Image: Gustave Boulanger, Slave Market (1882)
For the great bulk of the history of Western civilization—from the Greco-Roman period up into recent memory—slavery has been an ordinary aspect of social, political, economic, and religious life. While forms of enslavement have varied significantly, some human beings have presumed to own other human beings as property, to be directed and disposed at will. Those who have been enslaved have resisted and repudiated their enslavers in creative and subtle ways, even as their stories are largely lost to historical memory.
In our moment, chattel slavery is widely rejected as abhorrent, a shameful aspect of our past. Anyone who would dare to defend chattel slavery in public or advocate for its return would (rightly) be regarded as outside the spectrum of reasonable moral discourse. Yet, in the span of Western history, our cultural, economic, and political moment is the outlier. From the earliest moments of biblical history forward, those who pray to the God of Abraham and Sarah have reckoned with slavery as a commonplace institution. Even where Jews and Christians have resisted slavery, it could rarely be taken for granted that slavery was a moral and spiritual abomination. That history includes the periods in which the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament were written and so these sacred texts reflect slavery as a commonplace institution of human life.
Two presuppositions have guided the development of this course: (1) that enslaving human beings is an inexcusable moral and theological evil and that (2) slavery is best understood from the perspective of the persons who survive enslavement. From that starting point, this class will undertake the task of thinking critically about the ways that Christian theology has been entangled with slavery. God’s people have been enslaved and they have enslaved others. Scripture speaks of slavery as a social institution and uses slavery as a theological metaphor. Theologians have defended and repudiated slavery. Christians have died fighting for the freedom of enslaved people (their own freedom and the freedom of others). Christians have died fighting to maintain slavery as part of the social order.
Because slavery is no longer an open question in our cultural moment, yet remains an enormous part of Christian heritage, thinking about slavery and Christian theology provides an opportunity to think about the ways that Christian theology is capable both of resisting and of justifying evil. The largest arc of our reflections this semester will be about what makes the difference between the two.
Students who complete this course will: (1) develop a historical understanding of slavery as a social institution in the late Roman Empire and the United States; (2) develop an understanding of slavery as it appears in scripture and Christian thought, both as a metaphor and as a social institution; (3) practice critical reflection about the significance of slavery in Christian history, scripture, and theology and (4) articulate a theological position about how contemporary Christians should respond to the heritage of slavery in Christian history, scripture, and theology; (5) develop interdisciplinary skills that bridge historical research and theological reflection; (6) think critically and extensively about how best to respond to evils that are knit into social, economic, political, and religious structures.