Tag Archives: Slavery

Frederick Douglass and LGBT Equality

FDouglass1On July 4, 1852, Frederick Douglass delivered a riveting speech to the citizens of Rochester, New York. Douglass’s theme was white America’s hypocrisy in celebrating Independence Day while a seventh of the population was in chains.

I encourage you to read the full text here. It’s lengthy, but I promise that you will consider it time well-spent.

Slavery was the culture-war issue of Douglass’s day. Today, marriage equality and LGBT rights are front and center. I’d like to apply a portion of Douglass’s oration to these modern issues by excerpting a portion of his speech, interspersed with instructions that today’s conservatives give to LGBT people. Not every word of his applies, but most do.

Argue your case and be patient. Don’t offend us.

I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, or who is not at heart a slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just.

But I fancy I hear some one of my audience say, it is just in this circumstance that you and your brother abolitionists fail to make a favorable impression on the public mind. Would you argue more, and denounce less, would you persuade more, and rebuke less, your cause would be much more likely to succeed. But, I submit, where all is plain there is nothing to be argued. What point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue? On what branch of the subject do the people of this country need light?

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Same-Sex Marriage vs Tradition

In the last post, we heard from from John Trandem, interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition. If we were to legitimize same-sex marriage, he said, “how would we .. be able to exclude [marriage between] two men and two women or three men or three women…?”

Marriage between one man and one woman, he pointed out, has two things going for it that these other variations do not: biology and tradition.

The last post was about biology. Now let’s talk about tradition.

We can presume that when conservatives in America cite “tradition” they mean Judeo-Christian, or biblical, tradition. This is the tradition on which conservatives like to say our counry was founded. Okay, then.

Like the argument from biology, the argument from biblical tradition has a nasty way of curling back to bite those who trot it out.

For starters, biblical tradition is firmly rooted in polygamy. The Bible mentions two wives of Moses. Abraham had an unkown number of concubines (second-class wives) in addition to his wife, Sarah. I won’t mention Solomon, who had 700 wives, because the Bible does say that kings should not get carried away like that. His father, king David, was a monk by comparison, having only 7 wives, plus maybe a couple of others that are in dispute.

But what could be greater evidence of the polygamous root of Judeo-Christian tradition than the fact that the very 12 tribes of Israel descend from Jacob’s four wives?

The predominantly Mormon state of Utah was not allowed to join the United States until it agreed to outlaw polygamy. Where were God’s culture warriors when this abridgement of biblical norms was being foisted on patriotic Americans?

In addition to wives and concubines, Hebrew men were free to have sex with their slaves. In the chapter of the Bible that immediately follows the Ten Commandments, we find God’s regulations for sex slavery. A man could sell his daughter to a fellow Hebrew, who was then under obligation to continue to have sex with her (presumably so she could have the honor of bearing children) even as he married additional women. Alternatively, he could sell her back if she did not “satisfy him” or he could give her to one of his sons if he chose.

Now there’s a nice family value: Have sex with your servant-girl and then give her to your son for more of the same.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger’s wife gave him a hard time for fathering a child by his housekeeper, where was the outcry from conservatives? (The outcry against his wife, I mean.) Why didn’t traditionalists support Arnold as he upheld the proud biblical tradition of impregnating one’s servants? He was even a Republican, for cryin’ out loud! It’s shameful how people won’t stand up for the Bible.

No study of the wondrous variety of marriage arrangements in the Good Book would be complete without mention of the final, glorious act of Moses, the great Law-Giver of Judeo-Christian tradition. This was to direct the distribution of 32,000 virgin war-captives to his soldiers and sundry others. As recorded in Numbers 31, these girls were parceled out exactly like the cattle that were also taken as “plunder and spoils” of war. It is stated at least 4 times in this chapter that Moses did all this in accordance with God’s direct command (verses 25, 31, 41, and 47).

Numbers 31 does not tell us whether any of the virgins got to update their Facebook status from “plunder” to “wife.” We can only hope. If they did, Deuteronomy 21:10-14 gave God’s instructions for how the Hebrew men were to arrange the marriage — and terminate it at will if the girl whose parents and brothers had been slaughtered by her new husband’s army does not manage to “please him” sufficiently.

We have all been horrified by ISIS’ enslavement and plunder of women in recent months, or Boko Haram’s practice of capturing girls and marrying them off to their soldiers. Why won’t advocates of “traditional marriage” speak up and tell the rest of us that ISIS and Boko Haram are acting exactly as God commanded in the Bible?

Never mind; I know the answer to that one. It’s because it’s bad when Muslims do it, but God’s righteous judgment when those in our spiritual tradition do the same thing.

By the time of the New Testament, the Jews were subject to Rome and were in no position to wage war and get wives by capturing them. However, polygamy was still practiced among both Jews and early Christians. In fact, it was pagan Rome that finally outlawed the practice.

So maybe it is Roman tradition that opponents of same-sex marriage really want? Probably not.

Maybe tradition is not all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe we’re better off thinking for ourselves.

Broad is the Road to Moral Insanity

Slacktivist recently posted a very insightful series called Unlearning the Lies We Learned from the Theologians of Slavery. Briefly, he points out that many of the great Protestant theologians who are America’s spiritual Founding Fathers supported slavery or even owned slaves — men like Jonathan Edwards (yes, even in the North!), Patrick Henry and George Whitefield. Slacktivist shows that this disturbing truth ought to challenge us in many ways. Do read his whole series, but I’d like to focus on one sentence from Part 4:

You have to get a host of other things wrong in order to arrive at the place where you get that one thing [slavery] wrong.

What wrong steps did Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield take that made that final step of justifying slavery seem perfectly sensible and even godly? Might we have already taken some of those steps?

As a former conservative Christian who walked the same path as Edwards et al, I suggest the road to moral insanity can go something like this…

  1. You believe that you are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and this gives you a supernatural edge in deciding moral questions: you can understand scripture and hear God’s voice more reliably than people who do not “know God.”
  2. In fact, you are taught to distrust non-believers’ ideas as non-spiritual “worldly wisdom” or worse.
  3. From that privileged position, you allow yourself a moral epistemology that you deny to others. When a fundamentalist Muslim arrives at obviously inhuman morality based on the Koran, you wonder how he can be so blind. “Why don’t his conclusions lead him do question his scriptures?” you ask. But when the same hermeneutic is applied to the Bible to arrive at positions that the rest of society has come to agree are harmful (e.g., the condemnation of homosexuality), you defend the process as being “faithful to God’s Word.”
  4. Having fully embraced an epistemology that has, by your own account, failed everywhere else it has been tried, you are well-prepared for final steps to moral insanity.
  5. You encounter passages in the Bible about, in this case, slavery. Although you are a good person, the plain reading of the text is that God not only tolerates slavery, but actually commanded his people to enslave whole cities full of people that were at a distance, minding their own business. The New Testament provides not a glimmer of relief for slaves, with Jesus’ parables casting God himself as a harsh slave-owner, and Paul teaching that slaves should obey their masters, rather than teaching masters to free their slaves.
  6. Although you are a kind person and would never in a thousand years have tried to justify slavery on your own, far be it from you to deny the authority of God’s Word. You come up with excuses for it. If you are Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield, living in a culture where a consensus against slavery has not yet emerged, you positively endorse it as part of God’s Order.
  7. As I outlined in my last post, you are now mired in the same moral insanity as ISIS, for exactly the same reasons.

Maybe you think, “I’m quite sane, thank you very much. I don’t support slavery at all. I’m completely against it.”

Really? Have you repudiated God’s commands to enslave in the Bible, or do you justify them with one lame excuse or another?

When your Bible tells you that God commanded genocide, do you blame the victims, or do you say that genocide is wrong, period, therefore the Bible is wrong?

When the Bible commands a man to stone his own wife to death if she expresses the slightest desire for religious freedom, what is your reaction? Do you justify this command as “God forming his people” or do you say that no amount of historical context can justify stoning one’s wife?

These are all markers of moral sanity.

Although slavery, genocide and religious freedom are no longer a sources of controversy in America, we are fighting other battles in the culture wars, with same-sex marriage and abortion rights being the most active and long-running. More lately, a flare-up has started over contraception. In each case, the spiritual heirs of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield appear to be on the wrong side of history.

Jesus said, “The gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. The gate is small and the way narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

As we consider the questions that stand where the slavery question stood 150 years ago, I would add, “Be careful. The gate to moral insanity can look a lot like the gate to God’s Kingdom, and the road can appear to be the road of faith.”

ISIS, Evangelicals, and the Mantle of Moral Leadership

Even if you’re reading this ten years from now, I doubt you’ll have forgotten the horrifying events of the summer of 2014.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria have, among other atrocities, besieged members of the Yazidi religious sect at the Sinjar mountain, where children have died of thirst; they have captured and enslaved hundreds of Yazidi women after killing their male relatives; and they have issued “convert or die” ultimatums to hundreds of other members of this often-persecuted minority, slaughtering at least one entire village that refused. ISIS have not been kind to anyone, but they seem to have an especially large ax to grind with the Yazidis, holding them to be polytheistic devil-worshipers who should not be allowed to live.

How can this happen in the 21st century? Haven’t we arrived at the point where every person on the planet knows it’s wrong to besiege a religious minority, to enslave and rape its women, and to kill its men? Have we not learned that nothing can possibly justify this behavior — not even even the demands of the One True Religion?

Apparently not. But at least we Americans have gotten the memo, right?

Again, apparently not. I have heard more than one such American use the same thinking as ISIS to justify the same behavior as ISIS and defend a tribalistic morality that is just like ISIS’. I have heard this from Americans who are nice people and whom I otherwise respect. Are you surprised? You shouldn’t be; there are tens of millions of Americans who hold these views.

I am thinking, of course, of American evangelicals. Before you close your browser, hear me out.

Consider Bible passages like Deuteronomy 20:10-15, in which the God evangelicals worship commands his people (verse 15) to besiege (verse 12) members of other religions, and enslave them (verse 11), treating women as “plunder” to be “used” (verse 14) after killing their male relatives (verse 13).

10 When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. 11 If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. 12 If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. 13 When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. 14 As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies. 15 This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.

As Christians who believe the Bible is God’s Word, evangelicals must defend God’s commands in this passage as “good” — and they do. As a member of that group for 40 years, I heard all the reasons.

“Those nations were evil and deserved what they got” is the primary one. “He had to drive the infidels out of the Promised Land” is another. “He was forming his people” is a third.

That sounds a lot like “This is where the Islamic State belongs and these Yazidi devils who are in it now don’t deserve to live,” doesn’t it?

But what if evangelicals are right? What if God really did have good reasons for ordering genocide, enslavement, and the plundering of women? Is that possible?

The thought is not as crazy as it sounds. Ironically, the idea that some entities are justly privileged to do things that others may not is what the rule of law is all about. Think about it. The State gets to put criminals in jail, but if a private citizen does the same thing, it’s called kidnapping. The State may impose a fine, to be paid to itself, but if a person does that it’s called stealing.

So is God like the State, meting out justice in ways for which the rest of us are not qualified? Not in the case we are considering. The claim that God is perfectly just, coupled with the claim that he is omnipotent, implies that whatever he is up to in Deuteronomy 20 is the best of all possible worlds. What we call atrocities are, in fact, the highest good. His plan could not possibly be any better.

Is that true? Presumably a state of affairs in which everyone, including God, is at least as well-off would be a better one. Can we think of such an outcome?

It’s easy. Here’s one modest improvement. Surely there were children in these cities who had not yet reached the age of reason. If they worshiped another god, it was only because their parents dragged them to church, so to speak. They did not deserve to become slaves. God could have tucked in a verse along the lines of “…but every child under the age of ten, you are to raise as your own, lovingly teaching them all I have commanded.” To kill the parents and steal the children would still be barbaric, but it would be better than calling the kids “plunder” to be “used”.

And don’t even get me started on what it meant to “use” the women as plunder. Are we seriously saying that such explicit permission brought about the highest possible good?

And let’s not forget that God could have sent his Holy Spirit on these distant cities, converting them into worshipers of himself, or at least giving them the chance. He would supposedly do exactly that in a few hundred years. Why wait?

The argument that God was doing the very best that could be done, given his broader purposes, just doesn’t hold up. The hard reality is that the God of the Bible ordered the same atrocities that ISIS has committed, for much the same reasons, with just as little justification. And tens of millions of evangelicals in America continue to defend him for it.

I believe that most evangelicals have good hearts and want what’s right. I believe that if all the passages like Deuteronomy 20:10-15 were in a book other than the Bible, Christians would believe that book to be inspired by the devil himself. Yet there they are in the Bible. Christians now must choose between defending and repudiating them. As long as they continue to defend, it will be hard for some of us to believe that Christians are in touch with moral reality.

Christians who stick by those passages have the same moral epistemology as ISIS: consult an ancient text and justify whatever you find there. Why should such an epistemology, which has led to moral and humanitarian catastrophe in Iraq, be trusted in our churches?

American evangelicals want to wear the mantle of moral leadership. That’s fine, but to qualify they must stand up and thoroughly repudiate the moral philosophy of ISIS.

What do you expect them to do?

One of the most-read posts on this blog is What did Jesus say about slavery? People often land there by Googling exactly that question; although biblical slavery ended millenia ago, people are still troubled by it.  So, I am not totally surprised when the series on biblical slavery that I wrote almost two years ago continues to garner the occasional comment.

The latest was from Henry. I had been addressing a passage where God commands Israel to sack distant cities and enslave their populations. Henry said of the captives,

They were prisoners of war, what do you expect them [Israel] to do capture the city and let them regroup for retaliation? (Only Americans and British let their enemies go free so they can come back to fight again.)

Henry asked, “What do you expect them to do?”

I suggest that this is not the most fundamental question. It was supposedly God, not the Israelites, who came up with the idea of enslaving these cities. I suggest a better question would be, “What do you expect God to do?”

Here are some possibilities.

Instead of directing the Israelites to enslave distant cities, God could have told them, “March around the city 7 times, praying for them. Upon completion of the seventh circuit, I will send my Holy Spirit upon them. They will welcome you into their city and you are to teach them my ways.”

If that would be just too easy, God could have said, “You are to be missionaries to the distant cities. Some of you will suffer and even be killed for my Name’s sake, but you must continue to faithfully spread my love.”

If that would be asking too much, God could have just said, “Stay away from them, and I will make sure they stay away from you.”

If God had really wanted those distant cities to be judged, using Israel as his instrument (which I highly doubt), he could at least have said, “You are not to use my solemn judgement as an occasion to gratify your carnal lusts. Keep your hands off the women.” (But of course, he said just the opposite. See the last part of this post.)

…and I’m sure you can think of more ideas.

If I were to steal a loaf of bread to feed my child because I have no food, no job, no friends, no money and no alternative, few people would condemn me.

If I were to do the same thing when I had a refrigerator full of food and all the money in the world, people would think I was compulsively evil.

Of all the characters that have ever been reputed to live, the one with the most embarrassing richness of alternatives for everything he does is God. That’s why his horrible acts in the Bible troubled me enough to finally push me out of the faith.

If he exists, he could have done so much better.

Letting it Go

On a whim, I Googled the name of a college friend yesterday. He had been one of the leaders of our InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and it seems that his faith has not abated. In fact, he has earned both a Master of Divinity and a Doctor of Ministry at a well-known seminary. He’s not a pastor; apparently he did this just to increase his knowledge.

My Googling uncovered his blog, in which he offered to answer people’s questions about the Bible. His last entry was in 2008, but I was able to find an email address that is probably recent.

With his email address in hand, I was all set to invite him to address the concerns I raised in my series on biblical slavery. (Long-time readers will recall that I invited several professional apologists to do the same, but none were willing to say anything on record.) I was interested in my friend’s responses, but I have to be honest: I was also rubbing my hands just a little at the chance to bring my crusade (or, really, anti-crusade) to new territory.

But then I paused.

I considered the possibility that he would have something to say that I had not heard before. It was remote.

I also considered how likely it was that anything I said would change his opinions. Also remote.

Finally, I thought about how distressed he would be to hear that I had chucked the whole faith thing. Probably very.

So I did something that is very uncharacteristic of me. I just let it go. Maybe I was a wimp, but I find I can’t be at peace when I’m at war.

What do you think? Have you experienced this sort of transition?

Biblical Slavery Postscript: Where Were the Apologists?

If you’ve been with me since the initial post of my series on biblical slavery, you may remember that I planned to invite some Christian apologists to respond. You might wonder what happened with that.

Coincident with the start of the series, I did invite three full-time Christian professionals to comment on it: the author of the AIIA article that served as the springboard for the series, a man I’m acquainted with who runs an apologetics ministry and who has written about biblical slavery, and a former pastor who now works full-time to combat modern-day slavery and sex trafficking.

One of them was kind enough to spend an hour on the phone with me midway through this series. I wrote a summary of our conversation and emailed it to him so he could verify that I had represented him accurately. I told him that I would post the summary if he would approve it. He promised to send me some minor revisions, but so far I have not heard from him. It has been over 2 months, so I think he has moved on to other things.

I had a short correspondence with another one of the men by email. Since he chose email instead of public comments on this blog, I don’t feel at liberty to post our exchange. Suffice it to say that he did not say anything I had not heard before.

I have not heard anything from the third man. I should note that he never promised even to visit the series, let alone comment on it.

So, there was some dialog, but nothing for the record.

You may also be interested to know that long before the series started I sought the input of three pastors besides my own. One of them I knew personally. The other two were recommended by close acquaintances as intelligent and thoughtful, able to answer questions like mine. I wrote each one a letter explaining why I was troubled by the Bible’s teachings on slavery and pointing out some of the key verses. Each one promised to reply. None of them did, even after multiple requests from me.

I finally canceled my questions. I sensed that they didn’t have an adequate response to my arguments, and they knew it. I thought we would all be more comfortable if I just let them off the hook.

I think evangelical Christians know deep-down that it would be wrong to defend the acts and commands of God that we have seen in this series, but they can’t bring themselves to admit it — even to themselves. They are too heavily invested in the inerrancy of the Bible. I have compassion for the bind they’re in because I’ve been there myself.

Incidentally, the series started out as an “invitation to a dialog.” I really did hope that there might be some back-and-forth. As the series progressed and none of the professional apologists were willing to comment for the record, I sort of gave up on the dialog and settled for a diatribe. I hope you enjoyed it.