Inklings of Truth


The Slave Trade

ByAudrey Stallsmith

For the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, I wrote a newspaper article about a nearby town here in Pennsylvania that began as a refuge for escaped slaves.  Established by a free black man, it was called Liberia like the African nation.  Many local residents, including Liberia's founder, were involved with the Underground Railroad.

One pastor, on discovering an escaped slave in his barn on a Sunday morning in the 1840's, simply disguised the fugitive with his own cloak and wig and loaned him a horse.  The elderly minister knew, after all, that he would soon have to answer to a Higher Authority than the U. S. government. 

As Timothy Keller put it in The Reason for God, "Christian abolitionists concluded that race-based, life-long chattel slavery, established through kidnapping, could not be squared with biblical teaching either in the Old Testament or the New."  To quote the Old Testament: "A kidnapper must be killed, whether he is caught in possession of his victim or has already sold him as a slave." (Exodus 21:16 LB)

Although many of the slaves mentioned in Scripture were prisoners of war, others had sold themselves to escape debt.  Jewish slaves with Jewish masters could expect to be released after seven years. 

It was often a common practice too in colonial America for apprentices to bind themselves to masters for a certain length of time, in exchange for being taught the master's trade.  Many traded their freedom temporarily for what seemed to them a larger gain.  The slaves captured in Africa and dragged to America, however, had no choice in the matter--and no personal Jubilee to anticipate.      

Some of the slave owners forbade their slaves learning to read too.  Perhaps they realized, along with Horace Greeley, that “It is impossible to enslave, mentally or socially, a Bible-reading people. The principles of the Bible are the groundwork of human freedom.” 

Or perhaps those slave owners simply wanted to be able to see their slaves as beasts of burden or even machines rather than human beings.  Erich Fromm notes in The Heart of Man, that "the aim of sadism is to transform man into a thing, something animate into something inanimate, since by complete and absolute control the living loses one essential quality of life - freedom.”  As Abraham Lincoln noted, “Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.”

Recent psychological experiments have proved what most of us already knew--that slavery has a degrading effect on the owners as well as the slaves.  Even giving college students unlimited power over their fellow students can have alarming results--that those who believe in the basic goodness of man have a hard time explaining away!

In a now famous Stanford experiment, when students were assigned roles as either guards or prisoners, the guards so quickly became abusive that the experiment had to be ended after only six days.  As C. S. Lewis put it in Present Concerns, "Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters."

Booker T. Washington put it more succinctly in an address delivered to a Republican club in New York City.   "One man cannot hold another man down in the ditch without remaining down in the ditch with him."  Many of those plantation owners in the pre-Civil War South must have had to suppress their consciences on a daily basis to get their cotton in.  And, the more you suppress your conscience, the less you hear it.  So those men would have become more calloused and brutal not only towards their slaves, but towards everyone with whom they came in contact.

The slaves--on the other hand--would have become more and more passive, the longer they ceased to resist.  "One of the worst results of being a slave and being forced to do things," Lewis writes in The Horse and His Boy, "is that when there is no one to force you any more you find you have almost lost the power of forcing yourself.”

We may think we have abolished slavery in the USA, but we actually haven't.  Many women are smuggled into this country with the promise of jobs, only to find themselves enslaved in prostitution instead.  The men who use those women must be held as responsible for their degradation as the pimps.

Also enslaved are abused spouses, cult joiners, and gang members--most of them bound by fear of what will happen if they try to leave.  Perhaps they should be more afraid of what will happen to them if they stay.  As pointed out above, they will become less and less inclined to raise any resistance. 

Many actually prefer to have someone else making all the decisions because that frees them from any sense of responsibility.  They trade their freedom for the chance to repudiate blame.  If anything goes wrong, it won't be their fault.  Actually, it will be their fault because they chose to submit to the decision-maker.

Some hold that modern society--whether capitalistic or socialistic--enslaves us as well.  "Men in the free world invite slavery," Fulton Sheen asserts in On Being Human, "when they ask the government to provide complete security, when they surrender their freedom to the 'welfare state.'"

Those who do work, however, often aren't in much freer condition.  As Fromm writes in The Art of Loving, “Modern capitalism needs men who cooperate smoothly and in large numbers; who want to consume more and more; and whose tastes are standardized and can be easily influenced and anticipated. It needs men who feel free and independent, not subject to any authority or principle or conscience--yet willing to be commanded, to do what is expected of them, to fit into the social machine without friction; who can be guided without force, led without leaders, prompted without aim--except the one to make good, to be on the move, to function, to go ahead."

"Freedom," he concludes, "requires that the individual be active and responsible, not a slave or a well-fed cog in the machine . . . It is not enough that men are not slaves; if social conditions further the existence of automatons, the result will not be love of life, but love of death.”

Many people these days are choosing to go "off the grid" in more ways than one, in an attempt to get out of that "rat race."  But, although we may criticize and even shake off other types of subjection, many of us are bound to habits or vices--trading freedom for temporary satiation.  In the Christian movie Fireproof, for example, the main character was addicted to porn.  Although his eventual destruction of his computer made some of us viewers wince at the waste involved, he knew what it would take to keep himself away from temptation. 

Granted, he could have just sold the computer or given it away, but he probably needed that symbolic repudiation.  The Bible warns us, in almost brutal words, to get rid of anything that might ruin our souls.  "So if your eye--even if it is your best eye--causes you to lust, gouge it out and throw it away.  Better for part of you to be destroyed than for all of you to be cast into hell." (Matthew 5:29 LB)

Anything that gets a hold on us that we can't shake becomes dangerous, even if that something is  innocuous in itself--such as food.  New Jersey Governor Christie, for example, doesn't seem to realize his weight implies to voters that he has a problem with self-control.  And nobody wants a man within reach of the nuclear button who has a problem with self-control!  He will probably eventually have to decide whether food is more important to him than the possibility of being President.  In an even more important race, all of us will have to decide whether our obsessions are more important to us than God is, as they push Him out of the center of our lives.

Anti-religious sorts may hold that we Christians are slaves to God as well.  But that is an entirely different sort of attachment--like the attachment plants have to the soil from which comes their food and life.  If a plant were even able to yank itself up, to become independent, it would soon wither as a result.

As Helmut Thielicke points out in The Waiting Father, "We cannot with impunity - actually, without being utterly foolish - separate ourselves from the element in which we live and have our being. We can't take God off as we would take off a shirt. To separate ourselves from the Father is at bottom not merely 'unbelief' at all, but simply the most monstrous kind of silliness."

God, after all, is the source of all goodness, so the world would be intolerable without Him.  But he has given us the freedom to distance ourselves from Him, if that is what we choose to do.  In other words, we can wither if we want!  Sheen once pointed out that hell--which many tend to see as a contradiction of God's love--is actually "the eternal guarantee of human freedom." 

God, after all, does not want slaves but children who will serve Him out of love, not fear.  So we should all ask ourselves what we are trading our freedom for.  If it's anything less than the chance to be sons and daughters of God, we are selling ourselves far too short!