Sunday 4 September 2011

Slavery and salvation


The fact that slavery was accepted as a given throughout most of the history of Christianity

may be an important corrective to our understanding of the Christian life.


I have been reflecting on the recurrent scriptural theme that it is easier for 'the poor' to attain salvation than 'the rich'; and thinking about the symbolic 'pardon' which was given the peasantry in the medieval poem Piers Plowman by William Langland.

Here is the line of reasoning: If salvation is more possible for the poor, and slavery is not contradicted by Christianity, then salvation is certainly possible for slaves; however salvation may in fact be most possible for slaves.

It may be easier to be a good Christian as a slave (or some similar status, such as a serf or servant) than when free.

Contrariwise, it may be very difficult - or unusual - for a slave's master to lead a good Christian life, may be very unlikely that the slave owner will be able (or choose) to attain salvation.


Charles Williams makes much use of the term coinherence to describe the underlying unity of humankind - we live 'in' each other. Coinherence derives from the incarnation of Christ, which takes up humanity into God and means firstly that we 'dwell' in Christ and he in us, but also that all humans share this. So the unity, or relatedness of all humans is a religious fact.

The primary law is love of God, the second is love of neighbour; and Williams seems to describe the second law as derived from the first by the coinherence of Christ in all; in terms of a web of exchanges and substitutions between people - the dependence of people on each other, trading assistance both physical and spiritual, the one doing what the other cannot.

The web of exchange and substitution therefore ought to be willingly participated-in (as contrasted with the prideful desire to be independent of the web, to be autonomous). It is a secondary aspect of the primary dependence of everything on God as creator and sustainer, and of the necessity for the divine help known as Grace.

The main human task seems to be a humble and loving acceptance of this Grace.


This, if correct, clarifies the situation of a slave. The slave is, let us assume, a victim of circumstances; very explicitly dependent on his Master's will (or whim) and very unlikely to imagine that he is an autonomous agent, very unlikely to pursue this as an ideal.

By contrast with the slave (or poor man), the ultimate dependence of modern man (the rich man) is much more abstract, and furthermore obscured by all manner incoherent nonsense such as the concepts of 'rights' and 'freedom' and 'democracy' - which create an illusion of individual autonomy as the basis of reality.


The slave's Christian duty is (as for everyone) to do his best to pursue the Good under the circumstances in which he finds himself. Mostly he will be prevented from this, by his status. But that is not his fault. So long as he does his best, it is enough.

The slave Master, however, is an element in these circumstances - and has the ability to make it harder for the slave to live a Christian life, violating the second law. Doing his best for himself is not enough, if he damages the web of coinherence by constraining others.

Coinherence suggests that if the slave master prevents his slave from attending church, sharing the sacraments, learning scripture, meeting with other Christians, praying (or whatever constitutes proper Christian practice in that context) - then the sin is upon himself. And, of course, the sin comes from and is the attitude: the attitude that the slave's soul does not matter - the denial of shared humanity.


Modern man is, in innumerable ways, substantially in the position of the slave master; by many means impairing the ability of his neighbours to live the Christian life - consider the power of the journalist, the bureaucrat, the politician, the advertiser to force distractions on others; to distract others from the reality of life, to constrain the practice of the Good.

Indeed, there are no 'poor' in modern societies (almost none) and therefore everyone is in the position of the rich man of the scriptures; and modern society (outside the family) most resembles a web of interference and imposition (laws, regulations, rules, rights, taxes, subsidies) rather than a web of consenting mutual exchanges.


For Langland, salvation was more likely for a plowman (a serf) than a merchant (a free man).

In sum, if the institution of slavery is not incompatible with Christianity, then the status of a slave (or of something like a slave - a serf, indentured servant, a conscript, a soldier) may be more compatible with the Christian life than is modernity.

The life of a slave is not happier - obviously not - but it may be more compatible with salvation than modernity.



Brett Stevens said...

The life of a slave was happier, when you consider who ended up a slave.

(a) People captured in battle, who were generally indentured for a number of years. Their fate was better than what otherwise awaited them, which was death for men and sexual chattel for women.

(b) People who are of low IQ or otherwise incompetent to manage their own affairs. They "think" they are "happier" today, but their lives are trails of wreckage and they tend to compulsively make poor decisions and blame others.

When we go down the subjectivity corridor, using terms like "happiness," we're making truth dependent on the assessment abilities of those least able to assess.

It's better to look at facts: Joe Blow is better off a slave, with someone managing his affairs, than the serf of a commercial system that manipulates Joe to buy stuff he doesn't need, chase after impossible dreams, and then still end up impoverished, working menial labor, divorced, in debt, alone and alcoholic.

The Crow said...

I don't understand why people find this so hard to understand.
The term "poor" refers to the material-less state that is necessary to attain true awareness: as in awareness of God.
Anyone who has not subtracted everything from his life, may only play-act his belief.
Whereas the man who is naked before life is able to more clearly see it for what it is.
Our modern definition of "poor" carries all kinds of connotations that have nothing to do with the scriptural idea.
One may be rich, while still being poor, and vice-versa.
Poverty of ego is the sort of poor that will yield results. The ditching of Identity, is true poverty, and the very kind needed to become one's life, rather than merely observing it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ Brett - slavery was always regarded as a terrible thing, or at least severely sub-optimal, at least by the people who wrote. But it is not the worst thing, slavery certainly overlaps with other conditions. To us moderns, the monastic life - with its lifelong oath of obedience - would seem like slavery.

@Crow - you are, of course, our resident expert on this topic. Does real poverty actually *help* induce spirituality, in your experience? If so, can the same effect be achieved without it - or is it simply much harder?

The Crow said...

Bruce: it depends, again, on the definition of "poverty".
The modern, western kind that fuels burning resentment and the desire for riches, certainly leads to anything but spirituality. Whereas the kind that results in calm acceptance of one's meagre lot, is the very foundation of awakening.
I saw this constantly among Mexican peasants. They had almost nothing, but I had never seen such consistently open, smiling hospitality, and generosity of spirit.
I personally did not have much real awareness until I was shipwrecked, materially destitute, and half-starved in the Sonoran Desert.
Null and Void describes it rather well:)
This is not to say a rich man can not arrive at the pearly gates, only that, as I see it, it would be very, very much more difficult to achieve the sort of state that gains one entrance.
And this is why, in all my years, and all my travels, I have yet to meet a spiritually transcendent westerner: they simply own too much, want too much, pack around too much emotional baggage, and feel too self-important.
There must be people who are not like this, but I have never met any.
I suspect, though, from the insights in his writing, that Brett Stevens is rather more enlightened than he knows. And than his readers know.
I wonder how he got to be the way he is?

Bruce Charlton said...

"And this is why, in all my years, and all my travels, I have yet to meet a spiritually transcendent westerner: they simply own too much, want too much, pack around too much emotional baggage, and feel too self-important."

This is a remarkable thing, if I reflect on it; that the devil should have won by means of showering the West with peace and prosperity...

At any rate, this particular victory is likely to be temporary, since (if I live out a normal Western life span) I fully expect to see the reintroduction of slavery and the return of real destitution in the Western nations. The fact that this is so terrifying to me is presumably conclusive evidence of my own rooted worldliness and addiction to comfort and lifestyle.

The Crow said...

That's a remarkable bit of lateral-thinking, Bruce :)
There's hope for us all; the only requirement is the ability to recognize that there is.

The Crow said...

Excessive comfort is probably responsible for more deaths than all diseases, accidents and wars, combined.
At least, in the West.

chris said...

It is difficult for the rich to be humble; perhaps not possible. Deep humility is the result of appreciating one's position relative to an incomprehensibly perfect, and therefore loving God.

The rich man seems incapable of refraining from "I".

Humility through Christ allow us the opportunity to reflect God's majesty.

We also know that the reconciled-to-God are to "be joyous always". Of course this joy is the result of yielding not initiating.