Morality Redux: Slavery


I’ve been having a number of interesting conversations recently regarding the post on secular morality, and I’d like to discuss some of the thoughts that have emerged from those exchanges.

One of my entry-level statements when discussing human morality is that no matter where it does come from, we can be fairly certain it’s not from the holy books of the monotheistic religions. I’ve been surprised at how many people actually believe that we would be immoral barbarians without these sets of “guidelines”; my assumption that most Christians approached the moral argument for God from the “universal inner light of conscience” angle instead of the “book of laws” angle was the driving force behind the approach I took to writing the previous article on secular morality.

Anyway, one of the most common and hotly disputed arguments for the immorality of the Torah (which all three major monotheistic religions honor) is God’s commendation of slavery, so I’d like to focus on that as an example case (as opposed to taking a general swipe at the myriad moral incongruities of the Torah). I don’t think we’ll get very far without first reading the verses in question (from the mouth of God), so here we go….Skim this if you know the verses.

Slaves can be taken and passed down as inherited property (i.e., “real” slaves):

Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly. (Leviticus 25:44-46)

Slaves of your own race (!) are to be released after six years, but you can keep any wife or children that slave attains along the way. If he doesn’t want to be separated from that family, guess what? He’s your slave for life, too:

If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free. But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life. (Exodus 21:2-6)

Exodus 21:7-11 gives regulations for the practice of sex slavery (selling your daughter), and Exodus 21:20-21 gives regulations about how hard you can beat your slaves (as long as they don’t die, you’re pretty much good to go), but I won’t quote these here in the interest of time. Just read ’em.

There are four basic responses that I’ve heard (largely from Christians) attempting to justify the issue of slavery in the Torah, and I’ll deal with each one in turn.

1. God is allowing slavery, not condoning it. This seems to be the weakest of the various arguments. If God is giving specific instructions on how to deal with slaves, there is no practical difference between “allowing” and “condoning.” The only definition of “allow” that doesn’t overlap with “condone” is avoiding completely, and both God’s instructions and his omniscience/omnipotence rule this option out.

2. God condoned slavery, but only because it was ubiquitous at the time and impossible to stop. This argument has more internal congruence, but it doesn’t square with the fundamental idea that the word of God represents our universal guide to morality. As soon as you make this claim, you’re launching into moral relativism and accepting the fact that social mores have changed drastically over time–an idea that most secular humanists would wholeheartedly embrace. In fact, when you admit that modern secular morality is superior to what is taught in your holy book, we cease to disagree on this particular point.

Moreover, there is absolutely no reason to assume that the God of the Torah was opposed to making rules that completely upset the status quo in the ancient Middle East. Why would he have banned idols in the ten commandments, for example, if he was dead set on not upsetting the social mores of the times? According to the biblical record, this was a big deal for the Israelites, and a command so stunning that they had a notoriously hard time keeping the idols out of their society–much to God’s chagrin.

With all this existing hassle in instituting difficult (but moral!) laws, would it have been so hard for God to make room or erase one of the less important commandments (like not coveting) and put in a solid zinger like “Thou Shalt Not Own Thy Fellow Man”? Or at the very least remain utterly silent on the issue? No, instead we have the joys of slave ownership forever emblazoned in God’s one, holy, eternal revelation to humanity.

3. But that’s the Old Testament! And why don’t you care just because God said it in the Old Testament? If Jesus=God, this argument is moot. It’s the same guy, and he can’t be “perfectly moral” just some of the time. Why was slavery ever okay? Why are you still hanging the Ten Commandments in your house if you don’t accept the teachings of the Old Testament? Jesus affirmed every word of his own law (see Matthew 5:18), never chose to speak out against slavery at all, and presented it in a positive, matter-of-fact light when he did mention it (e.g., in parables or references like Luke 12:47). And it’s not like the New Testament as a whole is any better about slavery regardless (see Ephesians 6:5 or 1 Timothy 6:1-2)….

4. No matter how you read the biblical text, real Christians don’t support something as immoral as slavery. This is an interesting objection, but based on what’s in the Torah (see above), it’s really just a textbook example of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. The theist’s mores have changed and grown with society like everyone else’s, but this process has necessitated ignoring large portions of their holy book–while still clinging to the belief that everything in it is moral.

This is demonstrated in stark relief by reading the sermons of many “upstanding,” biblically grounded Christians during the 19th century. Kazim on the Atheist Experience blog makes the excellent point that these Christians saw the Bible as proof that slavery was sanctioned by God, and he quotes an essay called “Scriptural View of Slavery,” which was written in 1856 by the Reverend Thornton Stringfellow, a Baptist minister from Culpepper County in Virginia. I’ll quote the passages he highlighted on the blog:

Job himself was a great slave-holder, and, like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, won no small portion of his claims to character with God and men from the manner in which he discharged his duty to his slaves.

See Lev. xxv: 44, 45, 46; ‘Thy bond-men and thy bond-maids which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you: of them shall ye buy bond-men and bond-maids. Moreover, of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land. And they shall be your possession. And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession, they shall be your bond-man forever.’ I ask any candid man, if the words of this institution could be more explicit? It is from God himself; it authorizes that people, to whom he had become king and law-giver, to purchase men and women as property; to hold them and their posterity in bondage; and to will them to their children as a possession forever; and more, it allows foreign slaveholders to settle and live among them; to breed slaves and sell them.

This, by the way, is a singular circumstance, that Jesus Christ should put a system of measures into operation, which have for their object the subjugation of all men to him as a law-giver–kings, legislators, and private citizens in all nations; at a time, too, when hereditary slavery existed in all; and after it had been incorporated for fifteen hundred years into the Jewish constitution, immediately given by God himself. I say, it is passing strange, that under such circumstances, Jesus should fail to prohibit its further existence, if it was his intention to abolish it.

If, therefore, doing to others as we would they should do to us, means precisely what loving our neighbor as ourself means, then Jesus has added no new moral principle above those in the law of Moses, to prohibit slavery, for in his law is found this principle, and slavery also.

We can agree, of course, that Revered Stringfellow was wrong about the morality of slavery. But we can’t say that he didn’t hold to a stringent, accurate, biblical code of morality.

In conclusion, I’ve found this last argument to be the most common. Good Christian people are utterly committed to the idea that God hates slavery, and they’ll insist on it no matter what they read in their book. “There just has to be a reasonable explanation,” they’ve told me, without knowing what that explanation could possibly be. If you serve the “God of the Bible,” slavery and other moral ills are unavoidably endorsed by your god, and our standard of morality certainly isn’t measured by his words.

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4 Responses to Morality Redux: Slavery

  1. Pingback: and deliver us from palin | Steel City Skeptics

  2. Pingback: Morality Redux: Euthyphro | Steel City Skeptics

  3. mikhailovich says:

    Great idea. There are plenty of good, neutral, and negative bits in there…and it’s a v. high-profile passage, as well. You want to email Andy?

  4. Brandon says:

    Funny you should mention Mathew 5:18, I was just thinking about suggesting The Sermon on the Mount as a topic of discussion for an upcoming Pittsburgh Secular Freethinkers Meetup.

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