Thursday, May 29, 2008

Scripture and the underground railroad

Colossians 3.12 Slaves, obey your masters.

Does this mean that Harriet Tubman was breaking the laws of God by helping slaves to escape from their masters? What do you think? This links to the Harriet Tubman website.


Anonymous said...

Did the word "slave" then mean the same thing as "slave" today?

IlĂ­on said...

VR: "Colossians 3.12 Slaves, obey your masters.

Does this mean that Harriet Tubman was breaking the laws of God by helping slaves to escape from their masters? What do you think?

I Timothy 1:9-10 "... 9 We also know that law[a] is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers,
10 for adulterers and perverts, for
slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine ..."

It's not as though the Bible (in either OT or NT), and contrary to a certain type of anti-Christian mythology, actually *approves* of slavery.

It is the Bible -- despite that it does not use the forceful language we woodenly literal-minded moderns might like -- and only the Bible, which de-legitimized the very concept of enslaving human beings.

The laws of God *explicitly* prohibit murder. In the NT we're commanded to pray for our rulers.

So (and regardless of whether any of them were Christians), were the conspirators of the July 20 Plot attempting to break God's laws?

Hitler was the ruler of that nation. Assinating him ... if done by his subjects ... would be murder. Would it have been an immoral act had they succeeded?

normajean said...

I like what Darek Barefoot says about slavery in the New Testament. See Vic's post on 8-20-07 - a reply to Larry Arnhart.

Darek writes: A reasonable person can appreciate that quite a few commands in the Mosaic Law were interim guidelines geared to a particular cultural setting. They accommodated societal values and institutions that could not be overturned during that period of history (Matt 19:8), but established a moral trajectory that led away from them. The New Testament contains that which the Hebrew law was aiming toward.

The commands about slavery in the New Testament do not endorse the institution as such. In an environment where slavery was a pervasive fact of life, it is understandable that slaves were better advised to give good service than to provokes conflicts, and that Christian masters were counseled to go easy on their slaves. There are no commands to take slaves, nor any blanket value judgment in favor of slavery. Least of all is there anything than can be construed as justification for using government to promote and protect slavery, or for resorting to force against governmental authorities in order to keep slaves as occurred during the American Civil War. Christians are commanded to be obedient citizens unless the government orders them to disobey God. First-century Christians suffered the plundering of their material goods and even the loss of their lives without offering violent resistance. They could not have even begun to contemplate organized violence in defense of slavery, of all things.

If theology could be established by violent means, then Jesus and the early Christians were proved wrong. Jesus was crucified and the early Christians were frequently slaughtered. Obviously, the tenor of Christianity runs in another direction, that the perpetrators of violence are more likely to be the losers in God's eyes.

normajean said...

The bible says that we should not lie. But from this does it therefore necessarily follow that there are never any mitigating circumstances where lying is appropriate? Well, clearly not! If we read about Rahab we see she is commended when she lies to save a life (see Joshua 2 and her commendation in James 2:25). There implication from scripture seems to be that God takes into account mitigating circumstances, the character doing the act, and the motive behind the act into consideration.

Darek Barefoot said...


"You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall live with you in your midst, in the place which he shall choose . . ." Deut 23:15-16

The particular issue you raise can be illustrated in the life of the man who became St. Patrick. He was kidnapped from Roman Britain by Irish raiders and enslaved. Later he said that he heard the voice of God commanding him to escape, which he did.

Did Patrick violate the command to be obedient to masters? Or did his kidnapping prevent him from obeying other divine commands, such as the one to honor one's parents--from who he had been forcibly separated.

In the New Testament, slaves are told to be obedient even to masters who are hard to please. I don't think this can be stretched to include masters who were sadistic, murderous, or monstrous. Also, there is always an implicit exception to obedience to authority that commands violation of the explicit commands of God (Acts 5:29).

Becoming free of slavery is acknowledged in the NT as a good thing (1 Cor 7:21). I take this to mean becoming free by prudent (usually legal) and non-violent means in keeping with the particular circumstances. Race-based slavery in the antebellum South had its own peculiar circumstances, which have to be considered.

Rob Grano said...

"Race-based slavery in the antebellum South had its own peculiar circumstances, which have to be considered."

Very true. For a good examination of some of the Scriptural and theological disagreements over this issue, see Mark Noll's "The Civil War as a Theological Crisis."