Today I launch a series of posts on the subject of slavery. The thinking that lies behind this series has been brewing over the course of years. Only rarely do I wait so long before putting thoughts into writing. What is the cause here? This subject is fraught with difficulties that impede our discussion of it. I dedicate the initial post, therefore, to an exploration of those difficulties, somewhat in order to try to exalt every valley and lay low every mountain and hill before embarking upon the processional.
- It is hard to talk about slavery because we struggle to separate the subject of slavery from the subject of race. This is not a phenomenon unique to our nation or our epoch. The Spartans enslaved the helots. The Egyptians enslaved the Hebrews. For as long as there has been slavery, one form of slavery has been the subjugation of one race to another. Indeed, our English word “slave” is a derivative of the name of a race—the Slavs—who were enslaved.
We do well to note, however, that it has not always been the case that slavery was tied to race. Jews sometimes enslaved other Jews. Romans sometimes enslaved other Romans. The history of non-racial slavery is as old as the history of racial slavery and persists for as long (sex trafficking is a modern-day form of slavery that is based upon something other than race).
Of course, we fought a war over a particular institution of slavery, and that episode was racial in nature and was tied to a theory of racial superiority and inferiority (as such forms of slavery sometimes are). The racism continued after the slavery had ended, and we struggle greatly to discuss slavery in any way that ever leaves the orbit of nineteenth-century American chattel slavery of blacks.
That we so rarely and so poorly discuss slavery as a matter distinct from racism is to our detriment. It allows people to defer conversations about racism that they need to enjoin and it hampers our ability to discuss slavery rationally.
- It is hard to talk about slavery because we often don’t know what slavery is, at least in any precise way. What differentiates a slave and an employee? What about a slave and a prisoner in the state penitentiary? A person who has been committed to institutional care against his or her will? A child living in your home?
We deprive people of their freedoms more than we like to think. The philosophical distinctions between the slave and the employee are rather esoteric. They often depend upon conceits like “property in the person” whereby selling your time for forty hours of the week in an ongoing contractual way is treated as though you are selling something other than yourself. Any child can see that you are not.
We trade our freedom in order to obtain things that we want more than we want freedom. Ironically, if we were unable to do so, we would hardly be free. All of us sell ourselves and vacate our freedom of self-determination in a thousand different ways. Slavery is therefore one part of a larger economic reality. Recognizing what differentiates slavery from other barterings away of our freedom is an important first step to having a conversation about slavery, as is seeing the defining characteristics that differentiate one form of slavery from another.
Talking about slavery becomes more difficult when we don’t know what we’re talking about.
For the purposes of this series of essays, I will define slavery as any situation in which another person, not your parent and not as a consequence of any crime that you have committed, gains absolute and total authority and responsibility over your economic life without paying you a monetary wage in return.
I encourage you to attempt your own definitions. The exercise will help you to see how difficult (and sometimes how arbitrary) it is to differentiate slavery from things that are still common aspects of our lives.
- Talking about slavery becomes more difficult in the midst of Libertarianism. I have expressed formerly “Why I Am Not a Libertarian” and taking a few moments to read that essay might assist you in understanding this one more fully. A great many of us have drawn conclusions about self-ownership and liberty without doing the work of delving into the finer points of the underlying premises. To do so is a robustly American thing to do, and it is not an impulse entirely antithetical to the teachings of the Bible, which has a thing or two to say about in commendation of freedom.
There is always the risk, however, that when we read “free” in the Bible we define it more in terms of contemporary political thinking than we realize. Libertarianism is not a biblical philosophy. According to the Bible, where slavery is wrong it must have a reason for being wrong (in what it does to slaves, or perhaps in what it does to masters). According to Libertarianism, slavery is wrong simply because it is not liberty—no explanation or justification is necessary.
“Slavery is wrong because it is slavery” is a level above which present-day discourse rarely rises, and as the next essay will demonstrate, this is an idea diametrically opposed to the teachings of Jesus Christ, who must be decried by Libertarian theory as one of the great purveyors of evil in all of human history. But more of that later.
- Talking about slavery becomes more difficult because we’d rather not talk about slavery. For some people a sense of guilt for the American institution of race-based chattel slavery makes this a dangerous topic that they’d rather avoid. For others on the other side of history, painful recollections of American slavery and its aftermath make the subject so unpleasant as to render it unprofitable to discuss. Some fear that exposure of the problems of slavery will disadvantage their political agendas. Others fear that resolution of any of those problems at all will disadvantage their political agendas on the other side. Slavery has always been a topic with winners and losers.
Nevertheless, as Bible-believing Christians we must talk about slavery because the Bible does so. Unable to avoid the conversation, we might as well try to conduct it in truthful and helpful ways.
This post is admittedly preliminary. It may leave little of substance to discuss. The greatest value of this post, for my part, is simply that I will refer back to it frequently in the subsequent posts as we meet with difficult elements of the research.