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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

American Christianity and the American Slave Part 1

One of Frederick Douglass’ most brilliant insights came at the end of his first autobiography, the Narrative. Douglass, naturally drawing upon his experiences, denounced forcefully Americanized Christianity, which he said bore no resemblance to “proper” Christianity.

Of course, the great given is that not all slave owners were Christian or even claimed to be Christian. But the majority were, and those are who Douglass raged against, as well as their enablers in the Christian church, north and south. You should read the entire appendix and let him explain himself, but here is the main thrust:
“…for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference--so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels.”
(Wow, could he ever write!) What does this mean? Essentially, Douglass is correctly rejecting false piety of the slave masters and their enablers who claim Christ but deny Christ to others. Douglass rejected the Christianity of those who used God’s Word as justification for human slavery. In short, he was saying that what was called Christianity in America wasn’t real Christianity.

There is much truth in what Douglass says. In the late 20th century and early 21st century, believers and atheists debated quite often on whether the Bible promoted or approved slavery. Latter-day evangelicals such as Hank Hanegraaff (whom I respect immensely) say that the Bible condemns slavery in no uncertain terms, yet accepts the reality of slavery by telling people how to cope with it. (Slavery in ancient times was also based on more than race: debt, prisoners of war, etc.) While true, I am not totally convinced that the condemnation is really overt—at least to the uneducated Christian.

Paul and Philemon
The Bible discusses slavery in many places, of course, but two are critical here in this discussion of Douglass, American Christianity and the slave. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul groups slave traders with liars and perjurers and “whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine.” That one passage alone condemns slavery as well as the practice of Americanized Christianity, because although the international slave trade was forbidden in America by national law in 1807, slaves were still bought and traded in America. I wonder if Bible-believing slave owners thought of that! Or they either ignored the passage or believed that they were OK by splitting hairs and thinking that slave traders didn’t include them.

Paul also wrote a letter to Philemon concerning the latter’s slave, Onesimus. He had urged Onesimus, who ran away but then became a believer, to return to his master Philemon, also a believer, but there’s much more going on in this brief message. Mainly, the letter is about forgiveness. On the surface, it seems like a justification of slavery, but it’s not. It also seems like a condemnation of slavery, but it’s not. Rather, Paul was urging Philemon to not only accept Onesimus’ faith, but also forgive him, accept him back and possibly consider his manumission (emancipation). John MacArthur, one of the foremost authorities and preachers on scripture of this or any age, explains what’s happening in Paul’s letter (please forgive the tangent, but there’s a reason for it):

“But it must be noted, because this last one is the most popular approach, seemingly, that no place in Scripture is there any effort ever made to abolish slavery. And at no time did any prophets or preachers or teachers or apostles of the New Testament ever attack slavery. But any call to righteous living, any call to holy love, will eliminate the abuses that are any social system. In fact, quite the contrary, there are throughout the New Testament many, many texts where slavery becomes a model of Christian principle, slavery becomes a picture, as it were, as we are related to God as His slaves and His servants. And repeatedly whether Ephesians 6 or Colossians 4 or 1 Timothy 6:1 and 2, or 1 Peter 2:18, slaves are told to be obedient, submissive, loyal and faithful to their masters no matter how they act, and masters are told to treat their slaves with love and equity and kindness and fairness no matter what they might do.”
Of course, slave masters got the first part down pat, but missed the part where THEY were to treat their slaves just as they treat themselves. (A side note: many people willfully or ignorantly misinterpret the Ephesians passage that wives are to obey their husbands. They always seem to miss the part where husbands are to treat their wives like Christ treats the church, e.g., He loved and care for us so much that He died for us. Somehow, those things always get ignored. But I digress. I'll explore Ephesians more in part 2 of this essay.) To continue:

“So while nothing attacks the institution of slavery, everything in Christian principle attacks the abuses of any social system, including slavery. (Emphasis added.) Slavery was so much a part of the Roman Empire, the whole society was built on it. And by the time of Christ slavery wasn't necessarily what we think it is today, it had been modified. There had been some laws passed and in very many cases slaves were treated very well. In fact, if you read of the ancient literature around the time of Christ, you will find that most writers will say a man was better off a slave than he was a runaway slave, (and) very often better off a slave than he was even a freeman, because as a slave he was assured of care and food and a place to sleep. And if he had a good and kind master, life was very prosperous for him. Slaves by the time of Christ could be fully educated in every discipline, many of them in fact went into medical professions. Slaves could take the benefit of owning their own property and developing their own economics and their own economy. Slaves could leave their estates to their own children. So by the time of Christ slavery had moved away from many of the earlier abuses though those abuses still in some cases did occur. And we'll see that even in the book of James where some Christians who must have been as slaves or servants were treated in a very unkind and physically abusive way. But slavery was changing and the Christian gospel coming into that world and the Christian preachers were not about to change the focus on to a social issue from a spiritual one, you can only imagine that if Jesus and the Apostles had begun to attack slavery what would have happened in the Roman Empire. Sixty million slaves revolting would have been an unbelievable situation. Society would have been thrown in to such chaos and disarray and even you can imagine that when such a rebellion would have begun, slaves would have been crushed and massacred savagely.

“So, there was some reason in the changing mood of the Roman Empire to see some hope for abolishing slavery, and that hope would come through changed hearts. The seeds of the end of slavery were sown in the Roman Empire by the Christian gospel and eventually slavery died. Just as everywhere in the world slavery has died when the Christian gospel came. It certainly was true in America eventually. Christianity, you see, introduces a new relationship between a man and a man, a relationship in which external differences don't matter and we are one in Christ, Jew or Gentile, slave or free, there's neither Greek nor Jew, said Paul, circumcision or uncirumcision, barbarian or Scythian, slave or free man. This does not attack the institution of slavery. In fact, it does the very opposite of that. It tells a slave to go back to his master and be the kind of slave he ought to be to a faithful and loving master. (Emphasis added, because as alluded to, most American slaveholders were just the opposite, even though they styled themselves that way.)

“Its theme then is forgiveness, that is its message, that is its intent. The story behind the letter makes that absolutely clear.” (Source: Part 1 of John MacArthur’s 1991 four-part sermon series on Philemon)

So, while God doesn’t approve of slavery, He uses slavery to further His own means: Saving us.
Yet, many if not most American Christian slave holders used what the Bible said as a flat-out justification for slavery. Instead of the forgiveness in Philemon, they saw “slaves, obey your masters” in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, completely taking what Paul was saying out of context. They saw that slaves were to obey, but ignored the fact that they were to treat them as they treated themselves.

* * *
In part 2, I’ll look specifically at what Paul said to the Ephesians, and how that relates to American slavery.


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