One of the most problematic aspects of the history of antebellum Southern Christianity was the way that the message of Christianity was warped to such a great extent by the unjust behavior of slaveowners. This injustice may be profitably compared with the balance that we find from looking at the New Testament itself. The Roman Empire, like the antebellum South, was a society where slavery was common, and the Bible speaks eloquently about slavery in a nuanced but just way that could have provided a lot of commentary to the antebellum South had the people of that society been careful and reflective about it. As a thought experiment, I would like the reader to imagine that they themselves are in the position of both antebellum slaveowners as well as Christian slaves and they come across one of the characteristic household codes that one finds with regularity in the Pauline epistles. For the sake of convenience, I will choose the example in Colossians 3:22-4:1, which reads: Bondservants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God. And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ. But he who does wrong will be repaid for what he has done, and there is no partiality. Masters, give your bondservants what is just and fair, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.”
There are a lot of things we can notice about a passage like this. For one, a great deal more effort is spent talking about the duties and obligations of the slave than the master. The slave, who might resent his or her low position, is told that the service provided on earth to one’s master counts and will be rewarded as service directly to God and that God will reward the faithful slave. Sometimes, given the injustice and evil of this world, we only have the promise of blessings in the world to come because this world does not offer them well enough. But notice as well that there is reciprocity here, as those who are masters are explicitly reminded that they two have a Master in heaven, and that their treatment in the judgment to come will be highly influenced by their own treatment as masters. This sense of justice and reciprocity was, as we well know, entirely absent in the system of antebellum slavery that we know of in American history. However cruel the slavery of the Roman empire was, there was no illusion that both slaves and masters were both human beings and that the difference in status resulted not from inherent superiority on the part of one party over the other but rather due to the workings of divine providence in an imperfect and unjust world. Similarly, the political system of the time gave an incentive to masters to free their slaves at a reasonable age in order to increase their own power as patrons. (As an aside, it is worth noting that there were incentives on the part of the antebellum South to free slaves so as to increase their own electorate, since they would have gained voting power to their states of the difference between the 3/5 representation given to slaves and the 5/5 representation given to free blacks as well as whites. Unfortunately, the electoral math, such as it was, did not overcome the comfort of masters in their own power, and this fact harmed Southern political power by lowering the amount of electoral votes and seats in the House of Representatives they would otherwise have attained to.)
Let us return to Colossians remind ourselves that masters were reminded to be just and fair in their treatment of slaves with the explicit reminder that they too were slaves of God in heaven. We do not like thinking of ourselves as slaves. The desire for freedom is a highly motivating one, and in American history it has been particularly strong. Indeed, our own desire for freedom in all kinds of ways hinders our ability as Americans to recognize the way that we are called to be obedient to God and are reminded in the Bible of being subject to Him. It is perhaps easier for societies where there is a greater degree of honor and respect paid to human authorities that it is easier to recognize the honor and respect due to God as authority, and the importance of obedience in earth as it is in heaven. One of the characteristic aspects of America’s political culture is the resentment that people feel to anything that makes them look or appear to be inferior in any fashion, or even the suggestion made to flagrant evildoers that they are in fact not in the good graces of God or other people. Even to this day, people resent the thought that their evil and wicked behavior is in fact wicked and evil, and seek to criminalize and punish such reminders that they are not living in a state of grace and obedience with God and in harmony with the right principles of living. These tendencies did not start in our own times, but are longstanding quirks and foibles of the American religious and political experience.
It is perhaps most unpleasant to know that the political problems of our own time are in fact very much like the sort of hypocrisy of previous generations of Americans among those who fancy themselves to be more enlightened than past generations. We should note that the chief failure of past generations came in their failures of reciprocity. As we have noted, Colossians reminded earthly masters among the community of believers that they two had a master in heaven and therefore that there was an equality among believers as being subject to God in heaven. The equality between believers before God is a consequence of the inequality of all believers before God. The gulf between God and man is so wide that as a result the differences between people shrink to inconsequence as a result. And yet we are created in the image and likeness of God with the promise that if we are called and chosen and remain faithful and obedient that we will be rewarded with adoption and entry into God’s family with all of the powers and blessings that entails for all time. The founders of the American republic rebelled against Great Britain in large part because of their unwillingness to accept inferiority between themselves and metropolitan Britain. The Declaratory Act of 1765 stated that Parliament had the right in all cases to decide what was law for self-governing and self-assertive colonies that rejected that authority. Thomas Jefferson penned those immortal words that all men (referring not to men as a gender but mankind as all of humanity) were created equal and were endowed with certain unalienable rights. And yet these rights were at that time and up to the present day are routinely denied to human beings according to class (women and slaves, most obviously, at the time, and to the unborn and unpopular at present). Our generations judges the generations of the past as being unworthy of our respect and regard because of the denial of these rights to people.
And yet those who fancy themselves to be just people in our present day make the same sorts of hypocritical failures in reciprocity that they condemn other generations for. I find myself involved in public forums of communication where matters of conversation about questions of identity are commonly discussed, even within the context of music history. Just yesterday, as I write this, someone I was discussing music with made the casual comment that Billboard’s K-pop journalists were bad because they were white, and then took offense that I believed anti-white racism was possible, because apparently this person is of the mistaken but lamentably common belief that one cannot be racist against whites, sexist against men, and so on. If you are hostile to others based on their supposed race and ethnicity, you are a racist, no matter what color you are and no matter what supposed race within the human race you are hostile to. To believe otherwise is to fail in basic and fundamental reciprocity, and to thus be fundamentally unjust in your behavior and perspective and worldview. And those who fail at the fundamental nature of justice in its reciprocal nature are not able to define justice for anyone else because they are no more just than those they criticize, and merely lack the power to enforce their injustice upon others as was held in the past by similarly unjust people. It is of vital importance that we understand the ways in which we ourselves are unjust so that we do not become historical level villains when we seek power that we do not deserve and that we can do nothing but abuse and misuse because of our failures of character. Those who fancy themselves to be just in their criticisms of the past must not fail to remember the ways in which they are just like those they consider to be their worst enemies. It is lamentable that so often in this cruel and wicked world that we are precisely what we hate the most, because what we hate the most in others is what we ought to hate and fight the most within ourselves.