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Abolition of slavery and the heterodox


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#1 Evan Herberth

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Posted 13 July 2010 - 04:51 PM

Howdy!

I'm a recent convert to Orthodoxy, and occasionally an issue will confront me that I feel the need to resolve in my own mind. This really is a question of conscience on my part that could be asked of the Roman Catholic Church equally of Holy Orthodoxy.

Before I ask, if I make a historical error, please correct me. It's my understanding that slavery was for the most part only definitively abolished under the leadership of the heterodox; and it also bothers me a bit that slavery was allowed in the OT and not abolished either in the NT. The Declaration of Independence itself is a very articulate defense of natural law, which can be interpreted as more abolitionist than the bible!

Most people of conscience today are abolitionists entirely, and yet how can our scripture and the Church be correct, if we have only followed the heterodox and their natural law ideas in our modern belief that all men are "created equal"?

Thanks,
Evan

#2 Michael Stickles

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Posted 14 July 2010 - 05:18 PM

My understanding is that the Church does not "follow the heterodox and their natural law ideas" in this, and would not agree that all men are "created equal" (except possibly in some very limited sense).

The Western opposition to slavery, as I see it, primarily comes from the standpoint of "rights" - for example, that all men have the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" as expressed in the American Declaration of Independence. Yet the Orthodox focus is not on our rights but on our responsibilities. I think an Orthodox opposition to slavery would not be based on any "right to be free" on the part of the slave, but rather on the prospective slaveowner's responsibilities towards his fellow human beings.

Ironically, I think the best concise expression of that sentiment was made by C.S. Lewis (this is from memory; I can't recall the reference offhand):

Aristotle said that some men are fit only to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.


Besides, Scripturally we are all slaves - either of sin, or of God (Rom. 6). And slavery to sin is what we are most concerned with fighting against. As St. John Chrysostom wrote in his 54th homily on the Gospel of St. John:

"We be Abraham’s seed, and were never in bondage to any man." And yet if they must needs have been vexed, it might have been expected that they would have been so at the former part of His speech, at His having said, "Ye shall know the truth"; and that they would have replied, "What! do we not now know the truth? Is then the Law and our knowledge a lie?" But they cared for none of these things, they are grieved at worldly things, and these were their notions of bondage. And certainly even now, there are many who feel shame at indifferent matters, and at this kind of bondage, but who feel none for the bondage of sin, and who would rather be called servants to this latter kind of bondage ten thousand times, than once to the former. Such were these men ...

And why did not Christ confute them, for they had often been in bondage to the Egyptians, Babylonians, and many others? Because His words were not to gain honor for Himself, but for their salvation, for their benefit, and toward this object He was pressing. For He might have spoken of the four hundred years, He might have spoken of the seventy, He might have spoken of the years of bondage during the time of the Judges, at one time twenty, at another two, at another seven; He might have said that they had never ceased being in bondage. But He desired not to show that they were slaves of men, but that they were slaves of sin, which is the most grievous slavery, from which God alone can deliver; for to forgive sins belongeth to none other.


Ignatius, in his Epistle to Polycarp, says of slaves:

Do not despise either male or female slaves, yet neither let them be puffed up with conceit, but rather let them submit themselves the more, for the glory of God, that they may obtain from God a better liberty. Let them not long to be set free [from slavery] at the public expense, that they be not found slaves to their own desires.


St. Gregory the Theologian's Oration on Baptism has the following to say (though he is not addressing slavery directly, but indirectly while speaking of the saved):

I know of three classes among the saved; the slaves, the hired servants, the sons. If you are a slave, be afraid of the whip; if you are a hired servant, look only to receive your hire; if you are more than this, a son, revere Him as a Father, and work that which is good, because it is good to obey a Father; and even though no reward should come of it for you, this is itself a reward, that you please your Father. Let us then take care not to despise these things. How absurd it would be to grasp at money and throw away health; and to be lavish of the cleansing of the body, but economical over the cleansing of the soul; and to seek for freedom from earthly slavery, but not to care about heavenly freedom; and to make every effort to be splendidly housed and dressed, but to have never a thought how you yourself may become really very precious; and to be zealous to do good to others, without any desire to do good to yourself.


To me, the emphasis of the Fathers seems to be on freedom from the slavery of sin, not the slavery of the body. And this is fully in line with the Scripture which says:

What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?


Now, just because the Scriptures and the Fathers did not emphatically denounce slavery or call for its abolition, that does not mean that slavery is good - after all, divorce, which Christ condemned, was also permitted by the Mosaic Law "because of the hardness of your hearts". Perhaps hearts were hard on the issue of slavery for longer. Or, perhaps it's because divorce violates justice and righteousness far more fundamentally than slavery does.

In Christ,
Michael

#3 Jim Wilson

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Posted 14 July 2010 - 07:49 PM

Dear Michael:

I have a different understanding of the source of Christian opposition to slavery. I am going to confine myself to Quaker opposition because I know more about it. But I believe that in general it applies to also to people like Wilberforce in England.

In the material I have read from Quaker sources, like the Journal of John Woolman and the Journal of Joseph Hoag, opposition to slavery is not put in terms of rights. Pertinent here, I think, is that the Quakers in America were profoundly ambivalent about the American Revolution, due to their commitmeny to an anti-war position. This would incline them as a group to be somewhat hesitant about rights-based arguments.

Opposition to slavery was based primarily, as I understand it, on their understanding that all people have 'that of God within them'. They drew from this view that slavery was an affront to God, and not just an indignity to the slave. This is a complicated area and one that has been much written about. Still, I think it is worth considering a passage from Woolman's Journal since Woolman was so pivotal in the emergence of the anti-slavery movement: "My employer, having a Negro woman, sold her and directed me to write a bill of sale, the man being waiting who bought her. The thing was sudden, and though the thoughts of writing an instrument of slavery for one of my fellow creatures felt uneasy, yet I remembered I was hired by the year, that it was my master who directed me to do it and that is was an elderly man, a member of our Society [i.e. a Quaker], who bought her; so through weakness I gave way and wrote it, but at the executing it, I was so afflicted in my mind that I said before my master and the Friend that I believed slavekeeping to be a practice inconsistent with the Christian religion. . ." (pages 32 and 33, Friends United Press edition)

This is typical of Woolman's writing about slavery. Notice there is no talk about 'rights'. I think it is noteworthy that in the index for this Journal the word 'rights' is not even listed. This is consistent with Woolman's passages. I don't want to take too much time here with heterodox writings, so I will conclude here with the observation that some historians have made, that Roman slavery was a more fluid institution than slavery in early America. For one thing, Roman slavery was not racially based. In addition, slaves did have recourse if dramatically abused, and finally, slaves in the Roman empire could be freed and often were. Of course American slaves could also be freed, but it was rarer and more difficult.

Sincerely,

Jim

#4 Eric Peterson

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Posted 14 July 2010 - 08:49 PM

Actually, the New Testament turns the entire notion of slavery on its head, when St. Paul says that masters are slaves of Christ and slaves are freedmen of Christ. Of course, in our anti-Christian cynical age, people look at this as some kind of prop for slavery itself. That would be to ignore the whole context of early Christianity which had very little to do with the movers and shakers of society who would require such a prop. Indeed, the conversion of the empire to Christianity was itself anything but an enshrining of the way of life that had existed heretofore.

Slavery in the pagan Roman period was dependent on new conquests. Slavery and foreign domination and exploitation were what drove the economy of the empire. This changed quite remarkably about the time Christianity was made the official religion of the empire. Wars of conquest (excepting St. Justinian's campaigns) were no longer normative. Trade and agriculture replaced foreign conquest and a type of feudalism replaced slavery.

Our modern notions of slavery depend on two things, it seems to me--our idea of freedom, and our abhorrence of racism. Slavery based on notions of racial inferiority was, as far as I can tell, the invention of the heterodox themselves, namely the Portuguese and Spanish, who enslaved Native Americans and black Africans, following largely on contemporary models of slavery exercised by the Mohammedans. I am not aware of slavery being the institution it was in Medieval Europe or the Byzantine Empire (and Russia, for that matter) the way that it was in the pagan Roman Empire and the New World. (In Russia, over time, serfdom became entrenched--but this was dependent on agrarianism and feudalism, not on race.)

Notions of freedom have changed dramatically over time to such an extent that nowadays freedom in the secular Western sense means doing whatever you want--which our holy fathers often identify as slavery to the passions.

So, for these reasons, I don't think Orthodox Christians need to be ashamed that they somehow have not taken the lead on the abolition of slavery. This notion is false. We have the Lord and St. Paul turning slavery upside down, St. Constantine destroying the old social order which depended on conquest and Roman superiority, different economic conditions making slavery rare, heterodox actually introducing large-scale and race-based slavery, and Orthodox being not even a marginal part of what was going on in the West at that time.

But, lest one think that Orthodox leaders were remiss in dealing with the problem of serfdom slavery, Tsar Alexander II liberated the serfs a year before Lincoln issued the emancipation proclamation--which incidentally only freed slaves in the rebellious states for political purposes. This the tsar did without the shedding of a single drop of blood. Decades after liberation serfs were working their own land producing products for export to European markets. Decades after the emancipation of African slaves in America, they were gradually stripped of the rights the Civil War had gotten them and reduced to a new kind of slavery still based on racism. Were there still inequities in the Russian Empire afterward, of course there were, but things appear to have made more positive progress more quickly than in America.

#5 Evan

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Posted 14 July 2010 - 09:38 PM

Actually, the New Testament turns the entire notion of slavery on its head, when St. Paul says that masters are slaves of Christ and slaves are freedmen of Christ. Of course, in our anti-Christian cynical age, people look at this as some kind of prop for slavery itself. That would be to ignore the whole context of early Christianity which had very little to do with the movers and shakers of society who would require such a prop. Indeed, the conversion of the empire to Christianity was itself anything but an enshrining of the way of life that had existed heretofore.

Slavery in the pagan Roman period was dependent on new conquests. Slavery and foreign domination and exploitation were what drove the economy of the empire. This changed quite remarkably about the time Christianity was made the official religion of the empire. Wars of conquest (excepting St. Justinian's campaigns) were no longer normative. Trade and agriculture replaced foreign conquest and a type of feudalism replaced slavery.

Our modern notions of slavery depend on two things, it seems to me--our idea of freedom, and our abhorrence of racism. Slavery based on notions of racial inferiority was, as far as I can tell, the invention of the heterodox themselves, namely the Portuguese and Spanish, who enslaved Native Americans and black Africans, following largely on contemporary models of slavery exercised by the Mohammedans. I am not aware of slavery being the institution it was in Medieval Europe or the Byzantine Empire (and Russia, for that matter) the way that it was in the pagan Roman Empire and the New World. (In Russia, over time, serfdom became entrenched--but this was dependent on agrarianism and feudalism, not on race.)

Notions of freedom have changed dramatically over time to such an extent that nowadays freedom in the secular Western sense means doing whatever you want--which our holy fathers often identify as slavery to the passions.

So, for these reasons, I don't think Orthodox Christians need to be ashamed that they somehow have not taken the lead on the abolition of slavery. This notion is false. We have the Lord and St. Paul turning slavery upside down, St. Constantine destroying the old social order which depended on conquest and Roman superiority, different economic conditions making slavery rare, heterodox actually introducing large-scale and race-based slavery, and Orthodox being not even a marginal part of what was going on in the West at that time.

But, lest one think that Orthodox leaders were remiss in dealing with the problem of serfdom slavery, Tsar Alexander II liberated the serfs a year before Lincoln issued the emancipation proclamation--which incidentally only freed slaves in the rebellious states for political purposes. This the tsar did without the shedding of a single drop of blood. Decades after liberation serfs were working their own land producing products for export to European markets. Decades after the emancipation of African slaves in America, they were gradually stripped of the rights the Civil War had gotten them and reduced to a new kind of slavery still based on racism. Were there still inequities in the Russian Empire afterward, of course there were, but things appear to have made more positive progress more quickly than in America.


Well said, indeed. I would add only that slavery in St. Paul's Rome was not chattel slavery of the sort that we justly regard as appalling in the American South. Functionally and ideologically, there is little comparison between them. It's telling that Onesimus WANTED to return to Philemon.

In Christ,
Evan

#6 Michael Stickles

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Posted 16 July 2010 - 01:33 AM

Jim - No arguments there - I was just thinking more of the modern reasonings for opposing slavery, rather than those which informed the early abolitionists. So I guess I was only addressing half of Evan's question.

#7 Owen Jones

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Posted 16 July 2010 - 01:07 PM

As a practical matter, there were virtually no Orthodox in the Western Hemisphere to take a position on slavery one way or another.

#8 Evan Herberth

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Posted 24 September 2010 - 01:26 AM

Hey, I apologize for not responding WAY earlier, haha. I tried to respond, but there was a technical error, and I dropped the ball thereafter. I just wanted to thank you all for the brilliant responses, very thoughtful, definitely, and food for thought.

#9 Kosta

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Posted 24 September 2010 - 08:05 AM

Only Islam believes that slavery is a divine institution, and still practised. Even in buddhism whose doctrines are usually considered 'antislavery', slaves were kept even by buddhist monks in Tibet and Bhutan till the 1950's.

The Church has always known that slavery was not natural. This is best expressed by St. Justinian in Justinians codes, the premiere law book of the byzantine empire which explains the differences between natural law, civil law, and the laws of nations:

.. the law of nations is common to the whole human race; for nations have settled certain things for themselves as occasion and the necessities of human life required. For instance, wars arose, and then followed captivity and slavery, which are contrary to the law of nature; for by the law of nature all men from the beginning were born free....

Our law is partly written, partly unwritten, as among the Greeks. The written law consists of statutes, plebiscites, senatus consults, enactments of the Emperors, edicts of the magistrates, and answers of those learned in the law.
The unwritten law is that which usage has approved: for ancient customs, when approved by consent of those who follow them, are like statute.

But the laws of nature, which are observed by all nations alike, are established, as it were, by divine providence, and remain ever fixed and immutable: but the municipal laws of each individual state are subject to frequent change, either by the tacit consent of the people, or by the subsequent enactment of another statute. 11 Title II, Book I

..."Slavery is an institution of the law of nations, against nature, subjecting one man to the dominion of another.

The name ‘slave ‘ is derived from the practice of generals to order the preservation and sale of captives, instead of killing them; hence they are also called mancipia, because they are taken from the enemy by the strong hand.

Slaves are either born so, their mothers being slaves themselves, or they become so; and this either by the law of nations, that is to say by capture in war, or by the civil law, as when a free man, over twenty years of age, collusively allows himself to be sold in order that he may share the purchase money." 4 Title III, Book I

As we can see, slavery was based on international law, it is the original 'geneva convention', the alternative was killing off the enemy completely. This international law is refered as the 'law of nations' in Justinians codex. And has its origins in war.

A form of slavery was permissible under civil law, when a person sold himself into slavery for a time, either for the money or to pay off debt. Such a person had to be atleast 20 years of age.
The natural law recognizes slavery as unnatural, natural law is established by divine providence and is universal and immuteable.




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