Wednesday, March 25, 2020

is the Bible "wildly pro-slavery"?

In his fine review of "Harriet" (which I'll be reviewing soon myself once I've had a chance to watch the film), friend and fellow blogger Steve Honeywell makes the claim that the Bible (by which he means, I think, the Christian Bible) is "wildly pro-slavery." Does this claim hold water? Should we examine it more closely? Keep in mind that Steve's writing a movie review, not a theological treatise. It would be unfair to scrutinize Steve's claim without at least noting this. The claim has a hermeneutical aspect to it, but it shouldn't be considered an example of bare-knuckle hermeneutics.

That being said, I'm not sure I'd call the Bible "wildly pro-slavery." It's definitely got plenty of passages that can justify slavery, and that have certainly been used to do so, so no argument there. But there's a reason why there's a whole branch of theology called liberation theology. With verses in the Bible like Isaiah 61:1-2 (which Jesus quotes later on), it should be obvious that the Bible also contains plenty of freedom-from-oppression language.

If I were to attempt a fair-minded, modern assessment of the Bible, I might frame the situation this way: the Bible is a product of its time and circumstances, and in those unenlightened days, slavery was a given—a harsh reality that was part of everyday existence. (Since slavery still exists today, even within the USA thanks to sex trafficking, we might still call it a given.) The Bible, which is already a messy jumble of contradictions, reflects an ensemble of historical mindsets. Can it be read as a pro-slavery document? Absolutely, and as I wrote above, this has already been done. But it's by no means an objective truth that the Bible, taken as a whole, is definitively pro-slavery. Yes: it contains verses that clearly promote the acceptance of bondage (or that take it for granted), but it also contains narratives about leading a people out of bondage. The Exodus story focused on this very theme, and much later, Jesus seized upon this imagery in his message to the people under Rome's thumb... although for Jesus, the liberation he was preaching had little to do with the mortal world and everything to do with the spiritual—hence his "render unto Caesar" exhortation.

Those of us who traffic in the comparative-religion side of religious studies will sometimes use the term salvation-liberation to describe that toward which many, if not most, religions aim. Many* of the major religions paint a picture of existential strife or unsatisfactoriness: something is not quite right with this world—something about it is fallen or illusory or otherwise lacking. This reality isn't the realest reality, nor is it the reality in which the highest human fulfillment is possible. Salvation, in many religions, often entails some form of liberation, e.g., the Hindu notion of moksha, or release from samsara, the painful wheel of existence. Christian notions of salvation include the idea that "the truth will set you free." Buddhism, taking its cue from Hinduism, also preaches a praxis that releases one from the bonds of karma (the law of action and consequences) and samsara.

But just like the Bible specifically, religion taken as a whole presents a mixed bag. Different religious traditions preach liberation, but they also preach a kind of bondage-through-orthopraxis (correct practice), partly because religious institutions have an interest in acquiring and retaining membership. The notion of yoga is interesting to focus on for a moment: the word comes from the same proto-Indo-European root as the modern English word yoke, and in fact, yoga implies a yoking of oneself to one's orthopraxis.**

This brings us back to a theme I've written on before (e.g., see here, last paragraph): the idea that freedom isn't possible without strictures. Real fulfillment comes from sacrifice and self-discipline, from the stripping-away of frivolously random, unmindful activity and the cultivation of focus and specific, methodical effort. Is this the same as slavery? Obviously not: the self-discipline and sacrifice that I'm talking about are done by choice, which is a fundamental difference. And yet... religions, taken as large, cumbersome institutions, often seem to preach the theme of submission or submissiveness (I recall the youth at our church once innocently singing a song titled "I Just Wanna Be a Sheep")—a sort of Slavery Lite that keeps the cash flowing into the churches and temples from the pockets of the masses who, yoked in by tradition and social pressure, have a hard time breaking away from the institution.

Getting back to the question that prompted this meditation, though, I'd again affirm that the Bible, taken as a whole, is not "wildly pro-slavery." Too many verses in the Bible contradict this contention and make the situation less than obvious. Much is a matter of interpretation, not of objective truth. Slavery, as a historical notion, is an odious blight on human history. Slavery, as a very abstract concept, is a different animal entirely, and might have some overlap with the concepts of yoga and orthopraxis. The second type of slavery includes an element of choice not found in the notion of chattel slavery, but even when we focus again on the first type of slavery, the Bible overall doesn't clearly come down on the side of the slave-owners.

The Bible is a harsh and often off-putting book. I think that makes it a fine document for adults to reckon with. Non-biblical stories that offer morally complex or ambiguous characters and situations—such as what we find in the works of Shakespeare, for example—do much the same thing: they require us to wrestle with their message, and to realize that the important thing is the act of wrestling, not necessarily the message itself. The message itself, which is a function of a person's relationship with a text, can change over time because, well, people evolve. This is why, if we take the notion of living truth seriously, we have to understand such truth to be dynamic in nature, changing right along with us. When a document like the Bible comes along and exposes us to the ugly side of humanity, as well as to the ugly side of ultimate reality (even an atheist can affirm that Nature, as a sort of ultimate reality, is red in tooth and claw), this is good: it's an opportunity for internal struggle, for learning, and for the salubrious evolution of one's character. I therefore wouldn't advocate dismissing the Bible because it contains passages that seem to laud slavery or to promote a slavish mindset: quite to the contrary, I'd advocate facing the unpleasantness head-on, contending with it, and coming out stronger. You might argue that humanity has grown beyond its need for Bibles, or that the Bible is immoral and therefore ought to be tossed aside. To such a claim, I'd reply that, Bible or not, people continue to generate literature that disturbs, provokes, and offers deep insights, so there's no escaping the question of wrestling with the text. You may as well include the Bible among those texts. Struggle with it, struggle against it, and grow from the experience, always in the knowledge that the struggle never really ends.

ADDENDUM: you'll note that I didn't go the scripture-quoting route in the above essay. That would be useless: if I were to find 36 Bible verses that affirmed my point of view, Steve could easily find 36 verses affirming his point of view. Where would that leave us? That, by the way, is an utterly fruitless way to debate scripture in any situation, but a lot of idiots engage in just that exercise. Yeesh. Also: it's easy to Google "Bible verses about liberation." And to be fair, it's equally easy to Google "Bible verses about slavery."

*Taoism and Zen Buddhism (which has some roots in Taoist thinking) come to mind as world-affirming exceptions to this line of thinking. The here-and-now is all we have, according to the Taoist/Zen perspective, and being mindful of this fact, as well as participating in it fully, is the goal of spiritual practice.

**The word subjugate also has the -jug- root, which comes from the same root as yoke. To subjugate someone is to put that person under the yoke.


John Mac said...

Imagine if you put all the people who believe the Bible prohibits slavery above some arbitrary demarcation line, oh say, the 36th parallel, and those who think the Bible accepts slavery as God's will, below it. Couldn't they all just get along?

Kevin Kim said...

You'd get one side shouting, "Down with slavery!" and the other side shouting, "States' rights!"