What Does Suey Park Want?

stephen-colbert-cancelcolbertBy now, anyone who cares to know about Suey Park‘s twitter crusade to cancel The Colbert Report has probably formed an opinion on it. I’m not that interested in taking a side on the issue, since other people have stated their case more eloquently than I can. Instead, I’d like to take a step back and offer my thoughts on the bigger picture.

1. If you’re not using twitter as your last, desperate means of communication to help overthrow an oppressive regime, then you’re not a Twitter activist.

Aside from its value in organizing high stakes protests in Iran and the Middle East, Twitter functions as a means for corporate promotions, social networking, and Mean Girls-style backbiting. It’s also a pretty good way to acquire 15 minutes of fame.

But activism? If someone pulls off a successful political campaign using Twitter exclusively,(meaning they get the results they want, not just drawing attention to their cause), then I’ll concede that there is such a thing as a Twitter activist.

2. Let’s be honest: the reason people aren’t taking her seriously isn’t her gender, ethnicity, or intellect. It’s her age. And like it or not, age matters.

I’m not saying that young adults don’t have anything of value to say or that they can’t offer important insights and ideas, but there’s a reason why people tend to be dismissive of them.

While I’m not a fan of his politics, columnist Jonah Goldberg summarized this phenomenon perfectly when he stated that:

Alas, the thrill that comes with the novelty of youth tends to delude a lot of young people. Often, they convince themselves that just because they’ve thought of something for their first time they believe they’ve thought of it for the first time, period. This translates into a kind of arrogance where some kids think no one else can really understand something as well as they can.

Young people have a hard time believing that their parents and grandparents looked at the world with the same outrage and passion when they were 23. And no matter how stridently Suey believes in her cause, odds are she’ll follow their same pattern. The real world has a way of resetting priorities by making things like raising a family and getting a job one’s priority. And once that happens, it’s very difficult to rekindle the passions of one’s activist days – if they even feel the same way.

I’ve lived in a college town for 30 years, and I’ve witnessed an endless cycle of young adults like her who think they’ve latched onto a revolutionary movement that will change the world. I was one of them. But while I admire their enthusiasm and even share some of their political aims, most of them are too immature or insecure to use their energy effectively. Suey is a great example of this: she’s managed to draw attention to her cause by piggybacking on another cause, and when given the chance to articulate her concerns, she’s all sound and fury without much to say except complain about the status quo.

3. If you’re going to be an activist, then act like one. Don’t make your cause about yourself. That’s narcissism.

On a strategic level, Suey has erred by using her forum as a confessional as much as a political soap box. And because people are cataloguing her personal struggles, she’s giving them fodder to detract from her message and question her motivations. If she wants to be an actjvist, then she should get out of the proverbial basement and and make things happen. Hashtags have the shelf life of a polonium halo.

4. There’s been some debate whether she should have expected the backlash she’s received. Some have even gone so far as to claim that Colbert putting her photo on TV was a horrible thing to do. That’s a bizarre argument given that the image Colbert used was the profile photo from her twitter feed, and it was the photo used for the dozens of articles written about her. What’s more, Park has done a number of podcast interviews that reach millions more people than Colbert does. If Suey wanted privacy along with her activism, then she would have declined podcast interviews or requested that her image be pixelated. Claiming that she hasn’t explicitly strived to get her name and image into mainstream currency is patently absurd.

That said, it does suck that women are so often subjected to misogynisitic insults and threats when they speak out about causes they care about. But I don’t think the repulsive behavior of anonymous trolls nullifies counterpoints to her arguments.

5. Suey should be able to answer the same question all activists should ask themselves: what do they ultimately want? What is her long term goal? Is it to end discrimination against Asians? Is it to end white privilege forever? Is it simply to get satirists to be more considerate of their targets? This was her answer when Salon asked for her goals:

I wanted to hit the irony and inability of the left to deal with their own racism. I think as a result of the white ally industrial complex, for too long people of color have been asked to censor whiteness, they have been asked to educate their oppressor, they have been asked to use the right tone, and appease their politics in order to be heard. And in an effort to just contribute to the self-improvement of white allies that are often times just racist. So I think it’s kind of like pulling a blanket off the façade of progressivism. It forces people to deal with those conversations about race that go beyond micro-aggression and that go beyond being politically correct, to what it means to uproot racism in its entirety.

To me, this is where a lot of liberal causes fail. Their goal is too vague or too utopian. A pro-lifer has a simple, tangible goal: end abortion. They have definable steps they can take to end it. Same with people protesting the Keystone XL. The success or failure of their goal hinges in whether the XL gets built.

I’m not sure how Sue’s vision would play out in reality, and the more she explained it, the more absurd it became:

The revolution will not be an apocalypse, it’s gonna be a series of shifts in consciousness that result in actions that come about, and I think that like, at this point is really like, ride or die, in terms who’s in and who is out. I don’t play by appeasement politics, it is not about getting my oppressors to humanize me. And in that sense I reject the respectability politics, I reject being tone-policed, I think we need to do away with this idea that these structures are … that the prisons can undergo reform and somehow do less violence as a structure. But any example like that.

So in Suey’s view, what does it success look like? Is it an end to racial humor? An end to white privilege? An end to white people weighing in on racial topics in any manner? What does it mean to uproot racism in its entirety? How does she plan to go about that?

I’m curious as to how she would answer these questions. At this stage though I figure she’s 23 and she still hasn’t formed plausible goals to match her visceral distaste for the status quo.

Rachel Held Evans Says Goodbye

Rachel-Held-EvansRachel Held Evans made a seismic announcement today:

But I’m done fighting for a seat at the evangelical table, done trying to force that culture to change.

While it’s not as drastic as if she announced a shift to agnosticism, I suspect that Rachel’s going to lose a large faction of her audience and her influence. I’ve always been a big fan of her, but Rachel’s main appeal to the masses has always been that she’s a role model for a different kind of evangelical, an alternative for millennials and Gen X’ers that confirmed that they could remain within the evangelical fold while they seek to transform it.

Now Rachel becomes a cautionary tale, and within the evangelical subculture it will be one that young people will have a very hard time refuting. Whereas before a teenager could point to one of her blog posts and show a youth pastor that not all evangelicals think the way he does, now that youth pastor has two counter arguments: she’s not an evangelical, and she left the faith.

So rather than wearing out my voice in calling for an end to evangelicalism’s culture wars, I think it’s time to focus on finding and creating church among its many refugees—women called to ministry, our LGBTQ brother and sisters, science-lovers, doubters, dreamers, misfits, abuse survivors, those who refuse to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith or their compassion and their religion, those who have, for whatever reason, been “farewelled.”

Now I’m not saying that Rachel is no longer a Christian, or that her credibility has been damaged. But within a culture that only reads books by evangelical authors and never glances at anything written by a mainliner (save for CS Lewis) or Catholics, Rachel has cast herself far out of the universe where she had the most influence. That young evangelical who wants to use Rachel Held Evans as proof that there are liberal evangelicals can’t use her as an example anymore, and odds are she won’t even be on their radar:

For many years, I felt that part of my call as a writer and blogger of faith was to be a different sort of evangelical, to advocate for things like gender equality, respect for LGBT people, and acceptance of science and biblical scholarship within my community.  But I think that perhaps I became more invested in trying to “fix” evangelicalism (to my standards! oh the hubris!) than in growing Kingdom.  And as helpful as I know that work has been for so many of you, I think it’s time to take a slightly different approach.

I respect the fact that Rachel has taken time to reflect n her motives and reassess her goals. It’s Rachel’s life, her choices, and her walk with God. and I’m not trying to tell her how to worship or what to think. But I think shedding the evangelical label, even if it was just a label, will damage the liberal voice within evangelical churches.” You can’t cite Rachel anymore,” conservatives will say, “She’s not one of us. She’s confirmation of their slippery slope arguments. Stay away from that thinking lest you drift away from the faith.” For a culture that views anyone who leaves the evangelical church with leaving the big “C” Church,  Rachel joins Rob Bell and other former evangelicals as evidence that you can’t be liberal and stay in the faith.

20 Things You Really Need To Know About State College

state-collegeNormally I wouldn’t respond to puff pieces on real estate websites, but a number of my Facebook friends posted a feel-good article called Twenty Things You Need To Know About State College Before You Move There, and it irked me just enough to make me want to share my take on my hometown.

I’ve lived in State College (home of Penn State University) for about 29 years. I’ve seen the town from the perspective of a teenager, college student, townie, and adult student. the article does tell a few truths and half-truths, but my take isn’t quite as sunny as most people here. FYI, even though this list is mostly a rant, it’s also intended as genuine advice.

1. The Penn State Child Molestation Scandal Isn’t Over Yet

It’s been almost two and a half years since former Penn State Assistant Football Coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested on 48 counts of child molestation. Even though Sandusky was tried and sentenced in 2012, the fallout from his crimes still dominates our news, and people act out about it in all kinds of annoying and embarrassing ways.

If you recall, in addition to Sandusky being charged with molesting children. three Penn State administrators were also charged with covering up his crimes. Their trials have not taken place yet. There’s not even a court date. If you move here, you will have to endure all of the ugly revelations that are certain to come out.

2. This Town Doesn’t Think Sandusky’s Crimes Were The Real Scandal; Joe Paterno’s Firing Was.

Many locals have gone out of their way to prove to the world that this town really does only care about football. You’ll see billboards and signs in storefronts decrying Joe Paterno’s firing, and every few months group of reactionary alumni, led by the Paternos and ex-Pittsburgh Steeler Franco Harris, hold melodramatic protests complaining about Paterno’s firing. They have also infiltrated the Penn State Trustees Board, creating this weird dynamic where members are suing each other and badmouthing each other during Trustee meetings.

Aside form a few locals who’ve gotten together to raise money for charities that assist victims of child molestation, most locals care more about the fact that Joe Paterno was fired from his job as a result of the scandal.You’ll also hear a lot of outrage over the NCAA sanctions against the football team and the Freeh Report.

3. Penn State’s Academic Calendar Dictates Life In This Town Beyond Football Season.

There are about 40,000 people who live in the State College Area. There are close to 50,000 Penn State students. Businesses that don’t cater to college students tend to struggle, and the ebbs and flows between the academic calendar can be jarring. If you like peace and quiet, the summer months are great. If you like the bustle and energy the students bring, the summer months are dull.

4. Conservative Churches Love College Students; Mainline Churches Hate Them.

I’m not kidding. If you go to an evangelical or fundamentalist church in this town, you’ll see a lot of young couples and college students. They’re always striving to bring in more of them.

The mainline churches and the Catholic Churches tend to be older, grayer, and they like it that way. If you’re a college student and you show up at these churches, you’ll be treated as a nuisance and shuttled out of view until you get the message and leave. Back when I was a twentysomething hunting for a church home, a pastor explained to me that geography was the key: the closer the church was to the campus, the more hostile it was to the students.

5. If You’re A Gay Christian, You Have Three Churches To Choose From.

That number is probably a lot better than most places in rural Pennsylvania, but for a college town, the Christian community is pretty anti-gay, and only three churches accept gays as they are.

6. Be Prepared To Lose A Lot Of Friends.

My church used to call State College a crossroads town, which is another way to say that most people are here for just a few years before they move on to another town. Obviously this affects students the most, but adults tend not to stick around long, either. A long time ago I calculated that every four or five years I had to “start over” with a new set of friends because the old batch would all get jobs elsewhere by that point.

7. The Dating Scene Is Nonexistent If You’re Over 25.

The town is populated by college students, married academics, white collar workers, and retirees. Not much else. If you’re like a friend of mine who got divorced in his 40′s and only wanted to date devout Christian women his age, forget it.

8. The Schools Are Great.

This town has a lot of doctors, professors and wealth. That translates to schools with high academic standards and motivated parents and students.

9. The Cultural Opportunities Are Pretty Damn Good.

Not as good as they used to be, though. There used to be a happening bar scene with lots of good bands and great small-label acts playing. That scene is pretty dead now, but a surprising number of big-name acts do come here, and the university itself draws a lot of well-known speakers and performances.

10. If You Get A Job Offer At Penn State, Don’t Take It.

I’m serious. In spite of the image of an ivy-covered nirvana of intellectual growth and connecting with the future leaders of America, Penn State’s administrative structure is ruthlessly corporate. Pretty much every person not working in a classroom walks in fear of losing their job or getting their healthcare axed. For more than a decade the university has started the new year with by revising health care policies that screw over both employees and retirees who assumed that their healthcare plan was secure. When one plan gets shut down, you can bet that another, more aggressive plan is coming down the pike.

The university also has this really cool policy of laying off employees before they turn 65 so they can save money.

11. Our Idiots Tend To Be A Little Smarter Than Most.

I didn’t realize this until I started traveling to churches across the country. The concentration of academia here tend to add a little complexity and nuance to even our most conservative churches (hence the fact that I belonged to an evangelical church that counted three evolutionists on its Deacon board, including myself.) The obvious first tip is that people here tend to have a better vocabulary and manner of expressing themselves. You still get a lot of Christians who buy into the Glenn Beck/ Sarah Palin political views, but    somehow they’re less off-putting because they can actually sit down and debate with you rather than scream “Obama’s A Socialist!” over and over.

12. This Town Is Like A Lunar Colony.

Like the article says, drive 15 minutes in any direction and you hit farmland. What it doesn’t say is that you have to drive 90 minutes before you hit the nearest city, Harrisburg.

13. It’s A Great Town If You’re Disabled.

That’s something I’ve learned to appreciate as I’ve gotten older. The presence of students combined with the high elderly populations means that the public transportation is excellent, and most sidewalks and buildings are wheelchair-accessible.

14. People Are Very Nice, But Skittish About Making New Friends.

See Point 6. A lot of people carry those scars with them. I can get off the mat and make new friends more easily that most people, but a lot of townies just get burned out and tired of having people come and go in their lives, so they hold onto the friends they have with every fiber of their being and don’t let others into their circle.

That said, State College is refreshingly devoid of the kind of snobbishness you see in towns where the population is static and people have lived there for generations. The snobbery here tends to be directed towards all those drinking and sex-crazed students passing out on their lawns in the middle of the night.

15. The Downtown Scene Is Dead..

This is the one point the article got blatantly wrong. State College has struggled for decades with businesses closing downtown due to high taxes and lack of business. As student housing has spread towards the northern end of town,the downtown situation has become more lifeless.  The bar scene is lively, but the kind of people inclined to visit a real estate website won’t care about that. The restaurant selection is pretty good, but the only stores that succeed are Penn State memorabilia stores, kitschy trinket stores, and pizza joints. And there’s a bank on every block.

16. Penn State Students Tend To Be Politically Lazy.

I say this because some people might be hopeful (or worried) that moving to State College will mean seeing dozens of angry sophomores railing against The Keystone XL or either side of the abortion debate. Don’t worry about it. Once in a blue moon you’ll see a protest, but the only ones that draw a consistent crowd are hellfire preachers who come in from out of town to rile up college students, and Franco Harris’s crew.

17. You’d Be Surprised How Racist This Town Is.

In spite of #11, idiocy is idiocy. Bigots here tend to be very cautious before they show their cards, but if you’re around you long enough that they think they can trust you, you might hear rants about darkies or niggers.

18. If You’re An Evangelical, You Have Five Churches To Choose From.

And if you have teenagers or are a college student, you’re going to Calvary Baptist Church. There’s no point resisting it. Pretty much every evangelical in this town has either become a member of Calvary Baptist or attended enough services there to feel like a member. These churches tend to shuttle members back and forth; if things go bad at one church, you move onto one of the other four. And Calvary will be one of your choices. You cannot resist it.

19. We Turn Centre County Blue.

After almost every election, you’ll see a little blue trianglish-shaped spot in the red conservative “T” Pennsylvania is famous for. That’s Penn State voters flexing their political muscle on the conservative boonies that surround us. Oddly enough, the conservative presence here was much more vibrant in the 90′s. Now it’s a given that Democrats will win most of our local elections.

20. There Are (Almost) No Bookstores.

Back in the 90′s, downtown State College had six bookstores, in addition to two more out in the shopping centers. There were great bookstores with really eclectic and interesting stuff- the kind of bookstores you’d dream a good college town would have. Barnes & Noble and the internet killed off all but one of them. Now we have Webster’s, which is a great used bookstore and Cafe, and a shell of what used to be Barnes & Noble. Oddly enough I’ve gone from resenting our Barnes & Noble store to pitying it, and wishing it could survive. But half of the store space has been converted to a toy store (yes, a toy store!). At least Circuit City had the guts to just pull the plug on itself instead of living off an IV Drip of Monopoly games.

The Mark Driscoll Apology Saga

mark_driscollI’d like to take a break from my Biblical Slavery series and try to piece together my thoughts on the Mark Driscoll Apology Saga. Like a lot of these whirlwind controversies that spread through the blogosphere, the hype usually dies down by the time I’m ready to write something coherent about it, but in this case I haven’t quite seen the Driscoll debate tackled from my perspective yet.

So I’m going to take off the “liberal” hat that I’ve been wearing for most of my recent posts and put my “evangelical” hat back on.

I served as a Deacon at my evangelical church for about 6 years. (As an aside to newcomers: unlike many bloggers who’ve left evangelical churches, my theology and politics didn’t change over time. The liberal evangelical I am now was the same person my conservative church appointed as Deacon way back in 2005, and my views weren’t a secret to the congregation.)

During the course of the time while I served as Deacon, I served on a number of candidate searches for Elders and Deacons. For the uninitiated, here’s how this works: your Elders and Deacons didn’t appear magically out of the ether filled with certainty that God dropped them on this earth to serve their role. In most evangelical churches, a committee is appointed that’s a mix of current leaders in the church and a few laypersons to provide a voice from the congregation. Together they come up with a list of candidates for each office.

(What does this have to do with Mark Driscoll? Stay with me. I’ll explain soon…)

There are a few rules to this process: given our church’s complementarion views, only men were considered (although our Pastor did unsuccessfully push for many years to appoint deaconesses). You also couldn’t call guys up and ask them if they wanted to serve in either role. In other words, the guy who turned down serving as an Elder wouldn’t ask if he could become Deacon instead. Our goal was to always have at least one more candidate than the number of open slots that year. So if we have two “retiring” Elders, we wanted 3 candidates so the congregation would have a true vote.

Our list of candidates usually came down to about 4-6 Elder candidates and 4-8 Deacon candidates. Most of them said no. Sometimes it was because they didn’t feel led to serve, sometimes it was PTSD fro the last time they served (anyone who’s been part of church leadership during a rough patch or crisis knows that it can get very stressful.). Except for one year when morale was especially high and we had a bunch of candidates, we always barely got enough candidates to have a true election.

You learn a lot about your congregation when you serve on the election committee. Guys that you just assumed were easy choices are more complicated than they appeared to be. Some had theological disagreements or personality quirks that disqualified them. One man refused to officially join even though he’d been attending our church every Sunday for 20 years. Even though he loved our church and had no intentions of worshipping anywhere else, his refusal to sign on the dotted line as a member prevented him from being elected as a leader. Another guy was an annihilationist (i.e. he didn’t believe in hell), and another was a member of the Masons. Our leadership didn’t have a problem with that, but enough members were suspicious of the Masons, so we decided he wasn’t worth the trouble.

On the more humorous side, there was one prominent man in our church whom many people looked up to. This guy’s name was always raised when church members approached us. They’d say “Why don’t you ever nominate him?He’s a great teacher and an upstanding man!”

The truth was that every year for more than ten years he made the short list of people we’d ask, and he’s always say no. The funny part was that he had this unofficial understanding with our leadership that every year he wanted to be asked because it was reassuring for him to know that he was still highly respected. And every year we knew that he would say no. The one year we didn’t ask him, he was very upset and hurt, even though he had no intention of saying yes.

And, of course, sometimes you found out that men who seemed to be in very happy marriages were actually pretty awful to their wives. Our church was very judicious about not gossiping about those situations; I rarely heard what the issue was. But if my Pastor said that there were serious concerns about their family life or their ability to model Christlike behavior to their wives, everyone knew that was a euphemism for domestic abuse or substance abuse.

Which brings me to Mark Driscoll. One of the lessons I learned from my Elders was that it was a mistake to view church leadership as a ladder to climb. Serving as a Deacon didn’t mean you were on your way to becoming an Elder down the road; they were different roles with different gifts and qualifications. It’s possible that one might follow that track, but we strove hard to discourage that mentality. I also learned that people shouldn’t take it as an insult if they’re not asked to serve in leadership. Different people have different strengths and weaknesses, and if you have a great vision for missions or evangelism, becoming Elder may not be the best use of your abilities. My pastor was a big advocate of considering younger candidates if they fit the criteria.

And that’s the key: if they fit the criteria. I remember one year there was an incident where one of our most respected members just lost it on the ministry team he was serving with. He was frustrated with the fact that his committee wasn’t showing the same zeal and passion for his ideas that he felt, plus there were a number of difficult trials he was privately going through. And it all came out as a vicious rant against his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. That was the only time anyone ever saw him lose his temper, but it was such a volcanic display that it shut down any possibility that he would be considered a viable leadership candidate unless he showed significant emotional and spiritual growth over time. And part of the growth we were looking for was a willingness to face up to that incident and apologize directly to the people he wronged.

As the years passed and it became apparent the he was going to remain the dedicated guy who served in various ministries but never owned up to his mistakes or apologized for them. He always wanted to run things his way, which is a red flag if you’re looking for Christlike leaders. But we didn’t need his pattern of stubbornness to know he would be a bad fit as a leader. That one incident was enough for us to make sure he never got in the position of being the head of any ministry.

As I see it, Mark Driscoll is that guy times a thousand. I can (and have) spent a lot of time venting about Driscoll’s various controversies, but oddly enough his apology made me realize that it’s best to just think of him as the guy who got to be pastor but wasn’t fit for the job.

It’s not just that he’s controversial or he’s guilty of a number of sins, missteps, and poorly chosen words. It’s that Driscoll gets tangled up in controversies that most Christians (including most evangelicals) wouldn’t even consider doing, let alone be tempted by.

I don’t know of any Christians, no matter how passionate they are about traditional gender roles, who would even think about venting publicly about “effeminate worship leaders.” I can’t think of any other pastor who’s ever made disrespectful public remarks about his Elders. I can’t think of any pastor, no matter how much fame and celebrity status tempted them, who’d go so far as to hire a service to game the NY Times bestseller list. I can’t think of any pastor who would insist that wives perform vulgar sex acts, and insult them if they refuse to. I can’t think of any pastor who would end a letter to his church -especially a otter intended to betaken as an apology – by threatening them with legal action if they distributed the letter to people outside the church.

In my view, that’s the reason why Driscoll gets so much justifiable criticism: he does stuff that would disqualify him from being considered as head of any church ministries, and it’s oddball stuff that anyone over 17 would have outgrown.

If a guy like Driscoll strolled into the average evangelical church, I can tell you exactly what would happen to him. He’d approach the pastor on fire for a more aggressive and zealous vision of church, and he’d volunteer to help spearhead the church towards that new direction. The pastor would patiently praise him for his enthusiasm and gently suggest that Mark needed more experience and spiritual maturity before he could take on such a role. And then the pastor would consult with an Elder, and that Elder would offer to take Mark under his wing and disciple him. The Elder would try to get Mark to see that all of his anger isn’t pure or righteous, and there are ways to communicate his ideas with more humility. (I’m setting aside for a moment that I disagree with many of Mark’s ideas, since my point here is about Mark’s demeanor). And at that point Mark would either agree to submit to the teachings of someone older and wiser than him and learn to set aside his craving for getting what he wants, or he’d walk away in a huff mumbling curses and go hunt for church willing to give him some power.

I’m willing to wait and see if Mark’s apology expand in scope to include offenses beyond the NY Times controversy and people whom he’s wronged over the years, but for now at least the tone seems to reflect a desire to offer the smallest apology possible and still have it be called an apology.

Biblical Slavery Part 3: Female Slaves

human_trafficking_by_me19leela1-650x346Today’s installment of my series on Biblical Slavery will focus exclusively on the plight of female slaves. My goal here is to get readers to resist the temptation to fall back on Christian counterarguments  and allow themselves to stop and think about the horrors female slaves were subjected to. A more detailed analysis of the apologetic arguments regarding Biblical Slavery will be forthcoming in Part 4 of this series.

In my view,  the ghastly nature of Biblical Slavery truly reveals itself when we consider how women were treated. Let’s look again at Deuteronomy 20:15:

“When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When theLord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies.This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.”

This scripture reaffirms the patriarchal structure of Old Testament society: women were subhuman plunder, sexual prizes to be won in victory. Even Hebrew women were viewed as little more than the property of their fathers and husbands. And if there’s any doubt, Numbers 31 tells us exactly how female slaves were to be used:

“Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the Lord’s people.Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man,  but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.”

I know that there’s a huge temptation here to delve into the murderous side of this passage, but let’s set that part aside and focus instead on the last part. Why was it important for Israelites to select girls who hadn’t slept with man, and how exactly does one go about screening them?

I’m quoting this verse in its full context to address one of the most common apologetic defenses of it: namely that the Midianite women were at fault for the mess that started the battle that Numbers describes. In case you’re wondering, the enticement the passage refers to was tempting Israelite men into worshipping Baal by intermarrying across cultures.

Now to be fair, marrying across cultures during Biblical times wasn’t the same as doing so nowadays. Scholars estimate that the population of Palestine (which includes Judea and neighboring nations) never exceeded 1 million during the 7th Century BCE, when Deuteronomy was likely written. So any culture that lost large numbers of its men to rival religions risked extinction. And make no mistake: intercultural marriages weren’t any more romantic or respectful towards women than Israelite marriages were.

Of course, that doesn’t justify the severity of Moses’ command. We know from Numbers 31 that 32,000 girls were captured that day. It goes without saying that that these captives were not willing participants in their fate. We know that the primary value of female slaves in Biblical times was their reproductive ability (and, let’s face it, sexual gratification for the victors).

Biblical Law forbade men from committing adultery even if it was cross-cultural, and it also condemned unmarried women who were not virgins to death by stoning. I recommend Joe Pranevich blog if you’re curious about Old Testament marital customs. He has an excellent overview of virginity tests and the consequences newly married wives faced for failing them. (Long story short: a bloody sheet from a broken hymen was the key piece of evidence.)

Given that Israelite soldiers wanted to avoid the sin of having sex with nonvirginal slaves in the first place, pubescent female slaves were most valued since they could bear children, but they were not old enough to be married or savvy enough to rebel. Young girls also eliminated adultery concerns, and the nature of their enslavement meant that they were forced to marry and have sex with the men who slaughtered their families. If you have any doubts about the idea that female slaves were coveted for sexual gratification, Deuteronomy 21:10-14 emphasizes that girls were in face selected  for that reason:

“When you go to war against your enemies and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails and put aside the clothes she was wearing when captured. After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.”

Stop and think about what this must have been like for these young women. How many of them were willing participants in their marriage? How many chose not to leave simply because life cast out of society was worse than being marriage to your conqueror?

Many Christians will insist that allowing female captives a month of mourning was exceedingly compassionate. But we’re talking about institutionalized rape, molestation, subjugation, and physical abuse. A month of mourning hardly qualifies as compassion, and I doubt anyone could cope with a traumatic experience in such a brief window of time, especially since there was no escape from it. If you were a female prisoner of war, you wouldn’t get freed after seven years like male Hebrew slaves, since you were your rapist’s wife and the mother of his children. The verse that permits sexually unfulfilling slaves to be freed doesn’t indicate compassion either, since these women were now sexually tainted and therefore unwanted pariahs in a strange land that would have treated them worse than slaves.

I want to emphasize this point again: by any moral understanding of a woman’s dignity and her rights as a human being, the Old Testament instituted a system of socially condoned rape. Under the Law slaves did not own their bodies; their masters did. Their best case scenario would have been a variation of Stockholm Syndrome, where the woman would have fallen in love with her captor and rationalized her fate as a blessing so she could cope with it.

Like I said in my last post, when we think of Biblical slavery, we should pay respect to those who suffered under it and keep in mind that these were real people, not characters who exist only to teach moral lessons to future Christians. By acknowledging the full scope of what female slaves endured, we reflect the kind of compassion and empathy Jesus called us to embrace. Anything short of that condones the dehumanization and subjugation of women.

(The artwork at top was made by Daniella at Deviantart.)

Biblical Slavery Pt 2: Staring Into The Abyss

haiti-earthquake-child-rescued-by-rescue-workerIn part 2 of my series on Biblical Slavery, I want to get beyond the Biblical text itself and concentrate on how horrific Biblical Slavery was.

Before I delve into this, I want to make a distinction. Most of the time when Christians debate this topic, the accusation is made that the person criticizing Biblical Slavery is slandering the Gospel and blaspheming God. This was the charge levied against me in the debate which inspired this series. As I see it, these are separate issues, Critiquing Biblical slavery is not the same as deciding how to apply our analysis.

As I see it, part of the reason we understate the cruelty of Biblical Slavery is our tendency to react more strongly to recent historical events. Multimedia is a big reason for this. When you have visual documentation in addition to textual account, the historical event becomes more real to us. It is harder to dismiss the scale of the tragedy.

For example, the deadliest earthquake in history took place in Shaanxi, China in 1556. More than 800,000 people died. That’s a staggering number, but no matter how hard we try to picture a tragedy of that magnitude, it’s not as real to us as the 2010 Haiti earthquake. The web is full of moving photos from the Haitian earthquake, showing the dust and blood-covered faces of victims and bodies buried under rubble. We don’t have photos from Shaanxi’s earthquake, so in our minds 800,000 dead isn’t much more than a statistic.

We can go through any number of tragedies in history and find the same dynamic: Lincoln’s assassination ranks among our nation’s worst tragedies, but JFK’s assassination captivates us more because it’s the more recent event, and the media made his life more immediate and real to us. We don’t need Daniel Day Lewis to get a sense of what Kennedy sounded like, but we can watch Kennedy debate Nixon or give his “Ask Not hat You can Do” speech any time we wish to. And thanks to the Zapruder film, we’ll always have the visceral horror of watching Kennedy’s last moments.

So the problem isn’t just that Christians gloss over Biblical slavery for apologetic purposes. With few exceptions, slaves in the Bible were just nameless, faceless prisoners of war whose lives weren’t important enough for history to acknowledge. American slavery offends us more because its embedded in our constitution like a scar. We can read about individual slaves and see their faces. American slavery is also our country’s legacy, and we still struggle to come to terms with that legacy. To put it bluntly, slaves in the Old Testament were members of long-dead nations, so they seem less human to us.

Now I’m sure some Christians want to defend slavery by emphasizing the Law’s directives for Hebrew slaves. We’ll get to them in Part 4. I think it’s more important to contemplate the treatment of non-Hebrew slaves.

Let’s begin by looking at the passages from the Law that dictate treatment of non-Hebrew slaves. First up is Leviticus 25:44-46,  which tells us where and how Hebrews acquired slaves:

“Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.”

Deuteronomy 20:10-15 goes further and tells us that no matter how a military campaign turned out, the surviving women and children were doomed to become slaves. Men, however, only became slaves if they surrendered:

“When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When theLord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies.This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.”

So let’s stop and think about this. The slaves were people whose families and villages were decimated. They were captured knowing that they were going to live the rest of their lives as the property of the people who murdered their friends and families. Most people would agree that waking up every morning and serving under these circumstances would be psychologocally abusive even if one served under a compassionate master. If you found out that an American soldier had been captured in Vietnam and had spent the last forty years toiling in rice paddies, the kindly demeanor of the Vietnamese family that owned him would not mute your outrage.

Note also the distinction made in Leviticus 25: the Hebrews weren’t allowed to treat fellow Israelites ruthlessly. Slaves from other nations were a different matter.

It’s also worth noting that peace is defined as an opposing nation’s willingness to surrender, rather than an agreement to respect borders. I know that I’m guilty of applying modern moral values onto an ancient culture when I say this, but that’s a messed up definition of peace.

In the next part of my series, I’ll focus on the treatment of female slaves.