Saturday, November 25, 2006

And the winner is (Part 1 of 3) . . .


The quotes from the previous blog are from the mid-nineteenth century argument in America over slavery. John Henry Hopkins accused abolitionists of perverting the plain-sense meaning of the Bible to try to justify their liberal anti-slavery agenda.

Growing up in California, I knew that some crazy Christians in the past had tried to use the Bible to justify slavery, but I always assumed that their arguments were nothing more than proof-texting or a complete dependence upon archaic laws from Leviticus. Perhaps they were wilfully misreading scripture. Then, just recently, I read some of their Biblical exegesis of Paul and it made sense. In fact, their arguments were quite logically developed, looking not only at arguments from silence (Jesus never taught against slavery), but to a whole range of teachings in the Pauline epistles. The pro-slavery camp points out that Paul did not command Christian slaveholders to release their slaves, but rather insisted that slaves be obedient to their masters and that everyone is to continue to follow Christ in the same state in which they were called to Christ (1 Cor 7:20-24). So, if you were called to Christ as a slave, continue as a slave (although provision is made for those who could buy their way out of slavery). They also argue that when faced with a runaway slave who becomes a Christian, Paul does not commend the slave on his initiative for running away, but rather sends him back to his Christian owner (Philemon)! Clearly this is evidence that scripture is in no way opposed to the institution of slavery per se. Looking beyond Paul, pro-slavery arguments pointed to the institution of slavery in Israel by God in the Torah. To argue against slavery was, in their worldview, to argue against something that God has instituted, ordained and continued to approve of consistently throughout scripture. It was also to argue against the consistent interpretation of the church up until the current (19th) century, as slaves had been acceptable throughout Christendom.

They were Biblical. And they were utterly wrong.

This raises a very important question for us – how do we read scripture? How do we know that our Biblically based, historically accepted ethics and practices are not, like slavery, a terrible blinding by culture to the heart of Scripture. How do we know that we, like our brothers and sisters a hundred years ago, aren’t misreading the consistently redemptive ethic of scripture, reducing it to practices that reinforce our privilege rather than free the oppressed?


Justin said...

Wouldn't have picked it! Keen for another one. Good one, Ev.

Some random thoughts: Re They were Biblical. And they were utterly wrong.

Why do you think that they were Biblical?

I can see how the Hopkins' quote is trying to prove way too much -- bit like Colin Powell before the UN re WMD. I can -- with the kindness of God in being born in the present -- see how problematic the arguments are. I may not have felt it back then. Hopkins' feels like liberal bashing. Like justification for the status quo. Like presenting your case on Bill O-Reilly on FoxNews.

But my question is -- where they Biblical?

I'm wondering whether two things come into bearing here. The first is that the paradigm of freedom from slavery in Egypt [used among others by MLK]. Redemption from slavery in Egypt shows us that Scripture is not OK about slavery, and never was. The model of Scripture is the release of the slave to belong to God. Doesn't Paul use this argument re the Gospel in Romans 6-8? In other words, the Bible is not pro-slavery, but pro-redemption from slavery [to belong to God].

The second things is in 1 Timothy 1:10. Paul damns slave-traders. A telling point.

Heres what I think: I think that they Bible is no more pro-slavery than it is pro-persecution (Revelation 13:10). It assumes that both will exist. It assumes that both are a product of sin. It assumes that the oppressors in persecution and in slavery will face the fury of the wrath of God. And it assumes that both will pass in the coming of the Kingdom.

So -- 'Free people who are persecuted; slaves who are owned... Hold on, guys, your time will come.'

But your question remains. Are there things that we justify from the Bible that are simply trying to push our square culture through a round biblical hole. Not sure yet. Its hard when you live in the culture.

Andrew & Jessica said...

Thanks for your thoughts Justin. You have identified my key point quite clearly when you say, “I can -- with the kindness of God in being born in the present -- see how problematic the arguments are.” Yes, their arguments are problematic in some ways, but we are able to see that much more clearly because of our historical and cultural perspective. As for the scripture passages you raise, I can only guess as to how the pro-slavery camp would have responded. While the Exodus was a paradigmatic event for Israel, it is immediately after that when, at Sinai, God gives the Law to Israel, including passages such as Exodus 21 (where different standards are established for slave and free people in regards to physical abuse and what constitutes just punishment) and Leviticus 25:44-46 (where Israel is clearly permitted slaves from the surrounding nations and from the aliens among them). As these laws come directly after the Exodus, I’m guessing that, as the preamble to so many of the laws states, Israel is to “remember that they were slaves in Egypt” and consequently treat their own slaves well, as they know what it is to be a slave. The sentence you refer to in Timothy, is explaining that the law is good because it establishes a standard of behaviour for those who need it (ie, people like slave traders). However, “Law” is referring to the Torah, which of course includes the favourite passages of the pro-slavery camp given above. So my guess is, rather than reading this passage in Timothy as a condemnation of slavery, the pro-slavery camp would see it as an explanation for why God has laid out specifically what is and is not acceptable treatment of slaves, a standard for those who are “godless and sinful.” I’m guessing that the pro-slavery people would have read Romans 6-8 as being about our relationship to sin and not about social and economic institutions, as freedom from sin is the primary discussion taking place in this passage. To come to the point you raised though, in my writing, “they were Biblical and they were wrong” I do not think that they had a perfect reading of scripture by any means. But they did have an understanding of slavery that was based on a careful reading of scripture and that had a great deal of logical development. This is not to say that it didn’t have quite a few weak spots as well! When we use the word biblical in everyday conversation, we usually think of a teaching or practice that is based on some passage or other of scripture, and ideally, one that takes into account more than one passage and that considers both the Old and New Testaments. Based on this common parlance, they were biblical as they had scriptural evidence for their practice and it wasn’t just based on one obscure law in the Old Testament. Was it a good biblical theology? No. But, again, I draw you to what you said, we see this very clearly given our later cultural context. Could we be making similar mistakes due to culture and historical practice?

A quick note on liberal bashing . . . the men I’ve been looking at in regards to slavery were all professors at either UVA or Princeton (in things like mathematics and philosophy) and Episcopal bishops. So, while they probably were liberal bashing, these men were possibly not the talking heads we see on Fox News.

There will be quite a bit more on the idea of “biblical” in the next two blogs though!

Anonymous said...

While this will be no means be as long and developed and Jess' last post - and to respond to the question that is raised at the end of the post - to know how to read the bible in this day and age (and get it right) is a matter of being open. Be open to be wrong in other words. There is a great many different interpretations of the bible (obviously) but the thing is, we can argue all we want with all the points we want, but the pope will stay Catholic. His way of reading the bible leads him to believe how he does and so (this is where is gets totally subjective) no matter how "wrong" he is, he will stay the same, and believe the same. If he is not open to the interpreation on imputed and imparted righteousness, then he won't change. Of course I'm just using him as an example and assuming he is totally inflexible, but my point remains.

Other people and other institutions might have it right, whereas you might have it wrong.

Inflexibility within something as important and sacred as reading the bible is one of my pet hates. Only recently has anyone been able to freely read the bible. Previous to that the priest read it, and the congregation trusted him to interpret the Word of God. Prodestantism of course changed that, which is a good thing. However as everyone has their own reading and interpretation it is necessary to communicate and discuss your ideas.

P.S. I didn't guess an anti-slavery sermon! I don't think the NEW Testament necessarily supports slavery, but accepts that it exists as part of the culture, and like wife and husband, exhorts the christians to not treat them differently because of their status/position, because it does not matter who we are in this world, because we are all equal under God, and in Heaven. Also, we are all equal under sin, so we cannot say that we are better than any other man.

Rant over.

Edwin (Crump)