Back of the Envelope has been blogging about Christianity and slavery. Part 1 sets up the series by asking what it is that makes slavery wrong without giving any answers yet. Part 2 looks at Christianity and slavery with respect to the biblical passages and some of the ensuing history of the church on this issue. I don't know if he plans any more or if this was all he intended to do, but he's already said enough to spur me on to record some of my thoughts. I agree with much of what he's said, but I take a more radical view. I don't think there's anything in principle wrong with slavery. In this post I'll explain why I think that, which will basically amount to explaining what I think slavery is. In my next post, I expect to look at what the biblical passages regarding slavery have to say and what I think the Christian's attitude toward slavery should be. [Update: this has turned into a series]
I've never really thought otherwise, but I don't think I'd ever explicitly put into words until Wink told me one time that he'd gotten in an argument with some other Christians about the issue, and they seemed to think he was uttering the utmost of heresies when he mentioned that he didn't think slavery was wrong in itself. After all, isn't slavery one of the most obvious examples people use to try to show that there must be some objective moral truths? It's one of the few moral beliefs in the orthodoxy of American moral thinking that no one dare challenge.
Donald asks what makes slavery wrong and why it's so offensive that everyone should recognize how horrific it is simply by thinking about it. I say that there's nothing that makes slavery itself wrong, nothing that should make people so horrified that they should think slavery itself is wrong. People are often rightly horrified about some of the practices of slavery that the world has seen. What's horrific about those cases is not the slavery itself, though. It's other factors.
Donald actually gives a hint of movement in the direction I'm thinking when he acknowledges that a serf's role in the socioeconomic system of the middle ages wasn't much better than that of a slave, and an indentured servant is a little more autonomous than that. I don't think that's the right way to look at it, but that's a good start. What's more accurate, I would say, is that there's a scale from those most enslaved to those least enslaved, and each case of enslavement is thus a matter of degree. I'm a slave to my employers. They don't have as much control over me as slaveowners in the 19th century U.S. South did, but they have enough control over me that it's not entirely inaccurate to describe me as a waged slave working under their authority and serving their needs. In exchange, they give me some money. 19th century U.S. plantation slaves didn't get money in exchange, but they did get food and shelter out of the deal. The conditions they lived under were terrible, but the difference between them and me is really only a matter of degree. It's a great degree of difference, but there's a whole continuum between the two cases.
It's also worth remembering that not all those who were called slaves in those times were in positions like that. Some of them were much more like what we call nannies today. They lived in nice homes. They were close friends with the families they worked for. They were cared for nicely. The only difference was that they had no ability to get up and leave if they wanted out of their job. That's a big difference, but it's only one difference, and when it comes to working conditions they often had it made. I'm sure some of the house slaves were abused, especially among those who had many slaves with just some in the house, but families who only owned one slave tended to be extremely close with their slaves, as if they were part of the family (at least in the South; northerners apparently rarely had such close relations with their slaves).
Now it's also worth mentioning that this continuum between absolute slave and absolute freedom, the extremes of which almost no one ever reaches, gets further complicated by the fact that most people have multiple masters. I have two employers myself. I'm beholden to them for specific things, and I have no freedom to violate the contracts I've signed with them. I also have a government that gives me obligations. When they call me for jury duty, I have to go. Otherwise I'd be violating a federal crime, and the country sherriff would come pick me up. Under a monarchy or in a totalitarian regime, this is stronger. The government truly is a sort of lord and master. A citizen under that government is a sort of slave. This is all too clear with serfdom, as Donald mentioned. It's only a matter of degree that less constricting systems are different.
Another thing worth noticing is that the institutions that are more commonly called slavery vary greatly. Donald mentions the differences between penalties for slaves running away in different system. In the American system, it was common to maim the slave's foot to prevent further running. In the Torah system, a slave who was wounded when chased after running away had to be set free! What the Bible calls slavery was often the bankruptcy in that socioeconomic system (though there were other reasons people became slaves). Indeed, in these cases one would voluntarily become a slave to pay off one's debts. American slavery began with kidnapping, most commonly of whole tribes by other African tribes, who then sold them to Europeans (and occasionally, though nowhere near as often, by Europeans rounding them up, as popular movies try to pretend things usually went). In most systems of slavery, there were a few ways out, though it was never easy. That was never the case in the American system unless the master felt merciful and set them free. The Torah system required the release of slaves every seventh year, with all debts forgiven. So there's a wide range of cases even of the practices that have been called slavery, never mind the ones that I'm arguing are also only different from those cases by matters of degree.
Now given that slavery is something that can be administered to different degrees, since it's really just the amount of control someone has over someone else and the amount of autonomy that second person therefore lacks, it shouldn't be so hard to see why I think slavery isn't in principle wrong. Whether it's wrong depends on what other features you tack on to the control over someone who therefore has a lack of autonomy. I don't think it's wrong in principle to own someone and demand their service in specific ways, because that sort of thing happens all the time. The practices we call
Update: Somehow I failed to mention one of the most important things. It's not that I didn't think of it. It's just that in the construction of this post it didn't come up at any particualar point, and in my rush to finish within the time I had I didn't mention it at all. One of the worst aspects of one of the worst kinds of slavery ever was the racially-based element in American slavery. The thought that a whole race of people is somehow deserving of servitude while no one else is or that a whole race of people has a right to enslave anyone they want out of another whole race is pretty disgusting.