Here’s the text of the latest in my series of articles for the ‘Credo’ slot in the Newark Advertiser.
I am studying for a B.A. degree in Practical Theology at York St John University. 18 months to go and (if I work hard and get the grades) I’ll be graduating.
One of the topics we looked at recently was the issue of slavery. It was fascinating to look at the history of the debate about slavery that took place both in this country and the United States at the time when the arguments for abolition were gaining momentum. What was particularly interesting is the role of Christians and the use of the Bible on both sides of the debate.
The various books of the Bible were written many years ago at a time when slavery was commonplace and an accepted practice. So on reading the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) one finds passages that accept and condone slavery. It is true that in some places in the Bible limits are placed on how slaves should be treated, but the fact that they existed goes largely unquestioned.
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ was very influential in the slavery debate in the USA. She uses characters, including clergymen, who quote the Bible in support of their pro-slavery position, but counters that with the message of Jesus: one of the characters says: “I can read my Bible; and there I see that I must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and comfort the desolate; and that Bible I mean to follow.” The author’s anti-slavery stance is made very clear.
I don’t think there is any Christian now who would argue that slavery is justifiable – at least I hope not. The argument has been won long ago. Those texts that seem to support slavery have been weighed in the balance with the words of Jesus about loving one another and the message of love has won the day.
There are other contentious issues that the church continues to wrestle with. The role of women in church leadership is one; the different Christian traditions have a range of viewpoints on that matter, but overall the trend is clearly in the direction of equality of the genders. Late last year, for example, the Church of England appointed a woman to the third highest role in that church, Bishop of London. But not everyone in the Church of England agrees with the current stance: no doubt the debate will continue for some time yet. Another such issue is homosexuality; again there are widely different views in the churches, with some being happy to marry same sex couples and others seeing homosexuality as a sin. In both these issues biblical texts can be quoted in support of both sides of the argument.
It is over 200 years since the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. Looking back it is difficult to see how Christians could ever have supported slavery. I wonder what Christians in 200 years from now will think when they look back on the debates Christians are having today about equality of gender and sexuality?