Was Christianity Wrong About Slavery?

Wouldn’t it be nice to outlaw Winter?

Personally, I prefer Winter to Summer, but I know that a lot of people prefer otherwise, and even more are tired of Winter after the Winter we’ve been having.  Unfortunately, outlawing Winter makes little sense.  It’s a feature of the world; we can’t change it.

This is roughly the challenge faced by Christianity with regards to slavery in the ancient world.  It made no sense to talk about abolition; slavery was a feature of the world, perhaps an inevitable feature of it.  They could no more intelligibly talk about outlawing it than we can intelligibly talk about outlawing Winter, or gravity, or breathing.  (They could have talked about it, but they would simply have seemed like madmen.  Would you listen to someone on the street loudly protesting against gravity?)

But they could subvert it.  They could change the assumptions involved.  They could change the relationships involved.  This they did.  In the Bible already we have talk of slaves having human value, of being equals and brothers.  The basic Christian beliefs, applied to slavery, undermine it.  People complain that the Bible doesn’t more clearly say that slavery should be outlawed, but at the time that would have been gibberish.

They said what they could though, and an interesting thing happened.  Because Christians had changed the discussion, because they had subverted slavery by changing the assumptions involved, slavery increasingly became something it made sense to challenge.  It stopped seeming like an inevitable feature of any society, and became something that society could and should abandon.

Within a few hundred years, slavery went from a fact of life to a moral evil.  Christians were the ones who effected that change, and then they opposed that moral evil until slavery in the Christian world was nearly eradicated.  It was a long and hard process, and not a perfect one, but from the beginning Christianity was on one side of the process, and the world was on the other.  Christianity wasn’t wrong about slavery, the Church wasn’t wrong about slavery, the world just dragged its feet.

Then another interesting thing happened, although this time it’s “interesting” in a tragic way.  As the world limped toward the modern period and an increasing number of people abandoned even a token affiliation with Christianity, slavery returned.  It had continued in non-Christian parts of the world the whole time, and without having Christian commitments to stop it, some folk even in the Christian world began to embrace it again.

They decided to reverse the process; they changed the assumptions in the discussion again.  It became a matter of economics, or practicality, of expedience.  Certain people were declared to be less valuable, less important, less worthy of respect.  Eventually, entire races of humanity were declared to be less than human.

Now among these folks and in the culture that followed, there were certainly many people who used the Bible as a defense.  When one wants to do something one knows is wrong, one tries to justify oneself.  If one’s primary authority is religious, one tries to justify oneself religiously.  Christians twisted scripture to defend the worldly evil in which they wanted to engage.  That happened, and it was rampant.  Slavery spread, and large numbers Christians participated, frequently with enthusiasm.

They participated though not because they were Christian, but because they were worldly.  Their beliefs only supported them to the extent that it they had been twisted and perverted from the Christianity that had been handed down to them.  That is to say, their religion supported slavery only to the extent that it stopped being faithful Christianity.

Of course, thankfully that isn’t the end of the story.  A group arose to challenge slavery again, to oppose it again as an evil worthy of eradication.  That group shouldn’t surprise anyone:  Christians.  Those Christians who were faithful to the Bible and the Church again recognized slavery as a moral evil, and again opposed it.  It was a long and hard process, and again not a perfect one, but it was again Christianity against the world.

So was the Church wrong about slavery?  Was Christianity wrong about slavery?  No.  Christians were wrong yes, but only because for a while in history they were very worldly about the subject.  Christianity and the Church opposed those Christians too, precisely because they were worldly.  The world was wrong about slavery, and when Christians became complicit, they were wrong too.

What does all this mean?  Well, it’s pretty common nowadays to hear people argue something like this:  “Christianity was wrong about slavery, and only slowly recognized that slavery was wrong, so maybe Christianity is wrong about [whatever] too.”  This shows a complete misunderstanding of history though.

Usually it shows an ignorance of history; the people who say it don’t look further back than a few hundred years.  They see Christians a few hundred years ago using the Bible to defend slavery and they assume that Christianity was in favor of slavery for the entirety of its history up through a few hundred years ago.  Then they assume that opposition to slavery was something that developed recently in history as new progressive understandings influenced stale archaic doctrine.

They only see the end of the story, and so completely misunderstand it.  Opposition to slavery in recent centuries was actually the triumph of ancient doctrine over the “new progressive understandings” which Christians had fallen into.

In fact, the Christians who were wrong about slavery were the one’s who submitted to the world and learned from it, not the ones who refused to learn such wisdom as the world offered.  They were wrong because they twisted the Bible to justify what the world wanted, rather than resisting the world when the world wanted evil.

So if you want to learn from history, if you want to look at the Christian relationship to slavery and use that as guidance in how to interact with the many social issues of the world today, here is the lesson:  the world will want evil, and it will be very persuasive in justifying it, so that even Christians will be tempted to it.  They will be tempted to twist and contort their beliefs to justify what Christianity has always opposed.

This isn’t development or growth though, it’s error.

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Christ, the Professor

Christianity is the world’s teacher, not its student.  The world has nothing for us but lies or distortions, which are ignorance and death.  Oddly, as objectionable as it might seem to claim that one group in history holds the truth, or was given the truth, or distributed the truth, even about the rest of the groups, it’s not particularly difficult to show historically.

Christ, through his Church, transformed the world.  There were things toward which humanity and cultures and civilizations tended naturally.  Then there was a long process whereby those natural inclinations were countered, and eventually changed.  So much of humanity, culture, and civilization today is entirely unnatural.  It would never have occurred naturally.  And most of us prefer it to the alternative.  (Although we sometimes are mistaken about history and therefore assume either that there is no difference, or that the alternative is better than it was.)

The most obvious example is human rights.  If you like living in a world with human rights, you have Christ to thank.  No purely natural society in the history of the world ever imagined anything like the claim that all human beings have value, just by virtue of being human beings.  But Christ said they did, and Christians labored for centuries in the long (and often perilous) process of changing one of the natural world’s primary assumptions.  And rather contrary to what might be expected, they largely succeeded.  Now we tend to assume that it’s perfectly natural to imagine that people have some sort of intrinsic value.  It is most certainly not natural; we have been taught.

And of course the Church did not stop there.  It was the Church that taught the world that foreigners, strangers, slaves, and women were all human too, and thus were all immeasurably valuable in some sort of ontological sense, not just an expedient, social, or economic sense.  If you like living in a world with civil rights, you have Christ to thank.  No natural society ever imagined anything with which you would be at all comfortable.

And the Church did not stop there.  It was the Church that taught the world that war was evil, not just inconvenient.  The entire concept that war was almost always wrong and was only grudgingly excusable in certain extreme circumstances, that concept was taught to the world by Christians.   The natural societies before Christ fought each other as a matter of course.  It’s no surprise that the world before Christ was populated by empires rising and falling: conquest was the norm.  Nobody questioned it.  It’s also no surprise that nations couldn’t develop until after Christ.  He needed to teach the world that peace arose not from mutual counterbalancing strength, but from mutual respect.

In fact, if you like the idea of respecting people who are different from you, you have Christ to thank.  (People will sometimes talk about the Roman Empire as being a diverse and tolerant place, but not generally people who have studied the Roman Empire.)

I could go on, but I’m out of time.  Here is one last point though.  The world, having largely rejected the Church, is intent also on unlearning the lessons Christ came to teach the world.  The world we find if we forget our tutelage will not be one we like.  I suspect that eventually we will look around ourselves and realize that we made a mistake, and we will return to our teacher.  It would likely be better for us not to leave in the first place.

Also, Christians need to be very careful about assuming that worldly cultural developments need to be applied to the Church.  Naturally the world will attempt to twist and abandon the hard lessons that Christ came to teach, and it will do this in such a way as to seem wise itself.  (Rather like the way teenagers will argue against the good advice of their parents.)  But the world cannot instruct the Church on truth or goodness, it never could and never will.  Christians ought to be examples to the world, not learn from it.

Why Ask Why

If you’re not going to investigate why things are as they are–and I don’t mean to criticize those who don’t if they’re doing other better things–you have a responsibility (at least for your own sake) to vet carefully whichever authority you let ask that question for you.  For sure, by not asking it yourself, you do not make it go away.  Somebody asks it, and somebody answers it, and the answer they give will affect you.  The Why questions are the most important ones.

Here’s a obvious example.  Lets say that you’ve been raised always to tell the truth and also to be charitable in pursuit of other people’s happiness.  You may not ask why you should do those things, but other people have, and their answers influenced how the two values were instilled.  Then you come to a moment when the two conflict: a truthful answer will hurt someone’s feelings.  You may not reason it through at the time, but which value you choose to follow is determined by the answers you’ve been given to these questions:  Why should you tell the truth?  Why should you try to make other people happy?

If you think you should tell the truth because lying is inconvenient (for you who must remember it) and rude (to whomever you deceive), you might be inclined to do it if something more inconvenient or ruder comes along.  If you think you should tell the truth because it’s impossible to predict outcomes with enough certainty to judge whether a lie is worthwhile, you might stubbornly refuse to lie even if you encounter a serious challenge.  If you believe that you should tell the truth because the truth is somehow holy and lying offends God, you may not recognize the situation as a challenge at all.

The Why questions you may never have considered have a staggering effect on how you choose to live your everyday life.   Do you cheat on your taxes?  Do you have an affair?  Do you move in with your boyfriend/girlfriend?  Do you gossip about your neighbor?  Do you avoid the homeless man on the street?  Do you tweet about the Kardashians?  (My 15 year old word processor insists that should be Carpathians.  Does anyone tweet about the Carpathians?)  All of these things are significantly (maybe predominantly) influenced by your basic understanding of why the world is how it is and why humans do what they do.

To put things simply, people who believe that the world was created by God, that humans were created by God, behave differently than those who believe that both the world and humanity are simply the results of an arbitrary, irrational, accidental system.

The results can sometimes be uncomfortable, especially in matters of ethics.

The naturalist answer is that these things are culturally developed, the natural combination of circumstance and psychology, and as such they have no de jure authority.  They’re a sort of cultural prejudice with de facto authority by virtue of the members of the culture outnumbering any individual dissenter.  If our current culture has developed (by the same method) values which differ from those of precious cultures, importing the values of the former culture into the current would be a sort of cultural imperialism, the past conquering the present, which it clearly has no right to do.

This can feel liberating when we’re told that we can reject “archaic” restrictions on enjoyable or personal things.  But no one wants to argue that certain cultures, which approve the murder of non-members, have as much authority as our own culture which discourages murder.  If our ethics are cultural products though, they only apply to participants of the authorizing culture.  The answers given to the Why questions about ethics don’t seem to let us do what we would want to do, which is to object to obviously objectionable things like genocide.

The best available response to this difficulty is that some ethics are evolutionarily advantageous.  Thus, since evolution applies equally we have a standard that supersedes culture.  Unfortunately, valuing what is evolutionarily advantageous is itself a cultural value, and again not one we generally want to apply.  (It’s cliché to talk about Nazis, but it’s also obvious that they were pursuing what was deemed to be evolutionarily advantageous.  We all rightly find this horrible, but there is simply no naturalistic reason why we should assume that our horror shouldn’t be ignored.)

(Also this evolutionary assumption is factually inaccurate.  The bulk of the values we have, ones which we don’t want to abolish, were not only developed in opposition to cultural assumptions, but in opposition to what occurred naturally for human beings.  Any study of history can show this.  Things like charity and human rights were taught to humanity, which has always eagerly pursued the opposites.)

So, while I suspect most of us are not going to spontaneously start a new genocide, we are nevertheless, more each day, accepting answers to the Why questions which would support us if we tried.  Mostly we accept those answers because they remove from us to responsibility of being anything other than what we most easily want.  Unfortunately, we pave the way for those who easily want horrible things.  (And I would say we make it easier to want horrible things ourselves.)