Thursday, October 18, 2012

Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

     Have you ever considered the order of the above endowments in our Constitution?  That's right... they're in order of importance!  Happiness takes a back seat to liberty, and liberty isn't much use if you're dead.  So keep that order in mind;  to give a sketchy road map for our journey today (and probably tomorrow), I'd like to explore our prejudices about slavery, God's use of slavery and its beneficial effects, and its applicability to us today.
     I recently wrote about my FNA (Friendly Neighborhood Atheist) and a video he sent me, 10 questions that every intelligent Christian must answer (I replied to him that I was flattered he considered me intelligent!); question # 5 was "Why is God such a huge proponent of slavery in the Bible?";  around the 5:07 mark.  Their answer was predictable: because the Bible was written by mean, ruthless men who were motivated to justify their extortionist sadism.  Materialist presuppositions aside, this is a great example of blind cultural exportation that the modern world (especially America!) is famous for:  our preferences, methods and even our values are right, and all who differ from them are backward, brutal savages.  Am I being too harsh?  Just try this:  the next time you're in mixed company, use the word "slave" or "slavery" in a favorable context and watch the revulsion and disgust rise on your audience's faces.  There are still a few things that Americans can be counted on to condemn: Hitler, child molesters, and people that condone and practice slavery are all evil, and will be the sole inhabitants of hell (if it exists).
     So am I saying viewing people as property and treating them worse than animals (especially our pampered pets!) is justifiable?  No, what I'm saying is that we all must beware of our prejudices, the unconscious ones above all.  The most dangerous mindset for anyone is one of perceived neutrality, that you possess the fabled tabula rasa ("blank slate") and you alone can exercise wise judgment over people in vastly different cultural situations than your own.
     Our texts are these:  "For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves."  "For it is to me that the people of Israel are servants.  They are my servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God." (Lev 25:42, 55)

"You are a slave..."
     Now, the first thought of the average reader upon seeing the word "servant" is "Sure, God's the boss, and we are supposed to do what He says";  but let's look at the context... God is spelling out the restrictions on Jews keeping their fellow Hebrews as slaves (vss. 35-46).  An hopelessly indebted Israelite could sell himself (and his family, I think) as payment for his debt, but he could not be compelled to do so; and when the Jubilee year rolled around, the family would be set free.  This is almost identical to the provision on the land we explored last time;  no Israelite could be permanently kept as a slave, and our texts explain why:  the whole nation, corporately and individually, already were slaves to God.  Chew on that in your modern, liberated, Western mind for a while:  no Bill of Rights, no Emancipation Proclamation, no correction of segregation through civil rights... the ideal social structure God put in place for Israel was national slavery to Himself.  Why would a loving God do such a thing?  Because it's good for us!  We are burdened already in a permanent state of bondage, as Morpheus says:  "[The truth is] That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch." (The Matrix, 1999).  If we could escape a malevolent computer system, or similarly free ourselves, that would be relatively simple;  but we are slaves to sin (Rom 6:16), and utterly powerless to save ourselves and others.  No man can serve 2 masters (sound familiar?), and so it is an incomparable blessing when a benevolent Person with unlimited resources "redeems" us (lit. 'to buy out of bondage'), and takes us into His own service.  As proof of His mercy and goodwill, the Israelites were not to "rule over him (their fellow Hebrews) ruthlessly", but to view their countrymen as charges, put into their care to guard and benefit.
No handouts here!
    This is another secret collectivist (or Communist, pick your poison!) concept in the Bible... that in the covenant community, personal property exists and is to used for the collective good.  Slaves definitely qualified as property in Israel (Lev 25:45), but from the perspective of our own slavery to God, how are we to handle what (and whom) He gives us?  According to His character, to His revealed will and therefore consequentially, in the best interests of the people involved.  The social reality was that the folks slipping off the lowest rungs of poverty did not hold cardboard signs on freeway offramps... they starved to death.  Hebrew masters were to act in their brothers' best interests, to feed and clothe them until the Jubilee, when God would legally restore them to their inheritance.  And the recipients of such generosity were not enabled to sit on the couch, thumbing the remote while they collected their "entitlements";  the indentured worked for their daily bread (2 Thes 3:10). 
     All well and good, but what about foreign slaves?  Lev 25:44-46 can be easily misunderstood and have been famously used by slave traders and owners in the 17th-19th centuries to support their practices.  But again, there is a huge discontinuity here, not just in time, but in reality.  A man typically became a slave in the ancient world when he ran up an immense debt and would again be in danger of malnutrition, if not death;  if, in the course of his service, he could settle the debt, the man would then be freed.  Usually, there was not a group of people permanently designated slaves due to their ethnicity (conquest could be an exception).  And we must not forget the civic aspect to the Mosaic Law:  there are provisions in the Pentateuch, perfectly suited for and unique to ancient Israel (Num 15:38, Deut 22:11, etc.).  So God could and did legislate and limit the use of practices already in place in Israel (Deut 24:1ff);  we must not foolishly equate this to unqualified endorsement.
     How can we today apply and learn from our text's teaching on slavery?  Stay tuned...

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