Slaveholder Christianity is older than you’d expect and more pervasive
One of the key issues we explore on the Progressive Redneck Preacher blog is slave-holder Christianity. Slave-holder Christianity is the approach to Scripture which seeks to preserve the acceptance, advancement, and inclusion of one group of people in society and in the church through the marginalizing, dehumanizing, and oppression of another. The classical example here in the southeast United States, of course, is the Christianity observed by most southern Christians in the years leading up to the Civil War. Many of those who owned slaves, who were slave-drivers, and who sold slaves in the south viewed themselves as Bible-believing Christians.
These Christians used very similar arguments to what conservative Christians now use to defend “traditional marriage” as a God-given institution to argue that God approved of and blessed the institution of slavery. It was, they argued, for the good of society, both the good of the freeman and the slave. One could even argue these slave-owning Christians viewed slavery as a means of grace where people they viewed as inferior, barbaric, and backward were introduced to Christianity through the “godly” example of Christian slave-owners. Eventually they even developed an interpretation of Genesis that treated people of color as cursed by God and thus inferior to white people to justify maintaining generations of black people in slavery, and giving other people of color second class status.
Because slave-holder Christianity reached its penultimate form in America during slavery times, it is easy to think that slave-holder Christianity began here in the Dixie-belt and ended with the Confederate States of America’s last defeat to the Union. Nothing could be further from the truth. Slave-holder Christianity has deeper roots than we often admit. This approach to Scripture has popped up in many unique ways throughout the world and throughout history. The logic that undergirds slave-holder Christianity emerges in countless modern ways both in America and even in expressions of faith outside the United States.
Let’s take a look at the history of how slave-holder Christianity developed and how it spread into different forms throughout the Christian world. I think knowing this information will help us determine dangerous trends which can help lead to develop of new oppressive expressions of our faith today, not just here in the south but wherever people are struggling over how to live out the faith in the modern world.
The New Testament is somewhat ambivalent about slavery. On the one hand, in the house-lists in Ephesians and in part of 1 Corinthians Paul encourages slaves to respect their masters and not strive to end their slavery. In other places (such as later in 1 Corinthians 7 and also in Philemon) Paul argues for people to embrace freedom from slavery if it becomes possible, and even argues for a particular slave to be freed and in doing so lays the foundation for the anti-slavery argument. But after the New Testament, the earliest records of Christian preachers come out strongly against slavery.
The Religious Tolerance website provides a good summary of the early history of Christianity’s relationship to slavery and other systems of oppression. The earliest Christians in Asia Minor “decried the lawfulness of [slavery], denounced slaveholding as a sin, a violation of the law of nature and religion. They gave fugitive slaves asylum, and openly offered them protection.” They”…declared themselves opposed to the whole relation of slavery as repugnant to the dignity of the image of God in all men.”
Early Christian preachers and monastic orders stood against the practice. An early preacher Maximum preached and wrote against it. Those who entered upon a religious life were required freedom to their slaves. Another early Christian leader, Theodorus Studita, gave particular directions, “not to employ those beings, created in the image of God, as slaves.”
Polycarp [69 – 155 CE] and Ignatius of Antioch [circa 50 – circa 10 CE] manumitted their slaves on realizing the equality of the Christian law.
One of the great Doctors of the church, who argued for what became Nicene Orthodoxy, also argued against slavery. Gregory of Nyssa (circa 335 to after 394) was the Christian bishop of Nyssa in Cappadocia — now part of Turkey. In his Commentary on Ecclesiastes he criticized slavery:
“As for the person who appropriates to himself … what belongs to God and attributes to himself power over the human race as if he were its lord, what other arrogant statement transgressing human nature makes this person regard himself as different from those over whom he rules? ‘I obtained servants and maidens.’ What are you saying? You condemn man who is free and autonomous to servitude, and you contradict God by perverting the natural law. Man, who was created as lord over the earth, you have put under the yoke of servitude as a transgressor and rebel against the divine precept. You have forgotten the limit of your authority which consists in jurisdiction over brutish animals. Scripture says that man shall rule birds, beasts, fish, four-footed animals and reptiles [Genesis 1.26]. How can you transgress the servitude bestowed upon you and raise yourself against man’s freedom by stripping yourself of the servitude proper to beasts? ‘You have subjected all things to man,’ the psalmist prophetically cries out [Pslams 8.7-8], referring to those subject to reason as ‘sheep, oxen, and cattle’.”
“Do sheep and oxen beget men for you? Irrational beasts have only one kind of servitude. Do these form a paltry sum for you? ‘He makes grass grow for the cattle and green herbs for the service of men’ [Psalms 103.14]. But once you have freed yourself from servitude and bondage, you desire to have others serve you. ‘I have obtained servants and maidens.’ What value is this, I ask? What merit do you see in their nature? What small worth have you bestowed upon them? What payment do you exchange for your nature which God has fashioned? God has said, ‘Let us make man according to our image and likeness’ [Gen 1.26]. Since we are made according to God’s likeness and are appointed to rule over the entire earth, tell me, who is the person who sells and buys? Only God can do this; however, it does not pertain to him at all ‘for the gifts of God are irrevocable’ [Romans 11.29]. Because God called human nature to freedom which had become addicted to sin, he would not subject it to servitude again. If God did not subject freedom to slavery, who can deny his lordship? How does the ruler of the entire earth obtain dominion … since every possession requires payment? How can we properly estimate the earth in its entirety as well as its contents? If these things are inestimable, tell me, how much greater is man’s value who is over them? If you mention the entire world you discover nothing equivalent to man’s honor. He who knows human nature says that the world is not an adequate exchange for man’s soul.”
Yet by the 6th century, already Christianity had begun to widely accept slavery. By the time of the Middle Ages, owning slaves had become an accepted Christian practice, although slavery existed on economic not racial lines. By the time of the forming of the United States, already a racially based slavery system had become firmly rooted on American soil, with many Christian leaders considering it a God-given institution. What changed in the short period between the 300s Ad and the 6th century?
What changed centered on one name: Constantine. That emperor forever changed the status of Christianity when he chose to become a supporter of the Christian movement and, later a convert, after he wins a definitive military battle after honoring the Christian God in response to a vision of the cross. Before Constantine’s conversion from persecutor to promoter of the Christian faith and the resulting Edict of Milan, Christianity was a minority religion living an alternative lifestyle. To be Christian meant to not be able in most cases to become fully involved in the civic life of the Roman empire. Christians were by and large barred from the Roman military and from government office due to their refusal to worship Caesar as god or share in pagan worship rituals. Often they were not allowed into professional guilds. Because of this they were not invested in the institutions that made the Roman empire run smoothly. The Roman military was one of these institutions but most people fail to realize that slavery was also. Not being allowed to fully invest in Roman culture led Christians to have a freedom to interpret the words of Jesus on their own terms: words that spoke of liberation to the captives, an example that treated Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free as all equally children of one Creator. Taken at face value as the early Christians took them, Jesus’ words called into question the very brutality that the Roman economy, base on military superiority and slavery, was built on.
When Constantine legalized Christianity and began to financially sponsor Christian churches, there was a sudden flood of elite and wealthy leaders in the Roman empire into Christianity. As a religion supported by the state, Christianity began to become invested in its institutions. A crisis of sorts occurred in the church. How can we have such a radical message, that undercuts the Roman way of life, if we are now funded by the Roman government and the Roman elite? This is a part of why Christianity began to accommodate Jesus’ words calling us to love our enemies and avoid violence to make room for Christian participation in the military. It is also why the church began to change its preaching from being against slavery to protecting the institution of slavery. The economy of the Roman Empire, which had moved from being persecutor of Christians to a sponsor of the Christian church, was built upon blood and slavery. To stay in the favor of Rome, the church had to mute its message that in Christ there is neither slave nor free. It had to allow the message of liberation inherent in the Gospel message to become muted and for Christianity to begin to be about the Empire’s version of conservative values.
When I begin to see how acceptance of slavery among Christians grew out of the church accepting the endorsement by the government as its official promoter of cultural values, I began to be hit by some troubling questions about how the church functions today in my culture. And how it has functioned in other times and cultures. How often today and in other settings does the church become less about the message of liberation for all oppressed and reconciliation of all things and all people in Christ, and more about promoting a set of cultural values? How often does it cow-tow to the state and seek to become in bed with government? Whenever and wherever this happens, the church is dangerously close to developing its own slave-holder Christianity and beginning to read into Scripture its own prejudices and bigotries.
We saw a form of such slaver-holder Christianity in medieval Europe where the church often became the instigator of discrimination against women, xenophobia and persecution of Jews and Muslims, reaching its zenith of abuse in the Crusades and the Inquisition.
We saw it when Christian missionaries from the British Empire turned from sharing the Gospel in the terms relevant to the people being reached to becoming enforcers of British cultural values and agents of the British empire in places such as India and Australia.
We saw it at work when the Church of Germany by and large chose to lay down with the rising NAZI regime in a Reich-church that promoted German cultural values and NAZI ideology in place of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, turning a blind eye to the persecution of minorities, Jews, homosexuals, and the disabled by the German government. Those few such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Neimoller who resisted this abuse of the faith in the Confessing Church movement became an example of the power of the Gospel to stand against oppression.
We saw this in South Africa in the wedding of Christianity with the ideals of racism promoted during the apartheid regime. The Dutch Reformed Church used the same arguments used by slave-holders in the southeast US before Civil War times to justify enslaving black people as their argument for keeping the people of color in South Africa in second-class status in their country. They became official promoters of apartheid. The bloody and heartless treatment of non-white people under apartheid was all justified by them through the wedding of cultural prejudice to the Christian message.
What can we learn from looking at where slave-holder Christianity emerges?
1. We need to be careful about wedding Christianity to our cultural norms. The Christian Gospel is intended to be a message of liberation that is counter-cultural. The heart of Jesus’ message that the Kingdom of God is breaking into our world is a call for us to see our governments, our way of life (even the American way of life), our received values as being called into question. There are so many ways that many of our cultural givens may prop up oppression, bigotry, discrimination of others. In fact, I would say that this is not just true of southern values or conservative values, but also the values of progressives such as myself. All of our cultural value systems need to be called into question by the Gospel message. We need to look at our received values and ask – Does this set free the oppressed, open blind eyes, proclaim to all God’s favor, open us to the work of the Spirit, and bring liberty to the captives? (see Luke 4). Does it lead us to do justice for all, to be more merciful and compassionate, and each walk humbly with the God of our understanding? (Micah 6.8). Does it lead me to live out the reconciliation of all people and all things in Christ, or live as if we are all at odds? (see 2 Corinthians 5). In so far as it can aid in expressing these Gospel values, that cultural value or expression can be a blessing and gift. Yet when and where it stands against this, it can become the roots of a new theology of oppression like slave-holder Christianity.
2. We need to be careful about the church and the government becoming too friendly. It is important to notice that slave-holder Christianity is birthed out of the church and the state being in bed together. That became an illicit affair that corrupted the church, turning it into a voice-piece for the state more than a prophetic voice for justice and compassion in the community. In many parts of the world, including here in my beloved southeast US, many Christians have begun to clamor for a close relationship again between the church and the state. “Let’s get some Christians into office,” they say. We should be nervous about such a drive, even though it’s often well-intentioned. Historically having the church and state in bed together has ended up corrupting both.
Interestingly enough when we look at the history of how the church began again to cry out against slavery, it begins where it had distanced itself from the government and political power. This move did not begin within the churches and denominations that were wedded with the state government. No, those had an interest in keeping things status quo. Instead it began in radical reformation movements that held to a free church theology where church and state needed to be separate. It is among the early Quakers, Anabaptists, and other groups that rejected a co-mingling of church and state that the call to revisit slavery and to oppose it as contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ began to re-emerge on the scene.
Though my ministry is not a part of the Baptist movement, but a part of the Progressive Christian Alliance, I can’t help but be effected by the tradition of my ancestors who were radical Baptists. In their tradition, a theology of four freedoms existed calling for Christians to recognize soul freedom, the fact that each of us stand before God on our own and cannot judge another person’s soul; Bible or faith freedom, the recognition that each of us must interpret the Bible for ourselves and the church must allow for diverse understandings of and expressions of faith within its community; church freedom, that each local church should be free to shape its theology and liturgy to meet its own local needs as led by the Spirit of God without an outside force whether in the church, the government, or the culture imposing itself upon them; and finally religious freedom which states that the church and state need to avoid co-mingling in order that both can serve their proper function. It is this approach of being willing to refuse to simply become agents of the state promoting its cultural values and instead be a people who can call into question the cultural values prevalent in the state at large that the early free church movements like the Quakers and Anabaptists could challenge the status quo and be a voice against violence, slavery, and oppression. Because of this, one of the things I have begun to call for in my ministry as a conference coordinator for the Progressive Christian Alliance, is for my community of churches and for other churches in the south to re-capture the ethos of these early free church movements. This call to resist the attempt to have the government endorse a specific religious vision or have the church become a voice simply supporting the status quo of traditional values is something to which all of our religious communities need to listen carefully. As a church, in order to resist becoming another expression of slave-holder Christianity we must resist the temptation of power that tempts us to go into bed with government or culture, losing our prophetic voice. We must be willing to be those who announce with early progressive Christians like Walter Rauschenbush that the Kingdom is always but coming, and we need to ever be at work questioning and challenging the ways this world is not yet as it is in heaven.
Finally we need to watch the money. Where does it flow in and out of the church? And how does it influence our preaching? Our practice? The need to justify the economy of the Roman Empire is a large part of why the Constantinian church begin to move from opposing to supporting slavery. There is a definite connection between previous expressions of oppressive “slave-holder” Christianities and the economic systems of the day. In America at least right now in many situations the church has wedded itself to our capitalistic system, at times embracing a “big business” mentality. In fact in many churches it is the money-making business model of corporate America that is their model. Many churches in many ways resemble more a supermarket or fitness center than a worshiping servant community. With how slave-holder Christianities tend to flow from a desire to justify and prop up the economic system which has come to support the church, this should trouble us deeply. Very easily such a wedding of Christianity to our way of doing business can cause us to muffle its call to be an alternate community, and the church’s need to call out against abusive business practices in our day. It also can make us feel the need to stop crying out against popular practices in our culture which demean, marginalize, and oppress groups in our community because of fearing losing “the bottom line”.
Where do you see slave-holder Christianity at work? What are ways you feel today’s church may be getting in bed with government? Be simply promoting cultural norms instead of calling into questions ones that may be unjust? Be propping up our economic practices, and selling out to the almighty dollar?
Let’s be the people standing with Jesus for freedom, justice, and reconciliation.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie.
You progressive redneck preacher,