Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Race, slavery, and the Bible

Over the years, religion has been used to justify slavery and segregation as well as racial reconciliation. Pastors and congregations have used Bible verses to support arguments on both sides of the racial and political spectrums. What does the Bible really tell us?

Slavery has probably existed almost as long as human societies have. The earliest mention of slavery in the Bible is in Genesis 9:25 in which Noah curses Canaan, the son of Ham and grandson of Noah, to live in slavery because Ham ridiculed Noah while he was drunk in the days after the Great Flood. By the end of Genesis, the entire Hebrew clan was enslaved in Egypt. The Bible repeatedly reminds the Jews that they were rescued from slavery by God (Exodus 2:23, 6:6, 20:2, Leviticus 26:13, Deuteronomy 5:6, 5:15, 16:12).

Slavery was not condemned by the Bible, but, beginning with Moses, God set down rules for the treatment of slaves. An early rule regarding slaves is found in Exodus 20:21 which stipulates that a slave owner must be punished if a slave dies after being beaten. Beating slaves was not forbidden in itself.

Slavery as we know it, based on race, was forbidden [1]. Slaves were typically taken as captives in wars, or in some cases sold themselves into slavery to pay their debts or provide for themselves. The Bible did forbid the type of slavery in which slavers raided African villages and sold the inhabitants into slavery. In Exodus 21:16, God, through Moses, forbade the kidnapping of people to sell into slavery.

The law books of the Bible also address the treatment of slaves. Leviticus 19:20 regulates sexual relations with slaves. Leviticus 22:11 concerns the possession of slaves by priests. Leviticus 25:42-44 forbids the sale of fellow Hebrews as slaves and stipulates that Jews had to buy slaves from the surrounding gentile nations. In Deuteronomy 15:12-15, the Bible specifies that if a Jew sells himself into slavery, he must be offered freedom after six years. If he elects to go free, the owner had to supply him with food and livestock.

The New Testament also addresses slavery. The book of Philemon is a letter from Paul to the owner of an escaped slave, Onesimus. Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon, asking that he be treated not as a slave, but as a brother (v. 16). Similarly, in Ephesians 6:9, Paul instructed slave owners not to threaten or harm their slaves, since both slave and master had the same Master in Heaven. A similar statement in Colossians 4:1, instructs slave owners to give to their slaves what is “right and fair.”

Paul did provide a condemnation of the slave trade, if not slavery itself. In 1 Timothy 1:8-10, Paul listed slave traders in a list of sinners and lawbreakers, along with murders, adulterers, perverts, liars, and perjurers.

To this point, the Bible has condemned the slave trade and instructed slave owners to treat their slaves humanely and fairly. Paul went a step further, however. In several passages, Paul implicitly states that slaves and owners, as well as Jews and gentiles, are equal in the eyes of God. 1 Corinthians 12:13 says that both slaves and freemen have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. Deuteronomy 32:36, Revelation 13:16, and Revelation 19:18 all point to the fact that God judges free and slave equally.

In case there is any doubt, Paul goes even further. He states what for his time must have been a radical thought. In both Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11, Paul states explicitly that there is no slave or free. Paul also points out that Jews and Greeks are equal as well, a notion that the leaders of God’s Chosen People would not have liked. In God’s eyes, all people are equal. None are superior and none are inferior. In God’s eyes all people are sinners and are in need of the freedom from sin that Jesus offers (2 Peter 2:19).

These statements provide the basis for the eventual abolition of slavery. Even though some nominal Christians taught that blacks were inferior descendents of Ham, there is no basis for this. To the contrary, a close reading of the Bible shows just the opposite: that people should be treated as equal, regardless of race, creed, color, or nationality.

It would take hundreds of years, but Paul’s words would finally give birth to movement for the abolition of slavery. The abolition movement began in colonial America [2]. The first resisters to slavery were members of the Society of Friends, a Christian sect also known as Quakers. After the American Revolution, many free whites began to equate the plight of slaves with that of the former colonists.

The ratification of the US Constitution in 1788 set the stage for the eventual abolition of slavery. The constitution gave the federal government the power to ban the importation of slaves in 1808, which it did. The 3/5 compromise, contrary to claims that it valued slaves and only 3/5 of a person, limited the political power of the slave states. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 also made slavery illegal in the Northwest Territory [3]. During this period, Northern states began to enact state laws banning slavery.

Probably no man was as instrumental in the abolition of western slavery as William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was a Christian and a prominent member of the British parliament who, influenced by slave trader turned evangelist John Newton, began a campaign to end the slave trade in 1798. The campaign resulted in the end of the British slave trade in 1807 and the end of all slavery in England in 1833 [4].

American abolitionists too, were often inspired by their religious beliefs. Frederick Douglass, a former slave, framed his arguments against slavery in religious terms, pointing out the hypocrisy of Christians owning slaves [5]. Sojourner Truth, a former slave born in New York, used the Bible to effectively argue for both women’s rights and the abolition of slavery [6]. Many other abolitionists opposed slavery on moral grounds derived from a Christian worldview. Many put their beliefs into practice as conductors or station keepers on the Underground Railroad.

One of the most infamous Christian abolitionists of the nineteenth century was John Brown. Brown worked on the Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania before moving his family to Kansas, where he became known for his savage attacks on pro-slavery settlers [7]. Brown eventually was captured by US Marines under the command of Robert E. Lee and sentenced to hang. Brown was executed on December 2, 1859. His last words, in a note given to his jailer, foretold the wrath of God that was soon to be visited upon the United States for the evil of slavery:

I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think vainly, flattered myself that, without very much bloodshed, it might be done [8].

Elected on the heels of John Brown’s hanging, Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, also framed his opposition to slavery in moralistic terms: “Now I confess myself as belonging to that class in the country who contemplate slavery as a moral, social and political evil... [9]” The Republican Party was created in 1854 specifically to oppose slavery [10].

There is dispute over Lincoln’s religious beliefs. Many believe that he was not a Christian because he never joined a church. Nevertheless, he did often attend church and read the Bible regularly. In his speeches and letters, he quotes from the Bible regularly and is said to have large portions of it committed to memory. He also grew up in a Baptist family [11]. Lincoln himself said, “That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or any denomination of Christians in particular [9].” Whatever his personal spiritual beliefs, Lincoln’s Christian background likely shaped his beliefs on the immorality of slavery.

After the abolition of slavery, the struggle started anew to gain full legal equality for all Americans regardless of race. In the years after the Civil War, a system of “separate-but-equal” was established and black suffrage was discouraged in many areas. Again, activists steeped in a Christian worldview led the movement for equality and civil rights. As with slavery, however, people also used the Bible, mostly out of context, to support segregation as well.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was the symbol of the civil rights movement. King, his father and his grandfather were all Baptist preachers [12]. The Bible taught King that blacks were equal to whites and his faith in God gave him the strength to stand strong. Alluding to Moses, King said, “I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land [13].”

Another famous figure of the civil rights movement, Rosa Parks, was also a committed Christian. Rosa Parks was not the first person to refuse to move to the back of the bus, but the quiet dignity that her faith instilled made her a sympathetic face for the Montgomery bus boycott and the civil rights movement as a whole [14].

Jackie Robinson, the first black player in Major League Baseball, was also a Christian. Robinson was given his chance by Brooklyn Dodgers general manager, Branch Rickey, also a Christian [14]. Many other rank-and-file Christians pushed for equality on the basis that no race was superior since all races were created by God and descended from Adam [15].

In other countries, a Christian worldview has also helped to bring about equality and freedom. After years of apartheid, South Africa is now integrated. In the aftermath of apartheid, many wanted to try the former leaders of the country for human rights abuses. Instead, South Africa established a Truth and Reconciliation Committee that walks the line between mercy and justice [18]. Bishop Desmond Tutu was instrumental in establishing the process that is helping black and white South Africans to reconcile and face the future in peace.

It might have taken thousands of years, but we are as close to the full equality of the races, what was most likely God’s original intent, in modern America as anywhere in history. There will always be racist fringe groups, but in modern America they are ostracized and not part of mainstream society. We are very near to Martin Luther King’s colorblind society, but the next step is a difficult one to take.

The next step on the road to equality is to attack what George W. Bush called “the soft bigotry of low expectations [16].” Preferential treatment for any race needs to be phased out. Programs such as these had their place in the days of integration, but our society is fully integrated now. People of all races have equal opportunity, as evidenced by the election of President Barack Obama, and there are laws to prevent discrimination (with the exception of discriminatory government programs and laws).

To believe that any one race needs special government help to succeed is an inherently racist notion. It is time to remove race-based programs. If the government feels that it is necessary to provide entitlement programs (which it increasingly cannot afford to do anyway), then they should be administered on the basis of need, rather than race.

According to Joel Kotkin in his book The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, the population of the United States will grow by leaps and bounds in the coming decades. Many new Americans will be immigrants and many will be born here. True to the tradition of the American melting pot, they will come in a variety of races, creeds, and colors. It is in our best interest to welcome them into our society and to help them assimilate.

As different races assimilate into our society, there will more intermarriage. The races will blend. This is a good thing. I look forward to a day when the color of someone’s skin makes no more difference than the color of their hair or eyes. When my children grow up, I will be far more concerned with the character and culture of their spouses than the color of their skin.

If this was God’s intent from the beginning, then why does the Bible not prohibit slavery? Why didn’t Moses tell the Jews in the wilderness that since they had known the evils of slavery in Egypt they were now forbidden from owning slaves themselves?

I believe that the answer can be found in Matthew 19:8. In this passage, Jesus is asked about divorce by a group of Pharisees. Jesus answered, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.” Similarly, I believe that if we could talk to Jesus face-to-face and ask him why God did not prohibit slavery, He would say, “Moses permitted slavery because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.”

The races may coexist peacefully and equally in the modern United States, but this is not the case for all parts of the world. Harassment, persecution, and even genocide of people who look, speak, or think differently still happens all too often. Likewise, slavery still exists in many parts of the world. We should use our national influence to encourage equality and reconciliation around the world, while fighting to end slavery everywhere.


February 23, 2010
Charleston SC

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