The Dangers of Uninformed Virtue-signaling
A couple years ago, researching an article, I ran across a Christian website where the author harshly condemned slavery as the most grievous evil imaginable and said that slavery was condemned throughout the Bible. This has been a popular American view since the end of the Civil War, but it is astonishingly misinformed and blatantly unbiblical considering numerous contradictory passages and verses in both the Old and New Testament.
The purpose of this article is not Civil War history, but it is necessary to know how our ideas about slavery have been influenced by the war and distorted by post-war propaganda. The most common American narrative of the Civil War is that it was only about slavery, but while that view has become almost obligatory in an era of woke political correctness, it is considerably misinformed. Campaigning for Abraham Lincoln on September 27, 1860, at a New York City auditorium, Thaddaeus Stevens, who became Chairman of the powerful U.S. House Ways and Means Committee from March 1861 to March 1865, told a huge audience that the two most important issues in the coming November election were preventing slavery from spreading to new states and raising the Tariff [by about 67%], but of the two, passing the Morrill Tariff was the most important. Neither Lincoln nor the 1860 Republican Platform called for abolishing slavery.
The Civil War did providentially end slavery, but the idea that the Civil War was a Union moral crusade to end slavery is post-war propaganda. This propaganda helped to excuse more than 880,000 military and civilian deaths and the destruction of the Southern economy to prevent Southern secession. Over 80 percent of U.S. tax revenue came from tariffs paid by the South, and the tariff burden on major British and French customers significantly hindered the profitability of Southern agricultural exports. This 40-year chain of abuses made States Rights especially important in preventing Northern political and economic exploitation of the South. Southern secession and low tariffs, however, would have been ruinous to the Northern economy, especially to the shipping industry, and would have devasted the Northern taxbase, which drew most of it revenues from tariffs paid at Southern ports.
It is good that by God’s Providence legalized slavery in the United States is behind us. There are numerous ways in which slavery or too much power over people in many situations leads to easy abuse and injustice, limits individual development and opportunity, and can hold back a whole society. It is clear from the stories of Joseph and Moses in Genesis and Exodus that freedom is a blessing preferable to slavery. However, it is also clear that that while the Bible does not promote slavery and warns against mistreatment of slaves, it does not per se condemn slavery but rather softens it by regulation. It is therefore dangerous for us to virtue-signal about the “evil” of slavery without consulting at least its regulation in Leviticus, especially Leviticus 25: 44-46, Abrahamic chapters 14, 16, and 17 in Genesis. and the letters of Paul and Peter in the New Testament. Numerous other passages in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy address important slavery issues.
Using the definition of slavery as “servitude for life, descending to the offspring,” the word for slave fitting this definition is doulos in Greek, ebed in Hebrew, and servus in Latin. These may be translated as slave, bondservant, or servant in English, but they all represent the same legal status. Hired servants are almost always distinguished from these by rendering mishotos in Greek, sakir in Hebrew, and mercenaries in Latin. The actual conditions of slavery varied widely over history and cultures. The use of “servant” to describe a slave in many English Bible translations is justified according to contest. In many cultures and eras, slaves were treated more like traditional English servants, and treatment rather than legal status seemed a better translation for reader understanding.
In Genesis 14:14, we learn that Abraham had 318 able and trusted male bondservants, who were considered part of his household. In Genesis 16: 6-9, we learn that Sarai had treated her Egyptian slave Hagar harshly, and Hagar fled to the wilderness. There the Angel of the Lord met Hagar, and she explained, “ I am fleeing from my mistress, Sarai.” She got what is probably an astonishing answer to those who elevate slavery to ultimate evil. “The Angel of the Lord said to her, ‘Return to your mistress and submit to her.”
Leviticus 25 has numerous verses on regulating slavery, but Leviticus 25: 44-46 is sufficient for a modest understanding:
“ As for your male and female slaves whom you may have; you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever. You may make slaves of them, but over your brothers, the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another ruthlessly.”
The New Testament letters of Paul and Peter, however, give the clearest instructions on how Christians should deal with the slavery issues.
First Timothy contains a warning for those who are obsessed with drumming up grievances about slavery and ethnic-identity politics. The first Bishop of Ephesus, Timothy, had encountered some controversy in his young church, because among its members were both masters and slaves. Evidently, someone in the church was using the issue to stir up enmity, perhaps for some personal or political advantage. In a letter to his protégé, the Apostle Paul writes with divinely inspired authority addressing the issue:
1 Timothy 6:1-5, English Standard Version (ESV):
“Let all who are under a yoke as slaves regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved. Teach and urge these things. If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.”
The King James version adds to the end of verse 5: “from such withdraw thyself.”
2 Timothy 3:5 adds: “,,,having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.”
Paul also elaborates on the proper conduct and relationships between masters and slaves in his general letter to the Ephesian Church, Ephesians 6: 5-9
“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their master and yours is in heaven,
Paul writes something very similar to the Church at Colossus, Colossians 3:22-25, 4:1. I will only quote 4;1: “Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.” His instructions to Titus confirm the same themes.
Peter also comments in 1 Peter 2: 18-19:
“Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God.”
There are also specific prohibitions governing man-stealing or kidnapping (Exodus 21:26, Deuteronomy 24:7) and other special penalties for specific mistreatments of slaves in chapter 21 of Exodus. There is favorable treatment for escaped slaves (Deuteronomy 23: 15-16), favoring the position of most Northern States. The compromise U.S. Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was a violation of Deuteronomy 23. In general, Biblical slave laws called for punishment or compensation for physical mistreatment of slaves. Most Southern States enforced laws against physical mistreatment of slaves.
The most important overall themes in the Apostolic verses are mutual honor, respect, and kindness between masters and slaves, patiently relying on the wisdom and goodness of God’s Providence for peace and justice.
Slavery had many serious faults and was highly vulnerable to abuses, but condemning as absolute evil, what God has not condemned, is a dangerous step into arrogant moral and spiritual error likely to bring woeful consequences.
The image of slavery in the mind of most Americans is one of chains, whips, grinding humiliation and injustice. This was true is a minority of reprehensible cases, but not the vast majority of cases. Interviews with over 2,000 former slaves during the Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration indicated that more than 80 percent of them had a favorable opinion of their former masters. Less than five percent had an unfavorable opinion, and few of those rose to the level that created best-selling novels.
The most distorted images, however, continue to be exploited and politicized today, and this inflated emphasis has been wreaking havoc with the American social, economic, political, and spiritual fabric. This has spawned a destructive totalitarian hysteria comparable to the Salem Witch Trials and Mao’s Cultural Revolution. It is bringing ruin on education, our Armed Forces, businesses, and trust in media, elections, and our justice system. Beneath the self-righteous virtue-signaling of its supporters is a campaign of hatred based on historical ignorance, distortion, and the rejection of Biblical relevance and authority.
We read in Genesis 37:26-28 that Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. But many years later, Joseph’s ultimate reaction was forgiveness and reconciliation. John McArthur points out that Paul, Peter, James, Jude, and John sometimes opened the first verse of a letter calling themself “the slave of Christ” for example, Paul’s Romans 1:1. This is apparently too much humility for some, who severely attacked McArthur for correctly translating doulos as slave.
Such forgiveness and humility in the authoritative teachings of Scripture strongly contrast with the hateful cancel-culture and ignorant virtue-signaling that we continually endure today!