If you want to understand the American Civil War better, read Mark A. Noll’s book – The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.
In it you will find that before the question of slavery was a political or military question to be answered on the battlefield, it was a theological question.
How we read and interpret the Bible is of the utmost importance, and we have a fine example of the consequences of playing fast and loose with the text in the way the issue of slavery has been handled – both by abolitionists and by the pro-slavery camp in the lead-up to 1861.
Was slavery categorically evil? Not according to God. Or at least he never roundly condemned and prohibited the institution.
But then neither was God silent on the issue. And the pro-slavery theological arguments often ignored the restrictions and boundaries God put in place for his people in the Old Testament.
So also, the claim that black Africans were to be enslaved as a race because Noah cursed the descendants of Ham in Genesis was a particularly weak argument.
Did the fact that Noah pronounced a curse on Ham and his descendants mean that we are forever beholden to abuse and mistreat a certain race of people just because they were his offspring?
One might more readily interpret Noah’s curse in light of warnings and admonitions against strong drink for kings at the end of Proverbs. Yet it was entirely too convenient that those arguing for continuance of the African slave-trade and the disposal of black slaves in the South chose an interpretive framework which put stock in Noah as the authority.
At the same time, radical abolitionists sometimes concluded that if God had made allowances for slavery in the Old Testament, they would just throw out the Bible. If the Bible was not any more just and fair than that, the overriding principle of liberty more important to them would take precedence.
In our day still, despite a century and a half passing, we see echoes of this conflict in the way social justice and other such is argued for and against in the American church. And Noll’s book can help us in understanding the problems of our day in light of their ideological and theological roots and historical context.
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