April 17, 2009
My Response to Jessica Thomas
Christian Science Fiction fan (and author?) Jessica Thomas, in the comments to a previous post, references a post she made elsewhere that responds to my basic question as to why God doesn’t prohibit slavery in the Bible, as well as makes some original points. I think it’s worth reproducing here and responding.
The Bible tells us God is loving, and he is also just. Let me give you a metaphor. My little boy is 16 months old. When he was twelve months old, he started to climb up on our console table. Every time he did, I gently told him no, and if necessary I went over and physically picked him up off the table. I didn’t punish him for doing it because I knew, if I did, he’d have no idea why he was being punished, given he hardly understood the word “no”. Also, he wasn’t doing it to spite me, he was just being curious.
Four months later, he understands what “no” means. He’s been climbing up on the table more and more, and now when he does it, he gives me a sly look that tells me he’s defying me on purpose. So, I say “no” much more firmly now, and if he keeps doing it (to spite me), we go to another room. Point is, as he matures my level of discipline has to change to match his level of understanding. To discipline him like he is ten when he is only one would not be loving or just.
I understand this argument; I just think it makes no sense when it comes to slavery for at least three reasons.
First, I think it’s a bad analogy to compare any set of persons to a year-old child. The ancient Israelites weren’t stupid; they were simply men of their time. They were capable of understanding the Golden Rule, for example. Postulating that they weren’t morally ready to a proposition as simple as “you should not own another human being” strikes me as a difficult claim to substantiate. In any event, moral psychologists such as Lawrence Kohlberg show us that the Israelites were unlikely to develop such a principle on their own or appreciate the reasoning behind it until exposed to it in the first place.
So if God wanted the Israelites to understand why slavery was wrong, he should have prohibited it in the Ten Commandments, just as he did with murder. That would have facilitated their moral growth process rather than hindered it.
Second, Exodus chapters 20-23 do not just set down moral laws; they set down civil laws as well. Some overlap (e.g., the prohibition against murder). But even if you think that the Israelites somehow “weren’t ready” to be told that slavery is wrong, God was perfectly willing to enforce arbitrary injunctions so as to structure the Israelite society. Leviticus 11:3-12 absolutely forbids eating pigs, rabbits, shellfish (and camels, which I understand from Anthony Bourdain are considered quite the delicacy among the Bedouins). There’s no moral prohibition against eating camels; it just happens to be what the Jews thought was required for their society to function.
Indeed, when it comes to basic moral laws, I don’t think you can make a serious argument that those foundational laws are calibrated to human desires or understanding. Instead, they’re calibrated to enforce the basic minimum codes that a society thinks it needs to function. So, for example, the Fifth-or-Sixth Commandment (depending on your particular flavor of Christianity) says “thou shalt not kill.” Period. It doesn’t ask whether you understand why murder is wrong — and certainly, despite that commandment, many people have continued to desire to kill (and a smaller number, though still signficiant, act on that desire). It doesn’t matter: the commandment is not to kill.
The absence of a similar commandment instructing the Israelites not to own slaves shows that their social group felt as though they could function in the absence of such prohibitions. (And clearly, they could.) It indicates to me that the Bible is a product of its time.
Third, if you think that slavery is as much of a basic moral evil as murder — as I do — then it makes no sense to claim that people require further moral development to appreciate its wrongness. Slavery is wrong because of a central moral proposition that was not articulated and defended until the enlightenment: that persons are not property. That sentiment is not only not articulated in the Bible; it’s counter to it. (Listen to the Friel-Hitchens debate below for a good summary of what I understand to be the Christian position — that persons are property, and that God owns us.
If you think of history as a line that starts with the birth of humanity. Consider, at some point on that line God decided, “I’m going to reveal myself to them”, He couldn’t just swoop down from the sky and say “Here I am guys.” (Well, He could, but would that be the most loving way to go about it? Would it be just?) So, instead, He set a plan in motion. He assessed the spiritual maturity of His children and had to decide, what are they ready for? What is going to work within society as they currently understand it?
Wait, why couldn’t God just swoop down and say “Here I am, guys” to anyone who asks? Wouldn’t that be a really good way of convincing people like me that he really exists and is worth investigating?
As we walk the line of history, God continues to reveal Himself, and our collective understanding of His truth and character deepens. When we are ready for more of truth, He gives us more. The how, when, why—that is up to Him. He’s in charge of the timeline.
I don’t see a progressive timeline; I see two points. I see the Old Testament, in which God mingled with people all the time, and then I see the New Testament, in which God allegedly sent his son down to mingle with a tiny group of people in Jerusalem. So: (a) it looks like over time, God reveals himself less often and to fewer people, and (b) that revelation seems to have stopped 2,000 years ago.
He doesn’t tie puppet strings on our arms and make us do His will. He reveals His will and His truth slowly over time and lets us decide if we think He’s a God worthy of entering into relationship with. When we decide, “Yes, I want a relationship with You”, then the relationship starts going two ways. (This is what is meant when you hear a Christian say God is/was pursuing them, or that the invitation is always open. He’s in relationship with us, despite our efforts to push Him away. He will keep pursuing us in hopes that we will reciprocate.)
Please don’t take this the wrong way. What I would like to know is if you can give me a criterion (or criteria) to differentiate between the kind of relationship you describe in this passage and something that I’ve just made up in my head.
Let me be very clear here, because I’m trying to tread carefully. I am not saying that your relationship with God is made up. Only you can be the judge of your own thoughts. I am saying with respect to what I do, I understand that my mind can be fooled rather easily, so I would like to know if there is some touchstone or dividing line whereby I can tell what’s “real” for purposes of a relationship from something that my subconscious just makes up.
Does that make sense?
[snip to end]