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Kazim to Chuck Colson: Slavery and Christianity

References:

I’d like to turn back to your second message, and the question of slavery. I pointed out in my earlier post that, rather than taking it as a given that Christians have always been the natural opponents of slavery, you might acknowledge that the Bible has frequently been used in the past to justify slavery. As an example I brought up the 19th century Reverend Thornton Stringfellow, who wrote a persuasive sermon supporting slavery as a Biblical institution. Your response, in a nutshell, was this:

“There are 1.9 billion Christians in the world today. You cannot judge Jesus Christ by the behavior of any one of them or any group of them, for that matter.”

Well, of course you can’t. I agree: you can’t judge the value of a philosophy based solely on the behavior of its adherents. But if that is the case, then certainly the reverse is also true: You can’t judge Christianity positively based on the good actions of its followers. Yet you do this continually throughout The Faith: you bring up actions taken by historical Christians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and you present them as if they were some kind of demonstration that Christianity is a good philosophy.

Here’s my problem with that. Either you can judge Christianity by its followers, or you can’t. I admire Bonhoeffer for his bravery, but I don’t regard his actions as a justification for Christianity in their own right. I admire Martin Luther King, Jr. for his work with civil rights, but the respect I have for Dr. King does not require me to accept his faith as correct. It is not that I oppose your pride in members of your faith who exhibited strong dedication to benefitting their fellow man. What concerns me is that your pride in these people is used in your book, as it is in many apologetic works, to implicitly claim that Christianity confers some virtue that is not present in secular individuals like me.

However, if you can judge Christianity by the actions of Bonhoeffer and King, then it is fair game to also judge it by the actions of Reverend Thornton Stringfellow. Stringfellow strongly argued that the Old Testament was explicitly pro-slavery, and having read both the Bible and the speech, I feel like his arguments do have merit. Why don’t we just make an agreement that you cannot judge Jesus Christ by the behavior of his followers, good or bad? Likewise, why not agree that a person such as Joseph Stalin does not represent any kind of coherent atheistic philosophy, and refrain from saying (as you frequently do) that this is where atheism inevitably leads? I am an atheist, and I have no more interest in setting up political prisons or Gulags than you have in owning slaves.

You also write:

“I have made the argument in the book that the Christian church has opposed slavery from the beginning. In no way did I mean to imply that there haven’t been Christians who have been disobedient to the Scripture and the teachings of the church. There have been all through history. There are millions today who claim to be followers of Christ but who do not follow Christ’s commands. All of us, even the strongest believers, are under the effects of the Fall.”

While I would agree that you could not fault Christianity for a misapplication of the teachings in the Bible, we are not talking here about people who read clear injunctions against slavery and rebelled against them. We are talking precisely about what it says in the Bible that clearly supports slavery. For better or worse, Stringfellow seems to me to have been a sincere Christian who genuinely believed that he was acting in accordance with the clear commands of the Bible. The Bible said to hold slaves, and he preached that Christians should hold slaves.

“I also cannot justify the words of the Old Testament. It was a recognition by God to His covenant people of a practice that was wide-spread at that time in every culture, that His people would encounter. But it is in no way carried forward into the New Testament. My argument, remember, turns on the teachings of the Christian church and the New Testament.”

Of course. I have to say I appreciate your honest recognition of some ethical failings in the teachings of the Old Testament; I think it’s very forthright of you.

Yet, the Christian Bible contains both the Old and New Testaments, and Jesus says “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18) Throughout the New Testament, Jesus never explicitly says that slavery is forbidden; on the contrary, he gives further instructions on how to treat one’s slaves rather than taking the opportunity to abolish this practice.

On page 178 of The Faith, you do cite a verse on where Paul of Tarsus says “there is neither slave nor free” (Galatians 3:28) as an example of the New Testament’s opposition to slavery. I don’t see this as a very strong condemnation, however, considering that the same passage also says that there is neither male nor female. That would have interesting implications for our definition of marriage, don’t you think? ;) I find it hard to believe that Paul was literally saying there are no genders; only that a person’s identity in life ultimately doesn’t matter. That isn’t much of a case to free your slaves, any more than it is a case to get a sex change.

You also mentioned 1 Timothy 1:10 as condemning slave traders. It’s hard to be sure that this is what is meant by the context. The King James Version of the Bible says “menstealers,” which is somewhat ambiguous. The New American Standard and several other versions simply say “kidnappers.” Since many of the Old Testament passages regarding slavery indicate that slaves were either sold by their parents or captured as prisoners of war, this also doesn’t seem to work as a blanket condemnation of the practice.

It certainly is not my intent to argue over what is the correct Biblical interpretation. Clearly you have a more vested interest in that than I do; to me, the Bible is just a book with some good things, some bad things, and some ambiguous things in it. My point here isn’t that the pro-slavery interpretation is right or not; it’s just that the Bible on its own really can’t, and hasn’t been, the final arbiter of moral truth. Reading the Bible, it’s clear that reasonable people can disagree, and their interpretation of which meaning is best will likely be colored by their social background. I have no doubt that before the civil war, a relatively large number of people believed the Bible to be pro-slavery, while today relatively few do.

What this says to me is that morality has an undeniable cultural component, and this worldly influence can be a force for positive as well as negative. I don’t think you’re comfortable with this claim, but I think the whole slavery issue should make it fairly clear that this is true even if the Bible is treated as one possible source of moral values. I would venture to say that we as a society and as a culture are better off now, in terms of quality of life, than we would have been if we had stuck to the old Biblical traditions — both those that turned a blind eye to slavery, and those that explicitly endorsed it.

Comments

  1. says

    Excellent response Kazim. I am continually frustrated with people who use modern society’s moral values and try to tweak/match the bible’s message to the values held by our present communities. “Ahah! See, I told you the bible was right!”. I don’t know whether or not these people actually realize that their morality is coming from places other than the bible. The bible itself isn’t even clear on the position of slavery, as you can see a long list of arguments both for and against:http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/contra/slavery.htmlNow I certainly do not want to convince anyone that they should support slavery because the bible supports slavery in some passages. But I do want Christians to realize and acknowledge that the bible can be used to both support and reject slavery, and therefore can not be used as any sort of “absolute” source of morality. Morality comes from the evolution of our humanity and feelings of empathy for another. Anyone who argues that morals can only come from God or the bible are living a delusion.

  2. says

    Nice try with that bit of revisionist history, Colson. You may want to consider decoupling from your own exhaust pipe every now and then.

  3. says

    Why don’t we just make an agreement that you cannot judge Jesus Christ by the behavior of his followers, good or bad? Likewise, why not agree that a person such as Joseph Stalin does not represent any kind of coherent atheistic philosophy, and refrain from saying (as you frequently do) that this is where atheism inevitably leads?Well, if you’re gonna take away his double standard… Kazim, have you had feedback from Colson or his people, or any indication that he’s seeing these posts? If not, you may want to email links to the editors at Zondervan. He keeps a blog there, or writes articles for their blog, or something.Oh – and you can tell them I said they’re fuckwits.

  4. says

    We can set up a simple matrix:Believers who do good things.Believers who do bad things.Non-believers who do good things.Non-believers who do bad things.How is it fair for anyone–believers or non-believers–to focus exclusively on one quadrant?

  5. says

    Kazim,Of your responses to Chuck Colson so far, this one I favored most.Historically, there have been lots of astonishing quotes made by famous individuals in support of slavery in the name of Christianity. The detrimental impact such quotes have on Christianity is not so much that Christians made then, but that the Bible actually supports it.

  6. says

    @Tommy HollandAnd the great thing is you can simplify it even further!1. People who do good things2. People who do bad thingsI agree with what Matt D once said: it takes religion or something like religion to make good people do bad things.However, in the context we’re talking about, only the theists are interested in splitting people into believers and non-believers.

  7. says

    Cypher: Kazim, have you had feedback from Colson or his people, or any indication that he’s seeing these posts? If not, you may want to email links to the editors at Zondervan. He keeps a blog there, or writes articles for their blog, or something.No. I’m going to finish this entire series FIRST (I think one or two more posts). THEN I’m going compile them all in one big ordered list of links, THEN submit them to the Zondervan contact. In one big bundle.If you check back through the history of posts about Chuck, you’ll see me asking if I should do it that way, and the overwhelming consensus was “yes.”

  8. says

    @Angry AtheistI’m sure Matt said that sometime, but the original quote is:“Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion.”Steven Weinberg, Nobel Laureate in physicsAlthough, the statement itself might not be a good one to use since in religious debates, “good” and “evil” are kinda loaded terms.

  9. says

    @BenediktThanks for digging that out. I liked Matt’s though because he said “… or something like religion”. It allows some other ideals to be included.

  10. says

    Russell: great post, as usual. An often overlooked example of how the NT explicitly supports slavery comes from Philemon 1:1, which tells the tale of how Paul dutifully returns a fugitive slave to his master, Philemon.Here, Paul is putting into practice the doctrine he preaches in 1 Cor. 7:17-24 and Eph. 6:5-9, which is the Bible’s version of the Fugitive Slave Act.I would argue that this may be the single worst set of passages in the New Testament; not only does Christianity teach that slavery is okay, but it teaches that slaves who try to escape should be hunted down and returned to their masters. So the Underground Railroad was not only unbiblical, it was contrary to the express will of God.And Titus 2:9 affirms that slaves have a moral obligation to submit to their masters; i.e., that they should not try to escape.If Colson thinks it’s so obvious that the NT condemns slavery, why didn’t that thought occur to any single Christian in history for more than 1600 years? It wasn’t until Enlightenment thinkers came up with a secular condemnation for slavery that ethical Christians managed to retroactively concoct a religious justification for it as well. As always: reason came first.

  11. says

    As Andrew pointed out, I think you were, in fact, too even-handed. I mean, I suppose maybe when writing something that potentially tons of people will read who will be hostile to your position you might need to tone it down a bit, but I think you weren’t quite assertive enough. Andrew T. gave some very good examples of the Bible very heavily coming down on the pro-slavery side. Any of the anti-slavery stuff is all implied or ambiguous so the case really is very one-sided. I do hope he reads these and responds, though. I doubt, however, I’ll be able to suffer through his responses. I think I’m swearing off apologists for awhile. That Matt Slick stuff used up my stupidity quota.

  12. says

    Andrew T: If Colson thinks it’s so obvious that the NT condemns slavery, why didn’t that thought occur to any single Christian in history for more than 1600 years? It wasn’t until Enlightenment thinkers came up with a secular condemnation for slavery that ethical Christians managed to retroactively concoct a religious justification for it as well. As always: reason came first.Exactly. And mark my words, ladies and gentlemen: twenty years (perhaps an underestimate) hence, you will find the vast majority of moderate Christian types talking about how it was Jesus’s message of love and unity and shit that was a driving force in the fight for GLBT rights and equality, while the Prop 8 supporters and their ilk now, who seem to make up the vast majority of the loud Christians, will be repainted as a tiny minority who represented the few bad apples, while “real” Christians worked for equality, and so forth. Just like the Christians now whenever you bring up the religious history of slavery or miscegenation. And the kicker is that they’ll use the exact same passage that Colson’s using here–Galatians 3:28 (one of my few favorite bits, incidentally), “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus”–to claim that the Bible provides clear instructions for gender and sexual equality. My liberal nominally Christian college did precisely that in response to various homophobic incidents on campus several years ago, and I have a feeling that passage is going to get some severe traction in the coming years.

  13. says

    I'm a former fundamentalist, and when I read this:>I don't see this as a very strong condemnation, however, considering that the same passage also says that there is neither male nor female.I was very glad to see it. No Christian who has studied his Bible would misconstrue the verse under consideration here to mean that it was not OK to have a slave, any more than they would misconstrue the verse to mean we shouldn't have gender.The idea of the passage is that people "in Christ" are equal–not in external reality or practice, but that spiritually, we're all the same. It's not that there aren't external differences–it's that those differences don't matter to god. So, if I'm a Christian and a slave, god doesn't judge me any differently than a free man who is also a Christian.I'm stunned that an informed Christian would invoke a passage that has to be massaged in this way. And I can say that in all my years as a Christian, I never once heard anyone try to proclaim it was an instruction against slavery. The Christians I knew, I have to say, would have honestly interpreted this passage exactly as Kazim did. They would not have been so disingenuous as Colson. And realizing that Kazim was not raised in a Christian home–and is not familiar with the Bible in the same way a Christian apologist would be–I have to say that fact that it took him all of no seconds to see the problem with Colson's use of the verse speaks volumes.If Colson is that ignorant of the content and context of his Bible, he is grossly underqualified to be writing as a representative of Christianity. And if he is familiar with the content and context, and believes it–shame on him for his attempt to twist it so that he could use it to support his own agenda.

  14. says

    And realizing that Kazim was not raised in a Christian home–and is not familiar with the Bible in the same way a Christian apologist would be–I have to say that fact that it took him all of no seconds to see the problem with Colson’s use of the verse speaks volumes.Tracie,You flatten me with your weighty praise — I mean flatter. ;)However, to be completely honest, it did take me considerably more than no seconds. I got stuck for a little while when I was thinking about what to say about slavery, because all I saw in Chuck’s email #2 was his insistence that he had shown the New Testament to be anti-slavery. I think the Old Testament makes a very strong pro-slavery case, but the NT is a lot less clear. Anyway, I tend towards extreme caution when arguing about parts of the Bible that really are open to interpretation, and I didn’t want to get into an argument about “It says this” “Yes but it also says this” in the Big Book of Multiple Choice.I actually had to dig out Chuck’s book again to figure out exactly what quotes from the Bible he was using that I had skimmed the first time. THEN I had to look them up to guard against quote-mining.I admit I scratched my head for a while over the “no male or female” passage. Luckily, I may be a lifelong secular Jew, but I listen to a lot of apologetics, so it was easy for me to put my “Christian hat” on. Once I did that, it was obvious what the passage was supposed to be saying. I agree with you; I’d be surprised if “neither slave nor free” was commonly interpreted the way Colson does here. The only good reason to do that, I think, is if you are deliberately stretching to find anti-slavery passages, because there are precious few of them.In historical context, slavery was the norm, and I don’t see any particular reason to give the authors the benefit of the doubt in breaking that tradition. If they were opposed to slavery, it seems like they would have been a lot more forceful about it.They certainly didn’t shy away from condemning OTHER cultural practices that they opposed. Paul came right out and said it’s preferable for men not to get married or have sex at all — and you’re going to tell me he was too afraid of social backlash to throw in an afterword about not owning other humans?

  15. says

    I know this is an old post, but I just wanted to add something.Tom Foss Said“twenty years (perhaps an underestimate) hence, you will find the vast majority of moderate Christian types talking about how it was Jesus’s message of love and unity and shit that was a driving force in the fight for GLBT rights and equality”And it’s systematic. 1. In a country whose population predominantly Christian, social change is impossible without the support of some Christians. 2. These people inevitably make everything about religionSo, an idea cannot possibly become a social movement until Christians jump on the bandwagon and take credit. It is a little infuriating, because religion is so much about fighting to cling to the barbaric ways of the past, and then taking credit for the progress that your predecessors fought so hard to prevent.

  16. says

    It is a little infuriating, because religion is so much about fighting to cling to the barbaric ways of the past, and then taking credit for the progress that your predecessors fought so hard to prevent.This is a very good point. Blame Christianity for the Dark Ages, Christians will claim they were responsible for the scientific achievements of the Enlightenment. I’m tired of it.

  17. says

    Why don’t we just make an agreement that you cannot judge Jesus Christ by the behavior of his followers, good or bad? Likewise, why not agree that a person such as Joseph Stalin does not represent any kind of coherent atheistic philosophy, and refrain from saying (as you frequently do) that this is where atheism inevitably leads?Firstly, concerning the above issue, I would like to suggest the following. Followers of Christ who honestly follow is teachings, and see great reward, do confirm Christ's teaching, and as an extension of such, Christ himself. Think about it, Christ's teachings are his, and as such are forever joined to him. He and his teachings are inseparable. Such as Darwin's writings are inseparable from him. His teaching came from him and are part of Darwin. Follow? If his followers obey his teaching, they are therefore joined with Christ through obeying him. However, believers who disobey his teachings disassociate themselves from Christ. Jesus Christ cannot be judged by the behavior of those who disobey his teachings, because they have willfully separated themselves from him. On the contrary, believers who follow his teachings attest to his goodness and love. They have joined themselves to Christ, and therefore can be a witness unto him. BUT, I would like to remind readers that Christians believe that all of humanity became evil from the sin of Adam and Eve. Therefore, sin has ravaged the earth and all who are in it, as my professor likes to say, "We are torn up from the floor up." Humans screw up- OBVIOUSLY. if you haven't noticed the fact, I implore you to look around this world. No one can deny we are messed up people. But Christians believe Christ came to die on the cross and be raised from the dead in order that he might save people from their evil. That is the Christian gospel. What I wish to remind the readers is that Christians make mistakes. We screw up. We often misrepresent Christ. And for that I apologize. But Christ didn't come to save perfect people. The healthy do not need a doctor do they? Only the sick need a doctor, and only the imperfect need a savior.

  18. says

    Secondly, on the discussion of Old Testament Slavery, I believe a mistake has been made. You are mixing up modern slavery (think of the Atlantic slave trade) with Old Testament slavery. In the original Old Testament language, Hebrew, the word (which is now translated as slavery) is ebed. Ebed has a much broader meaning than the English word, Slavery. Ebed is often more accurately translated as servant or hired worker. Kazim, the Old Testament contains many more commandments regarding "slavery" than the single command you mentioned. In the Bible, Hebrews are forbidden to injure or kill slaves (Exodus 21:20, 26-27), force a slave to work on the Sabbath (Exodus 23:12), return an escaped slave (Deuteronomy 23:15), or to slander a slave (Proverbs 30:10). It is common for a person to voluntarily sell oneself into slavery for a fixed period of time either to pay off debts or to get food and shelter. (Leviticus 25:35) It was seen as legitimate to enslave captives obtained through warfare (Deuteronomy 20:10-16), but not through kidnapping(Deuteronomy 24:7, Exodus 20:10-16) for the purpose of enslaving them (this law completely separates OT slavery from the Atlantic slave trade, making them incomparable). The Bible does set minimum rules for the conditions under which slaves were to be kept. Slaves were to be treated as part of an extended family (Deuteronomy 16:14)(which is a marked improvement from the Atlantic slave trade); they were allowed to celebrate the Sukkot festival(Deuteronomy 16:14), and expected to honor Shabbat (Exodus 20:10). Israelite slaves could not to be compelled to work with rigor(Leviticus 25:43 Leviticus 25:53), and debtors who sold themselves as slaves to their creditors had to be treated the same as a hired servant (Leviticus 25:39). If a master harmed a slave in one of the ways covered by the lex talionis, the slave was to be compensated by manumission (Exodus 21:26-27) ; if the slave died within 24 to 48 hours, it was to be avenged (Exodus 21:20-21).Old Testament Slavery clearly cannot be compared to the Atlantic Slave trade, and therefore, the OT cannot be used as evidence that God does or does not support modern slavery.

  19. says

    Hi Alex, sorry that it has taken me a while to get back to you.Followers of Christ who honestly follow is teachings, and see great reward, do confirm Christ's teaching, and as an extension of such, Christ himself. Think about it, Christ's teachings are his, and as such are forever joined to him. He and his teachings are inseparable.That would be easier to believe if there were universal agreement about what Christ's teachings actually were. The existence of around 38,000 individual sects, factions, and splinter groups speaks otherwise. Jesus hasn't actually shown up to clarify the words that were attributed to him two millennia ago, and so all we have to go on is human interpretation — 38,000 versions of it. Among those groups, there historically have been people like Reverend Stringfellow, whose beliefs are diametrically opposed to your own on minor issues like slavery.Such as Darwin's writings are inseparable from him. His teaching came from him and are part of Darwin.If you believe that then I have to say that your understanding of the scientific process is pretty superficial. Modern understanding of evolution owes a lot to Darwin's writings, but it has moved on far beyond anything he described, and much of how he described the concepts have turned out to be wrong or incomplete. Science is based on ideas that can be independently verified by anyone, and are not tied in any way to whichever person put forth the first proposal of the idea. Thus, Darwin's opinions are of historical interest, but not "gospel" in the sense that you are describing your perspective on Christ's words.Follow? If his followers obey his teaching, they are therefore joined with Christ through obeying him. However, believers who disobey his teachings disassociate themselves from Christ. Jesus Christ cannot be judged by the behavior of those who disobey his teachings, because they have willfully separated themselves from him. On the contrary, believers who follow his teachings attest to his goodness and love. They have joined themselves to Christ, and therefore can be a witness unto him.So was Thornton Stringfellow a follower of Christ, or wasn't he? And how do you know for certain? Maybe he was a true Christian and you are not, because your understanding of what Christ really meant is less correct than his.That's the problem with trying to base your knowledge exclusively on an interpretation what a particular dead guy really meant.BUT, I would like to remind readers that Christians believe that all of humanity became evil from the sin of Adam and Eve. Therefore, sin has ravaged the earth and all who are in it, as my professor likes to say, "We are torn up from the floor up." Humans screw up- OBVIOUSLY. if you haven't noticed the fact, I implore you to look around this world. No one can deny we are messed up people. But Christians believe Christ came to die on the cross and be raised from the dead in order that he might save people from their evil. That is the Christian gospel. What I wish to remind the readers is that Christians make mistakes. We screw up. We often misrepresent Christ. And for that I apologize. But Christ didn't come to save perfect people. The healthy do not need a doctor do they? Only the sick need a doctor, and only the imperfect need a savior.That's fine and all, but it doesn't answer the basic questions at play here:1. What evidence do we have that Christ's teachings are a reliable guide to the "best" morality?2. Given 38,000 conflicting interpretations of what he actually meant to say, how can we judge which one is correct, other than by applying human reasoning?

  20. says

    Hello Alex, sorry it took me a while to get back to you.Secondly, on the discussion of Old Testament Slavery, I believe a mistake has been made. You are mixing up modern slavery (think of the Atlantic slave trade) with Old Testament slavery.I hear that all the time, but you're wrong; I'm not. I haven't said anything about the Atlantic slave trade. All I am addressing is the questions of whether it is morally acceptable for human beings to own other human beings. My opinion is that it is not, and your opinion is clearly that it is. I reserve the right to think that you're wrong.In the original Old Testament language, Hebrew, the word (which is now translated as slavery) is ebed. Ebed has a much broader meaning than the English word, Slavery. Ebed is often more accurately translated as servant or hired worker.Evidently you mean that it is a servant or worker whom it is okay to brand with a hole in his ear (Exodus 21:6), to beat as hard as you wish as long as the worker doesn't die (Exodus 21:20-21), and to hold his wife captive as a lure to keep him in your service (Exodus 21:3-6).That sounds awesome.Kazim, the Old Testament contains many more commandments regarding "slavery" than the single command you mentioned.[Specific verses snipped]Okay. So the Bible sets limitations on just how cruel you can be to your slaves. The Bible also sets limitations on how you can treat your livestock. Now, is it morally right to own another human being?Old Testament Slavery clearly cannot be compared to the Atlantic Slave trade, and therefore, the OT cannot be used as evidence that God does or does not support modern slavery.That's fine and all, but what I really want to know is: would you support a proposal to bring back "Biblical slavery" in modern times, beatings and all? Why or why not?

Trackbacks

  1. […] Did Christians campaign for civil rights? Yes, of course… and plenty of Christians used their interpretation of the Bible to fight against civil rights. The Ku Klux Klan was itself a Christian organization. It is explicitly a Protestant organization, and the burning cross is a deliberate invocation of Christianity. Earlier still, many Christian demagogues opposed the abolition of slavery, citing Biblical principles, as I explained at great length in this post. […]

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