Text Study on Galatians 4:4-7, pt. 2

In fact, the Roman slave was a body under the total domination of another—the master and owner.  “Rome’s fundamentally hierarchical society envisaged enslavement as the absolute in a continuum of domination and subordination” (Harrill, 2006).  Patterson (1982) writes the tune in an individual key.  “The slave was the ultimate human tool, as imprintable and as disposable as the master wished.”

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I want to emphasize two ideas here. First, inhuman practice precedes dehumanizing philosophy. We treat other humans as objects, as commodities, as disposable. To justify that practice we have to come up with a story that allows us to live with ourselves. Enslaved persons are cattle on two feet. Jews are disease-infested rats and money-grubbing swindlers (as well as being “Christ-killers”!). Tutsis are labeled as cockroaches and therefore must be exterminated. Black people are rapists and destroyers of Western culture, so Dylann Roof accepts the responsibility for executing them.

I emphasize this idea because of the role Christian theology played in the development of the Transatlantic slave system. Both Willie James Jennings and Ibram X. Kendi detail the inventions of “whiteness” and “blackness” as theological categories. They trace these inventions to the work of Gomes Eanes de Zurara, royal chronicler to Prince Henry of Portugal. Zurara crafted an historical and theological defense of the king’s policy of capturing, enslaving, and trading in African bodies.

He published his books on the topic beginning in 1453. We can date the philosophy of anti-black white supremacy to this time. But more to the point, the practice of enslaving African bodies was a self-interested economic policy in search of a philosophy and/or theology. I want to quote Kendi here. Zurara’s work “begins the recorded history of anti-Black racist ideas. Zurara’s inaugural racist ideas,” Kendi concludes, “were a product of, not a producer of, Prince Henry’s racist policies concerning African slave-trading.” (Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning, KL 432).

Zurara argues that this policy is part of God’s providence. These enslaved persons would now stand a chance of coming to faith in Jesus Christ and to enjoy the benefits of enlightened European civilization. This is not very much different from Greco-Roman philosophical arguments in favor of enslaving people. It’s good for you, and you should be grateful. If you weren’t enslaved, you might be dead. If you weren’t dead, you wouldn’t be a Roman (or a Christian). The least you can do is to live a lifetime of involuntary servitude as a way of saying thank you for your existential promotion.

It takes little imagination to see these arguments repeated and refined in the American story of enslavement and beyond to the present moment. “The root problem—from Prince Henry to President Trump—has always been the self-interest of racist power.” Kendi notes in How to Be an Antiracist. “Powerful economic, political, and cultural self-interest—the primitive accumulation of capital in the case of royal Portugal and subsequent slave traders—has been behind racist policies.” (Kendi, Ibram X.. How to Be an Antiracist p. 42).

Second, the more we rely on born enslavement, the more pressure there is to describe the enslaved person and inferior and therefore deserving of the human treatment. If the enslaved person has not chosen to be enslaved and has not been enslaved as the penalty for losing in battle, then there must be something inherently wrong with that person. Otherwise, it makes no sense to treat that person as less than human. Again, the practice goes in search of a story.

When a practice seeks an explanatory story, the explanations will come out backwards. Slaveholders deprived enslaved persons of educational opportunities and then labeled them as congenitally stupid. We have for four hundred years regarded black families as illegitimate impediments to the selling of husbands and wives, parents, and children. So, we label the families as dysfunctional, the parents as unfit, and the children as incorrigible. We subject black communities to hyper-policing and then cluck self-righteously about the number of arrests in those communities. We add insult to injury by sending those arrested to prison in unconscionable numbers and tell stories of young black men as “super predators.” Systemic oppression and racism rely on practices in need of stories.

We white Christians have constructed and relied on those stories. Will we critique and abandon these stories of white supremacy, even if we must surrender our wealth, power, and privilege? I have hopes, but I’m not optimistic in the near term. I think it helps if we can identify the stories that undergird these systems.

The first story says that enslaved persons are inherently inferior in some way. Aristotle told this story in his ancient Greek philosophy. Zurara told this story using God’s providence as the prop. The Transatlantic system took Zurara’s story and expanded it. First, white people believed that black people were inferior by nature. Then they expanded that story in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the eugenics movement. The black race was described as “genetically” inferior.

Of course, that argument is a non-starter. There is no genetic basis for “races.” Skin color does not indicate any real genetic difference between people. “Race” is a social construction and is not a genetic reality. Once that story was defeated, we got “White Supremacy 2.0.” Even if black people were not genetically inferior, they were socially inferior.

For Aristotle, that inferiority came from the fact that many enslaved persons traced their lineage back to non-Greek barbarians. For Christian colonialists, the issue was the lack of European civilization and culture. It was, in Rudyard Kipling’s language, the “white man’s burden” to bring these benighted people into decent human company. In America after the Civil War, the story was rooted in the debilitating effects of enslavement on black people, families, and culture.

This last iteration of the story is perhaps the most perverse. Enslavement was designed to make and keep enslaved persons subservient to the masters. When that system was defeated (at least in military terms), former slaveholders asserted that the centuries of enslavement had made black people unfit for independent life. We know that the years of Reconstruction (1865-1877) give the lie to that story. All that was needed for black economic and social flourishing was for white people to get out of the way. That is the reason white political culture lashed out and created the Jim Crow system of segregated oppression.

Lest we think this last story has withered on the vine, I refer you to a June 18, 2020 article in the Huffington Post entitled “Mississippi Official: Black People ‘Dependent’ Since Enslavement.” Harry Sanders, a county supervisor in Lowndes County in Mississippi, opposed the removal of a Confederate monument from the county courthouse grounds. The move was defeated as three white supervisors voted against the removal and two black supervisors voted for it.

Sanders shared the following during the discussion of the motion. He noted that other “immigrants” had no problems assimilating to American culture—Irish, Italian, Polish and Japanese immigrants. We might wonder if he ever heard of the Japanese internment camps, but that’s another story. I quote from the article:

“The only ones that are having the problems: Guess who? The African Americans,” Sanders said. “You know why? In my opinion, they were slaves. And because of that, they didn’t have to go out and earn any money, they didn’t have to do anything. Whoever owned them took care of them, fed them, clothed them, worked them. They became dependent, and that dependency is still there. The Democrats right here who depend on the black vote to get elected, they make them dependent on them.”

If you can’t make the argument based genealogy, then fall back on “sociology.” Sanders is wrong on every count, but that does not make him less prone to tell the story.

Now, knowing what we know about slavery in Paul’s time, what sense and use, if any, can we make of that metaphor in our own reflection and preaching?

References and Resources

Gawande, Atul. Being Mortal. Henry Holt and Co. Kindle Edition

Palmer, Parker J. A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. Josey-Bass, 2009. Kindle Edition.

Palmer, Parker J. On the Brink of Everything. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Palmer, Parker J. To Know as We Are Known: A Spirituality of Education. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Vaillant, George E. Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Study of Adult Development. Little, Brown, and Company. Kindle Edition.

Fraser, Giles, “The Story of the Virgin Birth Runs Against the Grain of Christianity.” https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/dec/24/story-virgin-birth-christianity-mary-sex-femininity#:~:text=In%20the%20second%20century%2C%20the,him%20as%20Jesus%20ben%20Pandera.

Malina and Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia, PA.: Fortress Press, 1969.

Text Study — Galatians 4:4-7, pt. 1

Since Paul mentions the metaphor of “slave” in this paragraph, it’s an opportunity to learn more about the nature of slavery in the Greco-Roman world. Since that metaphor is problematic for all of us who live in the post-slavery reality of the Western world, it is helpful to understand that nature as we decide whether and how to use that metaphor in our own theological reflection and work.

In Paul’s time how did one become an enslaved person? I will share some research I have collected as I’ve studied Paul’s letter to Philemon.

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Enslavement was a significant feature of Rome’s political economy and culture.  Military campaigns to extend Rome’s sphere of domination resulted in its being the world’s greatest slave society up to that time and for centuries to come.  From 30 to 50 percent of Rome’s population consisted of enslaved persons.  In earlier centuries most of the enslaved persons were war captives or persons who had been kidnapped and separated from their families.  Although a Roman citizen could sink into the unfortunate position of debt enslavement, the vast majority of enslaved persons were not Roman citizens but foreigners who were regarded and treated like a species of property or chattel.

In the Roman Empire, one could become an enslaved person in four ways. A person could sell oneself or be sold into enslavement to satisfy a debt, to escape even worse poverty, or to secure a position in a noble household as a manager, tutor, etc.

A person could be captured in battle and enslaved.  Early in the Roman republic and then empire, this was a significant source of enslaved people. As Rome’s political and military dominance increased, the number of captives decreased along with the number of battles.

A person could be abandoned as an infant and then claimed and raised by another person as a slave. Infant exposure was regarded in Greco-Roman culture as a prerogative of men who sired children. Many more girls than boys were abandoned to exposure, because girls were regarded as greater economic liabilities in families. As slaves, however, girls were regarded as more valuable because of their potential as sexual objects and prostitutes.

It seems that the overwhelming majority of exposed infants survived the abandonment and exposure. This was especially the case in Egypt but happened across the Empire. Infant exposure was a major source of enslaved persons by the time of Paul’s writing.

One could be born of a slave mother.  By the time of Paul, this was the source of the greatest number of slaves in the Empire. If you were born of an enslaved mother, you were by definition a slave as well. The identity of your father was irrelevant in the matter. So even if a slaveholder fathered child with female slaves, the result of that abuse was simply more enslaved persons.

How could otherwise well-meaning people make sense of and live with the practice of human enslavement? When we treat other human beings as objects, we usually require some kind of story to justify and make sense of that practice. In short, we must come up with a story that describes other individuals as less than human in some way. For those who were sold into debt enslavement, the story was simple. They or their family or their creditor made a choice based on the actions of the now-enslaved person. It was the enslaved person’s own damn fault.

For those captured in battle and then enslaved, the story was equally simple. You lost. You were captured. You could have been killed on the field of battle, but your Roman conquerors found some value in you and kept you alive. So, you should be grateful and shut up. For the women and girls in this story, there was the added benefit (to the slaveholder) that they would produce additional generations of slaves for labor and for sale.

The story connected to infant exposure is more difficult but still congratulates the slaveholder. This story resembles the story for those captured in battle. If the infant had not been “rescued” from the down trash heap, that infant would have died. So, in effect, the slaveholder saved the child from certain death. A lifetime of involuntary servitude was a small price to pay for this “rescue.”

Inherited enslavement was the hardest practice to justify. In the ancient Greco-Roman world, there was no worse fate than to move from free to enslaved. Many ancient thinkers believed that forcing a free person into enslavement was inherently wrong and dishonorable. So, relying on “born” slaves was, on the surface of the argument, preferable to any of the other paths to enslavement. But, in fact, this view just kicked the philosophical can down the genealogical road.

Jennifer Glancy describes the argument from origins made by the ancient writer, Dio Chrysostom. In short, he argued that if you go back far enough in anyone’s family tree, you will find a free person. If you followed that family tree far enough, you “would eventually reach the moment in which a free person had been illegitimately reduced to the status of a slave,” Glancy writes, “most likely by an act of violence.” (Glancy, Enslavement in Early Christianity, KL 1459). So, for some ancient thinkers, born enslavement was not enough of a story to justify the practice.

In Greek philosophy, a slave is not a person.  Orlando Patterson (1982) made it clear that to become a slave is to suffer “social death.”  He describes this in detail.  “Perhaps the most distinctive attribute of the slave’s powerlessness,” he writes in Enslavement and Social Death, “was that it always originated (or was conceived of as having originated) as a substitute for death, usually a violent death.”  The cultural rationale was that if the person had not been enslaved, the person would be dead.  “Archetypically,” Patterson continues, “enslavement was a substitute for death in war. But almost as frequently, the death commuted was punishment for some capital offense, or death from exposure or starvation.”

Since the enslaved person had died—in principle or theory, at least—the slave could then be treated as having died the death that mattered.  “Because the slave had no socially recognized existence outside his master,” Patterson concludes, “he became a social nonperson.”  So, enslaved persons in the ancient world are regarded as “bodies” rather than people.  Enslaved persons by definition do not have an inner life or what Greek philosophers might regard as a “soul.”  Enslaved persons are “animated tools” but have no independent existence.  Enslaved persons are regarded as relatively intelligent livestock— “cattle on two feet,” as the Greeks put it.

Harrill notes some development of this idea in Roman law and philosophy.  Romans believed that enslaved persons had some measure of interior life, but it was not independent of the wishes and needs of the master.  “The Roman notion of mastery,” he writes, “defined the ideal slave not in terms of obedience to individual commands of the master but in terms of having accepted the master’s wishes so fully that the slave’s innermost self could anticipate the master’s wishes and take the initiative” (Harrill, 2006).  “Romans,” he concludes, “did not want automatons for their enslaved persons.”  They did not, however, want them to be full-fledged persons either.

More on this on Friday…