Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Hate Speech: Slaves, Obey Your Masters (Colossians 3:22)

The Pennsylvania Chapter of American Atheists put up a sign with the biblical quote "Slaves, obey your master" (Colossians 3:22 ).

The Harrisburg chapter of the NAACP says that the message is hateful and wants the sign torn down. They have asked the Human Rights Commission brand the posting of the sign as a hate crime.

My question is: What does this say about Colossians 3:22? What does this say about the Bible?

Somebody needs to ask the leaders of the Harrisburg chapter of the NAACP when they intend to have the Human Rights Commission declare the Bible to be hate speech and to have it torn down or banned. It is, after all, the Bible that says, "Slaves, obey your master."

I would say that the sign could have been designed better to avoid misunderstanding. A person who casually looks at the sign can easily interpret it as a message that blacks should obey their white masters.

This should be a lesson to all atheist and secular groups out there.

Test your products.

Make sure that people will understand what you are trying to say. Take a paper printout of any sign that you intend to put up, give it to somebody who does not care about the outcome to show to random people, and record their reaction.

If some significant percent of the population misinterprets the message, change the sign. Don't change it because they hate the message - many will hate anything an atheist says no matter what it is. However, if they do not understand the message, consider changing the way you are trying to communicate that message.

Failed communication will tend to do far more harm than good.

It also doesn't matter what they think of the sign after you explain it to them. When somebody driving down the street sees they sign, they will not have somebody sitting next to them to correct any misinterpretations. When the survey taker gives a misinterpretation of the sign, write down their response and walk away - and decide to alter the sign.

These are practical concerns - concerns that every atheist and secular organization should take seriously.

However, we should also look at the fact of the sign.

The history of the sign begins with the Pennsylvania legislature declaring 2012 "The Year of the Bible". In response, the Pennsylvania Chapter of American Atheists responded with a sign that says, "Hey, the Pennsylvania legislature just declared this as the year of a book that - among other evils - tells slaves to obey their masters."

Really, it is ironic that the Harrisburg chapter of the NAACP is protesting the acts of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Atheists, when they should be protesting the actions of the Pennsylvania legislature. It was the legislature - not the American Atheists - who endorsed and gave state honors to the message, "Slaves, obey your masters."

This is the type of irony that comes from people who do not actually think about what they are doing or saying, but who act on pure superficial unexamined emotion.

Just as I have done with this blog post here, the NAACP has a right to condemn the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Atheists for carelessness. This is not a hate crime. Colossians 3:22 is the hate crime.

Some Christians get upset when one mentions that the Bible and other religious text contains what can only be sensibly called hate-speech.

However, the fact of the matter is that the Bible and other religious documents were written by substantially ignorant human beings 2000 years ago. Those authors lived in a culture where hate-speech was common and, at the time, not yet questioned. They wrote these values into their religious text.

Colossians 3:22 was written by slave masters who wanted the unquestioned obedience of their slaves. In its more complete form, it says:

Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God

And it was used by white slave owners in the 1800s - who taught Christianity to their slaves for this purpose - to get the slaves to obey their masters even when their master was not watching them (but God - who is to be feared - still watched). These are historic facts that no amount of manufactured outrage can change.

No decent historian can deny the fact that the Bible and other religious texts contain the hate-speech of the eras in which they were written.

The fact of the matter - whether people want to admit it or not - is that the Pennsylvania legislature and the Harrisburg chapter of the NAACP have both decided to be advocates and defenders of this primitive and barbaric hate speech - and to attack the one group that is actually saying hate speech should not be given the endorsement of the state legislature.

Finally, I would like to argue that hate-speech should not be banned. The fact that scripture contains a great deal of hate-speech (much of it directed against atheists, I should add), the principle that one should not react to words with violence trumps this fact. Hate-speech should be countered with condemnation and criticism – but not with violence. The answer to words is words, not guns. This includes the state violence of government censorship. People should remain free to read and quote from the Bible – at the same time learning that endorsing the hate-speech that is found within is not an admirable act.


Joshua Bennett said...

The sign in question was vandalized. It was very clear before the bottom half of the sign was torn off that the billboard was not promoting but, rather, criticizing the Bible verse.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I think it is a mistake to rashly assume what us clear.

A proper test would likely show that mist viewers woukd not read the bottom half of the sign. They woukd see the message on top, see he word "atheists" below and come to the conclusion that atheusts are advocating slavery.

You can argue that people are wrong to do this, but if the issue s communication the accusation of wrongness does not negate the fact of failed communication.

Anonymous said...

Colossians was not written by a slave master. This passage in Colossians in no way condones slavery or racism (in Colossae this was "white" masters and "white" slaves primarily). Paul was giving practical advice for a specific time. Paul was sent to spread the Gospel to the gentiles. Paul traveled on his own dime primarily and was beaten repeatedly, so maybe he had a different approach to any struggles in this life. He called himself a slave to Christ and took a lot of lumps and deprivation for it. Too often, people try to apply Paul's personal and focused letters to a specific church congregation in a specific city, Colossae, to a situation completely different today. At that time a slave could be killed for disobedience. Paul was giving practical advice on how a slave could have a better life. Sorry, but at that time the Roman Empire was not going to be abolishing slavery. Slave rebellions did not work very well in the Roman empire (the movie Spartacus was based on such a rebellion-- history tells us 6 thousand captured slaves were crucified along the Appian Way by the Romans).

For Paul, the troubles of this life were not important compared to the future reward. So, yes, in the Roman empire, Paul encouraged those slaves called to Christ to be obedient because rebellion of a slave will almost surely mean death, but more freedom was given to the slave and a less punishing life when they obedient and trusted. Yet, this also allowed the slave to let his light shine. Paul was more interested in releasing people from spiritual slavery. This sounds inconceivable to us today, but without any real hope of being anything but a physical slave in this life, Paul is advising that you do those things that will add nobility to your service-- serve as if you are serving the Lord. This was practical advice for that time with a principle we can extrapolate; that when we are going through tough trials we bear it as best we can to God's glory thereby ennobling our service and letting others see our light.

Obviously, Paul would not encourage someone held in slavery today to remain a slave, but that would be because there is a great chance of physical freedom today and therefore continued service to God rather than a physical death for rebellion. Paul's focus was on the slave's soul and the Gospel. Advising a new convert to do something that would get him killed would further neither the slave's soul or the Gospel.

Write a reply...

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Right. How does a slave get a better live by submitting his will to his master even in those cases where the master is not looking?

This was certainly advice to slaves, but it was just the advice that masters would want to give to slaves.

Furthermore, there is the matter of simply telling the slaves that god abhors their freedom and that those who enslave them go against god - that they have a right to be free.

One thing to keep in mind - this advice did not come from any god. No god exists to give advice. This came from people - and it came from people who sought to promote and protect their own interests - including any interests they had as owners of slaves.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

And why did he say for slaves to obey their master out of a fear of God, rather than say that slaves should obey their masters even though God wanted them to be free?

He did not say that slavery was wrong, but that in spite of the fact the slave should still serve their master to avoid the consequences that the master might inflict. This passage says to obey the master out of fear of God - as if God was being used as the Master's enforcer.

Which, in fact, he was.

And why was Paul telling slaves to obey their masters because those who are disobedient are treated harsly, but elsewhere he was telling people it was a virtue to disobey even when disobedience resulted in harsh treatment? Why did he not tell them to embrace Christianity, through off the yoke of slavery, and if they were killed they would be martyrs?

Of course Paul would not tell slaves today to obey their master, because Paul was describing the moral attitudes of his time. Paul did not get his morality from any God. He got it from the culture he grew up in. Paul, growing up when he did, grew up in a culture that embraced slavery and held that slaves should obey their masters. Growing up today, he would acquire different beliefs.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alonzo,

I don't think that rebelling against a physical master and being killed makes one a martyr. So, that is why I don't think Paul would encourage rebellion.

You are right, Paul could have spoken of the evils of slavery, but I think it was as you say so established at that time that railing against it would not help and was not the focus of Paul's Gospel. He wanted to spread the Gospel of the Kingdom and Christ. One could be a Christian as a slave.

That was Paul's focus, not changing Roman laws or even speaking about them when not necessary because he could then be accused of attacking Rome of which he was a citizen. That was simply not his purpose. And remember this was a letter--Paul may well have said verbally that slavery was despicable, but you know how once something is written down it is greater proof of anything. And this was not the battle Paul was focusing on.

If he did he might well be sent to prison and the Gospel not spread as well.

Many point to his letter to Philemon on behalf of the runaway slave Onesimus as some proof of his actions against slavery. He asks Philemon (the master)to treat Onesimus as a brother. Some commentaries believe he is encouraging Philemon to give Onesimus his freedom.

No doubt, we today recoil more strongly to slavery than 2000 years ago. It was simply an accepted state at that time and railing against it just would have been of little use (particularly in a written letter).

Resophonic said...

Anonymous:A couple of questions for you.
Is there any situation where slavery is not absolutely evil?
Has the inherent evilness (or not) of slavery changed over time?
if anyone answers yes to either of those questions, then I don't see why anyone would ever listen to another word they say about right, wrong, ethics, morality or God--especially if they say that they speak on behalf of that God as Paul does.
If anyone takes the bible as literally god's word (not saying that you do), then they have to admit that their god supports owning another human being, and for some reason is more concerned about eating shellfish, or condemning gays than he is about slavery.

You say that Paul was giving practical advice to slaves, why did he not follow up with slave owners? Can one be a Christian as a slave owner? Does god even care about that? I can find some verses that place limits on what Jews or Christians can do as slave owners, but none that condemn the practice of slavery outright.
As Alonzo implies in his response, Paul puts god firmly on the side of slave owners. The bible has lots of other prohibitions that were against the culture of the time, why not this one?

I agree with the blog that we need to be more carefully to have effective communications, but we are right on this issue and he bible is hideously wrong. We need to keep bringing this up every time the bible thumpers try to use it to say how our modern society needs to be run.

Anonymous said...

This will end up being a very good thing in the end for the atheist advertising campaign. Sure a few people got offended but this billboard has now become national news. It was just in Pennsylvania now it is national. The message that was meant to be sent about the evils of the bible is discussed on the news and in blogs and more people will look at their bible critically. Now we can start to have a 21st century conversation instead of reading a 1st century book with outdated morals.

Unknown said...

There is a series on youtube called "slave sermons" by a man named Jeremia Camara that discusses thehistory of religion and slavery. A lot of people that fought for the south and for slavery thought they were fighting for god and they would preach that passage to slaves on Sunday. Anyone who's been to the south knows that black people stay in church all day. The reason why, is blacks had 1 day off and the slave masters used that day as brainwashing day. All day long the blacks would be in church, singing, praying to white, blond haired, blue eyed jesus and read that passage.

Black people don't know about it either. It's the equivalent of gays in the future not knowing that the homosexuality debate is grounded in religious hate.

Nice read, but I've served in the military and it was nothing like slavery. Slaves didn't have any rights and couldn't defend themselves in court. In the military your superior can't rape you, rape your wife, rape your kids, beat you to death and have no consequences. Those aren't extreme cases either, the life of a slaves was terrible.

You also pointed out that most people point out american slavery as the most popular. Slavery in america lasted from the early 1600's (earlier if you count the caribbean) until the middle of the 1800's in a non native land where their skin made them a visible underclass of the most powerful nation in the history of the world. That's significant.

You or your readers might also be interested in comparing the bible's verses to egypt's book of the dead.

Unknown said...

I skimmed the other comments so I don't know if this was already mentioned but...

in verse 23 it is written 'Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men'. So we are not slaves to men, but slaves to God? Probably not because in the next verse (24) it says

'knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ' So we receive a reward in heaven. Assuming Christianity is the truth, We receive payment for our work. That does not sound like slavery to me. :I. Of course I could be wrong in what I said....