Saturday, May 24, 2008

Sam Harris - Jesus meek and mild?

If you think that Jesus taught only the Golden Rule and love of one's neighbor, you should reread the New Testament. Pay particular attention to the morality that will be on display when Jesus returns to earth trailing clouds of glory:

God deems it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you... when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gopel of our Lord Jesus. They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might...


If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned.

-- JOHN 15:6

If we take Jesus in half his moods, we can easily justify the actions of St. Francis of Assisi or Martin Luther King, Jr. Taking the other half, we can justify the Inquisition. Anyone who believes that the Bible offers the best guidance we have on questions of morality has some very strange ideas about either guidance or morality.

IN ASSESSING the moral wisdom of the Bible, it is useful to consider moral questions that have been solved to everyone's satisfaction. Consider the question of slavery. The entire civilized world now agrees that slavery is an abomination. What moral instruction do we get from the God of Abraham on this subject? Consult the Bible, and you will discover that the creator of the universe clearly expects us to keep slaves:

As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are round about you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you, to inherit as a possession forever; you may make slaves of them, but over your brethren the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another, with harshness.

-- LEVITICUS 25:44 - 46

The Bible also makes it clear that every man is free to sell his daughter into sexual slavery -- though certain niceties apply:

When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed; he shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has delat faithlessly with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.

-- EXODUS 21:7 - 11

The only real restraint God counsels on the subject of slavery is that we not beat our slaves so severely that we injure their eyes or their teeth ( Exodus 21 ). It should go without saying that is not the kind of moral insight that put an end to slavery in the United States.

There is no place in the New Testament where Jesus objects to the practice of slavery. St. Paul even admonishes slaves to serve their masters well -- and to serve their Christian master especially well:

Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ...


Let all who are under the oke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be defamed. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brethren; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved. Teach and urge these duties. If any one teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound wods of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching which accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit, he knows nothing; he has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words, which prduce envy, dissention, slander, base suspicions...

-- 1 TIMOTHY 6:1 - 4

It should be clear from these passages that, while the abolitionists of the nineteenth century were morally right, they were on the losing side of a theological argument. As the Reverend Richard Fuller put it in 1845, "What God sanctioned in the Old Testament, and permitted in the New, cannot be a sin." The good Reverend was on firm ground here. Nothing in Christian theology remedies the appalling deficiencies of the Bible on what is perhaps the greatest -- and the easiest -- moral question our society has ever had to face.

In response, Christians like yourself often point out that the abolitionists also drew considerable inspiration from the Bible. Of course they did. People have been cherry-picking the Bible for millennia to justify their every impulse, moral or otherwise. This does not mean, however, that accepting the Bible to be the word of God is the best way to discover that abducting and enslaving millions of innocent men, woman, and children is morally wrong. It clearly isn't, given what the Bible actually says on the subject. The fact that some abolitionists used parts of scripture to repudiate other parts does not indicate that the Bible is a good guide to morality. Nor does it suggest that human beings should need to consult a book in order to resolve moral questions of this sort. The moment a person recognizes that slaves are human beings like himself, enjoying the same capacity for suffering and happiness, he will understand that it is patently evil to own them and treat them like farm equipment. It is remarkably easy for a person to arrive at this epiphany -- and yet, it had to be spread at the point of a bayonet throught the Confederate South, among the most pious Christians this country has every known.