Friday, January 18, 2008

The Liberating Faith, Part I

In his New York Times best-selling book, god is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens rails against religion and Christianity in particular as a principle factor in motivating and sustaining, if not outright establishing, the appalling cultural institution of black slavery in the antebellum South. He paints a picture of a useless and hypocritical Christian church -- on the one hand immobile, asleep at the wheel, while great injustices were taking place; on the other, passionately quoting Scripture and preaching in support of subjugation of blacks, all while presenting the outward signs of Christianity. "This huge and terrible industry was blessed by all churches and for a long time aroused absolutely no religious protest," he writes. [p. 176] Regarding the use of Scripture, "Christian preachers of all kinds had justified slavery until the American Civil War and even afterwards, on the supposed biblical warrant that of the three sons of Noah (Shem, Ham, and Jephet), had been cursed and cast into servitude." [166] Hitchens became even more explicit about his personal views on Scripture and slavery in an interview with the Times Online:
My point is therefore that religion is optional and if you say, "Well I think we should free the slaves because Jesus wants it", I think it is a fatuous thing to say but it is not a wrong thing to say. It ought to be enough to say "I think we should free the slaves." There is no scriptural authority of any kind for freeing the slaves, none, but there's a good deal of scriptural warrant for slavery, which is why it lasted as long as it did and why it persists, especially in the Muslim world. Because it is indeed warranted by the text, which emancipation is not. It is a very important question. In my book there is a good deal of material about the conditions under which Jews can have slaves and what they are allowed to do to them. A lot of it is in Leviticus and Exodus, I believe.

Coming from his book again, of the abolitionists and slavery supporters, he recalls the following disturbing fact: "As Lincoln pointed out in his highly ambivalent second inaugural address, both sides in the quarrel made that claim [that God was on their side], at least in their pulpits, just as both were addicted to loud, confident quotations from holy writ." [178] In light of this assessment, does religious/Christian belief really make a difference in people's behavior? Does it, on the whole, make them better? Hitchens answer is a resounding "NO." After briefly considering the role of a few actors in the drama at the time, he sums up with the following words of condemnation:
Even a glance at the whole record will show, first, that person for person, American freethinkers and agnostics and atheists come out the best. The chance that someone's secular or freethinking opinion would cause him or her to denounce the whole injustice was extremely high. The chance that someone's religious belief would cause him or her to take a stand against slavery and racism was statistically quite small. But the chance that someone's religious belief would cause him or her to uphold slavery and racism was statistically extremely high, and the latter fact helps us to understand why the victory of simple justice took so long to bring about. [180-181]

Although some of this account will be challenged in subsequent posts, it must be soberly admitted that Hitchens is not entirely off the mark. Tragically, many claiming the name of Christ at the time did argue for slavery's legitimacy, and some were even slave owners. Frederick Douglass, one-time slave turned articulate abolitionist had similar stinging criticisms to make from his personal experience. The following account demonstrates the offense in spades:
I have said my master found religious sanction for his cruelty. As an example, I will state one of many facts going to prove the charge. I have seen him tie up a lame young woman, and whip her with a heavy cowskin upon her naked shoulders, causing the warm red blood to drip; and, in justification of the bloody deed, he would quote this passage of Scripture—”He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.” Master would keep this lacerated young woman tied up in this horrid situation four or five hours at a time. I have known him to tie her up early in the morning, and whip her before breakfast; leave her, go to his store, return at dinner, and whip her again, cutting her in the places already made raw with his cruel lash. The secret of master’s cruelty toward “Henny” is found in the fact of her being almost helpless. When quite a child, she fell into the fire, and burned herself horribly. Her hands were so burnt that she never got the use of them. She could do very little but bear heavy burdens. She was to master a bill of expense; and as he was a mean man, she was a constant offence to him. He seemed desirous of getting the poor girl out of existence. He gave her away once to his sister; but, being a poor gift, she was not disposed to keep her. Finally, my benevolent master, to use his own words, “set her adrift to take care of herself.” Here was a recently-converted man, holding on upon the mother, and at the same time turning out her helpless child, to starve and die! Master Thomas was one of the many pious slaveholders who hold slaves for the very charitable purpose of taking care of them.

[Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, pp. 82-83.]

Hitchens is right on this much: what happened to Douglass and other victims of slavery in the name of religion was unconscionable. But this is not the whole picture; there is much more to be said on the subject of Christianity and slavery, as the rest of this series will attempt to argue.

No comments: