Part of what makes the Bible’s position on slavery difficult to understand is that there is more to the issue than people realize. In the ancient world, slavery was simply assumed to be a part of life. There was no widespread question otherwise – it was simply the way the world worked. Furthermore, unlike the modern West, where we live in democracies and have the ability to lobby for our particular political views, they had nothing like that in the ancient world. The Roman world was ruled by an emperor. While there existed a Senate and other powerful people, there was no such thing as a “vote” for who would be the next Caesar. People had no say in the laws, they just did the best they could to live under the laws that existed.
So when Paul, for example, addresses the issue of slavery, we must understand that it comes as someone who is living under a system in which he has no power whatsoever to change the law. If Paul had tried to change the law, he would have been seen a rebel who was trying to overthrow the Roman government, and he would have been executed very quickly. The only option open to him was to make positive change from within the system.
What Paul did was take the system that existed and modify it to show a Christian perspective. He gave Christians a new way to live, with a renewed focus, under the old system. Two important points stand out. First, when he writes, slaves are addressed directly (as in “slaves, obey your masters.”) Ancient listeners would have picked up on this immediately, because what Paul was doing was talking to the slaves as responsible individuals capable of making their own choices. Unlike Aristotle, who call the slave a “living tool” who “has no deliberative faculty at all,” Paul addresses slaves as individuals who are brothers and sisters in the body of Christ.
Second, Paul seeks to limit abuse in the slavery system by reminding the Christian slaveowners that they also serve The Master in heaven. The idea of reciprocal duties, whereby the powerful party also had responsibility, was unheard of in the ancient world. Slaves were considered property. Even further from the ancient mind was the idea implied by Paul’s reminder of the Master in heaven – slaveowners would be held accountable for how they treated their slaves.
In the modern West, however, we do not have the constraints that Paul had. We have the ability to change the laws. So, should we have gotten rid of slavery? Absolutely! Could Paul have gotten rid of it legally? Not a chance. But, he did the next best thing. He commanded the Christian community to live as if there were no slave or free in the body of Christ. All are brothers and sisters; there are no slaves and masters in Christ. Everyone still had the same roles in the world, but those who lived as a part of the body were commanded to live for the world above, which involved putting aside those old boundaries.
In today’s culture, it is becoming increasingly difficult to talk about religion. In this post I would like to examine two attitudes contributing to this phenomenon that I think are growing. The first attitude is that of apathy. With all of the new technology being developed in such a short period of time and constant pressures driven by the consumerism lifestyle, it is getting harder and harder to grab an individual’s attention. We are “wowed” time and again by products made by companies who feel the need, reinforced by capitalism, to do something great and gain the consumer’s ears. In the course of getting here, culture has shifted to allow citizens a way to process the large amount of marketing being poured into them. Attention spans have dramatically shrunk and pieces of information that aren’t immediately pressing or significant are filtered out. If we can’t see the short term value, why bother? Under this perspective, religion is brushed off by the majority of people. Unless one is at an extremely low point in their life or going through a tragedy, God can be put on the list of things to worry about later.
The second attitude I wish to examine is one’s fear to offend someone overpowering their desire to stand up for what they know is right. This shift is rooted in the new buzzword of this country as of late; tolerance. Everywhere you look, tolerance is being pushed as an ultimate priority. In its application today, this push cannot be sustained since it is accomplished by silencing (being intolerant of) all perspectives which are arbitrarily classified as intolerant. Someday soon the issue of tolerance may grow to a point where it is viewed as intolerant to share your own point of view if it differs from the person next to you. The word tolerance has evolved from looking the other way when things come along that you disagree with to making certain everything you say or do will not offend anyone. Of course, I am not against tolerance by any means since society would not function without it, but I do not believe it is being applied correctly today. If a point of view contains an element of religion in it, there’s always a pause in which people assess if the perspective is bigoted. This makes sharing religious ideals particularly challenging and stressful from the believer’s position. In a split second decision, a fear to offend overwhelms them and they are swept away in the current set in motion by society. I hope after reading this you can look past short term satisfaction, search for a meaning of tolerance outside what it has become, and question the direction culture is taking us.
Over this summer, the members of Why Should I Believe have been reading through a book together. It has served the dual benefit of giving us at least one useful thing to do with our time, while also giving us a great excuse to meet up each week, hang out, and discuss the book. I have especially enjoyed our seasonal “book club” for that latter benefit, but I have also learned a lot of invaluable knowledge from our chosen book and it is a bit of that I have decided to share publicly for my contribution to our weekly blog post (which though we didn’t announce it, is something we are doing now).
We are reading through Tactics by Gregory Koukl, and I have found it refreshingly different from most of the apologetics books that I have read. Rather than focusing on passing on knowledge through arguments, evidence, and the like, it focuses on how to actually engage in strong intellectual discourse. This is the difference between tactics and strategy, and distinction I had not been previously aware of. Strategy is the big picture, the knowledge, the mental resources. Tactics focus on the situation at hand, the particulars, the maneuvering within a conversation. Strategy is essential, but without the support of tactics one cannot properly manage or finesse a conversation in the direction where their knowledge may be shared.
Since my space here is limited, I am going to pass on two tidbits from Koukl that when properly applied can help make even the most difficult conversation productive. These are purely tactical so their value is huge when a topic comes up that you know nothing about. They are based around two questions: “What do you mean by that?” and “How did you come to that conclusion?”. The first helps you to gain information and forces the other guy to clearly think about the coherency of his claim. Don’t let people skirt by on ambiguous statements. The second question properly places the burden of proof on the person making a claim. If they cannot provide any reason that they should believe their claim, you don’t need to provide reasons why they shouldn’t.
Both of these initial approaches focus entirely on the other person’s position, so it protects you if the subject is something you are not that familiar with. Being confident in these two things you should be able to generally respond to anyone’s engagement. Learn everything you can about their position and how they got there. If you see no glaring internal inconsistencies, and you don’t have the knowledge to more deeply address their view, then you can politely ask for time to think about. Take your leave and go develop the strategy to back up your tactics.