Letter Twelve — Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

You suggested in your last letter that Paul made a practical accommodation with the enslavement system in the Empire. It would have been economic folly and political suicide, you noted, to do anything else at that time. Christian tolerance of the Imperial system of enslavement was a “necessary compromise,” you argued, that allowed the fledgling Christian movement to survive the first three centuries of its existence. I’d like to reflect with you a bit further on the argument you make.

Walter Scheidel proposes that the Imperial enslavement system was “the largest slave society in history.” He notes that given the number of enslaved persons in the Empire during most of its history, and given the number of years the Empire existed, the Imperial system would have enslaved a total of between one hundred and two hundred million persons. This is ten to twenty times the total number of enslaved persons kidnapped and destroyed by the American system of enslavement.

At any given time in the Empire, several million human beings were enslaved. The Empire depended on the enslavement mode of production for agricultural production, mineral output, and major construction projects. Scheidel reminds us that the Empire was a “slave economy” as well as a “slave society,” Most scholars are convinced that without the Imperial enslavement system, the Roman Empire would not have existed in anything like the shape and scope it occupied for much of its history.

Photo by Michael Giugliano on Pexels.com

So, from a somewhat trivial perspective, it is historically demonstrable that the Imperial enslavement system was “necessary” for the existence and survival of the Roman Empire as we have come to know it. I quite understand that any criticism of or attack on that system would be regarded as an attack on the Empire itself. Such attacks were met with massive and deadly force by the Imperial regime. One only needs to think of the thousands of crosses on the road between Rome and Puteoli after the Spartacus revolt to be clear about the Imperial response.

This argument from “necessity” reminds me of the same sorts of arguments made on behalf of the American enslavement system.

For example, we have recently observed another anniversary of the founding of the American republic. The story of this founding, and of the founders, has become politically contested territory. This is especially the case when it comes to the role of most of the “Founding Fathers” as slaveholders. The contradictions and hypocrisy on the part of men who fought for freedom from tyranny and liberty for all are intolerable. Thus, the contest is between those who wish to bury the realities of this history and those who wish to display these realities.

Thomas Jefferson, the author of our “Declaration of Independence” was one of the group and representative of the contradictions and hypocrisy. One of our fine authors and journalists, Clint Smith, notes that “Jefferson sold, leased, and mortgaged enslaved people—often in an effort to pay off debts he owed, as well as to preserve his standard of living.”[i]

Jefferson believed that the continued enslavement of Black people was necessary to sustain the new republic. Compromises and contradictions were built into our founding documents based on this necessity. Without them, the representatives of slaveholding states would not have agreed to the union. The project of the American republic would have looked quite different. Of course, without enslaved persons, Jefferson’s own way of life would have looked quite different as well.

“Jefferson believed himself to be a benevolent slave owner, but his moral ideals came second to, and were always entangled with, his own economic interests and the interests of his family,” Smith writes. “Jefferson understood, as well, the particular economic benefits of keeping husbands and wives together, noting that ‘a child raised every 2 years is of more profit than the crop of the best laboring man.’”[ii]

I imagine that this sentiment sounds familiar to you as a member of Imperial society. Scheidel notes that “homegrown” enslaved persons made up a large proportion of the enslaved population in the Empire. In our own system, after the importation of enslaved persons was outlawed in 1808, such “homegrown” victims were the only source of newly enslaved persons. It was, for us, such a successful system that the American system is the only enslavement regime in history to actually grow the number of enslaved persons to match and even exceed economic growth.

It seems to me, Phil, that it is problematic enough for Christians to have tolerated the Imperial enslavement system. It is quite another thing to have participated in that system, not merely in a transitional way shortly after conversion, but in active ways for the whole life of the Empire and beyond. The argument from “necessity” collapses, it seems to me, in the face of such ongoing exploitation.

“Jefferson, it seems, was above all a statesman,” Clint Smith writes. “And upon recognition of how increasingly steadfast opposition to any semblance of abolition was in Virginia and throughout the South, he largely backed away from public admonishment of the system.”[iii] He believed, Smith notes, that his generation had done all it could by getting free from an oppressive government power. It would be up to another generation to bring about freedom for all.

Perhaps that was Paul’s sentiment as well. Paul had the added fact that he expected, or at least hoped, that history as he knew it would come to an end soon. Jefferson did not have that added dimension. Nor, to be honest, did the Church after the first few generations.

When we get to the role of the Church in the American system, we have a story of compromise for the sake of self-interest. “Christians participated in this system of white supremacy—a concept that identifies white people and white culture as normal and superior—even if they claim people of color as their brothers and sisters in Christ,” Jemar Tisby writes in The Color of Compromise.[iv] Paul’s equivocation on the Christian response to enslavement systems was used to justify this behavior. But the system was self-perpetuating.

“Historically speaking,” Tisby argues, “when faced with the choice between racism and equality, the American church has tended to practice a complicit Christianity rather than a courageous Christianity. They chose comfort over constructive conflict,” he asserts, “and in so doing created and maintained a status quo of injustice.”[v]

As Tisby notes, however, the word “complicity” makes this practice sound “as if Christianity were merely a boat languidly floating down the river of racism.” In fact, we American Christians, both North and South, have participated actively in the American system of enslavement. In many cases, we have argued that this participation was not merely “necessary” but was in fact a positive good.

I could rehearse all of that horrific history, but it is well-known to many. I have touched on it in previous letters. Instead, I want to address and confess how this history works itself out in the present. On the one hand, there is the “bury the past and forget it” school of thought in some churches. Why should we bring this all up again? The past is the past, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Our white ancestors did the best they could under the circumstances. Why make such a big deal about it now?

That’s the “necessity” argument in one key. It’s reprehensible now as it was then. The question isn’t whether participation in the system was necessary for survival. The question is, rather, whether a Christian movement that paid for its survival with the bodies of enslaved persons is a movement worth having. I don’t think white Christians will risk asking and answering that question, even as an exercise in historiography.

The more practical “necessity” argument is about congregational tranquility. We white (supremacist) Christians can’t really address issues of racism, either then or now, in our communities, because that conversation will produce conflict. In that conflict, people will leave our congregations. Some of those congregations will not survive such an exodus. Therefore, in the interest of peace in our local communities, we will keep silent in order to stay safe as white people.

The upshot of the “necessity” argument is always the same, Phil. My self-interest and comfort as a white person are always regarded as more important than truth, justice, health, safety, and humanity for Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Asian-American/Pacific Island folks. No matter how much some American Christians might shout that “all lives matter,” the tranquility of white (supremacist) congregations is always regarded as more important than faith active in love directed toward those who are enslaved by our domination.

“Although our eternal peace is secure, a diverse but unified body of Christ will only come through struggle in this life,” Jemar Tisby declares. “A survey of the history of racism and the church shows that the story is worse than most imagine. Christianity in America,” he asserts, “has been tied to the fallacy of white supremacy for hundreds of years.”[vi] As far as I can tell, in the most practical of terms, that tie is as strong as ever.

So, you see, Phil, I am no better off than you in this regard. I live in and serve a Christian system that continues to value white domination, comfort, and tranquility, at the expense of any measure of justice and peace for those who are not in the dominant group. Most of our white (supremacist) congregations will put suppression of conversation and conflict ahead of any move toward truth and reconciliation.

White comfort in our churches matters far more than black lives. That’s the current argument from “necessity.” I wish I could be more hopeful that our own church people would be open to hearing a different story.

I hope to hear from you soon.

Yours in Christ,


[i] Smith, How the Word is Passed, Kindle Location 184.

[ii] Ibid, Kindle Location 272.

[iii] Ibid, Kindle Location 372.

[iv] Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise, page 16.

[v] Ibid, page 17.

[vi] Ibid, page 24.

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