Christian Logic

hqdefaultWell, I managed a pretty cool accomplishment this past month. I got banned from both a liberal and a conservative website! There’s nothing like moody forum managers to illustrate the truth in my moniker.

I don’t want to name the liberal site because I posted under my real name, but the conservative site was The Gospel Coalition. Since my last post there was a rather innocuous post explaining why employers hesitate to hire employees with evangelical ambitions, I suspect that someone over at TGC took a gander at my blog and decided they didn’t like me anymore.

At the liberal site, my crime was disagreeing with the opinions of people on the forum. Yup, that’s it. My last two posts there was a statement that arguing that hell doesn’t exist makes a number of New Testament verses about hell sound nonsensical, and pointing out (after the forum manager ranted against evangelicals spreading the “love the sinner, hate the sin” mantra) that the quote actually comes from Augustine.

After engaging fellow Christians on message boards and blogs nearly twenty-years, I’ve found that forums run by liberal Christians tend to be much testier than those run by conservative Christians. There’s a constant culling and deleting of even the mildest dissenters at them. The stakes at conservative sites tend to be much higher (your soul is at stake if you’re wrong), but for the most part administrators at those sites tend to be very permissive of dissenting opinion and rarely delete the evidence. That’s always struck me as odd.

And then it hit me: the answer was hiding in plain sight. Conservative sites are more permissive precisely because for them, the stakes are higher.

For a while now I’ve been toying with writing a post about the different ways conservative and liberal Christians think. I’ve touched on this in various ways on my blog, but last night it crystallized me with two simple, logical equations.

Here’s the conservative perspective about God:

A. God said X.

B. Therefore, a society that believes X will be a more moral one.

Now here’s the liberal perspective:

A  A society that believes Y will be a more moral one.

B. Therefore, God must believe Y.

You can plug in almost theological debate into these equations and they make things so much clearer. For example:

A. God said that homosexuality is immoral.

B. Therefore, a society that believes that homosexuality is immoral will be a more moral one.

and:

A  A society that believes homosexuality is moral will be a more moral one.

B. Therefore, God must believe homosexuality is moral.

Now let’s plug exclusivism into the equation:

A. God said Jesus is the only way.

B. Therefore, a society that believes Jesus is the only way will be a more moral one.

and:

A  A society that believes there all religions are true will be a more moral one.

B. Therefore, God must believe all religions are true.

Now so far, it sounds like I’m saying that the weight of logic falls in favor of the conservatives.  I’m not. And if we plug in slavery, then we’ll see why:

A. God endorses slavery.

B. Therefore, a society that endorses slavery will be a more moral one.

and:

A  A society that believes slavery is immoral will be a more moral one.

B. Therefore, God must believe slavery is immoral.

And herein lies a thousand internet debates distilled into their core elements. Now I know that some readers will insist that the conservative logic should say “The Bible says..” But remember that, from the conservative perspective, the Bible = God. And certainly many liberals make a good case that the Bible doesn’t teach that homosexuality is immoral, and therefore their argument fits the conservative equation.

But we’re talking psychology here. Conservatives prefer top-down, authoritarian logic. They believe that God’s opinion weighs supreme, and any discrepancy between mankind’s moral values and God’s must mean that mankind has gone awry.

Liberals prefer bottom-up, evidence-based theology. A pluralistic society strikes them as a more just society than a theocratic one, so that means that the pluralistic society is more reflective of how God wants us to live. Societies with a more loving attitude towards gays tend to be more just, therefore God must endorse homosexual relationships.

These equations also illustrates the strategy each side uses to challenge the other. Liberals ask whether it’s self-evident what God says (or whether conservatives are consistent about this). Conservatives argue that modern society is less moral, and that liberals prioritize societal values over God’s.

Check out Christian blogs for example. Notice how many conservatives blogs start with the question “What does God say about this controversy?” Liberal blogs, on the other hand, usually start with a personal experience or the impact the controversy has on people, and use that to illustrate where God must therefore stand on the issue. For liberals personal experience is evidence in moral debates, while conservatives see it as a nonfactor.

So what does this have to do with surly liberal blogs?

Well, if your theological arguments are evidence-based, then you’re working with a more ambiguous set of proofs than if you believe that God said it. The key difference is confidence. They are confident that the Biblical proofs they provide refute the liberal perspective. Conservatives are confident that liberals posting on their sites allow them to provide wise instruction to a visitor happening upon the debate. In their view, these debates serve a potentially evangelical function.

On the other hand, since liberals base their arguments on evidence, people providing contrary evidence muddy up the waters. A woman who pops into as discussion about gay conversion therapy to say she underwent it and lives a happy life will likely be deleted or banned (as I have witnessed), because the discussion as a whole rested on the case that gay conversion therapy has been awful for everyone involved in it. A man popping in to cite Bible verses to rebuke them gets tossed out because their focus is on evidence, not scripture.

In my case, I suspect that I was kicked out of The Gospel Coalition because my account linked back to my blog, where my liberal views are largely uncontested. The liberal site kicked me out because their case against hell rested on the belief that a God who creates hell would be unworthy of worship. Citing Bible verses muddies up their argument and takes it out of an evidence-based structure.

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.

Biblical Slavery Pt 1: Facing The Problem

TribesofIsraelMapOver at The Gospel Coalition, I recently got into a friendly debate over Biblical slavery. (Side note: our debate has almost nothing to do with Jarvis Williams’ original post.)  Obviously this is an intimidating topic for anyone to tackle, but I’m going to try to whip my thoughts into a coherent analysis.

Part of the problem with Biblical slavery is that websites that delve into it fall into one of two partisan camps: the theodicy argument (slavery is evidence that God is evil and/or the Bible isn’t morally trustworthy) and the apologetic argument (Biblical slavery wasn’t really that bad).

The theodicy view is admittedly the stronger argument. It’s difficult to deny that slavery is a repulsive institution, and it’s a matter God Himself establishes via Old Testament Law. And personally I find most apologetic defenses weaselly and intellectually dishonest (although I’ll give credit to my debate partner for conceding the uglier aspects of slavery). In general evangelical Christians tend to downplay the most ruthless verses and – most importantly – the unspoken implications of said verses -and paint a Disneyfied picture of well-behaved slaves obeying their kindly (and temporary) masters.

As I see it, the first thing we need to do when we approach the topic is to set preconceived assumptions about the Bible aside. Christians tend to begin with the premise that because the Bible is Holy, slavery must be contorted in such a way so that it keeps God’s reputation untainted, while nonchristians use slavery as a wedge to topple the Christian position.

So let’s look at Biblical slavery as a practical problem. We’re dealing with a group of nations who were constantly at war with each other. Something needed to be done with the collateral damage (i.e. prisoners of war and civilians). In Joshua’s case, the answer was genocide. In most other cases, slavery was the answer. The third option – letting survivors practice their faith and culture under Hebrew rule – wouldn’t have been realistic. The odds of facing organized revolt or a collaboration with a third invading nation were too great. So slavery was the least awful option.

The problem is that once we concede that something horrible was going to happen to the losing side, we’re left with the choice between secular justifications and divine justifications. The Bible supplies divine justifications, and just as importantly, God’s rules for Biblical slavery are more reprehensible than they had to be.

Now I’m sure at this point I’ve lost a lot of evangelicals. To even entertain the notion that God may have instituted a morally bankrupt system violates what my debate partner called “the righteousness of the Law…and the Lawgiver.” As I’ll get to later, I do believe that there are ways to condemn Biblical slavery and maintain faith in the righteousness of the Lawgiver.

Given the breadth of this topic, I’m going to break my argument down into a multi-part series.

I’ll call Part 2 Starting Into The Abyss. By that I mean that if we’re going to talk about Biblical slavery, we need to get beyond the tendency to focus on the letter of the law and focus on the implications it had for the men, women, and children who suffered as slaves, and remember that these were living, breathing people as real as you and I.

Part 3 will focus on the plight of Female Slaves.

Part 4 will be Weighing the Christian Arguments. Even though much of the Christian defense Biblical slavery tends to compare it favorably to American slavery, I’m going to avoid discussing American slavery as much as possible. In my view we don’t need to cite American slavery to critique Biblical slavery any more than we need to cite The Trail of Tears to criticize Joshua.

And speaking of Joshua, I’m going to resist exploring the genocide issue as much as possible. The two topics are often paired together, but I think Biblical slavery warrants examination on its own.

In Part 5, I’ll attempt to Reconcile What We Know, which I think speaks for itself.