This weekend, I finally watched Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave. Yes, I’m over-dramatic as a general rule, but I can’t remember the last time I cried like that (actually, it was probably after I saw McQueen’s last movie, Shame).
The brutal reality of the film combined with the knowledge that this wasn’t hypothetical–this was real–broke me. Further, it wasn’t just real for this one man, but for our entire nation. The brokenness, evil, and callousness of it all was staggering.
And we’re still doing it today.
No, I’m not exaggerating. The effects of slavery in this country are still absolutely tangible, apparent, and real. And frankly, too many of us don’t give a damn.
There are still people alive today that knew slaves when they were younger. That’s how recent this whole thing was. And yet, we’ve done to racism what we’ve done to every other thing we should engage with meaningfully but don’t–we’ve privatized and individualized it. We’ve redefined “racism” to mean harboring active, conscious, discriminatory thoughts and feelings towards someone of another race.
By the time I finished the next article in the series, it was substantive enough and socially-oriented enough to warrant being posted on my webzine Reform & Revive. The previous post was on on how secular Philosophy can inform our view of ethics and contribute to the discussion of Slavery, Atheism, and the Bible. This one is about how Christian theological ethics can uniquely inform our ethics in modern times. The article covers a LOT of ground and is the longest one I’ve written yet in this series. Hopefully that’s not a turn off. This article has more of my thought concerning truth and Biblical interpretation than perhaps any one article I’ve ever written contains. Here’s the link:
It seems in light of my earlier post I’ve decided to pour more of myself into this series, rather than just quickly finishing it off. Hopefully it’s helpful.
Lastly, I keep getting private emails, texts, and messages from Christians talking about how much they’re enjoying this series, and how helpful it is to them, but hardly any Christians are publicly commenting. I’m getting tons of comments from my atheist friends, though. Discrepancy? I think so. If you have a thought, please leave it. It could be really helpful to get more input on this and diversity of thought on this.
Thank you all for your support and encouragement. It means a lot.
I wanted to write a quick note to anyone that’s been confused about the lack of writing on all of my sites.
For one reason or another, I’ve decided to do more research on the Slavery, Bible, and Atheism series. Here’s why: It’s a six part series and so far each part has required two separate posts. I am mostly done with the second post of Part 2, and for the whole series so far, I have almost 20 pages of content written. With the stuff I want to say, and the content I wish to cover, I’ve realized that by the end of the series, if I stay on pace, I could have anywhere between 60 and 75 pages worth of material written. And this doesn’t even include the pages worth of comments I’ve written on comments on Facebook and here on the blog. So far, all I’ve written has been very “bloggy” in style and language; in other words — completely unworthy of even considering trying to see published. It’s been very polemical and directly addresses other people and conversations not directly involved in this blog.
As I’ve looked at and read the various articulations about this issue put forward by my atheist friends, I’ve noticed a few philosophical assumptions about ethics that are driving many people’s perspective on how the Bible does/should talk about these things. In this post, I’d like to highlight those things and show how they are neither philosophically or theologically correct. By the time I finished writing, it was really long, so, using one of the few benefits of blogging as a medium of discourse, I will put up the second part (concerning the more theological side of this) tomorrow or the next day.
The Philosophy of Ethics
Principles vs. Applications
Even the most cursory look shows that the study of ethics is the study of transcendent principles that govern our morality and behavior. There is an important distinction though made between those transcendent principles and their applications. One can hold to the exact same set of principles, but apply them differently at different times/cultures. It is simplistic and reductionistic to think that anyone’s “ethics” will be applied in the exact same way every time. No ethicist secular or otherwise treats ethics in this fashion. I believe that Scripture is consistent throughout in its transcendent principles, though not in their comprehensive applications (below). To navigate applications takes another pair of things the Bible talks at length about: faith and wisdom (more in the next post). Further, I don’t think this principle/application distinction provides any serious ethical challenge to biblical authority. The Bible itself never claims to treat ethics in this reductionistic manner, so to force it upon Scripture is dishonest.
One of my atheist friends mentioned the converts in isolated African tribes where nudity is prevalent, saying that if Christians were consistent, they must insist that they all cover up in order to be Church members in good standing. Except there’s a problem with that: there is no Christian ethic of “non-nudity”. There is a Christian ethic of “modesty” that says that we have the responsibility to adorn God’s beautiful creation of the human body in such a way that it maintains the respect and dignity it deserves. Now, how respect and dignity is shown changes culture to culture, so it takes wisdom to see where the human form is being abused in that culture — and that is not a compromise of Christian ethics. The consistent biblical principle has still been preached, upheld, and lived. If ethics (secular or Christian) were as naively structured as is necessary for some of these atheist criticisms to make sense, then the entire field of ethics would be unnecessary and non existent, because we could have a computer program that could make all the black-and-white moral decisions for us.
this is real (I did it myself)
The next post is pretty much done, but I wanted to send out this quick note before moving on. The previous post revealed a lot of things that I neglected to make clear. My fault. Sorry.
First and foremost, the last post was not meant to settle the question on slavery and the Bible. I just wanted to get out what the Bible actually says about it. The most I wanted to accomplish toward addressing the issue was to let people see a clear trajectory within Scripture wherein no part is inherently contradictory to the parts before or after it, no more than a seed is contradictory in nature or form to a fully blossomed flower. I also wanted to give a sense of the complexity of the issue. In every passage that lies out even the most comprehensive sets of morality and ethics for the Israelite people, you never see slavery there. It was never an action that was consistently seen as something moral. It’s not a freedom that the Israelites are free to use whenever they desire; it’s used sporadically, meaning that there must be something else going on beyond some explicit commentary by God on the moral nature of slavery. The New Testament is clear that the crucifixion of Christ was something that was foreordained and ultimately brought about by God, but this neither expunges the moral responsibility of the people that actually did it, nor says that God is all about crucifixion and thinks it is “morally neutral” or “ethically okay”. He clearly thinks it is wrong and evil, and yet He clearly ordained it, allowed it, and used it to bring about his promised redemption to the world.
[First off, this is a long one, and only part 1 of 6, so beware before you start reading.]
On Facebook, there appeared a status by an old atheist friend of mine from undergrad named Larry (supported by another friend Christopher). Here was the thesis of the post:
Regarding moral relativism the christians are hypocritical. They say they believe in a moral objectivity given by god…but how is it then, that they believed slavery was a product of the old days, as it was applicable to the time it was practiced (and sanctioned by the bible) but now condemn it? The bible, last I checked did not change. I think this is a PRIMARY example of moral relativism exhibited by the church and christians. So how can they sit here and tell us that a proof for god is moral objectivity?
In other words, how could the ethics of Christians change over time if the book they supposedly base their ethics upon has not changed? Either the God that inspired the Bible was completely incompetent in his revelation or there was no God revealing anything at all. The note caused a discussion that resulted in almost 90 comments, and I quickly realized that if I were going to respond, it would need to be in a more lengthy manner than a Facebook comment (which is not the most helpful of mediums of debate). So here it is. I’d like to respond to the ideas that came out in the discussions. I want to disagree with them on the basis of five ideas: