Monday, February 9, 2009

The Apostle Paul and Social Mobility

I have rather frequently encountered Christian apologists making the claim that evolution and atheism are the foundations of the institution of slavery in America. Though this claim more often relates to eugenics and social Darwinism, the backbone running through this claim relates to institutional racism specifically in the form of slavery. I disavow social Darwinism as a dogmatic belief system. It is not and never was based on empirical science nor the theory of evolution. It is most unfortunate that Christians are often the party to attempt to make the connection between social Darwinism and evolution because it is Christianity that has a clear historical connection with slavery and later ethnic injustices in America. Before Christians criticize social Darwinism, I think it meet that the Christian consider Paul's advice regarding slaves.

Paul states in I Corinthians 7:17-24 reads:

But as God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk. And so ordain I in all churches. Is any man called being circumcised? let him not become uncircumcised. Is any called in uncircumcision? let him not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God. Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called. Art thou called [being] a servant? care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use [it] rather. For he that is called in the Lord, [being] a servant, is the Lord's freeman: likewise also he that is called, [being] free, is Christ's servant. Ye are bought with a price; be not ye the servants of men. Brethren, let every man, wherein he is called, therein abide with God.

In I Corinthians 7, Paul attempts to dissuade the Corinthians from changing their social status regard to marriage, conversion (Gentiles becoming Jews), and slavery. Paul clarifies that his instructions regarding marriage relate to, "the present distress" (7:26) and so it can be implied that Paul's instructions are limited to the "distress" of his generation. Don't forget that Paul is the earliest writer of the New Testament corpus, and he expected Jesus to return in his lifetime. In the above pericope, Paul instructs his readers to "abide in his [social] calling." Though this passage does not entirely imply that it is wrong to consider buying or obtaining freedom, it does nothing to ameliorate the practice or station of slaves in his readers.

In Colossians 3:22, it is stated:

Servants, obey in all things [your] masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God.

Here the author of Colossians (a pseudo-Pauline reworking of Ephesians), maintains that the servant-slave must work for his master as though working for God. This instruction does nothing to address the status of slaves, and it became, in the Christian South, a basis of a code of slave ethics taught by the slave holder to the slave. A similar verse in the more-likely Pauline work of Ephesians 6:5 reiterates this theme.

Deuteronomy 23:15-16 offers the following imperative regarding a slave that escapes from a master:

Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee: He shall dwell with thee, [even] among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best: thou shalt not oppress him.

It is interesting that despite the humanness of this passage that Paul in book of Philemon, returns the escaped slave Onesimus to his master. Paul here has an opportune moment to apply a biblical precept and demonstrate a biblical aversion to slavery. However, there is no such biblical aversion to slavery. Abolish was not served by Paul and his soft approach to slavery. His social ethics discourage social mobility and directly encourage the slave to stay where she is—serving the master as though serving God.


  1. I wasn't aware that people associated slavery with atheism. I've always been aware of the Bible's stance on slavery and the Dutch involvement in slavery.

    Like I said before I have no religious problems with slavery. I'd probably make a very good obedient slave.

  2. The Bible teaches that slaves are to be treated kindly, released after a period of time, and that slaves are to serve their masters well, as unto the LORD.

    We find slavery abhorrent in our day because we know of historical horrendously abusive treatment of our fellow man. Social Darwinism does enter into the equation because certain races were deemed inferior and thus treated like animals.

    The Biblical view of slavery treats it as a fact of life and not necessarily evil. It is man’s inhumanity towards his fellow man that is evil, not necessarily the institution of slavery.

    I do not see how the concept of employee these days is all that much different than slavery. The employee is not free to keep Sabbath, his security is in jeopardy, he is often mistreated, underpaid, etc. Those that have secure jobs are bound to stay there because of the benefit package, etc. even while hating what they do, day after day drudgery, boredom, etc.

    I also think many a poor person struggling to make ends meet, or maybe homeless, would be more than willing to receive room and board in exchange for domestic duties, farm tasks, etc. for a period of time. Maybe we should bring back slavery as a means of dealing with the Great Depression that is upon us. I could use a couple of helpers here on the farm. Zee, how much experience do you have with horses? I've got one that needs to be broke to ride. : )

  3. Hello Tandi,

    Your universals about "biblical" slavery are not universals. In the Pentateuch, gentiles slaves cannot be released. Female slaves cannot be released (unless you read the shemittah laws of Deuteronomy vis-a-vis Exodus and Leviticus). Additionally, Paul teaches social complacency. He does not, even when supported by Mosaic law, advocate the freedom of the individual.

    Social Darwinism is dead. And, even though it happens to have used the term "Darwinsim" it never had anything to do with the science of evolution. It had to do with a dogmatic ideology that proclaimed the backing of science (much like creationism). In the early days of evolutionary anthropology, ideas related to the evolutionary superiority of one ethnicity over another were on the table. These ideas has since been leveled and evolutionary anthropology has unveiled the genetic and adaptive harmony of all "races." It was the Christian element of eugenics that was the most virulent, socially repressive, and long-lived (even after science debunked social darwinism). This is a very significant point...

    Why did eugenics and ideas of race superiority survive longer in Christian circles than in fringe "scientific" circles? Though social darwinism was an ideology, it came to the fore in the absence of hard information and though as the hard information came to the light, it took nearly fifty years to come to terms with the unity of the human race. "Christian" eugenics and slavery were based on dogmatics from the Bible. Insofar that social darwinism maintained intercourse with science, it was able to adjust and expire. Yet, fundamentalist Christianity then and now continues to wedge a distance of ignorance between itself and science. Forget so-called Christian "apologetic..." They will have to apologize at some point in the future for their dishonesty and deceit (I am referring to creationists).

  4. Wow, Scriptulitious, Pilosobot, you guys are mind readers or something. (Oh, that's right, we don't believe in that kind of stuff, right? Sorry . . .)

    I've already written a blog for "Darwin Day" that touches on this. Not the social Darwinism aspect, but about slavery and evolution.

    The February issue of the Smithsonian Magazine has interesting article that hits on this topic. And, a book is out called Darwin's Sacred Cause that shows how Darwin actually has an abolitionist background and expresses hatred for slavery in his personal writings.

    I used to think that the slavery mentioned in the Bible was different from the slavery of the transatlantic slave trade. But then I learned a little more about Sparticus. Maybe I'm wrong here, but Sparticus was a slave and could have been typical of they type of slavery that went on in the New Testament era.

    Sparticus led a slave revolt that didn't end pretty, either.

    That makes me wonder if there really was a difference in the kind of slavery Paul speaks of as opposed to the kind of slavery Sparticus was subjected to.

    I'm not certain, but I question whether these were different.

  5. Slavery is allowed in the Bible. If one doesn't believe in God and believes that things in this life should be fair then I understand how they wouldn't like that. Life is not fair. Do you think life will someday become fair either in your life or in the existance of the human race?