In honor of Black History Month, we’re gonna talk about slavery today. I recently sent some of my questions to an apologist PhD in theology (read: Witchcraft and Wizardry), and he did a bit to parse out those thorny Bible passages for me, and put them in their proper context, making the rough ways smooth, the crooked roads straight. It’s the kind of magic apologists do best. He sent me the work of one of his fellow wizards, Paul Copan, who has a 45-minute lecture called, “Did God Sanction Slavery in the Old Testament?”
It wasn’t that bad! It was like indentured servitude, and that’s okay, right?
In his talk, Copan makes several interesting points, however loosely I can use that word, but his main point seems to be, “Biblical slavery back then wasn’t that bad.” He often mentions the comparison of antebellum slavery with what happened in the Bible, and wants to dissuade the audience of any notion of comparison between the two. In fact, he contends that if antebellum southerners had been following biblical principles, there wouldn’t have really been any slavery at all. Let’s see some of his points.
It was consensual
His argument is that slavery in olden days was something that you knew you were getting into, kind of like when you even think about that Netflix tab on your computer. It was more like indentured servitude than what we think of as slavery nowadays, and could be used to help you out of a difficult financial time. What I get from this argument is that Copan is saying that what was happening was consensual, that there were clear guidelines for such a thing, and wisely practiced, it never should have led to the abuses that we saw for 240 years of deplorable human treatment.
Right before I rape a woman, I like to ask, ‘May I please rape you?’ – Atheism-Is-Unstoppable
The reason this argument doesn’t hold water is because consensuality does not matter. Once the rest of us have decided that something is categorically wrong to do in all forms always, there is no right way to do it, and the consent of the victim does not matter, any more than it matters when having sex with a five year old. One of my favorite words in the English language is “inalienable”, which means “unable to be taken or given away by the possessor.” In society, we’ve decided that there are some rights that are so elemental to humans that even the possessor does not have the authority to give them away, and that involves ownership of a person.
To be honest, they did have it pretty good
Here’s a pro-slavery argument I see rear its ugly head every once in a while. Copan argues that “this kind of stability is really an enviable position to be in.” While under the care of their masters, the slaves could get everything they needed: food, shelter, and long distance phone calls to their mums. Paradoxically, Copan also makes the point, several times, that people might have entered these arrangements under great distress (times of famine, drought, and the fact that foreigners simply were not allowed to own land within Israel’s bounds). How can you simultaneously be in an “enviable” position as well as one into which you may have been forced by a search to satisfy your most basic needs?
This argument reeks of the same kind of self-congratulatory back-patting the slave owners of the south would have used to justify what they were doing. “Look at how good we are! The slaves don’t have to worry about anything. I mean, I have a lot on my plate to take on, running this house and all. Sometimes, I wonder who really does have it easier, me or them!”
Year of Jubilee
Copan spends quite some time going into the details of the Year of Jubilee. He says that during the YOJ, which happened every 50 years, God intended land to go back to its original owner. There are a couple of problems with this. Considering that this is ancient Israel we’re talking about, where their life spans would certainly be shorter than ours today, the original owner would, in almost all cases, be dead. But even if I were feeling generous and said that the average person lived till 70, this would mean that a person would have to wait from age 20 to get their property back, after which it would’ve gone through more than one generation.
Lift your voice! It’s the year of jubilee! Out of Zion’s hills….the right to bequeath me and my stuff to your children.
This goes into the second problem with this arrangement, which is that it would inevitably lead to people who’ve lived their entire life on a piece of land having to give it up for some stranger their father took it from. Am I stretching the boundaries by not believing that’s a good plan, especially from a God that’s supposed to understand the people He made?
In the end, God could’ve gone for something as clear as this passage from the Mahanirvana Tantra:
O Devi of the Kulas! The human body is the receptacle of piety, wealth, desires, and final liberation. It should therefore never be the subject of purchase, and such a purchase is by reason of My commands invalid. (p. 79)
Or He could’ve been at least as clear as He was about tattoos (Lev 19:28). My point is that plenty of clear prohibitions exist in the Bible. An omniscient God could have seen clearly the abuses that arose out of a system that He endorsed and regulated in the past, and a good God would’ve cared. But He couldn’t bother to be crystal clear about something we’d eventually and definitively outlaw for ourselves. You do the math.
More next time in Part 2!
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