Should one human being be forced into the service of another?
Its a simple question. And most of us, I’m sure, would respond to any answer other than “no” with puzzlement, if not outrage. For the vast majority of Christians, the entire concept of human trafficking is utterly, morally abhorrent.
Go back two centuries, however, and you will encounter a much different, more controversial situation among Christians.
“[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation…it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts,” Jefferson Davis once said.
Alexander Campbell – a noted figure in the American Restoration Movement – once made a slightly more guarded statement. “There is not one verse in the Bible inhibiting slavery, but many regulating it,” he said. As such, “It is not then, we conclude, immoral.” As best I can understand it, Campbell’s political views with respect to abolition were not quite a entrenched as this quote suggests. However, his view of the ultimate, biblical position on slavery we clear enough.
Reverend R. Furman, a Baptist from South Carolina, also made his position clear: “The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example.”
The problem that is posed by the observations of people like Davis, Campbell, and Furman is that – essentially – they are right. One might quibble, in particular with Furman’s assertion that everyone has a right to slaves. However, when it comes out to making a clear case against slavery, the Bible isn’t explicit enough to help the argument. Indeed, the tacit acceptance of the institution of slavery by the writers of scripture only serves to fuel the sort-of arguments that were made by Jefferson Davis and Confederate sympathizers.
A century later, during my formative years, similar issues began to arise with respect to the treatment of women. “Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord,” the apostle Paul once wrote. For centuries, this – and other similar texts – were taken as a sign that women should exist in a subordinate, subjugated state in relationship to men. Yet, today, a large number of Christians have come to think of men and women as equal, without one holding any authority over another. This has in part been the result of scholarship which shows that the early Christians held views of women that were revolutionary for their day, though still antiquated by our own standards. Still, if one looks to the Bible itself, one can find little more than a tacit acceptance of a culture in which women assume a subordinate position.
As I’ve reflected on the roles of slaves and women within society during the last few months, and on the Biblical silence on both subjects, I’ve been led to what seems to me to be a fairly obvious conclusion: if we rely on scripture alone to discern moral authority, our capacity for understanding and accomplishing good will be decreased, not increased. I do not say that lightly, because I realize it is a radical departure from fundamentalism and from most forms of evangelicalism. Still, if one bothers to be objective in the least, it strikes me as an inevitable conclusion.
I’ve also, however, wondered – how is it that Christians eventually came to a virtually unanimous conclusion that slavery is morally abhorrent? And how is it that similar things are happening today with respect to our understanding of women? It has plainly happened, in part, because of our love for and dedication to scripture. Yet, something more is going on.
I’ve considered several answers to this question. But the one that I have found most satisfying finds its roots – ironically – in modern biological and sociological science. As such, in the next post, we will take up the advice of one of the biblical writers – Solomon – and, in answering our big question, we will consider a very small thing: the ant.