RHE, Abolition, and the Importance of Learning from History
It was a slow day at work today, so I found myself digging through the Rachel Held Evans blog archives and ran across this little gem. If you’re not up for clicking the link and reading the blog (though I highly suggest you do!), let me summarize it for you here. The post is essentially a review of Mark Noll’s work The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. The book, as Rachel describes it, walks you through mainstream Christian beliefs about abolition and the Bible during the mid-nineteenth century. During this time in our history, Christians viewed the right to own slaves much in the same way that Christians today view the sinfulness of homosexuality and other hot-button theological issues: to interpret x, y, and z verses differently than the Church has done traditionally is to undermine the entire Word of God and to stand in direct contradiction to God’s divine will.
I find it to be incredibly disturbing to realize that there was a time in our history when Christians debated abolition so fiercely. We drew lines in the sand and stood for “truth” and defended the clear interpretation of Scripture against those crazy abolitionists whose interpretations were biblically unsound and downright dangerous to the Christian witness.
I get really sad when I think about how little we as the body of Christ have learned over the last century and a half. As I read Rachel’s words, I realized that our attitude today is very much the same as it was then—it’s just that our society has evolved morally, and conservative Christians of that day had no choice but to allow their interpretations of Scripture to evolve with it or regress into irrelevancy. But again, the attitude is still there: God’s law (a.k.a. sound doctrine as established by religious tradition) trumps human conscience and the moral sensibilities of the heart.
Now, does that mean I believe the Word of God is subject to the whims of culture and history? No. It’s just that I think that we human beings are notoriously capable of being wrong and holding to terrible beliefs. But I also think that God built us with resilient moral compasses, and that time has a way of exposing those moral compasses and lining them up with the universal principles of love and grace (even when we fight tooth and nail against such progress). I truly do believe that as we increase in knowledge we also increase in compassion and advocation for the oppressed. And that, I think, is why in the end abolition won out—at least in the United States.
Anyway, I’m digressing. I do that a lot. The main point that I wanted to make as I think through the implications of Rachel’s post is this. The Christians of the mid-nineteenth century were defending the clear interpretation of Scripture (yes, it was clear!! See Deuteronomy 20:10-11, 1 Corinthians 7:21, Ephesians 6:1-5, Colossians 3:18-25; 4:1, and I Timothy 6:1-2). Their treatment of this issue ought to really humble us, and make us think twice before declaring that a certain principle is indisputably in line with scripture. Because as Rachel points out, when looking at scripture through a purely exegetical lens, the anti-abolitionist argument was stronger.
But it was still wrong.
The abolitionists had it right when they appealed to the broader scope of scriptural themes, and to the way Jesus validated the inherent worth of human beings, and to the way Paul said that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). And I understand that the hot-button issues we face today, such as homosexuality and gender equality, are entirely distinct from slavery. But I really believe that we can still learn from the slavery debates of the nineteenth century and apply them thoughtfully to these debates today. In my opinion, these are the three most important things we must learn from our Christian anti-abolitionist for-bearers if we want to avoid the dogmatism that trapped them:
- Sometimes the most straightforward commandments in the Bible aren’t always the ones that are in line with the life and teachings of Jesus, but instead are distorted by an incomplete understanding of culture and history.
- Just because the Church has traditionally upheld a belief for centuries doesn’t mean that it is a right belief.
- We must learn to ask questions, think critically, engage those on the other side of a debate and ask ourselves if we could be wrong.
Christianity’s history with abolition should serve as a very grave reminder that dogmatic devotion to specific principles should never take precedence over the Bible’s over-arching themes of love and grace. For love and grace, the sacredness of human beings made in the image of God, the ability to empathize and celebrate who humans are and who God is…these things always, always trump the letter of the law and the even the clearest commandments of Scripture.