Moral imperialism

Carrying on the vaguely moral/ethical theme touched upon in the last post, I noticed another long and tedious thread on BioLogos about the New Atheist meme concerning the inexcusable immorality of the Bible in endorsing slavery and genocide. You can view all the old arguments there, but I want to take a slightly different approach.

Broadly, critics of the biblical text of whatever degree have one thing in common – a rigidly absolutist standard of morality. These include the atheists and apostates, the liberally-orientated Christians bending over themselves to show the fallibility of the Bible, and more nuanced Christians who, nevertheless, don’t want to be caught making excuses for the unacceptable.

Denouncing “the unacceptable” in this case takes the form of statements like, “slavery in any shape or form can never be justified”, or “killing based on ethnicity is simply evil under any circumstance.” It’s noticeable that these arguments cut across the utilitarian ethics usually thrown at Christians by skeptics in other discussions. For example, in a recent thread on Uncommon Descent, some Christian’s claim about the absolute sanctity of human life was met with one of those ratchet-type scenarios in which unless you agree to kill one person, an evil genius will unleash an all-out nuclear attack on population centres, thus showing that absolute morality is untenable… unless it’s in contrast to biblical morality, that is.

Somehow, you don’t seem to find such utilitarians arguing against those who can find not even theoretical excuse for the Bible’s control of indentured labour. Instead, such discussions revolve around the position that “some things are just wrong, and that’s that.”

Now, as a Christian I can’t say I’m averse to moral absolutes, but the whole history of revelation is about the law of God being applied to very varied circumstances in a world that is tainted by sin, and therefore merits judgement. That makes for inevitable complexity. Even some non-Christians are refreshingly aware of this, as Noah White mentioned to me in correspondence: agnostic philosopher Sean Kelly, discussing the matter with Tom Wright, apparently had no problem with the “difficult” Old Testament passages because “life is messy”, and the Bible takes that into account.

Most critics of the Bible in this kind of discussion take their stand quite openly on Western progressive ethics, though their avowal of it as an absolute morality tends to go via the indirect route that such liberalism is rational and therefore the only way that reasonable people can think. The Christians tend to have recourse to the alleged overturning of Old Testament ethics by Jesus, ending up largely in much the same place, via “love”, that the atheists reach via “reason”.

But this seems to me to ignore the fact that some of Jesus’s teaching is pretty challenging to progressive ethics. Even on a throughly contextual reading of his teaching on divorce (as set out, for example, in David Instone-Brewer’s excellent work) Jesus takes a much harder line that any of the other Jewish teachers of his time, and teaches what is totally incompatible with modern thinking about divorce. And it’s seldom remarked that in the Lord’s condemnation of the Pharisees for preferring the traditions of men above the law of God, he quotes the latter in saying “Whoever curses his father or mother shall be put to death”. Though this does not mean that Jesus would have simply had errant offspring killed if he had his way, it does mean that the kind of “It can never be right…” statements about the Old Testament are dangerous. Jesus, after all, taught that not one jot or tittle of the law would pass away – and in contradiction of the Sadducees he affirmed affirmed that the whole world would be subject to divine judgement, as the Canaanites had been in Joshua’s time.

Perhaps people are confusing “What the New Testament teaches” with “What we read into the New Testament with modernist eyes”. Some would make even Jesus a “man of his time” with its ethical limitations, but that is nothing but to revert to modern progressive morality as an absolute greater than Jesus himself.

My aim here is not to repeat nuanced defences of apparent failures of the Bible to live up to the absolutes taught in, say, the Ten Commandments and inherent in the very idea of an unchanging moral God. Instead it’s to take note of the absolutism taken up by the progressive position without recourse to a God of Truth, an infallible revealed text, or even to the general traditions of mankind. For the characteristic feature of progressive morality is its entirely and narrowly culture-bound nature, under the guise of “reason”, and its cultural imperialism.

In the case under discussion, what is held to be binding for society today is, at heart, also insisted upon as strictly normative for societies of the late bronze and early iron ages in the Bible, even though the most liberal Western society of all, the USA, is still struggling with the aftermath of its own quite recent industrialised slavery, and usually quietly ignores the ongoing social problems of the nearly-eradicated native populations it displaced to reservations in order to achieve its current freedom and prosperity.

But once progressive thought invents a new evil, it is never enough for it to change the laws and customs of its own people: the rest of the world must submit as well. For example, voting rights were only given to women a century ago here in Britain. When push comes to shove, that was due to a protest movement amongst educated women (thrusting against what was partly a fairly recent set of social circumstances that had marginalised women far more than had previous ages, despite their very different roles for the sexes). But that new right or privilege led by degrees to formulating a new progressive sin of “sexism”, which is now seen as in need of eradication in nations far away and with very different views on politics and gender equality, even amongst their women themseleves.

We see a backlash against it in the number of Muslim women both in the West and in Muslim countries choosing to cover their faces above and beyond the call of their religion, which leads feminists here into intellectual contortions to explain the phenomenon in terms compatible with progressivism, rather than as a revolt against it.

The same imperialism is seen in the question of LGBTQI rights, still innovatory enough here to have quietly alienated a significant proportion of the population, who overnight were changed (together with their churches, mosques and synagogues) from being decent moral citizens to being bigoted homophobes, another novel crime in the history of the world.

But it is not enough that the laws should change in the West. Sanctions and economic pressures must be brought to bear on the rest of the world, for being ten years behind the liberal moral times. These primitive nations have failed to understand that when Bob Dylan sang “The Times They Are a’Changin'” he was actually being regressively gender oppressive by speaking of “sons and daughters” being beyond the command of “mothers and fathers”, as if those were the only valid options. Foreigners are simply not keeping up with the plot. African bishops of the Church of England, Westerners are quite sure, need to be weaned (forcibly, if necessary) from their belief that Christianity regards homsosexual acts as sinful, just as a couple of centuries ago they had to be brought to understand that they were intellectually mere children compared to the more highly-evolved white man.

Western liberalism, though, is pretty much unique in exerting its absolutist hegemony not only across all nations, but across all time as well. Just last month, the British legal system pronounced mass pardons for those convicted of now-repealed laws against homosexual acts. These dated back many decades, if not centuries (and if not the latter, why not?), so that for the most part they were posthumous. Now just consider what this means: it is not just that morality is considered to have taken a great leap forward in our times, but that we now believe that former legislatures were not qualified to formulate laws even for their own times, and need to have their deficiencies corrected by “us”.

This is self-confidence indeed! The nearest equivalent appears to be acts like that of the government of the British Restoration, which dug up the bodies of deceased regicides and executed the penalty for treason upon them. But even they were simply emphasising the change of regime, not retrospectively inventing (or abolishing) a crime and judging those long dead by it.

I’ll finish by an observation about the “us” who so confidently prescribe our moral code for our own nations, for those across the world which have yet to see the light, and for those of all times from Joshua’s to the recent past, which are well past any hope of seeing the light, being dust. Those who condemn the Old Testament with such assurance on discussions like the recent BioLogos one, confidently damning the judgement of historically major legislators such as Moses (with or without the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) and his billions of followers down the millennia, are not, it turns out, the greatest moral philosophers of our own age.

Instead, they are a collection of biologists, computer engineers and those of no clear academic background. By this it appears that the level of reason and education in our own culture is so astonishingly advanced that even the least of us is a greater moral authority than the greatest thinkers of, say, a generation ago, who held no such ideas about morality, at least without having to defend them against the majority of their peers.

To me, it seems there is some reason to doubt this utopian view of the omicompetence of the progressive West.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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27 Responses to Moral imperialism

  1. Noah White says:

    Phenomenal post, Jon!

    I went back and scrubbed through, and the relevant part of the video begins around the 17-minute mark. Here’s the link for anyone else who may be interested: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CTpgvI_vUjc&t=23s

    Kelly’s thoughts are utterly compelling and even more relevant to the topic discussed in this post than I thought. He rejects the idea of the Bible as (principally) a moral guide, because he doesn’t think it’s possible to have an absolute moral system to describe the messiness of human existence. He hits on a deep truth about the nature of paradox in human existence. One of the first things I learned in systematic theology was how the Bible and our theology are full of paradoxes, and that’s just fine because we can’t know everything. Fascinating stuff–I wish more people were like Sean Kelly.

    I also can’t help but be perplexed by the idea that things ought to stand up to modern, progressive morality for us to be able to believe them. It seems that most people who hold this obviously feel morality will always be progressing (and if they don’t, why not?). The problem is that, assuming morality progresses, they will be one of the primitive people that our descendants in 2217 look down upon. And I for one, would be upset if history viewed me as having a primitive morality.

    The backlash against Islam is another interesting thing. I think in part it is justified, insofar as we’re condemning beatings, honor killings, etc.; however, I do concur that it’s interesting to see how people take the benign things that nonetheless are inconsistent with 3rd-wave feminism (I contend that 1st-wave feminism isn’t much different than Christian teaching on women).

    African bishops of the Church of England, Westerners are quite sure, need to be weaned (forcibly, if necessary) from their belief that Christianity regards homsosexual acts as sinful, just as a couple of centuries ago they had to be brought to understand that they were intellectually mere children compared to the more highly-evolved white man.

    A chilling observation if I ever read one. Those of us in ivory towers (I’ve been known to hang out in one from time-to-time, even though I’m not overly qualified to do so) so often decry imperialism. And it ought to be decried. Though without it I would probably not exist, it was a great evil. We’ve just shifted from economic and political imperialism (kind of) to a moral kind.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Noah

      The problem is that, assuming morality progresses, they will be one of the primitive people that our descendants in 2217 look down upon.

      You’re over-optimistic! Since it’s the morality of 1997 that’s unacceptable now, we’re likely to find it’s the trendies amongst our own generation, rather than our descendants in 2217!

      There may be a great deal of truth in Kelly’s suggestion. The universality of the law of love for God and man may well be an absolute, but that does not remove the need for interpreting that through the wisdom of God for each different, but equally messy, age.

      That’s not heresy, for even the Deuteronomic law demonstrates it in the changes from the earlier Pentateuch, and the whole history of Jewish interpretation of torah was about digging through to the heart of it so that its principles could be applied afresh.

      Yet as far as Jesus was concerned, the Pharisees had largely failed in that, and I take it that they lacked the necessary wisdom of God because like the Sadducees” they knew neither the Scriptures nor the power of God”. Or as Hebrews says later on in the NT, they did not combine their knowledge with faith.

      In my view it’s the same issue today, when moderns accept the general idea of “love”, without seeing how Scripture reveals God’s heart of love, wisdom, justice and mercy in the application of that idea. Cut love adrift from the anchor of wisdom (torah, apostolic teaching and relationship with God through Christ in the Spirit) and all hell breaks loose.

      • Jay313 says:

        Yet as far as Jesus was concerned, the Pharisees had largely failed in that, and I take it that they lacked the necessary wisdom of God because like the Sadducees” they knew neither the Scriptures nor the power of God”. Or as Hebrews says later on in the NT, they did not combine their knowledge with faith.

        They failed in focusing their attention on “building a fence” around the law. Thus, all of their efforts were in the direction of drawing finer and finer distinctions between what was “clean” and “unclean,” whether in dietary restrictions, ceremonial washings, or people. Jesus replied to them in both sermon, parable, and symbol. For example:

        “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!”

      • Jay313 says:

        Cut love adrift from the anchor of wisdom (torah, apostolic teaching and relationship with God through Christ in the Spirit) and all hell breaks loose.

        True. It returns to the dynamic understanding of the Imago Dei, where man was created to love God, to love others, and to represent God on earth. We cannot properly serve as God’s image bearers if we do not represent him as he is, in spirit and in truth. This means that we represent his holiness, justice, mercy, and all else, in addition to his love. So, yes, when man failed to fulfill his created purpose as Imago Dei, all hell did, in fact, break loose.

      • Noah White says:

        You’re over-optimistic!

        This is true. My professor reminded us the other day that just 10 years ago, same-sex marriage was an unthinkable thing. Barack Obama even campaigned on traditional marriage for his first term! It gave me a headache to think about how quickly the times change. Cue Bob Dylan.

        I’m reminded yet again at how Hebrews is one of the most chilling and difficult books of the Bible–not many easy words there!

    • Jay313 says:

      Thanks for the link to the video, Noah. Kelly’s thoughts are indeed relevant and interesting. Watch — I’ll discuss something besides Adam with you this time! haha

      He rejects the idea of the Bible as (principally) a moral guide, because he doesn’t think it’s possible to have an absolute moral system to describe the messiness of human existence.

      To me, this is one of the principle reasons why the Bible is how it is, so to speak, and it’s also one of the reasons why systematic theology is even necessary (to the extent that it is necessary). God did not reveal himself as a philosophy to be understood, nor as a set of straight-forward propositions to be believed. He revealed himself through a multitude of authors and genres, in everything from law to parable to poetry. As Kelly put it, “I don’t think a moral system could tell us the right story about us.”

      I’ll illustrate with a point made by G.K. Beale in his commentary on Revelation. In looking at the way that John used symbols in that book, Beale compared it to the way that Jesus used parables, which was itself “rooted in the language and signs of the OT prophets.” In Matt. 13:11-14, Jesus explains his use of parables by way of Is. 6:9-10, both of which we hear echoed in the refrain to the churches in Revelation: He who has an ear, let him hear. It seems that the prophets, including Jesus, resorted to signs and symbols when the people no longer had “ears to hear” a straightforward sermon. In short, the symbolism and stories of the Bible convey spiritual truth to the believer, yet leave the unbeliever more hardened and confused. Notice that the plagues of the Exodus had the same effect, serving only to harden the Egyptians.

      • Noah White says:

        Watch — I’ll discuss something besides Adam with you this time!

        What a time to be alive!

        I love what you’ve said here. I’ve been very convicted lately of not living out the Gospel and focusing more on knowing the “right things” and being vindicated in having right belief. Yesterday we had a sermon at church on Matthew 25:31-46 (the Sheep and the Goats), and it was chilling and convicting. I was reminded that it’s not just about being right–it’s about, as you said, justice, mercy, and holiness. It is indeed a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God.

        Jon has mentioned to me before that the Summa or Calvin’s Institutes weren’t just dropped into the ancient Israelites’ laps–there’s a progression of revelation. And, per NT Wright, the Bible is primarily a narrative, not just set of “timeless truths” to be extracted and applied coldly. It requires thought, meditation, persistence, prayer, and above all, the Holy Spirit to arrive at the truth–and then faith to live it out. Thanks again, Jay. Always enjoy your thoughts!

  2. Robert Byers says:

    if god orders somethinmg then its okay.
    I endorse the killings god ordered for people groups in the bible. they wwere evil and deserrved it. it includes all people except Noahs family and all mankind except thodse saved by faith in christs death for sins.
    Killing Cannanites on mass is no different.
    Slavery was only not opposed in the old testament because it was a trivial thing or punishment.
    It was no against the free will mostly but anyways its existence was allowed as a minor thing amongst many human minor injustices.
    Slavery was never that big a deal relative to other matters.
    Slavery only became bad when it was associated with particular ideas about certain peoples.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Robert,

      The Flood, like the concept of universal final judgement, is indeed a balance to the regarding of the Canaanite issue as a moral aberration. Whether one believes the Flood to be local or global, or even some kind of mythic truth (the worst option, in my view), it clearly asserts that God has the right to judge even an entire race for sin.

      Dismiss it as an immoral fiction and you have no option but similarly to reject the Exodus judgements, the judgements on Israel and Judah by Assyria and Babylon, the judgemental aspect given to the fall of Jerusalem in 69-70 by Jesus, and the very idea of a final judgement. You may as well simply ditch Christianity in its entirety.

      Regarding slavery, I think there’s enough evidence in the New Testament to show that even in its relatively benign Roman form, slavery was to be seen as an evil in the sense that warfare is an evil, but sometimes an inevitable one in which Christians might be righteously involved. Paul lists slave-traders amongst those the law was intended to discipline (together with arsenokoitais and other lawless people), and John uses “traders in human souls” as a metaphor for slave-trading in Revelation.

      Yet, as you hint, Paul also teaches how slaves should obey their masters and masters respect their slaves, rather than simply yanking believers right out of the prevailing economic system. And, of course, the whole letter to Philemon is a study in his nuanced approach to slavery in the light of Christ.

      Bypassing the case of the European slave trade, it’s clearly hard to imagine that the modern forms of slavery in our midst – the exploitation of migrant workers by playing on the fear of the immigration laws, and of course sex-trafficking – are in any way compatible with Christian morality.

      But after the abolition of slavery, I understand that though share-cropping gave a degree of dignity to freed slaves, the old plantations sometimes offered a better economic return from economy of scale. There’s always a trade-off between liberty and having food in your belly, as every wage-slave knows!

      • Robert Byers says:

        I agree with what you said. indeed the bible is nothing but judgement(death) on someone at sometime by God. Its endless.
        The slavery thing is at first difficult but i can only conclude its not really that bad. unless physically bad. it ruins a persons fun on earth but they still can be happy.
        I think paul, under inspiration, is not endorsing slavery but seeing it as not that evil.
        Why should it be evil unless merely working against ones will is evil.
        Rather its another unkind, unjust, irritation.
        Most workers in human history would be just as irrittated.
        i don’t know about migrant workers but if illegal they should obey the law and not enter another peoples land. So no immigration problems.

  3. Sy Garte Sy Garte says:

    Jon

    I was wondering if you noticed, at about the same time, the Biologos thread that devolved into an argument about dropping of the A bombs on Japan. I am not making this up. In that thread we were taught some alternative historical facts, presented as hard truth, such as that Japan was just about to surrender but the US didnt give them the chance and similar stuff, complete with the requisite quotes from somebody who wrote a book. Having no bearing whatsoever to the original topic of the post, (something to do with whether it was wrong or not for Bruno to have been burned at the stake), I was surprised to see how long this discussion lasted. I thought of intervening, (I am pretty well versed in WWII history, especially for a Yank), but I thought better of it, much as I did with the thread you are talking about.

    I dont want to say too much here, since it was just under a year ago, when one of the Biologos moderators accused me of fomenting an anti-Biologos conspiracy (as I am sure you remember) based on his misinterpretation of an off hand comment of mine made on this blog. So I wont.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      I did indeed notice that thread, Sy. Inasmuch as the nuclear issue showed that moral dilemmas don’t all date back to Joshua or Bruno it made a useful point. The two bombs undoubtedly caused a lot more deaths by burning than happened in the entire mediaeval period, and killed far more people in one go than the entire “Exodus genocide” would have done if it had been carried out exhaustively.

      But the presentation of revisionist history as the consensus was, shall we say, new to me in my reading on the war. There’s another thread there currently about threads, and certain people who always post the same things are complaining that certain other people always post the same things…

      • Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

        Jon, you wrote:

        “There’s another thread there currently about threads, and certain people who always post the same things are complaining that certain other people always post the same things…”

        Yes, I noticed that! I’m trying to decide whether “hypocrisy” or “chutzpah” is a better word to characterize such a complaint.

      • Noah White says:

        I must confess, I was duped by the revisionism for a minute. I came to my senses later after I thought about it.

        BioLogos had been nice for the last 6 months or so. Some heated discussions, but mostly amongst confessing Christians (and typical ID stuff, of course, but I usually ignore those threads). Then, somehow, a couple atheists were summoned and it’s turned once more into the typical “MAKE YOUR DOCTRINES CONFORM TO MY MORALITY” stuff. Exhausting. Probably going to take a break for a while and just stick around here where it’s, I dunno, rational.

  4. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    Late comer to the party …

    I can’t help but feel a bit defensive about your charges of cultural imperialism, Jon, since I was one of those who unabashedly declared that all slavery is evil every time and every place (and I stand by that … though clarification is in order since nuance is actually appreciated and engaged here!) In the context of the much-discussed thread, it was assumed that slavery everywhere is virtually indistinguishable with slavery as known in modern times. A simplistic view — I know, but I didn’t get to pick the discussion partners there. So to the extent that “slavery” is always understood (*defined* actually) as an inherent evil, then I will play along with that and insist that of course the Bible does not affirm evil as good. If it is evil now, it was evil then.

    Now, if your only task here is to … “take note of the absolutism taken up by the progressive position without recourse to a God of Truth, an infallible revealed text, or even to the general traditions of mankind” … then I’m totally on board with you on that.

    But here’s my contention: I don’t think anybody (not even the atheists so discussed!) is *truly* taking any position without recourse to the absolutes mentioned. As Christians we have no problem accepting absolutes are what they are regarding their hegemony over all cultures and times. And the Christian is free to claim that they are merely tapping into that imposed absolute and *its* hegemony rather than claiming that they themselves are the source of authority. And *that* is where the atheists fall down since they of course do claim a de-facto authority for themselves (or their present ‘imperialist’ culture) when they make the same judgments.

    As somebody else once noted, atheists today are living off the fumes of encultured Christianity when they try to exclusively appeal to “reason-based” morality.

    So I do (as a Christian) stand by sweeping judgments about people who take advantage of other people (doing to them what they would *not* want done to themselves). And as such I believe (whether rightly or wrongly — we can argue of course!) that I correctly extend that to all times and places, whether it be to ancient Hebrew indentured servants or to cities of Japanese civilians and families being burned alive by U.S. war actions. If we want to see distinctions between nearly all recent manifestations of slavery and what ancient equivalents to that word were, I’ve no problem speaking of and parsing out said distinctions. But the moment somebody then equates that with an affirmation that yes, the Bible promotes slavery as a good thing, then I recognize that they are now being run by ideological agendas that force them to only see the Bible through a condemning lens. I too choose to follow an idealogical agenda (with a bit more rationality and balance AND — big difference here — I actually recognize that I have an agenda) when I evaluate the entire arc of Scripture and know that it teaches and affirms no such thing in any general sense. So with due respect to Mr. Byers above, those who claim that “whatever god says is okay” are sometimes the ones who are in the next moment flying loaded planes into buildings or dropping bombs on populated cities (with exactly and precisely zero moral difference between those last two scenarios, by the way). We do have marching orders from God, and they are to love our enemies and pray for those who curse us — or even kill us. I’m not sure I can or will always live up to such tall commands, but I do know this: any voice claiming to be god in my head that starts to justify or rationalize ways to ignore what Jesus taught was not, is not, and never will be from God.

    I know the ancients did not have the direct benefit of Jesus’ teaching on that. But now that we do, I will subscribe to His gentle but inexorable cross-cultural imperialism even as we now back-apply it to former times. Not because we are now enlightened by science or modern cultural fads, but because we’ve been enlightened by Jesus.

    (Sorry about the rant … but you had to realize that an Anabaptist gets their dander up about such things.)

  5. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Merv

    Apologies for using your comments in this post when you’ve not been around here that much to refute it! All your points carry significant weight, and of course you were, in the BioLogos thread, at the forefront in calling out the “imperialism” of modern critics of biblical examples.

    That was the main thrust of my post – the baptizing of modern ethics as if they too aren’t deeply influenced by the same kinds of issues faced in real life in biblical times – Noah in particular picked up on that. Love is the governing principle of course – but that can work out in myriad ways in real human societies.

    Even the question of God’s actions being right whatever he does is worthy of discussion: “Shall not the God of all the earth do right?” is primarily a statement about our lack of moral compass compared to God: Abraham justly argued that God should not slay the innocent with the guilty in Sodom and Gomorrah – yet in the end God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah entirely, because Abraham’s natural human assumption that there were numbers of innocent people there (apart from Lot’s lot) was wrong. Anyone making a blanket ,oral condemnation of Joshua’s campaign must be even more critical of the Sodom and Gomorrah story – and yet Abraham raised in Genesis the very issues on which that condemnation is based.

    Back to slavery: to say that slavery is always an evil is a truism in the sense that there won’t be slavery in the good age to come, but it does surely require defining what that evil is.

    Is it the ownership of one human by another? If so, is it still evil if that ownership is hedged about with legal protections (as, I suppose, is something of the case with our “own” children, whom we raise entirely as we wish within the constraints of society’s legal protections)? One strategy of early Christians (and I believe 19th century abolitionists) was to buy slaves in order to relieve their suffering. We’d probably say that action was a “good”, not an “evil”, especally if the intention was to free to slave – which can only be done by relinquishing existing ownership in some legal way, thus acknowledging slavery’s legitimacy.

    But supposing the law of the land forbade freeing slaves, I’d contend that buying oppressed slaves in order to treat them well, despite technically still “owning” them, is a good, not an evil.

    Then again, one might say making someone work when they don’t want to is the evil. That’s a can of worms that doesn’t only cover anyone working for an employer with a disciplinary code or payment by results, or governments predicating social benefits on ones taking any available job, but more acute cases like servicemen being held accountable for desertion: refuse to work, and you may get shot. War is another evil – but given its existence, it creates its own imperatives, of which solidarity with your comrades outweighs the freedom to withdraw labour.

    I’ve just been reading the account of Captain Cook’s voyages. His crew was subject to naval discipline (and ratings were, I believe, assigned to, rather than volunteering for, such dangerous voyages at a time when press-gangs were still a means of naval recruitment). Cook forced them to eat anti-scurvy foods like sauerkraut, which they hated, on pain of floggings: the result was that they remained healthy and happy whilst the less disciplined crew of the sister-ship Discovery died in droves. A whole mixture of goods and evils there, but Cook’s coercion, no less despotic than a slave-owner’s, was life-saving.

  6. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    You wrote:

    “Even the question of God’s actions being right whatever he does is worthy of discussion: “Shall not the God of all the earth do right?” is primarily a statement about our lack of moral compass compared to God: Abraham justly argued that God should not slay the innocent with the guilty”…

    This passage raises interesting questions to me, since it seems to be in such direct contrast with God’s response to Job which was to essentially as Job just who he thinks he is and where was he when God was laying the foundations, etc. Job gets the “my ways are higher than your ways ever will be” response. Abraham, though, is treated to the “Let’s run it by him first” treatment, even though it was God and not Abraham who still made the final determination in the end. Maybe one difference is that with Job and his friends, *they* initiate the questioning and Job seems to have at least half a mind to put God on trial with an indictment already against him. Whereas God initiates the “consultation” with Abraham in a presumably pre-established trust that they are already on the same wavelength about something. In other words, it seems that God fully expects that we (or Abraham, anyway) has a trustworthy sense of what should be considered right and wrong, and is not expected to just be a fawning “yes”-God– whatever you say, God, kind of responder. God respects that Abraham would be indignant about certain scenarios. These two stories to me provide a contrast between total humble submission toward God, and personal, sometimes even wrestling-style interactions with God. Jacob too, gets his wrestling match by which he earns his very name. Those who come down too hard on just one side of all this I think end up having too many contrary scriptural themes that they are willing to ignore.

    Another feature of these stories that gets me (and nobody else among Biblical critics apparently) is that they think they’ve scored some huge rhetorical point by just show casing how many people God killed in this or that situation. My response … “Oh — so where are all the other people who were alive then …. I guess they must be alive and well somewhere since they didn’t make your ‘God’s victims’ list?” I.O.W. the situation is really infinitely worse (and always has been) than they have ever described. God has “killed off” every human being that has ever lived on the planet for nearly all the centuries past. There isn’t anybody (okay some can argue over Enoch) he hasn’t presided over their death. “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.”

    Yes, I know, we can then switch to arguing over … well, some were killed as punishment while others were allowed to live full and rewarding lives before they were taken. *That* could be the issue to pursue, but in regard to death itself, God obviously has a different perspective that encompasses both sides of that experience that changes the equation for those of us who choose to just trust Him on it. But as regards critics who love to wax eloquent over all the special travesties in history that God either failed to prevent, or else even commanded … they don’t seem to have much of a clue about the true size of the pill that was already swallowed by legions of faithful forebears when they imagine that this new tiny pill must be some sort of a problem for Christians now as if these things had never been considered before.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Amen to your second point. Merv. Just as our generation forgets Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it forgets that we’re all going to die, and that that has spiritual significance.

      As to the first point, it’s an interesting contrast you make (and I don’t care what those other exegetes say!). Abraham is specifically singled out in the Sodom and Gomorrah story as the covenenant head, and therefore as being led into God’s ways and counsel in a unique way. Much the same idea underlies (in my view) the Canaanite business – God always judges sinful nations, and usually by other nations more rapacious than they. But in this case Israel is made a conscious agent of judgement in a way that Babylon or Rome, say, weren’t. It doesn’t happen again.

      Job, in contrast, may not even be an Israelite – though I wouldn’t press his covenant status too hard, as the message and genre of the book are quite different. In particular it’s all about what ones attitude should be when God doesn’t let you into his counsel – a situation even Abraham encountered.

  7. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    Big news here! I was poking around in the dust bunnies under my bed and found my missing crystal ball Wifi-plugin for my computer! It allows me to access podcasts and blogs from future internet. I logged into 22nd century news source pundits to see what they’re talking about, and found this that might be relevant to your topic here. Below I’ve pasted a snippet.

    From FEAR-CAST Century 22 – your local source to keep your worries topped off! Be sure to keep your direct intra-thought feed tuned in 24-7! Remember our motto: sleep is the enemy!

    We have an update on the LGBTQIHSPNWVCXEOABCDD1D2D3αβγ rights campaigns. It appears that those opposed to the resistance against the anti-bigotry bigots are playing politics again and refusing to let the opposition even so much as gain a platform and lay out their case in the public forums. The bigotry-watch guardians are still smarting about the fact that Homophobes achieved a recognition of their persecution status and got their letter added to the sacro-secular list. The guardians have vowed to stem that tide. As always we must be vigilant against the resurgence of any of the old barbaric ways of our ancestors. It’s hard to believe there are still some today who dare to question the progress we’ve achieved. Every reasonable person today agrees that our now hard-won enlightenment is the only sure defense against the heinous and cruel lifestyles perpetrated by barbaric primitives even just a century ago. Nobody reasonable would ever want to return to those times when prudes practically forced people to find designated rooms and equipment just to even relieve themselves. It is amusing that some historians even record that in this period, some fancied their present culture then had achieved ideals of the highest kind. But we shouldn’t be too hard on them. Their primitive minds, having not yet emerged from the dark age could not have been expected to foresee how we now in the 22nd century would finally arrive at the moral apex of all civilizations. We should remember with all humility that we were once them.

    Some concluding routine bulletin items:
    Those few unfortunates who fell short in transcendence exams are to report to treatment centers one to three this week. And as always, we keep our humanely enlightened gas chambers in good operating order so that those who don’t respond appropriately to our treatment won’t be forced to continue on in their misery indefinitely.

  8. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    Okay — that attempted bit of humor was way more ominous than I had intended. I blame this on the influence of your article above plus having some years ago read C.S. Lewis’ “Abolition of Man”. Maybe I should report to the nearest treatment center.

    • Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

      No, Merv; you’re fine. You don’t need to report to the nearest treatment center. But you do need to check your g-mail more often. 🙂

      The Abolition of Man is a great book. It’s frustrating to me that it seems to have almost no influence on America’s current crop of evangelicals. I don’t think most evangelicals today see the dangers of modernity with anywhere near the clarity that Lewis did.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Merv. How I chortled!

      The only fog I can see across your crystal ball is the less than realistic acknowledgement by Century 22 that “our” ancestors ever thought any differently from them. It’s always “their” ancestors who lived in darkness! Our folks were the conscientious objectors handing out food parcels to Canaanites, the ordinary folk buying Bruno’s books to spite the Inquisition, and of course those seeking to get Lord Alfred Douglas posthumously convicted of homophobia for repudiating Wilde as his abuser.

  9. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    Jon wrote: “The only fog I can see across your crystal ball is the less than realistic acknowledgement by Century 22 that “our” ancestors ever thought any differently from them.”

    Yeah — I’ll have to get the ol’ ball looked at. There may have been some corrosion of contacts causing it to drop some packets during transmission.

    Delighted to be the source of some chortlage. Thought that probably means “seething” for someone else.

    Thanks for your note, Eddie. And my gmail has now been checked and response made. Sorry about my hiatus from that for a couple weeks there.

    I like Lewis’ “Abolition of Man” too. One critique I have for the whole thing, though, –and especially my own bit above, is that we all tend toward taking ourselves too seriously. I sound just like the people I criticize when I begin to ‘monger’ the fear. There is something to be said about being wise as serpents, yes. And there is much also to steer us toward just being still and knowing that God is God quite transcendent above all our little tempests.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Note to self: peekstones aren’t limited to Joseph Smith and the Mormons, but Merv and the Mennonites too.

      I just stick to Urim and Thummin, in the varifocal version.

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