Error 404 – Slavery Not Found, Part 2 (Happy Black History Month)

What Paul Copan's defense of ancient slavery looks like to me.
What Paul Copan’s defense of ancient slavery looks like to me.

And if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished. Notwithstanding, if he remains alive a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his property (Exodus 21:20)

In Part 1, we talked about how down with slavery God seemed to be in the OT. Our good friend Paul Copan, scholar from Palm Beach Atlantic University, certainly seems to think so. He consistently makes the claim that the slavery of the Old Testament was nothing like antebellum slavery, that most of the time it was a voluntary sort of thing to get one’s self out of debt, and that the slavemasters of the South had no biblical precedent to put into practice such a ghastly form of slavery.

I’ll just hit the bullet points for you really quick.

  • If something is wrong, it doesn’t matter how it’s practiced. It’s just wrong. Slavery is one such thing. Being wrong by definition means that you cannot practice it “right” or even “differently” to make it ok.
  • Claiming that it wasn’t what we’re imagining as slavery is one thing, but claiming that there was no biblical precedent for antebellum slavery to go on is truly astounding. The old “Welp, that’s a negative result, so he wasn’t really doing religion right, like I am” defense.
  • The ambiguity of the texts regarding slavery in the Bible does not help the argument that the Bible was inspired by a loving god. Just because you have verses about not oppressing foreigners (Exodus 23:9) mixed in with atrocities doesn’t mean anything.
  • It also seems quite convenient to say that the Israelites were so wholly apart from anyone else in the world at that time. Oh, sure the Egyptians enslaved them with ruthless and brutal force, but the slavery practiced by the Israelites was totally different.
  • I can think of a couple reasons that it’s bad to harm your slave that don’t have anything to do with human rights. More on that in a later post.

For the rest of us, who don’t have a conveniently pre-concocted conception of God to shove these ideas through, it’s just plain slavery, and it’s just plain wrong.

But instead of yammering your ear off today with reasons why the God of the Old Testament is the alpha and omega of awful (or this deliciously concocted paragraph by Richard Dawkins), we’ll cover a different topic: Why people cannot see it. Rest assured, I think that there are meaningful reasons that religious people cannot see the horrors of slavery within their holy text, one of the most compelling being category error.

Calliope and Thad

Situation 1: Calliope likes a bouncy ball. It is so much fun to play with and she’s shared it with many of her friends. She has had this particular bouncy ball for a long time, and it feels just right in the palm of her hand. The bouncy ball is good.

Situation 2: Thad loves his dog Thor. He can remember the day that they brought Thor home from the pound. Thor has never bitten anyone, and he is nice to everyone he ever comes into contact with, especially children. Thor is kind.

In both of these situations, there is a category error. In situation 1, Calliope moves from liking the bouncy ball, to thinking that the bouncy ball is intrinsically good. In situation 2, Thad loves Thor, and then shifts into thinking that Thor is kind because Thor exhibits characteristics of the construction of the word “kind” in Thad’s mind. These are not bad or malicious, and they’re what we all do. But it can lead to error.

Category Error

I like the way that Christians describe God to me most of the time. They tell me of His beneficence and divinely attendant spirit, or how He guides them in their day to day interactions and shapes the narrative of their lives. I like that. I’m an atheist because I don’t think He exists, not because I don’t like the story or any versions of it.

The disconnect comes, though, from the Christian definition of God. The conception of God expands ever so slowly into the definition of all good – the Creator, the Healer, the Redeemer, the Savior, the King, etc. – and this metamorphosis makes things bad by definition. If, instead of just a good thing, you push God the extra mile and say that He is the embodiment of all that is good, it’s natural that you will begin to think that anything outside of Him is evil. The definition encompasses everything, so there is less wiggle room.

I’m an atheist because I don’t think He exists, not because I don’t like the story or any versions of it.

This would explain why so many things are easy for the religious to ignore, even when it comes straight from their holy text. They don’t realize that for the rest of us, who don’t have a conveniently pre-concocted conception of God to shove these ideas through, it’s just plain slavery, and it’s just plain wrong.

Make no mistake, this phenomenon is not only a religious one. I think it happens with feminism, patriotism, brand loyalty, etc. Insiders of a group often have no idea how outsiders feel about what they see, and as a result, can end up defending the indefensible. I’m not naïve enough to think that after understanding this, all differences will be solved, but it seems key to empathy, one of the only things that really matters.

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