Monday, March 23, 2015

Do the shackles of slavery haunt Christian moral teaching?

Slavery, Women’s Rights, and Same-Sex Marriage: Is There a Connection?

Recent news stories continue to highlight struggles of African Americans, women, and LGBT persons. 

  • One event garnered a lot of press as strong emotions were evoked and the recent troubles in Missouri were featured. The Blaze.
  • Franklin Graham caused a stir over comments calling for obedience and listing “Blacks” in his list of ethnic groups. Sojourners posted an open letter of response.
  • Universities have taken steps to deal with ongoing sexual assaults of women on their campuses. ABC news.
  • The Presbyterians joined other mainline Christian groups supporting same-sex marriage. Huffington Post  Franklin Graham condemned the act. Gospel Herald.
  • Bob Jones III apologizes for comments suggesting homosexuals should be stoned. CNN 
  • This week marks the one-year anniversary of the World Vision decision to hire Christians in Same-Sex marriages and their quick reversal. Christianity Today.

 Not infrequently advocates for LGBT rights in the U.S. connect their quest for nondiscrimination to the struggles of African-Americans and women. All three groups have dealt with biblical quotations and interpretations of biblical texts used to justify the moral basis for discrimination.

A variety of psychological, sociological, economic, and political factors are also at work but when it comes to morality substantial numbers of the U.S. population turn to the Bible to support the righteousness of their position. Consequently, the disenfranchised group finds itself in a position of mounting a biblically-based rebuttal to gain freedom in communities where attitudes are framed by the Bible rather than judicial decisions.

Despite progress since the 1960s, the chains of enslavement continue to rattle through the halls of justice. 

Regardless of whatever benign treatment some master’s may have shown, the voices of slaves beaten, raped, and lynched will never be silent.

Add to the horrors of African slavery, the voices of girls and women who for centuries could do little else in society but serve their masters in the kitchen and the bedroom. Failures in either space often led to abuse. 

And following a measure of liberation women still find themselves unable to safely live on a college campus or serve in the U.S. military. And of course, they cannot minister as equals with their male counterparts in most places of worship. 

In this psychosocial-religious context, LGBT persons ask for rights as well. And as before, some religious leaders cite the scriptures in their arguments supporting or limiting the rights of sexual minorities. If you have followed the arguments closely, you are likely familiar with the arguments about why the push for same-sex marriage and LGBT rights is similar to or different from the horrors of African American slaves or the repression of women. And you are probably well aware of the way Christians have analyzed biblical texts.

From a psychological perspective, changes in attitudes are hard to come by. Change in psychotherapy often occurs in small increments until there is some sort of breakthrough for those who persevere. On a societal level, the breakthrough for African Americans and women occurred in the past five decades but the pace of change for LGBT persons has been much more rapid—I suspect much faster than most would have predicted. As in successful psychotherapy, a substantial breakthrough often leads to freedom in other areas of life. It is akin to spiritual transformation.

For many, the chains linking slavery to women also connect to LGBT persons. Because the chains binding slaves and women were forged with the blessings of Christians, theological arguments against same-sex marriage and rights for LGBT persons will suffer from a lack of credibility. The more strident the voices of condemnation, the more they will resemble the preaching of clergy who blessed slavery and wrapped the cords of biblical guilt around women in abusive relationships.

As more Christian leaders and groups join the trend in secular society, opponents of same-sex marriage and LGBT rights will find themselves at a greater distance from societal norms. Though disavowed by some, support for LGBT persons and same sex marriage from people like Rob Bell and Rachel Held Evans creates a challenge for Evangelical groups who wish to expand their outreach rather than serve smaller congregations of those who remain faithful to traditional teachings.

No comparison is ever perfect in all respects so those who wish to find differences among the groups will have an easy time of it. But I suspect people are more likely to take a superficial glance at negative remarks and respond based on feelings rather than do the hard work of thinking about nuanced arguments. Besides, few have an indepth understanding of the linguistic issues often cited in discussions of controversial Bible texts. 

But there is one more comparison that might be relevant. The traditional teaching of the church held marriage in high regard and divorce in low regard (at best). For centuries, people who got divorced were sinners and remarriage was out of the question. Such people could not become clergy nor serve in leadership positions if they even felt comfortable in churches. That's changed in a lot of churches, including evangelical congregations. As usual, Bible sleuths wrangled with the texts and found justification for divorce. And having justified divorce it was an easy step to support remarriage. 

To close, I looked up those old biblical justifications for slavery. I found an article by Larry Morrison who summarized three common biblical arguments supporting slavery. The reference is at the end of this post. I've included it to encourage a look back at the way Christians have used the Bible to support an unimaginable evil. 

The Bible and U.S. Slavery
1. "The first element of this biblical defense of slavery was the concept of divine
decree, that is, through the curse of Cain God had decreed slavery before it had
actually come into existence."(p. 17)

2. Writers used Leviticus 25:44-46 to support slavery (p.18).
The following text is from Morrison's article.
 In the midst of the debate over Missouri, one proslavery Missourian used this
passage to draw a parallel between slaveholders and the Israelites. The Southern
people, he wrote,
move like patriarchs of old, at the head of their children and grandchildren, their flocks and their herds, their "bondmen" and "bond maids" to be an inheritance for their children after them," to be "their bond men forever." They cannot go where they are to hold this property by an uncertain tenure. (St. Louis Enquirer, 29 April 1820.)
(p. 19)
3. Referring to the Apostle Paul’s letter to Philemon. . .

One South Carolinian, writing in 1823, maintained that
All the sophistry in the world cannot get rid of this decisive example.
Christianity robs no man of his rights, and Onesimus was the property of his
master, under the laws of his country, which must be obeyed, if not contrary to
the laws of God.
 He went so far as to claim that this Epistle really sanctioned the fugitive slave law
because "slaves should not be taken or detained from their master, without their
master's consent." ([Dalcho], Practical Considerations, pp. 20-21. See also Richmond Enquirer, 3 December 1819.)
 p. 20


Morrison, L. R. (1981). The religious defense of American slavery before 1830. Journal of Religious Thought, 37(2), 16-29.

A related npr story.

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