This semester, I’m teaching an introduction to American religious history; this week, we read Protestant arguments for and against slavery during the antebellum period. I was particularly interested in making students feel the force of the pro-slavery arguments. Living as we do on the far side of abolition, at a time when the wrongness of slavery has achieved taken-for-granted status, I worry that students dismiss the pro-slavery arguments as simply absurd and therefore don’t appreciate the uphill battle that anti-slavery activists had to wage, rhetorically and intellectually speaking.
So I allowed the spirit of an antebellum Southern Protestant slaveholder to sit on my head, as they say in some of the traditional West African religions. I laid out for the students in a serious, compelling way–not a parody–the biblical argument for slavery:
- Nowhere in the Bible is slavery forbidden; on the contrary, God sanctions and regulates it. This is true both in the OT (the Mosaic law) and in the NT (especially Ephesians).
- The relationship between master and slave is one of a set of mutual yet hierarchical relationships prescribed by God to create a loving patriarchal social order. (Ephesians 5-6 is the key source for this.) Wives are commanded to obey their husbands; husbands are commanded to love their wives. Children are commanded to obey their parents; parents–fathers more specifically–are commanded to love their children. Likewise, slaves are commanded to obey their masters; masters are commanded to love their slaves.
- Southern slaveholders contrasted the loving hierarchy of the master-slave relationship to the callousness of emerging industrial capitalism in the North. Capitalists could fire their workers at will and turn them out to starve; slaveholders were responsible for their slaves. Slavery was therefore a more Christian–that is, loving–system than capitalism.
- Especially after the European revolutions of 1848-49, which gave birth to the Communist Manifesto, Southerners came to see their defense of slavery as nothing less than a defense of Christian civilization. Abolitionism was a repudiation of God’s word and would therefore end, like the European revolutions, in atheism.
Students whose religious backgrounds are such that they regard the Bible as authoritative naturally wanted to jump in with counter-exegesis. I stayed in character and pushed back to prevent the arguments they find comfortable from having the last word. We then segued into analysis: what about the pro-slavery argument makes the students get defensive, ergo what gives the argument rhetorical force?
This argument isn’t just a relic of the past. One of the lines that gay/lesbian Christians have developed to talk back to biblically grounded arguments against homosexuality invokes “Slaves, obey your masters” in order to subvert conservative biblical exegesis. So–the line goes–if you theological conservatives insist that everything Paul says is gospel, do you believe that slaves should obey their masters? The point, of course, is to suggest that Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality should be seen as an artifact of his historical and cultural location, just like his views on slavery. In response, though, I’ve seen some evangelicals–Mark Noll for one–absorb the blow and hold their ground. You’re right, their counterargument goes, the Bible does say slaves should obey their masters; and since the Bible is inerrant, that commandment is, in fact, gospel. The slaveholders were right, and the abolitionists were wrong, at least as far as biblical exegesis goes.
In fairness to Noll, I should acknowledge that in his version of this argument, he goes on to suggest that a biblical case could be made for abolishing slavery anyway (e.g., the Bible allows slavery, but abolishing it is also consistent with biblical principle). So his argument isn’t quite as reactionary as it looks at first blush. Still, there’s a very strong “ick” factor here. Not being a biblical inerrantist myself, I’m spared the need to engage in that particular form of awkward intellectual gymnastics as the price of philosophical consistency.