Saturday, March 5, 2011

Does the Bible Condone Slavery?

Everyone knows the Bible condones slavery, right? The passages that tell slaves to obey their masters and the lack of a call for slavery's abolition are all the proof any reasonable person needs that the Bible is a work of fiction or worse and those who take it at face value are enemies of all that's good. Furthermore, our advanced society doesn't tolerate slavery in any form.

I disagree on both counts.

I would like to argue that the Bible doesn't as much condone slavery as assume that slavery is an unavoidable condition. But even if it were avoidable, by any definition slavery, even if not so called, is alive and well in the US today.

I find no clearer definition of slavery than the Bible's: "A man is a slave to whatever has mastered him" (2 Pet 2:19). Even a man legally "free" can be a slave to such cruel masters as drugs, money, bad habits, or temper; in short, selfish desires. Or one can be a slave of a good master: the apostle Paul opened many of his epistles by calling himself a slave of Christ (e.g., Rom 1:1; 1 Cor 1:1), one who had a job to do (1 Cor 9:16) with love, concern, and self-denial (1 Thes 2:7; 2 Cor 11:27). So there is no option to not be a slave; you are a slave to whatever makes you do what you do. The only question is to whom or what you are enslaved.

The first slaves mentioned in the Bible were slaves of King Abimelek of Philistia (Gen 20:14). We know nothing about them except that they were given to Abraham as compensation for Abimelek's abduction of Abraham's wife. We can assume that they or their forebears were taken captive in some form of war and treated harshly as slaves: we have no reason to believe that a man who would abduct a sojourner's wife would have been a gentle master. So we can assume that their transfer to Abraham's (extended) family was a form of liberation, a shadow of the greater worldwide liberation to be accomplished by the Messiah, Abraham's greater son.

Did Abraham treat his slaves well? God told Abraham to live a blameless life (Gen 17:1), and one's love for God is shown at least in part by one's work for others' benefit (1 John 4:20). So one would infer that he did, at least in general.

But we know of one occasion when he didn't, when he impregnated a slave named Hagar. He was certainly an old man at that point, and the implication is that she was young, but nothing in the record rules out the possibility that she was favorable to having her status improved by bearing her sheik's firstborn. Indeed, once a mother, she considered her position enviable and secure enough that she could ridicule Abraham's barren wife (Gen 16:4).

But let's assume the worst: he essentially raped a helpless young girl. Does the biblical record chuckle at this? Look at Abraham's later life: he is alienated from his wife (Gen 16:5), he eventually has to send that firstborn son, whom he loves dearly, away (Gen 17:18; 21:11), and Ishmael's descendants were ants in the pants of Abraham's other son Isaac's descendants throughout the Old Testament (and are to this day). This is hardly an endorsement of Abraham's action.

So much for an anecdote. How does biblical law deal with slavery?

The first laws about slaves concern not abductees but debt slaves (Ex 21:1-6, 16). Slaves were to be bought, not captured (except in defensive wars); in fact, when the Bible speaks about the abduction that was the basis of the slave system most people think of when they hear the word slavery, it makes it a capital crime (Ex 21:16). The most coercive circumstances I can find under which people were to be enslaved is if they were guilty of theft or negligence and they were unable to compensate their victims (Ex 22:1).

Violent or irresponsible people need to be restrained somehow. The Bible nowhere prescribes prisons (which are certainly an example of a master-slave relationship), but it does prescribe what we recognize as slavery as a way for violent people to recompense those they have violated and learn habits that will enable them to fit back into society. It is only in this sense that the Bible indeed condones slavery, but this is not what most people mean when they say that the Bible condones slavery.

How are masters to treat their slaves? "Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven" (Col 4:1). That is, they are to love their neighbors as themselves (Le 19:18), something no one who sells his slave's family down the river can claim to be doing.

But wouldn't love for a neighbor demand that a master free his slaves?

I say earlier that a person is always enslaved to something. If this is so, setting a slave "free" may not be the best thing for that slave. The black spiritual "Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child" dates from Reconstruction, after the slaves had been "freed," not from the period of slavery; its message is simple: some people considered themselves worse off under Reconstruction than they had been under slavery. The Bible understands that what is called freedom is not always such in fact, and it makes provision for slaves—not, be it noted, their masters—to make their enslavement permanent (Ex 21:6).

So people can be slaves without being such legally, and some people's best option is to be legally enslaved. Again, the Bible is right to say that slavery is not a matter of legal standing but an inescapable condition.

Now we take up the question of slavery in today's society. Supposedly Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves almost 150 years ago, but by the biblical definition of slavery, he did no such thing. (Nor did he do so according to the usual definition: the Emancipation Proclamation applied only to the slaves in those states that had rebelled; the slaves in the states still in the Union were slaves until after the war ended and they were freed by a separate law.)

But surely legal slavery has been abolished? Wrong again. A legal slave is one to whom the law gives the legal right to the fruits of his labor and his personal decisions to another. I have already mentioned parenthetically that our present prison system is slavery.

But by that definition even Lincoln himself was a slave master. What is it but enslavement for him to force his subjects to become soldiers, to face possible death from enemy fire or certain death from "their side's" firing squad, or a jail sentence? Or to force them to accept devalued currency at face value as "legal tender"? Or to destroy the facilities of newspapers in the Union and jail the editors?

And his legacy continues today. What is the expropriation of the fruits of people's labor inherent in taxation and forced participation in medical and retirement schemes if not slavery? What is the war on drugs and nutritional supplements and "non-foods" and the jailing and fining of those who violate government editcs if not slavery? Or "rendition," "enhanced interrogation," or even "detainment"?

We may not have "slavery," but we do have slavery.

The Bible considers us rebels against a God who loves us, wants the best for us, and has sacrificed what he loves most to reestablish a relationship with us (e.g., Is 53:6; Rom 3:11-12; John 3:16). We can expect rebels to be repulsed by their lord's words, and indeed the Bible when correctly understood is hard enough for every Christian I know to swallow without choking on, so I can understand why people disdain and ridicule it. But I would hope that a dose of the truth would defuse some of that disdain and ridicule.

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