American Slavery and the Image of God

The Glory of a Dignity Conferred

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” ­– C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

Slavery. The very word is a scar on the American soul. The trauma of slavery in American history is still so potent that it defines us in so many ways. With nearly any other part of our story, we can discuss things with relative disinterest. With slavery we can only approach it with disgust. With other issues of our past, it’s important to keep in mind the context since things tended to be bad all over. With American slavery, we discover the context only makes it worse.

In many ways American slavery is a particular burden for Christians, as far too many masters graced church pews each Sunday. Yes, we can rightly point to the likes of William Wilberforce in Britain and the anti-slavery movement here in the States, but that isn’t the whole story, is it? We want to talk about pastors like Charles Finney who worked for abolition, but we find we must also talk about pastors like Robert Lewis Dabney who defended slavery and was concerned about the mixing of “the race of Washington and Lee and Jackson with this base herd they brought from the fens of Africa.”

Critics of Christianity are quick to point to these shadowy branches of our spiritual family tree. The brilliant atheist, Christopher Hitchens, was explicit about this, saying that the Bible itself was the cause of American slavery and a whole host of other crimes against humanity. We may, as Christians, reject this misunderstanding of biblical truth. But, we have to admit that when it comes to American slavery, this criticism stings. It stings because we fear it might be right.

It is good that we are concerned. We need to be sure about the morality of our core beliefs. But we also have good reason to be confident. We can be confident about the Bible and the Christian Worldview because the repeated testimony of each is completely antithetical to the atrocity practiced in the United States. The specific precepts of biblical laws and the general principles of the Christian Worldview entirely undercut and condemn American slavery.

As my son said when only about 4 years old after hearing about this real-life horror, “People are special. You shouldn’t sell them.” This is the basis of Christian opposition to slavery, that all human beings are special, that they are made in the image of God Himself. To see any one of us degraded as unworthy of life and liberty is to see God’s Name sullied.

While slavery has been ubiquitous in human history, and lurks in the shadows even today, there is something about American slavery which makes it stand out in our minds. Sadly, this is not just our imaginations. Certain characteristics of American slavery make it arguably the very worst form of bondage ever practiced in human history: It involved the presumption that a given group of human beings was destined to be enslaved forever, it treated image bearers of God as though they were disposable property, it allowed for the torture, rape, and murder of sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, and it was based entirely on the horrific practice of manstealing.

Compare this to the Bible. There was no racial component to slavery in the Bible. Frankly, there’s little concept of racial identity in the Bible at all. How many times does a biblical author tell us what someone looked like? The idea that humanity is broken up into distinct, easily identifiable races whose members share innate characteristics is a modern conceit with no basis in science or Scripture. As with the bulk of the ancient world, slaves in biblical Israel were physically identical to masters. What is more, even those slaves who were not born Israelites were to be “Hebraized,” made into Israelites through circumcision and then fully invited into the social and religious life of the community. This is the equivalent of white Americans adopting their African slaves and having them sit as members of the family at Christmas dinner. The blessings of God’s promises to Abraham were applied to those so ingrafted into his family.

Also, slavery in the Old Testament was highly regulated. The most obvious example of this is that it was term-limited for Hebrew slaves, with six years being the standard length. Then, while it may seem like a contradiction in terms to us, Hebrew slaves were to be paid, and not meagerly but “liberally.” Most amazingly when compared to our history, runaway slaves were to be granted sanctuary with no questions asked and given freedom to live wherever they wished. In great contrast to America, if their masters mistreated them, slaves were to be granted their freedom, for major injuries or even minor injuries. The distinction here could hardly be greater.

Probably the most striking contrast between slavery in the Bible and American history had to do with the death penalty. The death penalty for masters, that is, not for slaves. The most obvious case of this came from the murder of a slave where the judgment was the same when the victim was a slave or a free man, death. However, more importantly, capital punishment was also the fate of anyone participating in manstealing, whether as a buyer or a seller. Every slave owner in America deserved death on the basis of the Bible’s precepts.

So, what are we left with? There are things which remain hard to understand about the Bible and slavery, and we should continue to prayerfully think through them all. However, we can be confident that the entire slave system in America was overtly condemned by the words of the Bible. What is more, we can see that wherever Christianity and the Christian Worldview have been fully and deeply embraced, slavery has been starved of its flimsy justification. The Bible is not a liability in such ethical discussions but our greatest ally. The Christian understanding of the nature of human beings as image bearers of God makes American slavery an affront to our dignity and to the One who gave us that dignity.

Any attempt to see our fellow image bearers as beasts of burden, subject to the whims of others, can only thrive when we ignore the clear teaching of the Bible. Human beings are created with a dignity conferred by God Himself, not as a side effect of our abilities or ethnicity. It is an honor which does not need be earned by ourselves or judged by others but is attached to our very nature. Human dignity is not the sole property of the strong, the healthy, the wealthy, or the powerful, but it belongs in equal measure to the weak, the sick, the handicapped, and the unborn. We care for the poor, speak for the voiceless, lift up the exploited, and love the unlovely not out of a simplistic sense of fair-play but because they have been graced with glory from God. God grant us the grace to see His dignity in the faces of all who bear His image, no matter how weak or silenced they may be.

 

Timothy D Padgett, PhD, is the author of the forthcoming book, Swords and Plowshares: American Evangelicals on War, 1937-1973, and is the Managing Editor of BreakPoint.org


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  • Sarah Lee Davis

    Thank you! I needed this perspective.

  • jason taylor

    In the first place, any criteria can be used for deciding someone is less then fully human. So focusing on race is pariochial. In practice through most of history, whether someone was fair game for slavery depended on whether they were of the in-group or the out-group and the in-group could be as large as an empire or as small as a village.

    In the second place the reason American slavery seems somehow “worse” then other people’s slavery is not because it was. It is because the average was skewed. In other cultures slaves were bureaucrats. Among Muslims some were even soldiers. And yes it is hard to perceive how you make a slave a soldier when you are giving away the expediency of killing his master. In point of fact Muslim slave soldiers tended to work their way into society to the point of becoming a kind of aristocracy. Be that as it may, slaves in America must not be compared to these but to slaves who fulfilled similar roles in other cultures. And it is hard to say there was much to choose between being a white miner slave in Tunisia and a black fieldhand in Virginia. Or being a Russian field hand in Iceland(where do you thing they got the word “slave” instead of “thrall”).

  • jason taylor

    As far as “simplistic sense of fair play” goes, one must not dismiss it. Once in awhile it will give you a Wallenberg.

  • gladys1071

    “What is more, we can see that wherever Christianity and the Christian Worldview have been fully and deeply embraced, slavery has been starved of its flimsy justification”

    The problem with this statement is that God fearing mean like “Stonewall Jackson and Robert e. Lee” fought for the confederecy? and they were devout Christians, so the phrase above is simply NOT true. What is culturally acceptable is more powerful then a Christian worldview.

    No nation or person lives a full Christian worldview it is impossible because people have to live according to what is acceptable in as far as the culture they are born in. For the most part people live in conforming with the culture, in a lot of ways we have to.

    I mean in the Christian worldview, it is not acceptable that women work, Yet in this day and age women have to work. The Jewish “worldview” calls for animal sacrifices, yet they are not done today anymore. The druid world view calls for “human sacrifice” are they allowed to do that? no of course not.

    Slavery was acceptable in those days, it maybe abhorrent to us, but it was not to many Christians that lived in the south and supported the Confederecy, it was part of normal everyday life. George Whitfield a great evangelist of that day, was an ardent slavery supporter, was he not a Christian?

    Their is no such thing as a Christian worldview, life does not conform to “worldviews” their are nuances and contradictions in this life that don’t neatly fit into “worldviews” that people construct.

    We are all a product of our environments which include our culture. We live according to what are the norms of our culture even Christians do.

    • Ilona Kay

      I think we need to clarify. There is a striking difference in the definition or “Christian Worldview” and a “Biblical Worldview”. I personally hold to the ladder. The Gospel trumps the Old Testament when Jesus Christ established the New Covenant. If we hold to the Gospel, we cannot give in to the “culture” of the day.

      • gladys1071

        of course we give into the culture, we do so everyday. Nobody can live the “biblical worldview” completely in modern times. Do women wear head coverings everyday? are women silent in the church? are teenagers given in marriage without their consent? their are so many things that we don’t do or cannot do in this day and age that is “biblical”

        I find these ideas about worldviews to make no sense.

    • You are wrong, with a bit of right thrown in there.

      • gladys1071

        explain to me where i am wrong?

        • Helen Louise

          Priscilla worked along side her husband as a tent maker and a teacher of God’s revelation.

  • gladys1071

    I also want to add, slavery is still alive and well. We are all slaves to money, if you have to work for a living and are not independently wealthy, you are a slave, ” a slave to money”. Since we all need money to live, money is our new master.

    So slavery still exists today, it is just not to a person, but to an abstract thing called “money”, without it you cannot have shelter or purchase food, etc…

    • Scott

      That’s one way of looking at it. However in our “bondage” to money we are free to choose how we earn it, how we spend it, where we make it, and we are certainly free to give as much of it away as we like.

      In fact, the only thing money forces us to do is contribute to society… and people are still finding ways around that. : – )

      • gladys1071

        i certainly would not go to work if i did not have to earn money. Though i agree that we do have a certain control of how we spend our money, , but our choices are constrained by necessities like food and shelter (basic needs that need to earn money for) So our choices are not completely “free”.

        So i think my point about being slaves to money is true.

        • Scott

          That’s too bad… I actually enjoy working and view it as a way of using the gifts God has given me to contribute to society. If I didn’t like the work I did, I would probably find different employment… part of the freedom I was referring to.

          Either way I will do my best to work until old age (or death) prevent me from doing so.

  • Helen Louise

    I recently wrote an article, ” American Slavery: The Unrecognized Rest of the Story – Good Reasons to Abandon Racial Enmities.” It relates to the fact that American slavery involved multiracial collusion and complicity. It began in Africa with black African chiefs and tribal members along with Arab Muslims. It was a huge a profitable commerce for them. Black African chieftains sent emissaries to London and Paris begging them not to abolish the slave trade. Today, black Africans are being sold by fellow black Africans to the Middle East Muslims.

    Slavery existed in North America before any European stepped foot on American soil. Native Americans enslaved and owned slaves, and it was quite brutal.

    African American historian and scholar, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., responded to an interview question in the November 2, 2017 issue of Time: “Which of the facts in your book (100 Amazing Facts About the Negro) do you think is most amazing?” His response: “One of the most shocking facts to me is that there were black slaveholders.” He ended his interview with this statement: “Those who love truth, justice and the great American tradition of democracy have to determine that we’re not going to succumb to temptations to demonize.”

    Thousands of black Americans owned black slaves. Over 3,000 in the city of New Orleans alone. Many in the Carolinas. The wealthiest slave owner in Louisiana with the most slaves was a black slave owner.

    These are truths that support the universality of sin and depravity and need to be told. Black and white Christians do not need to experience enmity on what some of either of their races did because what some did does not make a whole race of people guilty. Only the participants were guilty and all should be equally and justly blamed and shamed, not just a selective few or one race.

  • Helen Louise

    I left a comment and wonder why it does not appear here. I am a freelance Christian writer who has been published in many Christian magazines and journals as well as in op-eds of major national newspapers. I thought my comment added to the understanding of who all was involved in the American slavery tragedy.

  • Helen Louise

    Still awaiting an answer to my question as to why my comment has not appeared.

  • master Gunny

    The builder of the home I live in helped bring to publication the book “The Negro is a Man,” It was written to refute a book entitled “The Negro is a Beast,” I am very proud to live in a home built by a man who placed conviction over expediency. Did I mention that the home is in southern Georgia and was written in 1898? The local Methodist church burned more than once by racist rowdies and I believe that owner of my home was forced to leave town under threat of his life and that of his family. The issues seem clear to us today but the change in the attitudes of many people only date back to the civil rights movement. Before that far too many Americans were wiling to tolerate Jim Crow and the KKK.
    It was not just skin color that evoked the feelings of loathing, one race to the other. The enormous difference in cultures, western ideas of what a “civilized” society looks like, and language barriers that led to the belief that blacks were somehow less than fully human. The carnage left by the War Between the States cemented racist ideas in both the North and South but for different reasons. I will stick my neck out and say that the true cause of that terrible war was a failure by churches in both sections of the country to apply the Gospel. Once tempers flared and emotions dictated the tenor of the debate organized violence was inevitable. Northern abolitionists failed to apply the law of love in their congregations and Southern preachers failed to persuade their congregations that any creature that could call upon the name of the Lord had proven themselves to be human and thus brothers and also worthy of the rights afforded to men.
    The church today is failing in the same manner. Bombarded by the filth from Hollywood and a culture that is slipping back into anarchy and barbarism the church lacks the moral courage displayed by that man from Georgia who risked all to call blacks people. The battle now, as then, is spiritual. The time for compromise and vacillation is over. Unless we challenge and refute the materialistic, atheistic, and hedonistic forces personified by Hollywood we are destined for widespread violence; to be sure it will be different than that which we suffered in 1861 but it will be violence nonetheless. David Grossman in his books “On Killing,” and “On Combat” makes the case that movies, TV, and violent video games are major contributors to the increases in violence in this country. Will we remain silent as our land is turned into a lawless, post moral, hell? .