Thinking Christian

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Slavery and Freedom

Posted on Mar 14, 2013 by Tom Gilson

Skeptics criticize the Bible for not condemning slavery, with some taking it to such an extreme level that they refuse to recognize the clear historic good that Christianity has done in freeing slaves. I think we need to think more deeply about slavery and freedom.

Freedom has classically been understood not as freedom-from, but as freedom-to. Freedom-from has to do with restrictions: freedom from interference, from want, from boundaries, and so on. Calls for freedom of this sort are typical of the late 20th and early 21st century West: freedom from governmental interference, freedom from want, freedom from moral codes, freedom of “choice” as a euphemism for abortion, freedom from fear of foreign encroachment, and so on.

The list includes partisan positions from both the right and the left. It’s as if freedom-from were the highest good a society could provide its people.

The American founders had something else in mind, something that can be traced back to both the Bible and the Greeks: freedom-to, meaning the freedom to live according to virtue as each person understood it. There is obviously overlap between the two views of freedom, so that the Bill of Rights (for example) can be read as supporting both. But the Founders were manifestly more concerned with keeping government from limiting the exercise of personal conscience than with limiting the exercise of any and all options that might appeal to a person.

Enslavement denies both freedom-from and freedom-to, to different extents depending on the form and type of slavery, but its chief assault is on freedom-from. It is the polar opposite to freedom from restriction. The same cannot be said for freedom-to, for as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Victor Frankl, and others have testified, there can be freedom of conscience even in extreme bondage.

Freedom-from is predominantly a material sort of freedom. Freedom-to is predominantly freedom of character. Its chief proponents have often labeled it a spiritual thing.

Now it is clear in the Bible as well as to conscience that New World chattel slavery was evil. There have been other forms and extents of slavery, however, including the kind of service more typically practiced among the Hebrews in the Old Testament (something a lot like indentured servitude). It is very clear from Exodus 21 that not all servants regarded their status as onerous. Slavery wasn’t the worst thing in the world for them.

(As for slaves claimed by the Hebrews through conquest, there’s a whole lot of context surrounding that, which I don’t want to take time for today.)

Nor was slavery necessarily the worst thing in the first century, provided that masters obeyed the strong injunctions of Ephesians 6:9 and Colossians 4:1. But you could never tell that based on skeptics’ comments here lately.

I can’t help wondering if it’s because we give inflated importance to freedom-from these days. If freedom-from were indeed the greatest good a society could provide, then slavery of any sort would be the greatest violation. In a recent comment, though, Andrew reminded us that there are other goods and evils to consider.

The greatest good is to experience good now and eternally through life in Christ. (Skeptics may disagree, but if they do, they are no longer talking about the Bible or why it doesn’t condemn slavery. They’re talking about some non-biblical worldview instead.)

This life is much more closely associated with freedom-to: freedom to believe, freedom to worship, freedom to practice what is right, freedom to pray, freedom to give, and even freedom to sacrifice one’s other freedoms for the sake of others. Jesus said that to gain one’s life is to lose it. These are expressions of life in Christ; they are the living-out of the greatest good.

From a biblical perspective, too, there is new and wholly different level of freedom-from; regarding which the writers freely apply the term slavery: slavery to one’s passions, one’s evil desires, one’s sin. These are that which bind the most outwardly free of all men and women. Paul teaches on this in Gal. 3:23-5:1, and again in Romans 7 and 8.

Both passages speak of bondage to law, which for most of us, not having much care for OT Jewish law, is best understood as bondage to the convictions and accusations of our own moral standards (see Romans 2:12-16), and our failures in living up to them. There may be some among us who have so thoroughly shifted toward freedom-from that these failures are of no personal import. Most of us feel their weight, however. They can tie us up no matter what our circumstances are like on the outside.

Not only that, but they lock the door on our experiencing the ultimate good: God’s goodness, gained through life in Christ.

The good news in Christ is that we can freely experience the greatest good, whether we are bosses, employees, unemployed, or even in chains. The Bible never loses track of what goods are greatest and which are secondary. The same cannot be said for our contemporary culture.

P.S. This is not my entire set of beliefs regarding slavery; some things must go unsaid in a blog post. My experience leads me to expect some commenters to read things into this that I have not written, just because I have not specified that I did not mean such-and-so. Before you criticize, consider whether you have the freedom-to that allows you to read what I have written and respond to that, rather than to what you prejudge me to think or believe.

12 Responses to “ Slavery and Freedom ”

  1. Debilis says:

    I think this nicely outlines some of the fundamental reasons why secular approaches to running a society are not more neutral than religious approaches.

  2. Stephen says:

    Now it is clear in the Bible

    This idea of “clear” suggests to me that we can get beyond interpretation to something called “clear”. We would have to ignore much in psychology, cognitive science, hermeneutics, linguistics, etc. to believe in a metaphysical notion like this. We have documentation of how the south used the bible to justify slavery, as well as how the north used the bible to condemn it. There you have all of the support you need for how interpretation plays into everything we think and especially everything we read. You have to conjure up magical notions like the “holy spirit”, a “helper”, to get past these inconvenient details of our cognitive life. There is no such thing as a “right” reading of the bible as is suggested here, no chance of eliminating interpretation. And so, no chance of getting beyond conversation to certainty, no chance of getting past disagreement. The history of Christianity bears testimony to this. Even if there were a way to get to the “right” reading of the bible, how would you know it when someone among finally got it right? How would you know it wasn’t the guy that you think has the nuttiest interpretation of what the bible says? God seems to have left out the measuring stick you need to do that (perhaps in the Forward to the bible)– a way to hold up an utterance to a gold standard and measure just how close to “right” it got.

  3. Stephen says:

    I think this nicely outlines some of the fundamental reasons why secular approaches to running a society are not more neutral than religious approaches.

    Secularism only claims to be “neutral” with regard to religions. It does this by seeing them all as equally nutty. I don’t think secularism claims to be beyond agenda. It certainly has it’s own vision for society.

  4. JAD says:

    Stephen writes:

    Secularism only claims to be “neutral” with regard to religions. It does this by seeing them all as equally nutty. I don’t think secularism claims to be beyond agenda. It certainly has it’s own vision for society.

    What? Maybe there are ideological forms of secularism which are like that but is our federal government supposed to embrace that form of secularism?

    I think there are two kinds of secularism: (1) the non-religious kind and (2) the anti-religious kind. The first amendment of the constitution guarantees me and every other American citizen freedom of religion. The U.S. government– the government of the people, by the people and for the people– is obligated uphold and defend that right. How can it do that if it is anti-religious or treating every religious belief like it’s nutty? Rights equals respect.

  5. G. Rodrigues says:

    @Stephen:

    Secularism only claims to be “neutral” with regard to religions. It does this by seeing them all as equally nutty.

    In other words, it is anything but neutral. A little honesty is always refreshing; kudos for that.

  6. Keith says:

    The focus on freedom-from should increase as a culture becomes more secular; freedom-from has primary importance when you believe this is the only life you’ll ever have.

    I expect someone believing this life precedes a different “eternal” existence would care less about freedom-from, both for themselves and (more interestingly) for others.

    Religions are attacked for ignoring human rights and welfare in favor of other issues. (For example, the Vatican reprimanded US nuns “for focusing [their] work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping “silent” on abortion and same-sex marriage.”)

    But it’s logical if someone truly believes in an eternal soul, God and judgement: eternity in hell/heaven vs. a little temporary suffering now? The choice is obvious.

  7. Melissa says:

    Keith,

    Religions are attacked for ignoring human rights and welfare in favor of other issues. (For example, the Vatican reprimanded US nuns “for focusing [their] work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping “silent” on abortion and same-sex marriage.”)

    I think you’ll find that if you look more closely it is Christians who have done the most in terms of welfare and human rights work especially when it becomes costly in terms of what you might call their “worldly interests”. This makes sense for a worldview that emphasizes costly sacrifice for others.

    In your example the nuns were not told to stop attending to the welfare of people but to be more balanced in their approach and that is ignoring the fact that abortion is a human rights issue as it involves the taking of innocent human life.

  8. Tom Gilson says:

    To say that “religions are attacked for ignoring human rights and welfare in favor of other issues” is to say very nearly nothing at all. Every institution with any conceivable connection to human rights has been attacked in the same way. It’s all in how it’s framed, and in what a person considers “human rights” vs. “other issues.”

    And who was the attacker in your example, anyway?

  9. Keith says:

    Melissa, Tom: @7,8:

    I tried to write that paragraph in a neutral tone, and obviously failed.

    All I meant was the level of religious belief will determine how important freedom-from is to any particular individual, and gave one example.

    I meant no criticism of either side.

  10. Keith says:

    But I’m happy to mix it up a little, too. :-)

    If the Bible is “clear” on chattel slavery, but obviously doesn’t disapprove of all forms of slavery, we need clarification.

    For example, in Philemon, Paul returns Onesimus to his owner. If there was ever a time for Paul to comment on the moral failings of slavery, that would have been it. But he doesn’t: there’s no condemnation of slavery as an institution, and Paul is clear that Onesimus’ owner must approve if Onesimus is to stay with Paul.

    The most generous reading I can see is Paul disapproves of enslaving other Christians. It’s not written as a command, either, it’s a request from Paul to a friend.

    So, what exactly are the forms of slavery of which the Bible approves, and how I should apply Biblical guidance to say, modern-day Islamic prisoners-of-war?

  11. Melissa says:

    Keith,

    All I meant was the level of religious belief will determine how important freedom-from is to any particular individual, and gave one example.

    I read your comment as meaning that the level of religious belief will determine how important human rights and economic injustice are to the individual with the more religious being less interested. That’s obviously false in the case of Christianity. Maybe I misread you.

  12. Debilis says:

    @Stephen

    I agree that there is no universal declaration of neutrality within secularism. I was referencing only those secularists who insist that the religious should leave their views out of public discussions, while secular positions should be allowed to present their views.

    However, I would offer a different perspective on your comments about interpretation. Yes, none of us see reality directly, meaning that there will be some level of interpretation with all things (including the Bible). However, to push that so hard as to say that nothing is clear would require one to reject the “psychology, cognitive science, hermeneutics, linguistics, etc.” on which this view is based. It would almost certainly require radical skepticism.

    I think it is more reasonable to say that, while we should always remember the humbling lessons of the behavioral sciences, and be careful about bold pronouncements, we can still say that some things are clear.

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