Slavery

I get tired of friends telling me that slavery isn’t necessarily so bad, that it was different in Old Testament times. Is that so? What do you do with this?

When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property. ~ Exodus 21: 20, 21

Is it surprising, then, that the new Americans used the Bible to justify owning people? Is it surprising that non-whites were not permitted to vote in America, the land of the free? That slaves were counted as 3/5 of a person for purposes of apportioning representatives, even though they themselves couldn’t vote?

Justifications

Even today, 150 years after the Civil War was fought over the issue of slavery, or “states rights,” there are some who try to justify the practice of kidnapping human beings, of shipping them like cargo to be bought and sold, and pared for breeding purposes like cattle. It is said that the practice was reasonable because some slave owners were kindly and just, and didn’t arbitrarily separate families, although they legally could have.

I suppose they have their reasons for insisting on these rationalizations. If my family had owned people, had used slave labor to earn riches that were passed down to me, I might be tempted to argue that they weren’t evil for that. Otherwise, if it was wrong, I might be asked to pay reparations out of my ancestors’ ill-gotten gain, and I can’t afford it. I’ve already spent what they left me. And why should the money go to those lazy n…, er, people of color?

There is also that issue of the trustworthiness of the Bible. It clearly permits, if not condones, slavery. The Bible can’t be wrong, therefore, slavery must have been acceptable back then. It must at least have been the lessor evil, that without slavery, those slaves would have been even worse off. Surely there were worse things than being stolen from your family and forced to sexually service your new master, worse things than being forced to mate and raise children to serve your master, then to be sold and never see your family again.

We Weren’t that Stupid

You know what I think? I think that there were European-Americans before the Civil War, at the time of the Constitutional Convention, who knew that slavery was wrong, who had to settle for compromises with the slave owners in order to hold the Union together. I would be willing to bet that there were people in the Middle East 3,000 years ago who knew it was wrong, but had to go along with the will of those in power, who had to wait for a better time, and who sometimes managed to get the word out that it was wrong.

The word came to Jeremiah from YHVH after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to proclaim freedom for the slaves. Everyone was to free their Hebrew slaves, both male and female; no one was to hold a fellow Hebrew in bondage. ~ Jeremiah 34: 8, 9

No, that didn’t last long. Masters changed their minds, apparently needing help with the crops and the housework. Former slaves couldn’t make a go of it, and sold themselves into slavery again. There weren’t any social safety nets back then, but the principle was there. The prophet Jeremiah knew that freedom was good and bondage was wrong, at least for the Jews, and others must have realized that, too.

Reality Bites

There are those who speak of being enslaved in the sense of having to pay taxes, of having to obey restrictive laws or regulations, or of having to work for meager wages. If one is free to leave the country or quit a job and look for another, that is not slavery. Real slavery of over 12 million people, more than were enslaved before the Civil War, still exists throughout our world, including America. Girls are trapped into sexual service, immigrants are tricked into perpetual debt that only grows larger as they work, children are forced into hard labor.

Slavery is not publicly acceptable anymore, but it hasn’t gone away. In fact it has grown in absolute numbers, but at least we are aware that it is not right to subjugate human beings. It’s not even right in Mississippi, which technically ratified the 13th amendment to the Constitution (which abolished slavery) in December of 1995, and finally finished the paperwork to make it official on February 7, 2013.

If you have been literally enslaved, you have a right to file complaints. If your family was held down by generations of oppression, you have every right to try to reestablish your dignity and your place in society. On the other hand, if you don’t like paying income tax on your hard-earned income, you won’t get sympathy from me. Paying your share is not slavery.

Title image credit: Marshall Ramsey, The Clarion-Ledger, Jackson, Miss.

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Update: March 15, 2013

In another example of how divorced from reality some good old boys are, we have this from ThinkProgress: In responding to questions from an audience member, 30-year-old Scott Terry, K. Carl Smith of Frederick Douglass Republicans, referred to a letter by Frederick Douglass forgiving his former master. Terry said “For what? For feeding him and housing him?” Here’s the exchange:

Yes, there really are still young people who are that stupid. In fairness, the audience reaction seemed to be mainly shocked amusement. Watch the expression of the young lady seated in the first row. (Are you serious?!) I’m sure there were some at CPAC who would agree with this particular redneck, but I also know that there were others present who would discount him. Just don’t be too quick to laugh it off. Racism is very much alive in America.

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