My last two posts considered the atheist’s question, “Why didn’t God explicitly outlaw ‘slavery’ in the Bible?” It’s a common enough challenge for those who have spent the time to learn about history. They know, for instance, that in Biblical times life was quite harsh with often a vast chasm between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” This isn’t the way things ought to be, they conclude, so it’s God’s job to fix it, right? After all, isn’t he supposed to be “all loving?”
Christianity provides an answer to this challenge, but it’s not one that will fit into a sound bite. Indeed, though there is a temptation to do just that, Christianity cannot be reduced to sound bite answers. A combination of study, reflection and prayer are essential to making sense of the robust combination of doctrine and faith that characterize historic Christianity. Consequently, the believer risks sounding defensive, as he seeks to explain in long and sometimes complex ways why things are the way they are.
The student of history knows that man’s story did not begin two thousand years ago at that crossroads of civilization where Jesus was born. When people first abandoned their nomadic ways and commenced living in more stable communities, there was already inequality. Like much of nature, the strong dominated the weak…because they could. Over time, this led inevitably to “slavery” in a variety of different forms. Tragically, slavery continues to this day, because human nature remains fallen. So when God inspired the Bible, he did so in the context of an already evolving story. This must be kept in mind when considering the challenge that is brought. Practices that have developed over centuries cannot realistically be eliminated overnight, without first addressing the underlying causes.
And what are those causes? Just why were things so bad? Put simply, because God gave man free will and with that free will, man rebelled. He moved his focus from God, where it was meant to be and where for some it will eventually return, and redirected it to himself. He sought power, pleasure and control over his environment and those around him. Periodically, leaders arose who cemented the “rules.” Tribes conquered other tribes, peoples dominated neighboring peoples, and in some cases even genocide was practiced. Could God have stopped this? Of course. He could have wiped us out completely or he could have removed from us the free will he had originally given us. He could have rendered us perfectly-behaving automatons, and could even have made us “happy” to spend eternity living model lives and worshipping him. But he did not. Indeed, he could not if he wanted us to be sufficiently free to actually enter into a loving relationship with him. Because love requires freedom, it cannot be coerced.
The challenger persists: “Yes, mankind is fallen. But why didn’t God just say, stop practicing slavery in any form? I don’t care if it’s a period of servitude, or outright trafficking in people, I want it all to stop.” The answer is that his plan was to redeem the individual human heart, not to create a model civilization. Do that and right behavior will result on its own. By contrast, if the human heart is unrepentant, then any outward “right behavior” is of no value to God anyway. So the Bible begins by laying out the basic rules of moral living, the ones we find in the Ten Commandments. It could easily be argued that those rules alone were enough. After all, he did include “thou shalt not steal” in that list. When one man takes another man from his home, has he not stolen him? When he forces him to work without pay and he takes the fruits of that labor, is this too not theft? How much clearer does it have to be?
These basic rules tell us what not to do. In the New Testament, Jesus consistently spreads the message of universal love and brotherhood, dispositions of the heart that provide positive direction, rather than a specific set of things to avoid. Indeed, he explained that we are defiled not by what we take in through our mouths, but from the heart, from which comes evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness, and blasphemy. (Matt. 15) All our behavior should flow from the greatest of the commandments, to love God with all one’s might and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. (Matt. 22) We should be “salt and light” to a broken world, preserving and displaying goodness. (Matt. 5) Jesus answers the question, “who is my brother?” in a way that shocked his people. He elevated the status of children through words and actions that no doubt confounded those that were used to putting children in a much lesser role. (Luke 18) He taught us that lusting or hating in our heart was really no different, in God’s eyes, than actually committing the act. (Matt. 5) He set his world on its heels, and the repercussions of his words still send ripple effects through us some twenty centuries later. He acknowledged the role of government, seeking not to overthrow or even to directly influence; “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” (Luke 20) And he explained that some of God’s rules – his view of marriage for instance – were modified not because God changed his mind, but because his people’s hearts were hardened and unwilling to obey. (Matt. 19)
The early disciples reinforced this message. Do not be conformed to his world, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds through Christ so that you can do good; abhor what is evil and hold fast to the good, the Apostle Paul teaches. Overcome evil with good, and leave vengeance to God. Set your minds on things above, put to death sexual immorality, lust, impurity, evil desires and greed. (Romans 12) We are to be ambassadors for Christ. (2 Corinth. 5) Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5) Peter reminds us that because he who called us is holy, we too must be holy in all our conduct. (1 Peter 1) John admonishes us to keep the commandments (1 John 2), commandments that prohibit theft and murder and coveting.
How much clearer must it be? No honest person reading Jesus’ words can possibly conclude that owning another human being is consistent with his law of Love. No one reading the Sermon on the Mount could conclude that God wished to institute suffering and slavery among his people. No one considering Jesus’ lowly birth and tragic death on a cross could conclude that God wanted those of exalted means to lord it over the impoverished classes. Quite the contrary: we are to be measured by what we do for the least of our brothers – the hungry, the naked, the imprisoned – by the extent to which we live out the meaning of our faith.
God’s purpose never was to “fix” the world in the way the skeptic envisions, and a pronouncement that slavery should not be practiced would not have solved the problem. Both the spirit and the letter of the law already condemn such behavior. No, the solution God has in mind has more to do with the world to come, and the steps we take now that will decide for us where we will spend eternity. Conveying this plan is not possible in a sound bite culture. With an open mind, and a bit of reflection, God’s unfolding plan does make sense. Not perfect sense perhaps – to us, anyway. But enough to allow us, as Paul said, to not be “ashamed” of the gospel and its message of redemption.
Posted by Al Serrato