Abraham, the Slave Owner

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Abraham, one of Israel’s forefathers in the Old Testament, was a slave owner, as were (probably) many, if not all, of the patriarchs in Israelite history. I’m not a historian, but I’d guess that most cultures in the ancient Middle East, Europe, and Africa practiced slavery. That certainly seems to be true of every nation/tribe mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments. So, let’s talk about it.

Why does it matter that Abraham owned slaves?

The legal “end” of slavery is a relatively recent event in history, and the civil rights movement in America was, obviously, even more recent. Probably everyone who’s present on social media or glances through the news has noticed we’re nowhere near the end of systemic racism, and slavery is a prominent part of that conversation. In many ways, we’re at another crossroads in American history; how we, as a nation, respond to discussions about slavery and racism is being globally televised. It will impact the entire world.

This is already evidenced in the Black Lives Matter protests and the support being shown in dozens of other countries. Systemic racism runs deep in human history, and particularly Western culture, which also means that, whether we like it or not, it runs deep in Christian history, as well.

What’s worse is that Christian communities, which I would argue ought to be the most inclusive, diverse, and integrated communities in human history, have often been bastions of prejudice and oppression.

As Americans cast a serious gaze upon the history of our country, I think we have to deal with the patriarchs of Judaism and Christianity. Since slavery is such an important part of the conversation, it shouldn’t be overlooked that scripture is not explicitly opposed to slavery. Even though the case has been argued on both sides throughout history, there are new perspectives to consider in the current dialogue.

Confederate Statues and Memorials

Part of the ongoing and increasingly heated discussion is the issue of confederate statues and memorials. Of the various arguments, one that I hear with increasing frequency in the anti-memorial position is that these statues and monuments don’t simply recount or remind us of the role that particular people played in American history. Many of them seem to romanticize those people who fought vehemently for the oppression of black slaves. One question that many people are asking is whether we, both as a nation and as smaller communities, are truly acknowledging the heinous reality for which the Confederacy was fighting if we are simultaneously romanticizing the people who led that charge. (It should be noted that romanticizing Union leaders and soldiers is equally problematic, since many Union leaders almost certainly acted at least as much out of self-interest as any anti-slavery notions.)

One response to that criticism, and the one that inspired this post, is that Abraham was also a slave owner. Shouldn’t we hold the same kind of criticism for Abraham (whom God chose) that we hold for Confederate patriarchs?

Yes!

Absolutely, we should be as critical of Abraham’s acceptance of slavery as we are of the early American acceptance and promotion of slavery. Absolutely, we should be as critical of slavery in all of Judeo-Christian history as we are of slavery throughout colonial history and the history of Western empires, as well as within the histories of any culture.

Israelite, Jewish, and Christian ancestors and leaders do not get free passes on the things about which they were wrong just because God chose to include them in God’s mission, and that kind of consistent criticism should extend all the way through into today — into every sect and denomination of Christianity.

For over 1000 years, Western Christianity has been largely characterized by its outward-facing stance. It has, as a majority body, ignored Jesus’s instruction for self-criticism, choosing instead to emphasize the speck in others’ eyes rather than addressing the log in its own.

Now, if you believe that slavery is not bad according to scripture — that scripture does not in any way condemn the enslavement of one human being by another, neither explicitly nor implicitly — then it’s logical and consistent that you don’t find any fault with Abraham for being a slave owner. Also, if you have a romanticized conception of what slavery was like at any point in human history, I can understand why you might not be bothered that Abraham (or anyone else) owned slaves. However, if we believe that slavery is an evil act, then we must acknowledge that same evil in Abraham’s actions.

Why Does This Make Christians Uncomfortable?

I can’t speak for all Christians, but here are some things that may be influencing people’s defensiveness.

  • Scripture as the inerrant or infallible word of God. If a person approaches scripture with the belief that every word is deliberately chosen by God, then there’s no room to question anything written inside of it, including any instruction concerning the taking or governing of slaves. If God instructed people, or allowed people, to enslave others, who are we to question? Moreover, it must have been good, because God is good.

    I believe this approach to scripture inevitably becomes inconsistent with the simultaneous claim that slavery is bad. Any romanticizing of slavery, by default, begins to imply that slavery was “less” bad than it really was, and theological dissonance often leaves people feeling vulnerable and defensive.
  • Righteous by default. If someone is chosen by God to be a prophet of God and archetypal leader among the people of God for the mission of God, how could that person not be righteous? Of course Abraham was righteous…wasn’t he?

    This seems consistent with a fairly common, Western assumption about righteousness, where people equate righteousness and holiness with sinlessness. If Abraham was righteous by default (because God chose him), and righteousness equals sinlessness in the eyes of God, then Abraham gets a pass on slavery (or worse, God is saying slavery is good). An attack against God’s righteous prophet, Abraham — an attack against that which God has declared to be good — is an attack on God. If this is a person’s perception, they may feel the need to be defensive. (Another way to think of this one is “guilty by association.” If the Confederacy was bad and we equate Abraham, on some level, with the Confederacy, then Abraham is bad. That might be farther than some Christians are willing to go.)
  • Denial. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of not wanting to change how we perceive someone or something. “Abraham was a good man — a Godly man — and your slander isn’t going to change my mind.” Similarly, “Confederates were bad people, and no amount of debate is going to change my mind.” As much as I enjoy a deeper dive into human behavior, sometimes it’s just a matter of staying in our comfort zone. It’s easier that way, but I hope most of us recognize that this isn’t a sufficient reason for almost anything, even if we’re doing it ourselves. Living in denial is never healthy.

I’m sure there are other reasons why Christians get upset about this, but I’m convinced it doesn’t matter what our reasons are. The reality is that Abraham actually was a slave owner, and no amount of theological gymnastics is going to erase that. Christians need to accept it, and I submit that we also need to accept something else: non-Christians aren’t creating any problems for us that weren’t already there.

We need to start (if we haven’t already) wrestling with any inconsistencies we find when our life experiences and the experiences of our communities enter into dialogue with scripture. We need to stop denying the tension — stop trying to justify and rationalize and deflect.

A Gospel of Grace

For me, the Gospel is a gospel of grace. I think that if we’re honest with ourselves about our own relationships with God, we discover that God being in our lives doesn’t miraculously make us flawless people (hence, the logs in our eyes). We discover that the grace of God doesn’t immediately free us from temptation and vice or foolish beliefs. It doesn’t suddenly allow us to see all of our own flaws or to instantly realize where we’re wrong in our understanding of God. If we’re honest with ourselves about our leaders, we discover that they, too, are only human. We discover that they, too, are living and working by the grace of God.

If we think that slavery and Christian history discredit Christianity or discredit God, we’ve been fed a different gospel than the one that comes from Jesus Christ. Christianity has never been about perfection, either in action or in understanding. Abraham or any of the patriarchs or any church leader in the history of Christianity are no different; I may not be a slave holder, and I may recognize that slavery is evil, but given how predictable humanity has been from generation to generation, I think it’s extremely likely that 200 years from now, Christians will look back on 2020 and think something similar about us. Maybe it won’t be about slavery, but how can we think so highly of ourselves that we assume future generations will have nothing to hold against us? Are we so conceited that we think any marks on our legacies will be only minor things?

Our approach to Abraham as a slave owner should never be about justifying him — the same way that we should never try to justify ourselves if someone points out that we’re racist or racially insensitive. Abraham receives the same grace of God that I do, and if anything, I should be wrestling with how I perceive scripture and those things in scripture that are presented as instructions from God.

Statues of Confederate Soldiers and Abraham

Here’re my thoughts on statues of Confederate soldiers and Abraham, the slave owner. I don’t feel justified in attacking them, but I don’t feel the need to romanticize or endorse their lives, either. They’re human beings, sins and all. Unfortunately, statues and memorials generally do the latter, and many of the defenses being made seem to lean heavily into those romanticized narratives. The same is true for many people who feel the need to justify Abraham’s choices and other events in Christian history.

If Americans can’t make a defense for Confederate memorials without dismissing the racism attached to them and the impact they have on POC in America, we should tear the memorials down. If there are any public statues of Abraham, I think the only consistent argument would be to tear those down, as well. (I tried to find out if there are any statues of Abraham, but Google just kept bringing up statues of Abraham Lincoln.)

Not building a statue to someone doesn’t mean we hate them. Not romanticizing their lives doesn’t mean we hate them. Not choosing to endorse their choices doesn’t mean we hate them. If we truly believe in a gospel of grace, we should start embracing people in the messiness of being human without needing to place them on a pedestal. It’s not an all or nothing situation where we either build them a statue and say they’re great or we pretend they never existed. Give them the dignity of being human without trying to turn them into epic heroes, or worse, idolize them like gods.

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