Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Slavery, homosexuality, and Scripture

Responding to Michael P.'s recent post, commenting on the similarity between the 19th century Scripture-and-slavery debate and the debate today about homosexuality and the Bible, Prof. Robert George writes:

In a recent posting . . . , Professor Michael Perry says that he is struck by the similarities between our debate over homosexuality and the 19th century debate over slavery, when it comes to the use of scripture.  To my mind, the differences that are more striking.

Christians who wished to practice or justify slavery in the antebellum American south immediately faced a problem:  sacred scripture, in its opening passages, taught that each and every human being is made in the image and likeness of God.  Every human being is descended from the same original parents and, as such, are in the most fundamental sense brothers and sisters.  Opponents of slavery pressed the point relentlessly, and, as the historical record shows (see Eugene Genovese, A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South), pro-slavery Christians had enormous difficulty in meeting their argument directly.  But an indirect approach was available.  The Bible at various points refers to slavery, and even proposes norms pertaining to its practice, while not condemning it as unjust or in any way immoral.  So, pro-slavery Christians asserted, those in a position to practice slavery are entitled to choose whether or not to practice it—no one may be forced against his conscience to own slaves, but anyone who chooses to own a slave does not necessarily contravene Christian moral principles by doing it.  In other words, Christians who were "pro-choice" (as we might today put it) on the slavery question, pointed to the absence of a Biblical condemnation (and even suggestions of tacit approval) of a morally controversial practice they wished to support in justifying a position that was difficult to square with the logical implications of Biblical anthropology.  (As Professor Genovese points out, the fact that the slavery they were defending was a racially-based form of chattel slavery made it especially difficult for them to justify their position even on Biblical grounds, but lay that aside for now.)

These pro-slavery Christians were wrong.  And the practice they were defending was horribly wicked—far more wicked than the practice of fornication, adultery, or sodomy.  But it must be conceded that the proponents of slavery had available to them scriptural resources for an argument, albeit an unsound and, it is now clear, deeply scandalous one, that are not available to those who wish to defend the compatibility of the choice to engage in fornication, adultery, or sodomy, with Christian anthropology and moral principles.  Unlike slavery, these and other forms of sexual immorality are the subjects of scriptural condemnations, as clear and extensive in the New Testament as in the Old.  Moreover, the idea that they may legitimately be chosen has been rejected by the firm and constant teaching of the Church---East and West – a teaching that, by its centering on what is involved and required by the marital (both for married and unmarried persons), was and is scripturally grounded in a way going far beyond mere “proof texting.”  Christians who today seek to justify deviations from traditional norms of sexual morality can do no more than attempt to explain away the scriptural condemnations of the conduct they defend.  (So, for example, some of them attempt to show that the explicit condemnation of homosexual conduct is merely a matter of ritual purity and practice, not the expression of a moral teaching.)  They cannot say about the morally controversial practices they wish to defend what the pro-slavery Christians could and did say about the morally controversial practice they defended, namely, that the Bible treats it as a normal and accepted social practice and offers no condemnation of it.

So much for the differences which strike me.  I would of course concede that there are similarities.  Most notably:  like Christian defenders of slavery, Christian defenders of sodomy (and other sexual practices condemned by historic Christian teaching) seek to show that Christianity is more permissive than their opponents say it is.  And, correspondingly, of course, Christian opponents of sodomy, like Christian opponents of slavery, see the Christian ethic as more rigorous by virtue of its excluding certain controversial forms of conduct from the universe of morally available options for choice, despite the fact that some intelligent, well-informed people do not share the conviction that the conduct is wrong.

Of course, the fact that those who argued for a more permissive view of morality in the case of slavery were wrong does not mean that those who today argue for a more permissive view of the morality of sodomy or other controversial forms of sexual conduct cannot be right.  Whether they are right or wrong will have to be judged on the quality of the arguments they advance.  My point in these comments has been only that they do not have available to them the scriptural resources that were available to, and were exploited by, those who argued that slave holding was compatible with Christian morality.  That, I think, is a striking difference.

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