The Bible and Slavery

As I have often mentioned on this blog, one of the challenges of resting an argument against same sex relationships on scripture is that even the most literal-minded of of the faithful ignore the Bible's statements on other issues--such as usury and slavery. This fact should give us pause--if we are willing to let reason and experience ignore these aspects of scripture, what is different about same sex relationships.

To drive this point home, Tobias Haller has found this gem from the Presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church defending slavery in 1861:

Here, therefore, lies the true aspect of the controversy, and it is evident that it can openly be settled by the Bible. For every Christian is bound to assent to the rule of the inspired Apostle, that "sin is the transgression of the law," namely the law laid down in the Scriptures by the authority of God -- the supreme "lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy." From his Word there can be no appeal. No rebellion can be so atrocious in his sight as that which dares to rise against his government. No blasphemy can be more unpardonable than that which imputes sin or moral evil to the decrees of the eternal Judge, who is alone perfect in wisdom, in knowledge, and in love....

With entire correctness, therefore, your letter refers the question to the only infallible criterion -- the Word of God. If it were a matter to be determined by my personal sympathies, tastes, or feelings, I would be as ready as any man to condemn the institution of slavery; for all my prejudices of education, habit and social position stand entirely opposed to it. But as a Christian, I am solemnly warned not to be "wise in my own conceit," and not to "lean unto my own understanding." As a Christian, I am compelled to submit my weak and erring intellect to the authority of the Almighty. For then only can I be safe in my conclusion, when I know that they are in accordance with the will of Him, before whose tribunal I must render a strict account to the last great day....

First, then we ask what the divine Redeemer said in reference to slavery. And the answer is perfectly undeniable: He did not allude to it at all. Not one word of censure upon the subject is recorded by the Evangelists who gave His life and doctrines to the world. Yet, slavery was in full existence at the time, throughout Judea; and the Roman Empire, according to the historian Gibbon, contained sixty millions of slaves on the lowest probable computation! How prosperous and united would our glorious republic be at this hour, if the eloquent and pertinacious declaimers against slavery had been willing to follow their Savior's example!

-- The Rt. Rev. John Henry Hopkins, Bishop of Vermont and Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, writing in 1861 in A Scriptural, Ecclesiastical, and Historical View of Slavery, from the Days of the Patriarch Abraham to the Nineteenth Century, pages 5-12 passim

You can find it here on Tobias Haller's blog.

(Once you get to Tobais' blog, be sure to read his series of posts on the theology of same sex relationships. Here they are:

The Sex Articles—a series of reflections on where we stand

01. Where the Division Lies
02. Pro-Creation
03. True Union (1)
04. True Union (2)
05. True Union (3)
06. Clash of Symbols
07. Remedial Reading
08. Scripture (1)
09. Scripture (2) )


JimII said…
I usually challenge folks when they claim to believe something because the Bible Tells Me So. I ask if that belief was a product of their reflection on scripture, or if they had the belief and went to scripture to reinforce it.

I think it is a decent test for myself. I've found scriptures that are pro-choice, for example. God breathed life into Adam, doesn't that mean breath and not conception is the start of life. Consider Exodus 21:22 which assigns a penalty less than death for striking a woman and causing a miscarriage. But, the truth is, I don't oppose criminalizing abortion because of what I read in these scriptures. I oppose criminalizing abortion for other reasons, some of them related to my faith, but not from reading these passages. It is ultimately dishonest for me to quote these scriptures in support of my position. [Maybe it's okay for impeachment purposes. :)]

Similarly, I don't think those who favored slavery, or opposed gay rights, held those beliefs because of the passages they cite. I think there are more complicated reasons, which may be linked to their faith, that supported these positions. But we need to talk about those real reasons, not the pretend justification of Paul says so in one of his letters, or it violates Hebrew law.

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