’s op-ed in the Washington Post?

In this blog post, Rachel Held Evans at least moves in the same direction as Hamilton, stopping just short of him (for now):

But I wonder about other things too—about homosexuality, for example—and I confess I spend some nights lying awake, watching the lights from passing cars make strange shapes on my walls, wondering if we’ve done it again, if we’ve marginalized another group of people because we believed the Bible told us to.

Now, to be clear, I’m NOT saying that slavery is the same as the gender debates or homosexuality. So please don’t hear that. Each situation is different, and each should be discussed and debated on their own terms. It’s not fair to the people involved to treat them all the same or to make an unqualified comparison.

But the impassioned, Bible-based rhetoric delivered by both the abolitionists and those who opposed them sure does sound familiar.

And that should give us pause.

Oh, dear.

Well, I finally added my two cents in her comments section. I feel like I’m speaking a different language from her legion of fans, but maybe it will make sense to someone:

Rachel, I apologize if this has already been covered (I didn’t read all 123 comments). I don’t care what antebellum preachers had to say on the subject. They were being unfaithful both to the Bible and Christian tradition. The Bible has a clear trajectory away from slavery (and female subordination), as is clear not merely when we look at larger themes of justice and love, but also when we look at many of the Bible’s direct words on the subject.

If Philemon, for instance, takes Paul’s words to heart and treats his runaway slave Onesimus as a fully equal brother in Christ, who is Lord of us all—and all other Christian slaveowners do the same—then the institution of slavery would be subverted from within. (The same logic applies even to the household codes of Ephesians and Colossians.) And this is exactly what happened, by the way: by the Middle Ages, slavery—this accepted fact of life for millennia—was illegal in the Christian West…

Yes, tragically, legal slavery reemerged with African slavery (which, like it or not, was substantially different from slavery of the Ancient Near East), but it wasn’t just liberal Christians who opposed it: it was evangelicals like, for instance, John Wesley and many others. They—along with most of the universal Church—simply didn’t struggle with the question. And they opposed slavery by standing firmly on biblical authority.

I know that you are a product (and victim?) of deep southern fundamentalism. (I purchased and read your latest book.) I feel like you’re always reacting against that. The truth is that this strain of Christianity represents a tiny blip in the history of Christian thought and biblical hermeneutics.

I agree with you that “biblical” is a problematic word (I prefer “Christian”), but I believe strongly that the Bible is clearer than you make it seem. And none of us ought to interpret it as if we aren’t standing on the shoulders of the saints who’ve gone before us.

6 thoughts on “The Bible and slavery revisited”

  1. Brent, what you say is good, but could even be stronger, I think. At least with slavery there could be (at best) some room for dispute, based on looking at some passages in isolation. But with homosexuality, there is no room for any debate–it is condemned unequivocally from beginning to end. So, despite those misguided forbears who may have taken the wrong side on scriptural interpretation when it comes to slavery, their error cannot be used as justification for abandoning scripture altogether, as those who say there is some “room for debate” on homosexuality are doing.

    1. I totally agree. Did you see my earlier post on the Hamilton piece? I think I make the same point as you do there: unlike with slavery, not only is there no “clear trajectory” toward acceptance of homosexual behavior, there is a trajectory in the opposite direction. Homosexuality and slavery are simply not the same biblical issue at all.

      My words to Rachel Evans are my attempt to head off that argument at the pass—not that she’ll likely see it or give it much attention. Like I said, I feel like I’m speaking a foreign language or something. I feel like saying, “Do you people not see what’s at stake in the casual way that you dismiss the authority of scripture?”

      1. Brent, I can relate to “not that she’ll … give it much attention.” That is the way I feel about some 90% of my arguments! But somehow I still keep feeling compelled to make them. Hope that is not some character flaw!

  2. Well, I don’t mind people disagreeing with me as long as they engage the actual argument that I’m making, you know? If I’m wrong about slavery not being the same type of issue as homosexuality, please show me where I’m wrong. Where is the flaw in the argument that I’ve put forth?

  3. Brent I am struck by how the guy who actually wrote the book on this 🙂 ( concluded that there was a hermeneutic trajectory with regards to women and slaves but not for homosexual behaviour. Do you think that these conversations going on in the American church are informed by engagement with scholarship or are they floating, blog-driven, journalistic contributions?

    1. “Engagement with scholarship”? What planet are you living on? 😉 To give the other side the maximum benefit of the doubt, these Christians desperately fear being on the “wrong side of history,” as much of the American church was on the issue of civil rights—and slavery before that. Their response is possibly a legacy of that.

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