Sometimes the Exceptions Reveal How Far We’ve Gone with the Rule
Last week, Doug Wilson and I carried on an internet conversation about his book, Black and Tan, and about the Bible’s teaching regarding slavery. I began the exchange with an explanation for responding publicly rather than privately, then continued by first attempting to summarize Wilson’s views on race and slavery as I understood them in Black and Tan. I followed that post by attempting to engage the underlying logic of the book as I saw it. Wilson responded very graciously in a post that that centered the discussion on the difference between the formal authority of Scripture and actual lived obedience to it. The discussion continued with my treatment of the biblical texts regarding slavery, which included an argument for immediatism in abolishing slavery.
As you can imagine, or perhaps have experienced, such conversations across ethnic lines are potentially explosive. Feelings can run high. Tongues can run loose. Hearts can run away with us.
So I have been completely delighted to see the Lord’s blessings on our exchanges. It seems to me that Wilson has worked hard to be charitable at every point, to engage the substance of my critiques after first accurately summarizing them, and to respond with further insight and clarity. It’s been the best kind of conversation about the hardest kind of topic. What more could we hope for?
Well, we could hope for some agreement. And, by God’s grace, Doug’s last post, “Love Is Never Later,” commits to a significant amount of agreement regarding the Bible’s teaching on slavery. I was surprised to learn our exegetical approach was more or less identical. I’ll let Wilson summarize the points of agreement as he sees them:
I agree completely with his first point about the authority of the global texts. The Golden Rule, to do as you would be done by, is absolutely relevant in discussions of slavery. Not only is it relevant, it would be relevant in intensely practical and immediate ways.
I agree with his second point about Philemon also. In fact, the only thing I differ with in this section is his apparent assumption that we differ. Speaking of the release of Onesimus, Thabiti says: “It seems to me that Paul expects this ‘favor,’ his ‘appeal on the basis of love,’ to be granted immediately—not gradually as Wilson argues in Black and Tan.”
But I agree completely with Thabiti about the manumission of Onesimus. Given the strength of Paul’s argument, I believe Onesimus was set free immediately, or within a very short time.
I agree with his third point about Paul pushing in a particular direction (toward liberty) in his household code instruction. Paul is working in the same direction as the Spirit of God is working, and that is always in the direction of liberty. That is what the gospel does.
With regard to his last point about the prohibition of “man-stealing,” I agree with most of his point, but not all of it. I do agree that the prohibition of man-stealing (or man-trafficking) is not only in effect when an ocean is involved. I believe that running domestic slave marketplaces would not have been a lawful occupation for believers at that time, any more than being a maritime slave-trader would have been. But it is when you get out to the end of the road and to the simple fact of ownership that the issue gets more complicated. That is where and when I believe the household codes of the New Testament provide some boundaries and some instruction, in the context of love. So I say this agreeing with Thabiti that, everything else being equal, a Christian master was always and everywhere under the law of Christ to seek the best interest of his slaves, as though he were in their position.
I thought it good to let Wilson’s last post soak in over the weekend. There’s so much agreement here to appreciate. In fact, in reflecting on Wilson’s post it seems profitable to scrap posts on the potential differences we might have on the nature of Southern slavery and discussion of Wilson’s post-mil views of the South as a Christian nation.
I’m fully aware that discussants have varying views on how bad slavery was or how “Christian” the South was, especially in light of slavery. Suffice it to say that there were atrocities well beyond the atrocities some have been willing to admit, and there were kindnesses well beyond anything some others would admit. Most slaves were not on large plantations with ruthless overseers, but in households of four or so. Plantation life could be dull while households could be cruel. The everyday existence of slaves and owners could both confirm and violate every stereotype and expectation we might have. So while discussions of the nature of slavery have their place, given the agreements we’ve already reached about immediate abolition treating those topics would be straining at so many gnats. Instead, it seems profitable to move to the exceptions that Wilson mentions in his last post, which perhaps (?) illustrate one key point of remaining disagreement about the nature of slavery.
I think the word immediately might need to be qualified somewhat. What about a slave-owner who never bought or sold any slaves? He inherited the plantation, and everybody was already there. Or suppose he just had two slaves, both in their eighties? Or what if he, like Jefferson, would not sell a slave family unless the family itself approved of it? I agree that Paul heavily leans toward setting slaves free, but there are other times when he does make lesser appeals for the meantime. He urges masters, for example, to “forbear threatening” (Eph. 6:9). And he tells slaves who have masters who have not yet picked up on the compelling logic of Philemon to not despise them (1 Tim. 6:2).
So Thabiti and I have agreed on the need for immediate, practical obedience. But immediate obedience might not mean immediate manumission. Wherever it did mean that, Thabiti and I agree. But suppose I am a pastor in 1858, and a young man who is a fine Christian comes to me for counsel. He has just inherited the family plantation, owns 25 slaves as a result, is troubled by the situation, and wants to know what to do. My counsel would be designed to get him (and his slaves) out of that circumstance as quickly as possible — so long as it was consistent with the well-being of everyone. In other words, start implementing the law of Christ today. But because of the outside circumstances, the full process might take years — freeing the children when they were born, teaching literacy and productive trades, providing for the elderly, etc.
In these comments Wilson qualifies his sense of immediacy with a concern for the well-being of the slave to be freed and some attention to the particulars of a situation. I agree with Wilson that there may be situations where an instant manumission may not be practical—as in the case of very young children being freed without support, family, education, or trade.
Exceptions that Reveal the Rule
But, Wilson’s proposal raises a question for me that I think is pertinent in most of the exceptions Wilson imagines: Why not free the slave while at the same time providing for the now former slave’s needs anyway?
Excepting the case of very young children separated from natural parents, most of the people Wilson imagines could make their own decisions about their future and should be granted the right to do so with material support from their former owners. That support, I would argue, would have been part and parcel of the slave owner’s genuine repentance and indeed owed to the slave whose labor was never properly compensated.
If we agree that man-stealing is contrary to the gospel (1 Tim. 1:10) and that the system built upon it was likewise sinful, then it seems clear we must reject the very notion of one man owning another under those conditions. This is important because the most dehumanizing offense of American chattel slavery occurs at precisely this point. The abuses of body were one thing. But the abuses of human spirit, including the innate desire for liberty, were more significant crimes. That one man would constrict the liberty of another man at his whim and for his pleasure violates every natural inclination of humanity. Such bondage is contrary to even the natural spirit of liberty, the same animating spirit that prompted another war (some would say unjust) called the War of Independence, where already-free White men fought for even more freedom from an absentee government that had the gall to tax them without representation. If the spirit of liberty was alive and justified then, it seems we ought to allow that same spirit to thoroughly leaven our discussions of slavery’s end a hundred years later.
I realize we’re down into hypothetical exceptions at this point. And it’s not difficult for me to imagine that on many exceptions Wilson and I would likely be in complete agreement. But, even in these exceptional cases, I’m arguing for a recognition of the deeper principle: Unless a person sells himself into slavery (see Lev. 25, for example), no man has a right to own another man. Even in the exceptional cases of old age, very young age, disability, etc., we should apply this principle while simultaneously ameliorating the effects of enslavement as best as possible.
Why Do People Think Wilson Defends Slavery?
I’m pushing for this principle for another reason also. I’ve watched many people leaving comments vigorously contend that Wilson “defends slavery,” and I’ve watched Wilson vigorously deny the charge. He’s been just as consistent in denying the charge as people have been in making it. So we’re left wondering why so many readers of Black and Tan think he defends Southern slavery when he insists he does no such thing.
I think it has to do with this issue of working the call for immediate abolition down into the bone and marrow of our view of Southern slavery. When Wilson calls for a Southern “gradualism” and “reformation” rather than “revolution,” he appears to leave open the possibility of slavery’s continuance in the South. When he contends that slavery in the South wasn’t “Apocalyptic Evil” but “Normal Sin,” he appears to suggest that the continuance of slavery would be in the bounds of tolerance, the kind of normal indwelling sin that will be with us until we’re freed from these bodies of death. When Wilson expresses his appreciation for some Southern theologians who themselves defended slavery in ways Wilson does not, or exhorts “patience” as part of the remedy to the ordinary sins of slavery, he appears to side with the oppressors over the oppressed. When he argues the South was an advanced “Christian nation” and that it “has long carried the stigma of racism and bigotry,” he appears to defend and laud that nation and time despite the “abomination” (his word) called slavery.
Taken together, these minor points (I take them to be minor given his stated agreements above) take on a prominence in Black and Tan. Protests to the contrary fall flat because these sentiments, peppered throughout the book, occur with such regularity and rhetorical force the reader can be forgiven for thinking they’re actually a bigger part of Wilson’s thinking than perhaps they are.
It seems to me that Wilson’s firmer exegetical ground would be strengthened if it were unencumbered by statements that could reasonably be interpreted as defenses of American chattel slavery. His clear denunciations of racism and “racial vainglory” and white supremacy would be heard more clearly if they weren’t spoken in this din of potential counter messages. Moreover, his pastoral concern for obedience to the Scripture when the Bible is most unpopular and Christians are most likely to be embarrassed or bullied (see this for a right now example) would be seen and valued for the prescient insight that it is. In short, the aspects of Wilson’s thinking that would be most helpful to the Church of our Lord are being drowned out by these uncertain trumpet sounds.
So much would be gained if Wilson dropped those points or restated them in a manner more consistent and proportional to his true views of slavery and its abolition. I don’t presume to tell him what is worth defending, explaining, or revising in this history. I really don’t. But, with the apostle Paul, I would appeal to Wilson on the basis of love for future writing that continues the kind of measured and charitable tone he has used in our exchanges. It would make a significant difference for the unity of the church and learning from one another when we differ on important but secondary matters.