First things first, a content warning. I’m going to discuss slavery and possibly get into the specifics of what that means, and my own upbringing. I apologise if this makes you uncomfortable and advise you to freely sidestep this post and go do something else. I am a white dude talking about my experience with fundamentalists talking about slavery in the Bible. If you’re a Christian sensitive about literalism or your individual interpretation of the book, well, you might also want to step outside elsewhere, too. Probably won’t make you very happy.
I think it’s reasonable to say I grew up in a pro-slavery family. We weren’t slavery hardliners of course. Nobody wanted to own anyone, we couldn’t afford it, plus there were, like, laws and stuff, and wouldn’t it be a bit weird to have someone just living there and doing stuff for us for free, ew. We were still pretty pro-slave, a lot of our stories were about slaves and indentured servants and we considered ourselves Biblical literalists. It wasn’t until my late teens that anyone raised that particular point and phrased it as isn’t that a bit fucked up?
See, the slavery question is a bit of a thing for Christians. It’s one of the go-to arguments for atheist counterapologetics, and the usual response when you bring it up is from the Christian to huff and insist it’s somehow unfair play to bring that up. Imean, you got to look into the values of the day or well in the context of the time. The general counterpoint is well you would bring that up which falls either on the way of whining about it or acting as if the entire idea has already been dealt with. The point is, slavery is something a lot of Christian apologists have to deal with and they don’t like doing so.
My family’s attitude towards it was well, yes, slavery was bad, but so were a lot of things when done a bad way. Specifically, the idea that slavery was terrible was mostly based out of modern, godless countries – like America! – doing slavery, but just like things like the Death Penalty and Beating Children, the issue was whether or not you did a thing for a godly reason. And of course, god had reasons to allow slavery. For example, the original Christian church was all made up of slaves, who then converted their masters, which was clearly a system that could only work if one half of that conversation considered the other half property. And there were all these noble, good slaves, all these signs and showings of good people who owned slaves, so slaves couldn’t be that bad a thing. David had slaves. David had lady slaves. We didn’t talk about those after I brought them up. We also didn’t talk about the way David kept seeming to be lying down whenever he spoke to Jonathon, which admittedly, might have been me trying to be too clever by half.
Slavery was bad, but. Slavery was bad, but. But but but but. And we had a list of buts. For example, laws pertaining to slaves were in the Bible because the Israelites didn’t have any slaves, but God wanted it encoded so when the Israelites fell into sin, and started having slaves, they’d have laws making sure they were treated well. Laws pertaining to slaves were in the Bible because it actually gave non-Israelites a route into the kingdom of heaven, as they could be converted by their owners (again, who listens to life lessons from their property?). Laws pertaining to slaves were in the Bible because it meant the Israelites had to treat their slaves (which they didn’t have?) well and would slowly ease people into turning away from slavery, a course of action that took a mere six thousand fucking years.
And then there was the other moral aspect to it. Because we were meant to submit to god. Like a sinner. Like a slave. Like a wife (A comparison explicitly drawn). Esther and Rahab were shown as being basically the same person – one a queen submitting to a king (her husband), one a sex worker who betrayed her whole city for … no … real… reason? The language of submission and subjugation was throughout our lessons. Submit yourself to this, be yoked not unequally with unbelievers (but be yoked), muzzle not the ox as it treads the grain, surrender your soul unto Jesus, etcetera, etcetera.
Jesus didn’t really have a problem with slavery. He said slaves should submit to their masters. Paul said the same thing, and chances are, if you’re Christian you either disagree with Jesus or Paul but not usually both, and they agree on this one.
Basically, Christianity is super pro slavery, it would just rather you not talk about it. And then when you find salt-of-the-earth rustic Americans talking about how slavery was the first great social security program and the blacks were better off under slavery or the problem with this thing is that it’s not done in a godly way, recognise that that language is deliberately and fundamentally underpinning the idea that slavery is okay. You can argue about how much slavery is too much or where it’s inappropriate, but that’s an argument you can only have when you already accept that slavery is pretty much okay in some weird situation.
Now here’s the thing.
None of this is out of mainstream thought.
The language of Christian fundamentalism is not too different from the Christian mainstream. It’s actually an area I feel slightly better about the Catholics, because they at least have a central resource who has said
Nope, fuck that slavery business
– A pope, probably
but the Christian mainstream of my lifetime has always had this tacit acceptance of the fundamentalist tenet. Finding Christians who are willing to say ‘yeah, that slavery stuff in the Bible was horrifying,’ rather than ‘Well, what you need to understand is-‘ as if I’ve never tried to understand it is pretty hard.
I hate these times when people get up and act as if Christianity in the world is somehow generally good and there’s this little sliver of naughty wicked Christians. I bet you know quite a few Christians and I know quite a few Christians and broadly speaking, the ones who are my friends are not okay with slavery, because I like to think I pick better friends than to be friends with people who like slavery. But that’s not the core view of the faith.
If it was, the fundamentalists wouldn’t be able to hold to it so tightly. ‘Cos they’re jerks – but boy howdy, they read the book alright.