Sunday, August 1, 2010


One hundred and seventy seven years ago on this day, August 1st 1833, British parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 (3 & 4 Will.4 c.73). Within four weeks the act received royal ascent, and exactly one year later, on the 1st of August 1834, slavery was abolished in most of the British empire. A generation would pass before slavery was abolished in the USA.

There were some important exceptions to the SAA1833. Some entire landmasses (like the island of Ceylon) were excluded from abolition. Many slaves were re-titled “apprentices” rather than getting freedom. There were many banal particulars that are embarrassing in retrospect.

The slave trade had supposedly been dealt a killing blow decades earlier with the passage of the Slave Trade Act in 1807. The slave trade continued; only now it was rife with stories of entire ship’s cargos of slaves being thrown overboard to avoid fines.

“However, you may purchase male and female slaves from among the nations around you. You may also purchase the children of temporary residents who live among you, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat them as slaves, but you must never treat your fellow Israelites this way.”
---Leviticus 25:44-46 (New Living Translation)

What I find amazing is that abolition was attempted at all. People began standing for a morality that to them was palpable rather than defending a morality that was dictated by scripture. It was from these actions that a modern Christianity with which people can rightly be moved was formed. People have been able to point to abolition as a single moment when society decided to abandon, and make illegal, an accepted practice simply because it was wrong.

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ.”
--- Ephesians 6:5 (New Living Translation)

I, of course, believe that the change of heart was caused by the action of dissenters whispering the virus of reason into the ears of the masses. Perhaps proto-atheists or secularists poisoned the well of morally righteous slavery. It is undeniable that many of the loudest voices declaiming slavery were those of individuals who thought of themselves as Christian.

“All slaves should show full respect for their masters so they will not bring shame on the name of God and his teaching. If the masters are believers, that is no excuse for being disrespectful. Those slaves should work all the harder because their efforts are helping other believers who are well loved. Teach these things, Timothy, and encourage everyone to obey them.”
--- 1 Timothy 6:1-2 (New Living Translation)

We are modern humans in a modern world. We know that slavery is wrong. The human who professes to own another human being is committing one of the gravest injustices possible in a moral society. We know this to be true because we have figured it out. The SAA1833 might have needed to nod to banal requirements to make abolition possible, but the reasons for those particulars have become lost to history.

“If his master gave him a wife while he was a slave and they had sons or daughters, then only the man will be free in the seventh year, but his wife and children will still belong to his master. But the slave may declare, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children. I don’t want to go free.’ If he does this, his master must present him before God. Then his master must take him to the door or doorpost and publicly pierce his ear with an awl. After that, the slave will serve his master for life.”
--- Exodus 21:2-6 (New Living Translation)

Many people have taken this move into morality a few steps farther. Some people examine their actions and ask if they are morally right. Many do this without consulting scripture at all. Most people who I am pleased to call my friends and who call themselves Christians, only use scripture to support moral choices rather than to guide them.

“If a man beats his male or female slave with a club and the slave dies as a result, the owner must be punished. But if the slave recovers within a day or two, then the owner shall not be punished, since the slave is his property.”
--- Exodus 21:20-21 (New Living Translation)

Many of these good modern Christians view morally guided choices as a tenant of their faith. Some even go so far as to suggest that becoming an atheist would impede their ability to make morally correct choices. There is something to their concern.

"When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are. If she does not satisfy her owner, he must allow her to be bought back again. But he is not allowed to sell her to foreigners, since he is the one who broke the contract with her.”
 -- Exodus 21:7-8 (New Living Translation)

After generation of selective interpretation of scripture modern Christians have developed a complex structure to promulgate their moral code. Many of the elements of the complex structure must be preserved in order to preserve the society that depends upon them. It may appear to be a simple matter of identifying important elements as reasoned and not organically Christian, but does one do this by learning all about Christianity or by reasoning through an entire moral code of ethics? We are quickly swamped by the task.

“However, anything specially set apart for the LORD—whether a person, an animal, or family property—must never be sold or bought back. Anything devoted in this way has been set apart as holy, and it belongs to the LORD. No person specially set apart for destruction may be bought back. Such a person must be put to death.”
 --- Leviticus 27:28-29 (New Living Translation)

The best course of action is to act “as if” a particular morality has been adopted. Whenever the moral code comes into conflict it should be examined. Although personal examination are continually needed the most important examinations are those which can be communicated to many people. Professional moral philosophers are needed for the work of teasing a rational morality out of a morally just society. Sayings, proverbs, parables, poetry, and hymns should be developed which spotlight the rational morality which is needed for the future. I alone am not up to this task.

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