Friday, April 09, 2021


In modern Christianity, especially at the denominational, seminary, and publication level, those advocating for social justice point to the abolition of slavery as the great victory of the church for justice in society. It's hard to argue with that. It was a battle largely fought and won by Christians, with William Wilberforce of England and the Quakers, Congregationalists, and many Methodists in America being the most frequent mentions.  Students willing to go deeper can find Catholics dating back to the 2nd C speaking against the practice, though more as something to be discouraged among Christians than made illegal.  Ideas like that were gradually introduced later. Abolition seems an unarguable good, even if it is not the only possible good in the world.

There have been other causes taken up by the church with a definite eye toward establishing justice in the societies where they lived.  Educating women, conditions for prisoners, and the centuries of feeding the poor and attempting to provide medical care or comfort to the disabled or dying. But slavery has been the big-ticket item all concerned with justice point to.  

I was saying aloud to a friend that it seems the more recent causes are more ambiguous and difficult to achieve and one of my own cliches occurred to me: When there is a great problem, the first solution picks off the low-hanging fruit and solves, 50, 70, 90% of the problem. After that there is increasing effort for lesser returns. I suddenly wondered if getting involved with Abolitionism was not a Christian opportunity, but the bait, the temptation to turning aside from the Church's main goal.  View in that way, it looks an awful lot like Satan'[s third temptation of Jesus, doesn't it.  Was it that same temptation, offered by the Devil this time to the Church - and we swallowed the hook?  It's a chilling thought that clear ggood could disguise evil in that way.  Except that is what spiritual temptation means, isn't it?  Some desire to do good, as Gandalf feels for possession of the One Ring that carries an addictive poison that is ultimately fatal?

Abolition is ultimately not a mercy or charity issue, nor one that has eternal consequences, after all.

Any idea that is this new I don't offer as any claim that it is true. But I do offer up that it might be true, for your contemplation.


james said...

I figure whatever way of putting faith into action we wind up with--whether prayer or labor--the world/flesh/devil will figure a way to hijack it, and will at least partly succeed.

james said...

Or maybe another way of looking at it is that any great victory (labor, prayer, teaching, whatever) is an opportunity for great temptation. I'm more at risk of idolizing my procedures for prayer if they've been spectacularly successful than if (as is sadly the case) they have not.

Grim said...

The Church also ended slavery in the Middle Ages; by the 13th century there were slave raids only on the fringes of Europe, and by the 14th century the practice was not carried out in Christendom (though other sorts of unfree labor such as serfdom still were; but not chattel slavery. Serfs had some limited rights: you could force a serf to work, but you couldn't kick him off the land and you couldn't sell him if you found him troublesome).

It didn't last, though, and in fact led to a greater evil: because the Church barred slavery on the grounds that you shouldn't enslave a fellow Christian and you should strive to convert rather than enslave a non-Christian, the new slavery taught that the slaves were actually a different 'race' that wasn't properly human (and barred them from reading the Bible, lest they become Christians who'd be improper to enslave -- thus, even by the standards of the day, accepting the damnation of their souls in order to profit from the enslavement of their bodies).

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yeah, right on that. The Church gradually established limitation after limitation slavery up until about 1450 - and then tossed that all over because suddenly there was real money in it. And then the money got even bigger and there was no turning back for 300 years.

james said...

In the US and to-be-US it was a little complicated. Some did take the "forbid the scriptures" approach, but others took the approach that Christianity was a useful tool for keeping slaves quiet, and were happy to endorse an approved version. They didn't look kindly on rogue preachers, though. (I'd have to check the timeline -- I don't remember if one approach was earlier or if they coexisted from the beginning.)

Many were able to persuade themselves that slavery was the happiest possible state for their fellow-Christians--slaves were human but like children needing strong guidance. (Not much love shown, though...)

You wonder how they could manage to persuade themselves of such a thing, but if for a slave asking questions or showing intelligence was dangerous sass, safety lay in appearing simple.

Kevin said...

AVI, your query re Abolitionism being bait away from the main goal is interesting in the way that Zeno’s Paradox is. Lots of room for argument, whatever the evidence your eyes tell you about a race between the tortoise and the hare.
The anti common sense standpoint now is not that the hare can never win, but that some ( this skin colour now, that category some other time) can never lose.

Kevin said...

But on the other hand, ( this time in support of your query) Dostoevsky in his ‘Diary of a Writer’ says, “Now, what are those destinies of Orthodoxy? Roman Catholicism, which has long ago sold Christ for earthly rule; which has compelled mankind to turn away from itself, and which was thus the prime cause of Europe’s materialism and atheism, - that Catholicism has naturally generated socialism.”
This, by Dostoevsky, to support his view that Russia should take and possess Constantinople.
What Russia got eventually was socialism on skates and no Constantinople. From Mars or at great remove in time this is amusing. At any particular point close up, for the most part horrific and tragic.
Theologians and litterateurs should stay clear of policy, by his example. And perhaps by your point made.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Well, all this looks like it would be a good topic at a pub, then. Great historical points, all.

Kevin said...

But on the other, other hand, Moses.