Monthly Archives: December 2021

What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? Jesus and Slavery/Civil Rights II (What If—19)

In the United States, the anti-slavery movement picked up steam around the time slavery was abolished in the British Empire. A major galvanizing development was John Rankin’s book Letter on American Slavery, published in 1826. It was a series of letters he wrote to his slave-holding brother Thomas. Rankin was very clear on his motivation: “If you really want to follow Jesus, you need to free your slaves.” These letters convinced Thomas to free his slaves and join the anti-slavery movement. The book also inspired William Lloyd Garrison to begin publishing his magazine The Liberator. The masthead of the magazine included the language of Scripture: “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matt 19:19; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27), and “I come to break the bonds of the oppressor” (based on Luke 4:18). The illustration connected with the latter quote is a black man kneeling before Jesus and the cross and a white man cowering in fear. Both are equal at the foot of the cross. Rankin’s book also inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose later book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, had a major anti-slavery influence on the American public in the years leading up to the Civil War.

In 1833, the same year in which the slavery was abolished in the British Empire, the American Anti-Slavery Society was founded, under the leadership of William Lloyd Garrison. 75% of the founders were Christian ministers. A short time later Elijah Parish Lovejoy (1802-1837) was murdered by a pro-slavery mob. Trained as a pastor, he moved to the slave state of Missouri and started an anti-slavery newspaper. Repeatedly attacked for his views he moved across the Mississippi River to Alton, Illinois, which was a free state. Nevertheless, he continued to be attacked by pro-slavery mobs until at the age of 35 he was killed by a gunshot while defending his printing press. What motivated Lovejoy to take so many risks in order to advance the abolition of slavery? He confessed: “I am impelled to the course I have taken because I fear God.”

Born into slavery in Maryland, Harriet Tubman (1822-1913) escaped to Philadelphia in 1849 and became a key figure in the establishment of the so-called “Underground Railroad” which rescued many slaves from the grip of the American South in the years leading up to the American Civil War (1861-1865). She too was motivated by the teachings of Jesus. This is witnessed by her own prayer for her slave master: “O dear Lord, change dat man’s heart, and make him a Christian”. For her, Christianity was about following Jesus, not just attending church.

Like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) escaped from slavery in Maryland to become a leader of the abolitionist movement in the North. A key element in his anti-slavery work was his conversion to Christianity. Because of his conversion he said, “I loved all mankind, slaveholders not excepted, though I abhorred slavery more than ever.” When one looks deeply into the abolitionist movement, every significant abolitionist, black or white, was a committed Christian. Prominent in more recent times was Martin Luther King (1929B1968). Like the others we have mentioned, he was motivated to do what he did by Jesus and Scripture. In one of his famous sermons he uttered: “Jesus still cries out in words that echo across the centuries, ‘Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you.’ This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love.”

I would argue that if Jesus had never been born, open slavery would likely be condoned and practiced today. After all, slavery has been the norm for the human race throughout history. It took a massive effort in England and the United States, motivated by Jesus, to turn that norm around and make slavery a despised institution. But that leaves the question unanswered, Why the more than thousand-year delay between the time of Jesus and the arrival of Daniel Pastorius? Why did it take so long for Christians to demand the abolition of the institution? To be continued . . .

What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? Jesus and Slavery/Civil Rights (What If—18)

Regarding the issue of slavery and civil rights, there is a popular narrative in the secular Western context. That narrative notes that the Bible writers didn’t condemn slavery and at times even seem to support it. As a result, it is argued, slavery in recent times was perpetrated primarily in United States of America, with aid from England. These were both Protestant countries, with societies based on the Bible and driven by the conviction that the white race was superior to all others and was mandated by God to subdue inferior races. The most radical conclusion of such narratives is that Christianity is the enemy of genuine equality and freedom for all. Where there is a grain of truth in this narrative, there is much evidence that is left out and results in a one-sided and skewed narrative. Let’s take a more extensive look at the evidence.

The first fact that is often overlooked in the popular narrative is that slavery is not a recent invention of European powers. In fact, about seventy percent of the population of the Roman Empire of Jesus’ day was slaves. And these slaves had absolutely no societal rights. When Jesus was born, in fact, slavery was a global norm. Historians estimate that 40% of the world population at that time was slaves. Ancient artifacts and documents reveal ancient evidence for slavery among the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Vikings, the Irish, Africans, Arabs, and also in southern and eastern Asia. There is also evidence that slavery was common in North America long before 1619. It was practiced by the Aztecs and by most native American tribes. One exception to this picture might be the Incas, which used a corvee approach. That means that people could be conscripted into forced labor or military service for set periods of time, rather than for life. Slavery has been a worldwide reality for millennia.

Then Jesus came. He re-affirmed significant teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures, such as that all human beings were created in the image of God and, therefore, endowed with value and dignity. In Isaiah 42:1, speaking of the future Messiah, Yahweh says, “My servant . . . will bring justice to the nations.@ Isaiah further clarifies regarding the Messiah: The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” Jesus applied this text to Himself in Luke 4:18: “He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and . . . those who are oppressed.” Jesus’ mission was on behalf of the marginalized, enslaved and oppressed. But He and His followers went even further. Jesus stated: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Matt 22:39. Paul understood every human being to be a soul for whom Christ died (Rom 14:15; 1 Cor 8:11). And while no Bible writer called for the abolition of slavery as an institution, Paul instructed Philemon to treat Onesimus like a brother rather than as property. While the teachings of Jesus on this topic did not have such an immediate impact upon society as on other matters, in time it made all the difference.

While Christian institutions were complicit with slavery institutions for more than 1000 years, the abolition of slavery was purely a Christian phenomenon, motivated by Jesus and Scripture. The anti-slavery movement started in the United States of America. Daniel Pastorius, a German-born lawyer well-verse in Christian Pietism, founded Germantown in 1683 as a place where German Mennonites and Quakers could settle and be free to practice their faith. In 1688 he helped draft the Quaker petition against the institution of slavery. It was the first petition against slavery in the Thirteen Colonies. From America the anti-slavery movement spread to England, where in 1783 the Quakers drafted a petition against slavery in all the British territories.

Then, in 1786, Thomas Clarkson, a commitment Anglican Christian wrote an award-winning essay (An essay on the slavery and commerce of the human species, particularly the African) while a student at Cambridge University. The essay laid out in graphic terms the intense suffering caused by the slave trade. The essay gained wide circulation in Great Britain and helped lead to the founding of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which expanded the movement beyond the Quakers and other non-conformists in the country. Clarkson’s work awakened people to what was really going on with the slave trade. Clarkson was unequivocal, if you are a Christian, you must commit to ending the institution of slavery.

Clarkson has an enormous influence on William Wilberforce, who also studied at Cambridge University. Wilberforce, as a member of Parliament and a friend of the future Prime Minister (William Pitt) was able to bring this issue powerfully to the attention of the governmental authorities of Great Britain. Wilberforce didn’t much care about the slavery issue until he became a Christian. He then read the New Testament through with care and wrote the book Real Christianity, advocating the complete abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire. Through his efforts, British involvement in the slave trade was ended in 1807 and the holding of slaves was fully abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833. Because of the vast influence of the British Empire at the time, Christian nations succeeded in ending slavery also in Africa and the muslim nations in 1890 through the Brussels Conference Act. The abolition of slavery in the United States of America is worth a blog of its own.

What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? The Value of Human Life III (What If– 17)

Moving beyond the early Christian emperors into the Middle Ages other important changes in terms of the value of human life can be detected. Homes to take care of the aged, for example, seem to be a Christian innovation. There is no evidence for such institutions in the Greco-Roman world of Jesus’ day. Monogamy also seems to have been largely a Christian innovation. Taking inspiration from the early chapters of Acts, the early Christians created common funds to help the poor, the sick, and the disadvantaged. In sum, there were four major innovations within Christianity that grew directly out of Jesus’ teachings. 1) Giving was expected of all Christians, regardless of wealth or rank. 2) The common motivation for such giving was love for Christ and following His example. 3) The recipients of Christian giving were not those who could “pay back” in some way, but were those who needed it the most. 4) Christian giving was never limited to church members, it was shared freely with all. If Jesus had never been born, the world would not be as generous a place as it is.

Does that Christian emphasis on the value and dignity of all human beings continue today? It would seem so. World Vision, ADRA, and the Salvation Army are three of many Christian institutions that give freely, motivated by Christ and by the value of human life. Child labor laws were outlawed first in western countries, that happened because of the Christian Lord Shaftesbury, not Karl Marx. Outside the Christian West there are more than 150 million child laborers, even today. Even Santa Claus is a Christian myth. His story is based on the gift of Christ and the gifts of the magi. Had there been no Jesus, there would have been no Christmas.

It is in the Christian parts of the world, where the influence of Jesus is the greatest, that the value of human life is most strongly affirmed. Contrast that with the secular West, where people go to great lengths to save turtle eggs, but are pro-abortion and pro-euthanasia when it some to human life. In the secular West, suicide is becoming more and more common. Outside the West, where Christian influence is the least, infanticide is still practiced, along with widow burning (the practice known as suttee). One can still find cruel practices like female circumcision and even cannibalism. Child sacrifice was common among the Aztecs and the Maya before the Europeans came.

As the influence of Jesus declines, true charity is also in decline and liberalitas is making a comeback. True charity (Latin caritas) mean to give freely to those who cannot give back. One takes out of what one has earned and saved and gives freely for the benefit of another. Liberalitas, on the other hand, gives with the expectation of return. For example, while government safety nets play an important role in the lives of many people, they are not an example of true charity. First of all, they are not voluntary. The resources distributed are not gained voluntarily, they are taken from others by means of taxation. Those in charge of this largess are rarely altruistic, they hope that those receiving these resources will vote for them in the next election. And the (often) unintended result is dependent classes in society, which generation after generation have difficult fending for themselves, thus losing out on the dignity of labor and the satisfaction of caring for the needs of one’s own. So the corporate generosity of the secular West is not motivated by the spirit of Jesus. It is motivated by liberalitas. And it often does more harm than good in the long run.

If Jesus had never been born, most humans in the world today would have little value. There would be little true charity. And women’s lives would be particularly hard. But when human beings grasp the teachings of Jesus and realize that they are made in the image of God, the worth and dignity of every person is exponentially enhanced. What kind of value would you like to have?