Slavery, Morality, and Christianity: A Dialogue with Pastor Chad Damitz

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I  recently had a very passionate and interesting exchange through social media with Chad Damitz, associate pastor at Bible Baptist Church in Kokomo, Indiana. We have known each other for years and even participated together in a public debate on the origins of morality. (It can be found on YouTube.)

This polite, but heated exchange was spurred by my post of a quote from Alice Walker, celebrated African-American novelist, whose view of Christianity Chad took issue with.

Here’s the quote:

“What a burden to think one is conceived in sin rather than in pleasure; that one is born into evil rather than into
joy. . .

It is chilling to think that the same people who persecuted the wise women and men of Europe, its midwives and healers, then crossed the oceans to Africa and the Americas and tortured and enslaved, raped, impoverished, and eradicated the peaceful, Christ-like people they found. And that the blueprint from which they worked, and still work, was the Bible.”

Our unabridged dialogue is as follows:

Chad:

This quote is blatantly misleading. There are several scripture references that denounce the idea of kidnapping or man-stealing, which is what happened in Africa in the 19th century. Africans were stolen by slave hunters, sold to slave traders, and these slave traders forced them into harsh labor. These practices will always be loathsome to God.

Here are a few verses to confirm this: “Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death (Exodus 21:16).” 1 Timothy 1:8-10 lists “enslavers” along with liars and murderers, condeming their acts against humanity too. I think the Bible even has a stricter stance against slavery than today.

Currently, there are 27 million people in the world that are subject to slavery. This includes forced labor, human trafficking, and inheritable property. Why aren’t there stricter penalties for these atrocious acts against humanity today? Just look at the Norweigein Bodnariu family who the government is taking their children away from them without duable cause. This is supposed to be one of the most progressive countries in the world and the government is literally stealing children away from law-abiding citizens. This is progressive?

With that said, the Bible did talk about slavery (Deut. 15; Eph. 6; Colossians 4:1), but people were not enslaved because of their ethnic background. People who owed a debt actually voluntarily sold themselves to owners since that was the only way to provide for their families, some of them even being doctors, lawyers, and politicians. It wasn’t always the poor that this happened to.

And let’s be honest. Just look to William Wilberforce, Granville Sharp, Hannah More, and Charles Middleton, all Christians, who took on the cause of abolition because of their idea that all men are created equally in the image of God (Gen. 1:26). In my opinion, this quote is academically and historically dishonest.

Justin:

I’m really glad you ended this comment with, “in my opinion,” because your comment is about as blatantly misleading to me as this quote was to you.

Slavery is an extremely murky subject in the Bible. You can read passages in both its defense as well as its rejection. For example, your comment on slave trading is misleading.

In Exodus, there are restrictions for slave masters on the attainment of Hebrew slaves (Exodus 21:7-11 NASB), but not so much on non-Hebrews. Here’s an extended passage from Leviticus 25: 44-46 (NASB) on this point:

“As for your male and female slaves whom you may have—you may acquire male and female slaves from the pagan nations that are around you. Then, too, it is out of the sons of the sojourners who live as aliens among you that you may gain acquisition, and out of their families who are with you, whom they will have produced in your land; they also may become your possession. You may even bequeath them to your sons after you, to receive as a possession; you can use them as permanent slaves. But in respect to your countrymen, the sons of Israel, you shall not rule with severity over one another.”

If you look at the Reverend E. W. Warren’s 1864 tract, Nellie Norton: or, Southern Slavery and the Bible, this same argument is made in defense of American slavery. I am in no way denigrating the strong abolitionists who were religious, like Henry Ward Beecher, Horace Greely, or even John Brown. My point is that it is not a clear-cut as you see it.

The Bible was used, from the earliest days of the Republic, to both defend and refute the “peculiar institution.” Even Thomas Paine, the freethinking deist, showed this point in an excellent essay from 1774 called “African Slavery in America.” Here’s a quote from his essay that illustrates his view:

“Such arguments ill become us, since the time of reformation came, under Gospel light. All distinctions of nations and privileges of one above others, are ceased; Christians are taught to account all men their neighbours; and love their neighbours as themselves; and do to all men as they would be done by; to do good to all men; and Man-stealing is ranked with enormous crimes. Is the barbarous enslaving our inoffensive neighbours, and treating them like wild beasts subdued by force, reconcilable with the Divine precepts! Is this doing to them as we would desire they should do to us? If they could carry off and enslave some thousands of us, would we think it just? — One would almost wish they could for once; it might convince more than reason, or the Bible.”

Your argument about indentured servitude makes sense within the context of scripture, but the moral point remains. Is indentured servitude a moral action? I would argue that it isn’t, since it is still founded on the unequal rights and treatment of human beings. Contracted labor is fine, especially if someone has a right to exit (key to a free society), but indentured servitude is a barbaric practice that should end, much like witch killing and death by torture.

I read up a bit about this family in Norway that you speak of. The claim that they were taken with no doable cause is nonsense. This issue is complicated enough to warrant an investigation by authorities. In Norway, spanking and other forms of corporal punishment on children is illegal, and the children accused their parents of abuse. Now, the children could be lying, and in which case, an investigation could display that. But when there’s the potential abuse of children at play by what seems to me as radical, Pentecostal parents who have no respect for civil laws and civil society, I have no issue with Norway’s version of CPS to come and help these children. Your equating this incident with slavery is morally problematic, and if I was a believer, I wouldn’t have used it as an example.

You’re a smart guy, and you clearly are moral and kind. It must be hard for a believer like you to constantly have to circle a square, which is what religious people have to do when it comes to claims about the Bible. As I’ve said, it is the “Big Book of Multiple Choice.” It can be used to defend or denounce just about anything.

Slavery is upheld, both by the Old and New Testaments. It would’ve been easy for God in the Ten Commandments to add, “thou shalt not own another person as property,” but for some reason he wastes the first few commandments reminding you of how much of a petty, jealous god he is. This, along with not clearly stating that rape and abuse of children is wrong, pretty much nullifies Christianity in my estimation.

Alice Walker is right, and your attempt to justify this Bronze Age religion, is wrong. (If you wish to continue this discussion, let’s do so in a message. It will be easier to type to one another.)

Chad:

Justin, let me first start by apologizing for being brash in our conversation the other day. My desire is not to be mean-spirited but have a reasonable discourse concerning biblical ethics. I want you to know I respect your viewpoint.

I want to start by sharing Job 31:13. It states here: “If i have denied injustice to any of my servants, whether male or female, when they had a grievance against me, what will I do when God confronts me? How will I answer when called to account? Did not He who made me in the womb also make them? Did not the same one form us both within our mothers?

Job is agreed upon by most scholars as one of the oldest books in the Bible. This suggests that the concept of equality and human dignity was taught from the beginning.

You made the comment that all forms of servitude, even voluntarily servitude, is immoral. I do agree that no one should be forced into labor, but what if someone needs to earn a living or learn a trade? Shouldn’t they be “highly encouraged” to provide for their family? Also, what about criminals in jail. Is it wrong for them to be mandated to have certain jobs, like washing dishes or taking care of their laundry? They do receive free food, housing, and clothes. The same happened in the Bible. When some of the foreigners who were at war against the Israelites were captured, they were treated just like prisoners today.

And I know you selected the passage about non-Israelites being captured, but even they were not constituted to a life time of bondage. The Bible says in Deuteronomy 15 they were able to earn their freedom.

Moreover, the institution of slavery was deeply rooted in the culture. Every historical record confirms the Egyptians, Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Ammonites, Edomites, etc were involved. That doesn’t justify the Israelites being involved in this practice, but there was a major difference. The OT Mosaic Law limited and regulated the practice and was determined to correct its inhumane abuses. See Exodus 20:10 and 21:20-27. Also, Israel never captured and sold humans as did the Phoenicians and Philistines.

In the New Testament, Jesus, who Christians believe to be the God-Man, taught through the disciples that there is neither slave nor free, but that all are part of Christ’s church and equally accountable to God (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11; Ephesians 6:5-9). Also, Jesus was a revolutionary. He told people to love his enemies. This was unheard of.

Finally, you are correct in mentioning that the South promoted slavery because of their religious viewpoint, but that doesn’t mean it was a biblical viewpoint. I already shared with you the passage that condemns antebellum slavery by the very fact that people were “stolen.” This was punishable by death in the OT. Also, as mentioned, it was not racially motivated. Remember how I mentioned Moses and other Israelites were able to intermarry among different races? A few examples are an Egyptian Cushite, Ruth a Moabite, Rahab from Jericho, etc. These were different nationalities accepted into the Israelite community.

When we look at our culture today, anyone can take the Bible out of context. Just take a look at Fred Phelps and his “hatred speech” towards everyone. Or think about Jim Jones and others who have enticed people to take their own lives from preaching “the Bible.” This, of course, is diametrically opposed to the Bible.

I understand we will be at a stalemate, but I would like to hear your response. Thanks again for listening to my worldview and  being gracious to sympathize as best as you can. Have a good day.

Justin

I appreciate your response and your willingness to intellectually spar a bit.

I certainly agree with you that the Bible has been used, and will continue to be used, as an instrument or good or ill. But that isn’t the main issue.

My issue is that God could’ve easily said, “Thou shalt not own another person as property.” But he didn’t. Instead, there are obscure and often contradictory statements made in the Bible

The passage of Job is a good one, and its overall point is sound but it still doesn’t address the issue. By calling them servants, which in this context are slaves, Job is still considered superior to them in his society. Even if he is kind and righteous and moral to them, his ownership of them is still morally wrong. I also wouldn’t go so far as to the say the Bible endorses equality in the passage. Concepts of equality, that we often think of today, come from humanistic traditions that both pre-date and supersede Biblical traditions. Overall, this is a difference of opinion for us.

Race has nothing to do with this issue from a Biblical view; this is where we also agree. Whether they are black, white, brown, whatever; people should not be owned as property. The Bible still doesn’t get that across clearly.

And while Jesus does say that we are equal in the eyes of God, that means nothing for the here and now. While you may be equal in the next life, you are still desperately unequal in this one. This may not matter to you that much, but this means everything to me, since I have no belief or interest in the afterlife. Since it is an “if,” I would rather focus on this life and improve things here. However, for the sake of argument, if we’re all equal in the eyes of God, according to your view, it shouldn’t matter if we want to improve things here. But apparently, slavery is still something that goes on the Biblical narrative.

Let’s look at Ephesians 6:5-8 (NASB) in detail:

“Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free.”

Again, it reaffirms what I said earlier, which is that a person will receive equality in the next life if they are ignorantly obedient in this one. Still pretty murky to me.

And while 1 Timothy 1:10 does decry against “menstealers,” its context relates more to those who steal others to sell them into slavery, rather than slave traders in general. So, to be more accurate, the Bible is against a certain form of slavery (human trafficking spurred by kidnapping) rather than slavery broadly. Good, but not quite good enough.

I do not believe that prisoners should work for free. They should be compensated for their work, but it does not have to be at the same value. Most prisons do not make their incarcerated work for free; they may earn bad wages but it is still a wage. Far more moral in my book than servitude.

We should also work towards a society where no person should have to sell themselves into servitude, where all free men and women should be able to work, or not work, as they please. Labor should have just as many rights as the owner. Abraham Lincoln agrees with me on this point. In his first annual message to Congress, Lincoln wrote that, “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

Lincoln’s strongest opponents, those who favored slavery, still continued to use Christianity to defend slavery. Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America, gave a speech in 1861 where he said, “They [meaning the North] were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.”

He also stated that, “It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances, or to question them. For His own purposes, He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made “one star to differ from another star in glory.” The great objects of humanity are best attained when there is conformity to His laws and decrees, in the formation of governments as well as in all things else. Our confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws.”

Like Phelps and Jones who came after him, Stephens used his own view of religion to commit himself to terrible ideas, ideas he got from a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible.

We are at an impasse. You continue to use post hoc rationalizations for the barbarism within the Bible. I respect the fact that you make an effort to make the book more moral than it actually is. It speaks to what I said in our debate last year, which is that most Christians are far more moral than the religion they actually believe in.

I always enjoy our discussions and appreciate your criticisms. It helps me be a better thinker and writer. I hope I have done the same for you.

In that vein, would it be ok if I published our exchange on my blog? I will not edit a single thing (other than typos, ha) and you will have final say on whether it goes up. Let me know what you think. My blog is at www.armyofprinciplesblog.wordpress.com.

Best wishes.

Chad

Hey Justin, thanks for your response. Yes, you can publish our exchange on your blog. Thanks again for the discussion and valid points you brought up.

Justin

Excellent. Thanks for letting me do that and your willingness to discuss things. You made great points as well. It was too good of a discussion to be left to Facebook.

While we disagree on much, Chad and I had a very respectul, if at times  confrontational, dialogue. He’s a really nice guy and very bright; he’s the kind of religious person I always enjoy talking to.

More importantly than our own personal views, it is good that the two of us can have these discussions and remain civil. That’s the goal of free inquiry and expression. I hope to have many more of these discussions in the future.

To learn more about slavery in the Bibile, I highly recommed the Rational Wiki’s entry on the subject.