16 August 2011

A Letter to the (apparently) Biblically illiterate Pastor Terry "The bible Doesn't Condone Slavery" Dutton

What follows is a letter I recently wrote to a fundamentalist preacher, Pastor Terry Dutton, who should have known better. In a radio sermon he made the odd, and, as it happens, false claim that the bible doesn't condone the act of slavery. Sweeping God's cruelty, injustice and his obviously immoral (yet godly) edicts under the rug is an old problem for the clergy. It does seem as if the clerics are trying answer the following question: How do we explain away these ugly attributes, stories and behaviors that so obviously offend the senses, and annoy the average moral compass? It is likely they are trying to answer the question for themselves.

The conflict between the "morality" often found in revealed religion and that found among the non-clerical class is probably as old as religion itself and is certainly as old as organized religion that acts as a political force. When churches lose political power and the power to coerce people with the threat and actuality of violence, and when free thought and free speech are permitted very different conceptions of what is and isn't moral or ethical come to the fore. These discourses tend to spread rapidly through cultures. Such moral advancement tends to happen in the teeth, rather than with the support, of orthodox religion (anti-slavery say, or sexual equality offer two salient but by no means exhaustive examples). Since the churches cannot simply say their books were wholly written by men, without divine inspiration, these modern deflections (sometimes artful, generally artless) become necessary and unavoidable when members of the culture are free to ask questions and are not obligated to be quiet. It should be remembered that there was a time when such questions could not really be asked, because to do so probably meant death, and that by long complicated torture. It still can mean violent death in countries where clerical powers continue to hold sway.

And yet consider...no one is troubled by the behavior of Zeus, or Odin, or Ra. This isn't to say that people aren't critical of the aforementioned characters. They don't exist, so contemplating the gross infidelities of Zeus is not a source of existential angst. These mythologies, these dead religions are now largely considered human creations have an easier time of it. I am free, and so are you, to read the Iliad say and to enjoy it as literature. The work of explaining away the gods' vile tendencies is removed and they can be enjoyed and studied as mythologies and windows into the minds, and the times that created them. If Joseph Campbell is to be believed mythology may actually be useful in understanding human nature, and the things it tends to value. Extant religion tends to remove itself from such usefulness by the vigor and relentlessness with which it claims special exception.

Pastor Terry, to whom I have written, is left somewhat in a lurch. As a Christian fundamentalist he professes belief in a 3O god (Omniscient, Omnipotent, and Omnibenevolent), he must try to square this 3O character with the revealed text and the ugliness contained therein. Terry Dutton is not the first theologian to fail in this endeavor, so he finds himself in fairly mighty company. Here we might cite ancients like Augustine, Aquinas, Tertullian, Maimonides, and Kierkergard. Or we might dredge these opaque waters at shallower depths and find a C.S. Lewis, or a Billy Graham. We might note progressives like Tillich who chose to abandon literalism but stick with some version of God. In such work we can see, at least, some struggle with the text that first gave them some hint at the entity whose character they seek to clarify. So while Terry may find himself in great company, his efforts aren't even on a par with the dreadful C.S. Lewis. Because unlike his intellectual forebears, Terry Dutton doesn't seem to understand the plain meaning of words. In the broadcast that so annoyed me, he made the claim that the bible doesn't condone slavery, or any of the negative actions taken by any character in the bible. Sometimes the latter may indeed be the case, but Dutton is clearly honestly mistaken, stupid, or dishonest concerning the former. Having listened to his broadcasts on a few occasions I wouldn't be surprised if his entire theology was some combination of the three. The bible clearly gives license for slavery and was widely cited in support of it during our own country's long argument about the practice of slavery and then later about civil rights. My letter was an attempt to point this out. The good Pastor Terry has yet respond.

Terry,
Driving to the gym I occasioned to listen to your radio program. During your sermon you said something about God not condoning several actions, and behaviors on the part of characters in the bible. Much of what you said God didn't condone, is demonstrably false. The most obviously false statement you made in your attempt to excuse the character of God involved your bald assertion that the bible -which you apparently take to be the inerrant word of God- that the bible didn't condone slavery. This is nonsense. The bible clearly expects people to have slaves, has rules for the keeping of slaves, and even depicts Moses and his surly band of violently acquiring sex slaves. God seems to have specific rules for who the Hebrews could buy and who they could not. According to the bible you could sell your daughters. There is really no other way to read the bible on slavery than this: the God of Abraham clearly expects one to own slaves. To take one example, from
Exodus: 21:20 And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished 21:21 Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.
This is condoning slavery. Let me say it again. This is condoning slavery. If God had not approved/condoned slavery he could have put something concrete in the books of the bible, say somewhere in the Decalogue? How about "Thou shalt not own other sentient beings, nor trade in them, nor force sexual relations on them, be they Hebrew or not." That would constitute not approving, and not condoning. Not even in the New Testament can you get Jesus to castigate the practice of owing slaves. As grotesque as that is of course it is all pale in comparison to the violence and murder heaped upon the women and children of the Midianites, where all the males and male children were slain, all the females that had sex, slain, and of course the virgins the victors could keep for themselves. That sounds an awful lot like sex slavery to me.

In short the bible does condone these things. It had rules for how the practice of slavery was to be done. To give an illuminating counter example. US legal code does not condone theft. Its rules are always prohibitive. Nowhere will you find a legal code saying , Steal in this fashion, and if you steal from a fellow citizen you must return their stolen merchandise after seven years. You don't see that kind of language because the US legal code doesn't allow for theft under any circumstances. The bible does not issue prohibitive, rule of law, proscriptions against slavery, it says this is how it is to be carried out. Such language is evidence of condoning the practice of slavery.

Something to think about eh?

Thanks for your time.
-Max

Author's Note The letter above is presented with vastly fewer typos than the one I sent to the good Pastor.

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