February 18, 2005
Freedom for my people

It can be entertaining to see a blogger get obsessed, and lately Eric Muller has been on the case of a best-selling historian who's also a neo-Confederate. This led to a discussion on the blog Southern Appeal in which a Catholic commenter defended the confederacy on the grounds that the Catholic magesterium does not support freedom and equality as we know them. Fr. Jim Tucker links to a pro-Confederate Catholic article that seems to agree, and in fact suggests that the largely Baptist Southerners had "the wrong religion" for their quasi-European aristocratic lifestyle.

I'll leave questions of American history to historians, and Catholicism to the Catholics. But this has got me thinking about Christianity and slavery. Although Christians played a prominent role in abolitionism (including my own ancestors the Beechers), it is a somewhat embarrassing fact for liberal Christians that Jesus never actually attacked this institution. In fact, part of the litany of the Haustafeln advises slaves to obey their masters. So is slavery, in fact, a sin?

It helps to remember that the word "slavery" actually covers a number of different phenomena. The Jewish rules regarding slaves actually turn it into something less like American chattel slavery than like indentured servitude. A person has to enter slavery voluntarily (I assume to pay off a debt or to escape hard times), a slave cannot be killed or maimed, and every jubilee year all slaves are freed, unless they wish to remain with the master.

More importantly, though, slavery was considered an undesirable state for different reasons than we would think now. What we consider freedom -- the ability to choose your career, your employer, your residence, etc. -- was not really available to anyone in the premodern era, where you were pretty much born into your occupation and the money economy was, at best, a side issue. Even the idea of being owned by other people was pretty standard, since everyone was bound to their family, tribe, and position and life through a web of mutual obligations.

So what did it mean to be free? Here it's interesting to look at the origin of the word itself: it comes from an old Anglo-Saxon root meaning "love." (The word friend comes from the same root.) As an etymological dictionary explains:

The primary sense seems to have been "beloved, friend, to love;" which in some languages (notably Gmc. and Celtic) developed also a sense of "free," perhaps from the terms "beloved" or "friend" being applied to the free members of one's clan (as opposed to slaves, cf. L. liberi, meaning both "free" and "children").

So once again, you can't swing a dead cat in the premodern world without hitting the all-pervasive kin system. To be free was to be family, and to have family. Slaves were separated from their own kin and made the quasi-kin of another house, owing the obligations of kinship without receiving any back. Male slaves did the work of sons, but could never inherit or achieve authority or status. Female slaves were sexually available to the master, but were not afforded a wife's honor nor the ability to produce heirs.

Jesus, in fact, makes exactly this distinction in John 8:

To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
They answered him, We are Abraham's descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?
Jesus replied, I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed."

Jesus contrasts himself, as the beloved son of God, to the sinners who are slaves in the house of sin. As Paul elaborates later in Galatians, freeing them means "adoption as sons of God." This is why all Christians are brothers and sisters. At another point Paul sends a slave back to his master Philemon, but asks Philemon to receive him as "more than a slave, but as a beloved brother."

So while Jesus didn't attack slavery in the way the Western world did later -- by according people wages and legal rights -- he cut to the heart of what, in those days, made slavery horrible. Although slaves continued working in their masters' houses, the relationship had changed.

It's not surprising, then, that when the colonization of America revived slavery (it had all but died in western Europe by that time), Americans chose to enslave a group that was conspicuously foreign. Race -- a concept that, strictly speaking, didn't exist in the biblical era -- was simply the old family/nonfamily distinction on a much larger scale. But this time, it involved breeding an entire ethnic group to be basically kinless. The family bonds among American slaves were not recognized by the law and often not in practice either; the only binding tie was to the master. The only comparable situation in the Bible is the en masse enslavement of the Hebrews by Egypt, and we all know how that turned out.

It's sort of morbidly amusing to look at how the League of the South -- the group to which the historian in question belongs -- grapples with this problem. On the one hand, they "recognise an obligation to treat Christian blacks (slave and free) as brothers in Christ, and to recognise their common humanity (original sin, all created in God's image, etc." On the other hand, this does not mean that "white Southerners should give control over their civilisation and its institutions to another race, whether it be native blacks or Hispanic immigrants. Nowhere, outside of liberal dogma, is any nation called upon to commit cultural and ethnic suicide."

So, people of other races are our brothers in Christ, but they're also aliens with whom we cannot possibly share a group identity. To put it mildly, this is a definition of the word "brother" with which I am not familiar.

OK, I'll put it more bluntly: the Bible tells us that every group identity outside of Christ is doomed to die. In Christ there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, and when he comes back all the nations as we know them will be gone. If people want to cling to an identity based on blood or geography or something else, that really is a Lost Cause.

Posted by Camassia at February 18, 2005 12:59 PM | TrackBack
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