Reza Aslan, Religion and Politics – Part 2 – Slavery

In the previous post, we went over Reza Aslan’s theological assumptions coming from the school of thought beginning with Friedrich Schleiermacher. We ended with me agreeing with Reza Aslan that the answer to religious violence must come from religion. But how is this to be done? In his lecture, Reza Aslan doesn’t really explain how, but during the questions, he addresses it by saying:

The same gospel that says turn the other cheek, the same Jesus that says give your cloak to whoever doesn’t have one also said that I have not come to bring peace but the sword and that he who does not have a sword should sell his cloak and go buy one

Then later:

Which Jesus should we follow? The one that calls for selling your cloak and buying a sword or the one who says to give your cloak away to the one that doesn’t have one.

Then later:

The relationship that an individual has to his or her scripture is precisely that, a relationship, it’s a dialectic. We have a sort of tendency to think that religious people derive their values from their scriptures, but it’s far more often the case that religious people insert their values into their scriptures, otherwise every Christian, all 2 billion Christians would read their bible in exactly the same way and you certainly know that’s not the case right? All one and a half billion Muslims would read the Koran in exactly the same way, and that’s obviously not the case. We bring ourselves, our ideals, our preconceived notions, our misconceptions, our aspirations into our scriptures.

Not 200 years ago, both slave owners and abolitionists not only used the same bible to justify their viewpoints, they used the exact same verses to justify their viewpoints. That’s the power of scripture; it is what you want it to be.

Now this is where the real fallacy of Reza Aslan lays. We already dealt with the “not peace but a Sword” passage in a previous post, and the “sell your cloak to buy a sword” passage is easily dealt with, and frankly I don’t think that verse (at least not in the classical Just war theories of Augustine and Aquinas) was ever used to justify violence. The reason is simple, that saying of Jesus was right before his arrest, at his arrest Peter used the sword to attack a member of the arresting party, Jesus used that moment to heal the victim of Peters attack and teach a lesson against violence, even, in this case, self-defence. Taken with Jesus’ other sayings when dealing with violence or revenge, Just war Theorists generally had to go elsewhere.

Christians don’t have to choose between the two Jesus’, because there are not two Jesus’, there is one, and they don’t need to ignore the sword passages if they only just kept reading and held the whole context together. That’s what theology is.

Here’s the point, there is good exegesis and there is bad exegesis, there is good theology and there is bad theology. When it comes to interpreting a text, there are valid interpretations, consistent interpretations, sound interpretations, and invalid, inconsistent and unsound interpretations. Do people insert their own pre-conceived notions into their interpretations? Of course, but this is not unique to religion, people do this in every endeavour, from science to relationships to history, but that does not make all interpretations equally valid.

It is also the case, however, that values, and ideologies are derived, or are shaped by scripture, as Reza Aslan said it’s a dialectic. Take for example the issue Reza Aslan used about slavery. It is true that Christian slave owners attempted to defend their slavery from scripture; it is also true that they failed. Look at the arguments for slavery; they were bad arguments. Nevertheless, the very fact that the debate happened says something. Where else, other than the Christian world, was this debate being had? Where else was the question of the legitimacy of slavery as an institution in and of itself even being raised? The closest thing I can think of is the Stoics, who didn’t actually challenge slavery itself, but pushed for a more humane treatment of slaves.

The first challenge to slavery in and of itself that I know about is from Gregory of Nyssa’s fourth Homily on Ecclesiastes. That challenge was not a pre-conceived dislike of slavery taken from outside and imposed into scripture and theology, rather it was the reasoned and logical outcome of doing proper theology from scripture, his love of God and Scripture is what was imposed on his view of slavery.

He writes in his Homily on Ecclesiastes 335.5:

I got me slaves and slave-girls. What do you mean? You condemn man to slavery, when his nature is free and possesses free will, and you legislate in competition with God, overturning his law for the human species. The one made on the specific terms that he should be the owner of the earth, and appointed to government by the Creator – Him you bring under the yoke of slavery, as though defying and fighting against the divine decree.

And in 336.6:

I got me slaves and slave-girls. For what price, tell me? What did you find inexistence worth as much as this human nature? What price did you put on rationality? How many obols did you reckon the equivalent of the likeness of God? How many staters did you get for selling the being shaped by God? God said, let us make man in our own image and likeness (Gen 1,26). If he is in the likeness of God, and rules the whole earth, and has been granted authority over everything on earth from God, who is his buyer, tell me? Who is his seller? To God alone belongs this power; or rather, not even to God himself. For his gracious gifts, it says, are irrevocable (Rom 11,29). God would not therefore reduce the human race to slavery, since he himself, when we had been enslaved to sin, spontaneously recalled us to freedom. But if God does not enslave what is free, who is he that sets his own power above God’s?

Notice that this conclusion comes directly from the theology of creation, and near the end the theology of atonement. During the middle ages, in Christian Europe slavery more or less disappeared, what replaced it was not perfect, but for slavery to come back, European Christians required, justification to enslave. Prior to this, the argument wasn’t there to be had, ancient Greek philosophers, like Aristotle, took the idea that slavery was natural for granted, of course, slavery was valid, some people were naturally slaves. It took a revolutionary idea like Christianity to open the way for that concept to be challenged.

After Christian Theology made slavery problematic, people who wanted to benefit from slavery suddenly had to defend it, come up with half-baked racial theories or try to twist theology around to make slavery fit. As mentioned in a previous post when it came to the just war theory, the fact that this debate and justification was even a topic of discussion shows the power of religious ideas to shape political ideology.

However, there was a correct answer to the question is slavery something acceptable under Christianity? That question was not a matter of just asking various Christian individuals their opinions, nor was the answer yes and no. The answer was found in doing exegesis and biblical theology and thinking through the social consequences of that theology. Do people have their own biases coming to the text? Of course, but those biases need to be pointed out, argued against, pushed aside so that one can get to the actual truth.

Gregory of Nyssa did that, if a Christian then came up to him and said, “you know what, I think you’re wrong, I think slavery is ok in Christianity,” the conversation wouldn’t end there, that person would have to present an argument from scripture and from theology, and it would either be a more plausible understanding or less plausible.

When it comes to religious violence, if you simply say, as Reza Aslan does, something like “oh it’s just subjective, we shouldn’t attack religion, we should just interpret it in a liberal way and ignore the violent bits,” you’re completely misunderstanding how religion works. Either an instance religious violence is justified in a religion or it is not, we can argue the theology, but there can be no discussion if one party doesn’t agree that there is an answer to be had. If the violence is justified, from a religious standpoint, then that’s what the religion says.

Liberal values, are not just there, they are not axioms, they came about in the west hammered out on the anvil of time and ideological, social and political struggles, some of which included theological debates. These values are historically contingent. Thus, one cannot argue theology assuming liberal values, one begins from the scripture and the values follow.

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Reza Aslan, Religion and Politics – Part 2 – Slavery

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