"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Monday, 3 March 2014

When Christians talk of slavery...

Solomon Northup
Since the well-deserved success of 12 Years a Slave at both the BAFTA and OSCAR awards ceremonies there has been a renewed interest in the issue of slavery, both in its historical legacy and its modern iteration of human trafficking. The US in particular still has a deal of unresolved baggage around slavery and much of the racism prevalent in the southern states harks back to unquestioned assumptions of white supremacy in an era when to be black was to be owned.
One contribution to the conversation was made on the Thought for the Day segment on Radio 4’s Today programme by Rev Professor David Wilkinson who made the statement (and I may be paraphrasing as the transcript is not available yet) that in the past some people had tried to defend slavery using the bible. In the next breath he appealed to William Wilberforce’s speech to parliament specifically as a parallel to the consciousness raising effect of 12 Years a Slave, but also as a counterpoint to religious culpability for slavery.The problem I have with this is that there is absolutely no difficulty whatsoever in defending slavery with the bible and little evidence of religion being motivated to repudiate it.
So first of all what does the Bible say about slavery? It couldn’t be clearer than in Leviticus 25:44-46
44 ‘“Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. 45 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. 46 You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.
So pretty much carte blanche to enslave any foreigner you come across, direct from the deity’s mouth so to speak. Incidentally, that last bit about not ruling over your fellow Israelites is the get out of jail free card some apologists use to argue it wasn’t really slavery, just bonded labour. But what the Bible goes on to say about that refers exclusively to the Israelites, not foreign slaves: they’re yours for ever.
Influenced as he was by Methodism Wilberforce was very much on the evangelical wing of the Anglican Church and possessed a strongly humanitarian view of Christianity. In this the apologists are justified in saying his religion started the process of abolition (at least as far as Britain was concerned) of the slave trade. But what is not mentioned is that the conservative elements against whom Wilberforce was arguing were of the British Christian establishment and equally comfortable with their pro-slavery position. As well they might be…
Ephesians 6:5-8
New International Version (NIV)
5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.
Now this is couched in Paul’s usual apocalyptic assumption that the end times were just around the corner so the slaves would soon be “free” as saved Christians. But, there is nothing in here to suggest that slavery as an institution was being condemned. Certainly none of the canonical gospels have Jesus even commenting on the practice let alone repudiating it.
There is no doubt that William Wilberforce is deserving of the reputation he earned over the abolition of the slave trade and whether his faith informed his humanity or vice versa, though moot, is probable irresolvable but there is nothing intrinsically Christian or Biblical to explain his zeal. One can only assume that like many Christians today he defined his religion by selectively choosing those aspects that chimed with his morality and ignored the rest.

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