Friday, February 26, 2016

Correcting the Bible on Slavery

Pointing to the Bible, Marco Rubio has said: "You'll find all the answers in that book."  That's his way of appealing to evangelical Christian voters who believe that a literal reading of the Bible as God's inerrant revelation does indeed give us all the answers.

This has been a powerful tradition in American political life--the belief of many American Christians that we can find the answers to all of our moral, political, scientific, and religious questions through a careful reading of the Bible.  In response to my arguments for "Darwinian natural right," for natural standards of right rooted in our evolved human nature, one of the most common objections has been that morality is impossible without the revelation of a divine moral law in the Bible.  Even some evolutionary theorists have provided some support for this by arguing that the cultural evolution of moral gods--such as the God of the Bible--beginning about 5,000 years ago made it possible for human beings to live in huge communities of people who cooperated with one another because they thought they were being watched by a moral God enforcing His moral law.

But sometimes the Bible does not give clear and indisputable answers to our great moral questions, and thus some moral debates cannot be resolved by the Bible.  The most dramatic example of that in American political history was the debate over slavery leading to the Civil War.  As Mark Noll indicates in his book, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, some Christians saw the Bible as proslavery, and others saw it as antislavery.  The text of the Bible was not clearly on one side or the other.  This became a great "theological crisis," because it meant that while Americans had always looked to the Bible as the inerrant moral authority, it failed to resolve the deepest moral and political controversy in American history, and thus the only way to answer the question of what the Bible taught about slavery was to go to war.  And in that war, as Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural, "Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other."

50 years ago, as a young man growing up in Texas, I struggled with this problem.  Like Rubio, I had been taught by my Southern Baptist ministers that all the answers were to be found in the Bible, and therefore that Baptists should carefully read the Bible.  It was recommended that by reading a few chapters of the Bible every day, starting with Genesis and ending with Revelation, one could read the entire Bible over a year.  I did that for five years.  But I was bothered by some of what I read, particularly the passages that seemed to accept slavery without any condemnation.  When I learned that the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, was founded in 1845 to defend slavery as sanctioned by the Bible against the antislavery arguments of the Northern Baptists, I was deeply troubled by this and by the refusal of American Baptists to confess that this had been a mistake.  Later, in 1995, at the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Convention finally passed a resolution apologizing for its mistake in interpreting the Bible in supporting slavery and racism.  But that resolution says nothing about the many verses in the Bible that speak about slavery as though it is acceptable.

In later years, I studied the American debate over the Bible's handling of slavery, which became part of my wider study of the Darwinian evolution of a moral sense condemning slavery.  Much of my thinking on this went into Chapter 7 of Darwinian Natural Right.  Now I am finally ready to draw some conclusions about the Biblical teaching on slavery.

I have come to two conclusions.  First, if one looks at the verses in the Bible that specifically mention slavery, one can see that slavery is accepted and never condemned as wrong.  Second, if one wants to correct this Biblical endorsement of slavery by finding a way to read the Bible as antislavery, then one must appeal to some general moral principles of Biblical teaching--such as the Golden Rule, for example--that conform to our natural moral sense for condemning slavery.

In the antebellum writing on the Bible and slavery, people recognized this point.  For example, James De Bow, writing on "Slavery and the Bible" for the September 1850 issue of De Bow's Review, explained:
"The anti-slavery party maintain, that the Bible teaches nothing directly upon the subject, but, that, in holding slaves, we are guilty of a moral wrong.  This mode of reasoning would be perfectly fair, if the Bible really taught nothing directly upon the subject of slavery: but when that book applies the principles it lays down to the particular subject in controversy, we must take the application to be correct.  We think we can show, that the Bible teaches clearly and conclusively that the holding of slaves is right; and if so, no deduction from general principles can make it wrong, if that book is true."
If one is looking for the verses that specifically mention slavery, the King James translation (favored by American Evangelicals) is confusing because the word "slave" appears only twice.  In Jeremiah 2:14, the word "slave" appears in the translation, although there is no Hebrew word for it in this verse.  In Revelation 18:13, "slave" translates the Greek word doulos, which really is the most common Greek word for "slave."  In all of the other Biblical verses that seem to refer to slaves, the King James translation most often uses the word "servant," and sometimes other words such as "manservant," "maidservant," "bondman," or "bondmaid." 

So some interpreters who wanted to deny that the Bible was endorsing slavery could argue that "servants" were not really "slaves," but rather hired servants.  But this is not a credible interpretation.  In the King James translation, the word "servant" appears in the Old Testament most often as a translation of the Hebrew word ebed, which denotes "bondage"; and in the New Testament, "servant" most often translates the Greek word doulos.  Moreover, the Bible distinguishes between "hired servants" and "bond servants," and the "bond servants" were those who had been bought with money and held as the property of the master (see, for example, Genesis 17:12, Leviticus 25:44-46, Exodus 21:20-21, 26-32).

There are places in the Bible where God or His angels have clear opportunities to condemn slavery as wrong, but instead of that, they sanction slavery as right.  One example is when Abraham allows Sarah to beat her bondwoman Hagar, and Hagar runs away.  Hagar meets an angel of the Lord.  Instead of helping her to escape, the angel tells her: "Return to thy mistress, and submit thyself under her hands" (Genesis 16:9).

Christians might think that even if the Old Testament supports slavery, then surely the New Testament condemns it as a violation of Christian love.  But it is startling that while Jesus overruled many of the regulations of the Old Testament--such as those allowing for polygamy and divorce--he never said anything against slavery.  Furthermore, Paul and Peter often tell slaves to obey their masters and not to run away.  Even when slaves are converted to Christianity, this gives Christian masters no reason to emancipate their Christian slaves. (See 1 Corinthians 7:21; Ephesians 6:5; Colossians 3:22, 4:1; 1 Timothy 6:1-2; 1 Peter 2:18).

Some abolitionists thought they have found a specific condemnation of slavery in the Old Testament's punishment of "man-stealing": "And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death" (Exodus 21:16).  Doesn't this mean that slave traders should be punished with death?  But a few lines later in this same passage, it is said: "And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.  Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money" (Exodus 21:20-21).  So it seems that holding a slave as property does not violate the rule against "man-stealing."  This must be so, because the Hebrews were permitted to hold slaves.

Although a reading of the Bible as antislavery cannot be based on specific Biblical condemnations of slavery as wrong, such a reading can, and has been, justified by appealing to some of the general moral principles of the Bible that are not specifically applied to slavery in the Bible.  The two most common principles employed here are the creation of Adam and Eve in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), which can be read as an affirmation of human equality, and the Golden Rule as stated by Jesus (Matthew 7:12), which can be read as suggesting that enslaving a human being is not treating that human being as one would wish to be treated.  People who say that slavery is good don't honestly believe that, because they never choose the good of it for themselves.  Lincoln and many others have cited this as a Biblical basis for recognizing slavery as wrong.

But as Fred Ross (in Slavery Ordained of God, 1857) and others have pointed out, it's not clear that these general moral principles must be interpreted as condemning slavery.  First, it's not clear that God's creation of human beings in His image means that they are all equal.  Here's the verse: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them" (Genesis 1:27).  Far from creating all men equal, Ross observed, God here created humanity as "male and female," so that they are not equal in body and mind.  God made the woman "out of the man" (Genesis 2:23); and He made "the man the image and glory of God, but the woman for the glory of the man.  For the man is not of the woman, but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman, but the woman for the man" (1 Corinthians 11:7-9); and he made the woman to be the weaker vessel (1 Peter 3:7).   Moreover, just as wives are to obey their husbands, and children to obey their parents, slaves are to obey their masters (Ephesians 5:22-24, 6:1-5).  Insofar as slaves are inferior in body and mind to their masters, the slaves are naturally better off being ruled by their masters.

Similarly, Ross argued, it's not clear that the Golden Rule requires equality in human social relationships.  If the Golden Rule means that we ought to do unto others as we would have them do unto us if we were in similar circumstances, then we can see that different circumstances justify differences in treatment.  We do not rightly treat children the way we treat adults, because we know that children depend on the care of adults.  Similarly, we do not rightly treat slaves the way we treat masters if slaves are naturally weaker in body and mind in ways that make them dependent on the care of their masters.

And yet both of these arguments fail if one denies Ross's assumption that some human beings are by nature so inferior in body and mind that they are like perpetual children dependent on the care of those superior to them.  Except for those few human beings who might be born so mentally disabled that they are better off being under the lifetime care of others, it's hard to imagine that any group of human beings would be naturally adapted for enslavement.  As members of the same evolved human species, we can recognize the equality of all human beings as possessing a common human nature.  Although human beings are naturally unequal in many respects, they are equal in those minimal emotional and intellectual capacities that sustain a moral sense and thus identify them as members of the human species.  All normal human beings will resist exploitation and demand social cooperation based on reciprocal exchange.  They will be enslaved only when they are held down by brute force.

If this is true, then we can apply the Bible's Golden Rule to condemn slavery as wrong, and thus correct those passages of the Bible that seem to support slavery.  Indeed, that is exactly what most Christians have done: they overlook those Biblical passages that specifically recognize slavery, and they stress the general principles of Biblical morality that show slavery to be unjust exploitation.  Those general principles appeal to our naturally evolved moral sense.  Charles Darwin saw this, in The Descent of Man, when explained how the evolution of the moral sense could lead to Jesus's statement of the Golden Rule as what "lies at the foundation of morality."

Before and during the Civil War, however, American Christians could not agree on this corrected interpretation of the Bible's teaching on slavery.  Answering the question of how to interpret the Bible required recourse to arms.  Or, as Noll said, "it was left to those consummate theologians, the Reverend Doctors Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, to decide what in fact the Bible actually meant" (50).

When I first read this remark by Noll about Grant and Sherman deciding what the Bible meant, it bothered me a lot.  But as I thought more about it, I began to see that there is a sense in which might really does make right.  Justice is enforced by the natural propensity of human beings to retaliate against oppression and meet force with force.  Slaves had many ways to resist their slavery, including violent resistance and running away.  Southerners were deeply fearful of slave insurrections.  One primary reason for Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was to recruit slaves into fighting in the Union army.  Harriet Beecher Stowe, in Uncle Tom's Cabin, seemed to teach through the example of Uncle Tom that Christian slaves should love their enemies and not fight back; but even she, especially in her novel Dred, seemed to concede that manly honor required violent resistance to oppression.

Some previous posts on this can be found here, here, here, here, here., here., here, here., here, and here.


John Barr said...

Good post Larry. I suspect that what you have written about here is even now not discussed enough.

Andy Schott said...

Perfect timing. We are discussing Douglass' The Meaning Of July 4th to the Negro.