- Kazim’s review of The Faith
- Chuck Colson’s post #1
- Chuck Colson’s post #2
- Chuck Colson’s post #3
- Kazim’s compiled responses (including this post)
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.