Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Slavery Revisited: the lesson of John Newton

The concept of sin and the concept of the life of the believer are quite different in the New Testament. You have to understand that or you will continue be perplexed. The concept of sin in the NT is not don’t do this or that, but rather not to desire anything contrary to God’s character and, in all that you do, do it to the glory of God. The good news is that it is even more impossible to obey than the demands of the OT.

This is made evident in the story of the rich young ruler, Mark 10:17-22, (whom I believe, contrary to what is usually taught, was saved.) The rich young ruler was "saved" [not really, hence the quotes] by the OT, that is he obeyed the law perfectly—or so he said. And Jesus accepted that claim, at least for the sake of making a point, but then told him he had another requirement, that he sell everything and give it to the poor. Now in fact there is no such legalistic requirement, otherwise we all are lost, but Jesus was pointing out that under his law, tougher than Moses’ law, this man stood condemned, not because of specific deeds but because of the desires of his heart. Such is the condition of us all.

The other point about the NT is that it gives all believers a mission: to be witnesses for Christ regardless of their position—indeed in many cases in spite of their position. Rather than being given instructions for creating theocracies based on God’s New and Improved Civil Code, we are given more or less the opposite command: do you live under oppression? Obey and pray for your leaders. Find yourself born a slave? Same thing. Thus the instructions to slaves, found in Eph. 6:5 and elsewhere are understood: you may have the miserable lot of a slave, but even there, or maybe especially there, you can live a life that glorifies God.

Does that mean slaves cannot rebel? That in all circumstances it would be sinful? Not at all, because, again, the NT is not a book of do this, don’t do that. It requires us to use our brain. It requires actions that glorify God. So I would certainly think that the Christians working to free the American slaves were acting to glorify God, and hence their actions were not sinful. It is all muddled because, again, it is a question of the heart more than the deed.

As I have said elsewhere, in my opinion what captures the NT law more accurately than anything is the simple little WWJD bracelet. Except even that is too much OT and not enough NT. The NT version should really be: What would Jesus Want or Think?

That gets us to the some problematic passages, for example Eph. 6:9, that instructs masters, not slaves. I could try to weasel out and say that this is a warning to unbelieving masters, but I don’t think it is—although the lesson is there for unbelieving masters as well—you will be held accountable for how you treat your servants. But actually, as I said, this applies, I believe, to Christian masters.

To understand this, again, requires the mindset of the NT, not the OT. If the OT way of thinking simply continued, then Jesus would have issued a command abolishing slavery. But a master forced to give up slaves is not glorifying to God, while a master who comes to realize that owning slaves is contrary to God’s character is. In the meantime, there is a first-order command here, and the master is reminded that he will be held accountable for the treatment of his slaves.

I believe what transpired is clear. Christianity came, albeit shamefully slowly, to realize that slavery (and, for another example, virulent anti-Semitism) was contrary to God’s law and worked (with others) to abolish it. This bootstrapping of human behavior is what Christ sought with his law, not an instantaneous transformation to another divinely provided legal code a la the OT.

John Newton, the Perfect Example

To put it another way, consider the life of John Newton, composer of Amazing Grace. Probably most people know the basics: he was a slave trader. Then he got saved. Then he wasn’t a slave trader. But what most people do not know and are sometimes astonished (especially Christians) to find out is that he didn’t give up slave trading immediately. There was no epiphany that his occupation was ungodly. That is, he went through three stages:
  1. Slave trader, unbeliever
  2. Slave trader, believer
  3. Former slaver trader, believer
Is trading slaves contrary to God’s Law? Of course it is. Does that mean that Newton was not a Christian in stage 2? No, he was as much a Christian as anyone else who is a Christian. We all do things contrary to God’s law, more or less all the time. (For example, I am writing this with maybe a 1% motivation that it glorifies God and a 99% motivation that readers will find it clever.) Does that mean John Newton won’t be held accountable? No, he will be held accountable for his deeds and thoughts for his whole life, as will we all. Does it mean the God expected Newton to make it, at some point, from stage 2 to 3? It certainly does, and the bible is full of the commands like “work out your salvation with fear and trembling”—that is, you are commanded to improve, continually.

I believe Christianity’s response to slavery is John Newton’s writ large. Jesus had no interest in abolishing it by divine command. That may have done a lot of good in a near term humane sense, but not in an eternal sense, and not for the mysterious glory of God. Much better is exactly what happened—we came to realize, however slowly, that human bondage was an affront to God. The lack of an explicit command to abolish slavery was a feature, not a bug.

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