Theology of Slavery: Western Theology's Role in the Development and Propogation of Slavery

This is the second in a two-part series examining Western Europe's role in the development and facilitation of "racism". (For Part One, see "Ignorant Science: The Eighteenth Century's Development of a Scientific Racism", in Quodlibet vol 1, num 8, December 99.) This paper will attempt three things: [a] to provide an objective though limited account of the relation between slavery and Western theology; [b] to enforce the distinction between Scriptural theology and those contextual elements which may reside in theological formulations; and [c] to provide a case study of this distinction through a treatment and analysis of the Ham story. This subject matter covered will be limited to [a] longstanding traditions developed in the 3rd and 4th century Church which remained until changes occurring in 1965 with Vatican II, and [b] popular theology within the Antebellum (i.e., pre-Civil War) South.

Introductory comments

It is characteristic of Liberation theologies, whether specifically Black American theologies or Latin American theologies, to decry the negative impact which traditional Western theology has had, both implicitly and explicitly, upon non-white peoples of the world. All too often, mainstream Western theology's response has been a staunch defense of itself in an attempt to shelter what it takes to be first principles from such "liberation". Such defense of principle, however, often appear to imply also a defense of the historical abuses decried.

More recently, certain outspoken segments of society have espoused discriminatory or racist views in the name of Christian theology. Such groups come armed with elaborate theological defenses for their positions and encounter little if any theological resistance from an otherwise theologically and scripturally illiterate public. Though public opinion and common sense may be strongly aligned against such rhetoric (and rightly so), the religious force of such arguments often remain unchallenged apart from the oft heard admonition that God loves everyone and therefore so should society.

This paper proceeds on the assumption that an objective examination of the role played by the Western Church in the development and propogation of slavery and racism will engender within readers both a greater sense of appreciation and validity toward certain criticisms of Western theology and an accurate understanding of the origin and foundations of theological positions used in defense of racist rhetoric.

Defining "Western theology"

It is here prudent and necessary to distinguish between "Western theology and practice" and Christianity Proper. By Western theology is meant that body of doctrine and tradition developed solely in terms of the temporal and cultural situations within the West. It should go without saying that all doctrinal development takes place within a historical and ideological context which defines not only the issues raised but also the language and concepts used in attempting solutions. It should readily be admitted that even the "purest" theological formulation reflects the thought and terms of its era. [1]

Context-laden theological formulations have had a multi-faceted impact upon the development of Western Christianity. One obvious implication has been the inadvertent preservation of such contextual elements by subsequent generations. Instances of this abound and can be seen, for example, in certain denominational groups' insistence on preserving the literal practice of foot washing, head coverings, or the silence of women in church. A second implication has been the transmission of these specifically European contextual elements to non-European peoples and cultures along with the dissemination of the Gospel itself. Everything from the expectation of Western garb to the implementation of the traditional paraphenalia of religious holidays among converted native populations has historically lead to an implicit, if not explicit discouragement of indigenous theological development. This export of Western culture in the guise of Christian religion proves doubly disadvantageous to original cultures by first displacing indigenous expressions with non-intuitive European perspectives and thereby stagnating future development of its own political and cultural convictions in light of its new found belief structure.

As serious as these implications have been, perhaps the most critical implication of the presence of context- laden elements within theological formulation involves an all too often uncritical conflation of the latent contextual elements and the theological formulation or principle itself. This conflation occurs as often within the hallowed halls of Western theological reflection as it does in the frontier of missions to non-Western peoples. In those cases where such theological formulations are brought into question or are criticized, those holding to the formulation out of religious conviction often find themselves inadvertently defending the contextual elements as well, as if the latter possessed the same religious significance as the formulation itself. Needless to say, such defense of contextual elements, while perhaps naturally "intuited" or belonging to the common sense within certain populations, prove antiquated, if not simply bewildering to those outside the immediate culture from which the heartfelt defense springs. When such defenses are made by major populations or mainstream traditions within Western Christianity, it is not suprising that those outside the tradition equate Western Christianity with the contextual practice its adherents so heartily defend. Precisely at this point "Western theology" and its distinctive understanding of what the Gospel entails have come under attack by other traditions such as the liberation theologies.

It is not doubted that Western theology promotes universal truths which may be applied to all peoples in all places under all circumstances. Arriving at these truths has clearly been a predominant intent of the major contributors to mainstream Western theology. Nor can it be doubted that there have also clearly been, and often still exist, "Christian truths" which are in fact neither universal nor rightly applicable to all peoples. It has been the propogation of these latter truths which have caused immeasurable damage to the image of the Gospel of Jesus Christ both at home and abroad.

Slavery in patristic and medieval discussions

In 1965, the Second Vatican Council concluded:

Whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torture inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children ... all these things ... poison human society, dishonour the Creator, and do more harm to those who practise them than those who suffer from the injury... Human institutions, private or public .... should be bulwarks against any kind of political or social slavery and guardians of basic rights under any kind of government. [2]

We can rightly applaud this position and concede that its ideal ought to characterize just and noble societies. The Council's conclusion, however, amounted to a reversal of the Catholic Church's official stance on the issue of slavery which had been in place for the previous 1500 years. [3]

As early as 340 A.D., the Church Council of Gangra in Asia Minor adopted as law the apostolic moral teaching concerning slaves' Christian obligation to submit to the authority of the master as if submitting oneself to God (eg: Ephesians 6:5-8). In reaction to the Manichaen teaching that slaves should despise their masters and free themselves, the Council decreed:

If anyone, on the pretext of religion teaches another man's slave to despise his master, and to withdraw from his service, and not to serve his master with good will and respect, let him be anathema. [4]

This conciliar decree is significant in that it failed to isolate the intent of the apostolic teaching on slavery, namely, to perpetuate obedience within the existing civil order, to promote a philosophy of contentment regardless of one's station in life, and to exhort believers to fairness and honesty in the fulfillment of one's duties before God [5]. Instead, along with the apostolic teaching regarding the duty of Christian slaves, the decree specifically validates and protects the existence of pagan Rome's institution of slavery from those who would question its validity. It must also be remarked that the Church later jettisoned pagan Rome's laws concerning the rights and possible attainment of freedom of slaves while retaining the institution itself. Since it had no explicit teaching on the "why" of slavery, the Church later devised its own policies regarding the subjects, terms and emancipation of slavery.

Sixty years after the Council of Gangra, Augustine likewise urged slaves to reject the desire to leave their master's home, and rather than seek freedom, to fulfill their duty of faithful service in a Christian manner. [6] Both the statements of Augustine and the Gangra Council were later canonized, and with them the implicit inclusion of pagan Rome's institution of slavery. These foundational notions of the protection of the institution of slavery and the obligation of slaves remained the enforced official position on the Catholic Church on these matters until the 1965 Vatican II statement. Upon this foundation were built subsequent notions of slavery which significantly impacted the Church's approach to certain populations.

Discussion within the Church as to the origin of slavery is perhaps first found in Ambrosiaster's Commentary on Colossians [7]. Ambrosiaster uses the story of Noah's drunkenness in Genesis 9:25-27 to trace the origin of slavery to Noah's curse upon his son Ham. In 419 AD Augustine affirms Ambrosiaster's position when he further specified the origin of slavery as deriving either from sin, as in the case of Ham, [8] or through adversity, as in the case of Joseph (Genesis 37:28,36).[9] In what amount to the application of a syllogism to this twofold definition of slavery, Augustine later concludes that it is in fact good and just to enslave sinners since it penalizes them to their own good. [10]

A hierarchy of merit and rulership

Around 600 A.D., Pope Gregory I taught that all men are equal in nature before God, but that "a hidden dispensation of providence" produced "a hierarchy of merit and rulership", since as a result of sin, different classes of' men have been produced, and that these differentiated classes are "ordained by divine justice." [11] In this doctrine of a division of mankind into a "hierarchy of rulership" we see what amounts to a papal sanction for racism [12]. For while Joseph's slavery (one of the two "types" of justified slavery, ) does not necessarily imply a penal hierarchy involving classes of people, the application of this notion to the type of slavery exemplified by the cursed Ham suggests a sustained, trans-generational subordination of Ham's descendents within the divinely appointed hierarchy of merit and rulership.

Further specifying Gregory's statement, Saint Isidore of Seville (ca.560 - 636) claimed that there were certain individuals whom God considered unfit for freedom and therefore mercifully placed them under slavery. From this the conclusion was drawn that, by the Providence of God, the misdeeds of the unfit needed to be restrained by the hand of the master [13]. The task of the slaveholder is then seen as one of Divine calling. This particular conclusion, suggesting the necessity of slavery in order to control the innate uncivil (savage) nature within a given group of people, would later be used repeatedly to defend actions taken against any people resisting the advances of colonial Europe. Isidore's text, clearly dividing mankind into at least two subjectively recognized groups, was quoted in full at the Council of Aachen of 817 A.D., thereby becoming canonized. [14]

The Crusades (1095 - 1270) brought about a renewed interest in Aristotle's Politics and the study of Roman civil law by the twelfth century moralists. To the classical Roman list of causes under which an individual may be enslaved, the moralists added being a prisoner, being captured during war, being rendered a life- long slave as a form of capital punishment, being a judged debtor, having oneself or one's children sold in destitution, and being born of a slave mother. Saint Thomas Aquinas (ca.1225-1274) not only accepted this new Aristotelian/Roman civil slavery, but tried to reconcile it with the patristic tradition of the Church. [15]

Following such statements by the Church and its leadership, there was an increased propensity to secure for oneself slaves. It appears that little concern was held by many as to whether those being enslaved were Christian or pagan. In response to this practice, it is of significance that the Church threatened the excommunication of anyone caught imprisoning or holding Christian slaves [16]. And yet this particular policy underscores the Church's view of slavery as a divine judgment which is presumably wielded against those outside the Church. This conceptual distinction of enslaveability held by the Church between itself and pagan peoples manfested itself fully with the discovery of the New World.

Full and free permission

In the frontiers of the Americas, the Monarchy of Spain found itself with a treasure as potentially abundant as the Monarchy of Portugal's promising war upon West Africa (and its enormous bounty of African slaves and resources). The only thing Spain lacked which Portugal possessed was the Church's commission and blessing on all that was done on distant shores. Thus at the repeated request of Spain, Pope Alexander VI, on May 3, 1493, issued two bulls granting Spain and Portugal identical treatment by the Church. What Portugal had done with the Church's blessing to West Africa, Spain was now free to do to the Americas.

In the words of Pope Alexander, Spain now received

"full and free permission to invade, search out, capture and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities and other properties and to reduce their persons into perpetual slavery." [17]

This clearly demonstrates that, at least conceptually, the "holy" war which the Portugese were fighting against the Moslems was now also extended to the Americas, where Spain was instructed to fight against the pagan Indians in the name of Christ and the Church. In short, a war had been created and sustained in which Spain and Portugal, justified and sanctioned by the Church in Rome, fought both the West Africans and the American Indians from among whom vast numbers of people were enslaved and subjugated.

A rational justification for this divinely sanctioned war was also soon arrived at under Spanish King Fernando. Fernando attempted to explain to the Indians that the Church rightly possessed their land due to Christ's granting Peter and Paul temporal authority, a status which by extension places the Church above every earthly dominion. This line of reasoning made its way into the Church itself and was elaborated on by Cardinal de Susa, an elaboration which inspired Palacios Rubios to create the "Requerimiento" which was the official declaration to the Indians that the Pope (as head of the Church and thus possessor of Indian land through the temporal power granted to Peter and Paul by Christ) had given their land to King Fernando, whom they were to immediately recognize as their ruler. The Requerimiento also informed the American Indians that they were required to allow the missionaries accompanying Fernando's armies the freedom to preach the gospel unhindered, and that after hearing this gospel, they were to "freely accept" the Christian faith. The declaration continued with the stark warning that if they did not accept the Christian faith, war would be made against them and that they and their families would be either captured, enslaved, and sold, or disposed of.

The reading of the Requerimiento was adopted as standard practice since it justified any warring and enslavement of those rejecting its authority. Under Charles V (1500-1558), it was determined that after allowing the Indians ample time to decide whether or not to covert, if the faith be refused, they may justifiably be attacked with arms, placed under slavery, and their property seized.

Descriptive accounts of the atrocities suffered by the Indians met more conscientious ears within the Church through courageous men such as Las Casas, who due to his willingness to defy political powers and trends in order to aid the Indians, decried in public what was being done on distant shores. Yet such voices were scarce and remained powerless in the presence of what had become a massive undertaking promising to bring the Church an unimaginable wealth of resources.

It time, however, Spain would not hold onto the Americas nor would the Church extend its claim of temporal power over the cities and colonies which slowly marked the new wilderness. Eventually a self-declared democracy had emerged fueled by optimism and economic enterprise. The optimism of the New Americans derived from the obvious potential which the new land yielded as well as a strong conviction that somehow they played a larger, special role in the divine plan. Their economic enterprise derived from the fertility and abundance of the land which in turn gave rise to an unrivaled economy churning out incredible amounts of produce and textiles. This thriving economy called for heretofor unheard of human labor, which the new Americans found in the victims of earlier Portuguese excursions, the West Africans.

Antebellum Theology and Black Slavery in America

Throughout the history of the world, a more vivid example of the atrocities of institutionalized slavery cannot be given than that of the southern United States in the first half of the ninteenth century. Indeed, from the very beginning of this new nation, slavery played an all important role in economic development. Initial attempts to subjugate native Indians failed due to their inability to survive the severe conditions of slave labor. The African slave, however, appeared to possess stamina with which to survive such a heavy burden.

A conservative estimate puts the total number of Africans abducted and carried to the New World at 15 million. [18] This number concerns only Africans shipped from West Africa to the New Land, and does not include individuals born into slavery during the 300 year period of slavery in America.

A common distinction is often made between the sensibilities of those Europeans coming to the New Land. The distinction views, on the one hand, the Puritans who settled in the North within Massachusetts, as driven to the New World primarily out of religious convictions, while on the other hand, the Virginians of the South are viewed as having been economically driven. However, Perry Miller suggests that Virginians were in fact also driven by the conviction that they were God's chosen people in the New Wilderness of America, paralleling, socially and prophetically, the Israelites of Scripture. Miller quotes early Virginian pamphlets which read:

"Virginians, like New Englanders, saw Abraham as their ideal prototype. If the colonists conformed to God's will as they advanced into the wilderness, they like Abraham's prosterity would become a mighty nation, dominating other nations economically and enlightening them spiritually". [19]

Yet despite the apparently common "ideal prototype", the manifest religion built upon this foundational conviction within the antebellum South was to differ greatly from that religion of the North. Due to the common yet distinct conviction that they alone possessed the calling of "God's Chosen People", both the North and the South grew more idiosyncratic and established in their respective convictions, each viewing themselves alone as the sole keeper of the true gospel and its interpretation. Thus although in both North and South distinctly Christian gardens were planted and cultivated, the southern garden bore political fruit and the northern garden theological fruit. [20] The southern political fruit, as we shall see, was a Christian world-view governed by a patriarchial interpretation of society.

The great revivals which swept the "theological" North were viewed more and more reservedly by the South. It seemed on the whole that Northern religious development proceeded at a faster pace than the South. Thus, for example, as the South cooly looked on, Mormonism, the Shaker movement, and the Millerites sprung into being within the northern and border states. Soon thereafter religious Utopianism and other liberal developments also arose within the North. These and similar changes eventually resulted in a very clear concept formulated within the South that they held objective religious differences from those in the North. In 1845, James H. Hammond, Governor of South Carolina writes that the South was free from the "excitability" that was creating new fanatical sects in other parts of the Union. He continues,

"Few of the remarkable religious "isms" have taken root among us. We have been so irreverant as to laugh at Mormonism and Millerism, which have created such commotions farther North; and modern prophets have no honor in our country. Shakers, Rappists, Dunkers, Socialists, Fourrierists, and the like, keep themselves afar off". [21]

Hammond believed that the existence of the institution of slavery within the South was responsible for the Southern conservative nature, since owning slaves made people "more practical, responsible, and even moral, since they were concerned with supporting and caring for large numbers of people outside their immediate families". [22] In order to enhance the notion that slavery was indeed a moral and caring practice, its positive effects were emphasized. In a line of reasoning which the reader will recognize from earler sections of this paper, southerns claimed that by means of slavery, the African's otherwise evil disposition was both controlled and corrected.

In response to the liberal developments within the North following the second Great Awakening, the South countered this tendency by securely establishing themselves within a "fundamentalist" framework, interpreting the Bible literally as a guide for life, and applied it to both political and individual spheres. On the practice of applying Scripture to one's own life, it may be said that the tendency of the southerner was to employ the pietistic practice of subjectively reading Scripture under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, as was taught in Methodist and Baptist circles. In the area of politics, however, Scripture was literally applied as a guide to societal function and development, as was characteristic of the more rationalistic tendencies of the Presbyterians.

This literal interpretation and application of Scripture to the political sphere lay at the heart of southern slavery. Strong defense was made for slavery using Scripture, since slaves are found in both the Old Testament and New. While Northern Abolitionists preached that slavery was contradictory to what they called the "spirit" of Scripture, Southerners heard in this message only "liberal" use of Scripture and a tendency toward Rationalism. Such treatment of Scripture moved Robert L. Dabney, then Virginia's leading Presbyterian theologian, to write:

"The teachings of abolitionism are clearly of rationalist origin, of infidel tendency, and only sustained by reckless and licentious perversions of the meaning of the Sacred text". [23]

This type of polemic increased, and along with it the southern conviction that they alone were true to Scripture and acting as preserver of the faith. Thus Southern interpretation of Scripture became increasingly more literal, and citied Mosaic Law and the Abrahamic Covenant in defense of their societal standards. This eventually gave rise to a perspective unique to the South. Although the use of the Ham story of Genesis 9:25-27 as a justification of slavery was employed long before the antebellum South, their application of this notion took on new meaning wherein the southerner slaveholders viewed themselves as "enlightened patriarchs", caring for their families, their land, their herds and their servants, after the fashion of the biblical patriarchs.

One reason for the unusual strength of the Ham story within the South is its ability to explain and thus justify a socially inferior position for the enslaved African. When polygenist theories [24] began trickling into the South, southern clergy immediately attacked them as unbiblical and anti-Christian. Developing an apologetic against polygenism required special emphasis on the created unity of humanity, and thus of White and African peoples. Clearly, rather than cast aside their literal view of Scripture for a "scientific" view which ultimately justified slavery, the South held onto Scripture, and derived from it their own justifications for slavery. Thus due to this utter dependence upon the Scripture as a means of defining and maintaining southern self identity and society, the Ham story became deeply embedded within southern mentality.

From the Ham story grew all manner of attempted explanations of society, humankind, the Will of God and even the future fate of America. That Ham was cursed for a sin thought to be of a sexual nature explained the rumored lasciviousness or libidiousness of the African. The fact that Ham's was a sin revealing lack of restraint was used to explain a slowness or "dullness" in the African. [25] The Hamic story was even used to explain the "blackness" of the African. The initial account later developed into a fantastic tale incorporating history, personality and mankind's future fate.

Through a literal re-creation of the family of Man through Noah, Noah's three sons, Ham, Shem and Japheth were said to be the progenitors of the Black, Red and White races respectively. While all these races are said to have originated in the family of Noah, theories such as that promoted by Josiah Priest claimed that God, in His infinite Wisdom, foresaw the future destiny of the three sons and thus caused them to be born in their three differing colors. [26] Though this view seems more than a little far-fetched, Priest was himself a very popular writer, discussing many topics related to religion and the millenium. Thus his book Slavery, in which his theory is written, was reprinted five times in eight years due to high demand.

Another theory created by the literalists claimed the relationship of the American Indians with Shem by explaining the Indians' passage from Asia to the American continent via a former land bridge between the two. Thus the claim was made that the promise of Genesis 9:25-27, wherein Japheth was to be enlarged and dwell in the tents of Shem, was fulfilled when the White race discovered and settled in the New World, and subsequently evicted the Indians (Shem) from their dwelling places (tents). The failure of the Whites' to subjugate Indians, the descendents of Shem, into forced labor due to the former's inability to survive such circumstances, and the Whites' success at subjugating the African, the descendent of Ham, prompted the explanation that the African was thus "divinely suited" for slave labor, and thus strengtened even further their conviction that the theory was correct, since Scripture states that only Ham, and not Shem, would be subject to Japheth. The result of these theories was to create the belief that though the African was literally a brother in terms of common lineage to Noah, he nevertheless possessed an innate and divinely appointed inferiority. [27]

The southern assumption that the African was unable to successfully rule himself also played well into this world view. As stated above, the southerner had a propensity to view himself as an enlightened patriarch governing his family and possessions under the blessing of God. The view that Africans were perpetually child-like in their thinking reinforced this feeling within the slave owner. It became a source of satisfaction to view oneself in such a complimentary light, and so the theory of perpetual childhood became commonplace within the community. Thomas R. Cobb describes the child-like Black as follows:

"The Negroes thus imported were generally contented and happy ... Careless and mirthful by nature, they were eager to find a master when they reached the shore, and the cruel seperations to which they were sometimes exposed, and which for the moment gave them excruciating agony, were forgotten at the sound of their rude musical instruments and in the midst of their noisy dances. The great Architect had framed them both physically and mentally to fill the sphere in which they were thrown, and His wisdom and mercy combined in constituting them thus suited to the degraded position they were destined to occupy. Hence, their submissiveness, their obedience, their contentment." [28]


The story thus told raises two key issues, one theological and the other anthropological. Theologically, the issue which immediately presents itself is the hermeneutical method whereby we find slavery defended. Certainly one can rightly implement a historico-grammatical hermeneutic (or any other for that matter) and discern and expound upon the reality referred to in Scripture that slaves and slavery existed. One would categorize such an endeavour as descriptive and expect from it a greater insight into the cultural milieu of the authors. Such an insight may even be said to be necessary in order to correctly interpret those passages which deal directly or indirectly with slavery. But this form of descriptive hermeneutic differs greatly from that used by those propogating and practicing slaveholding. This latter we might be best deemed a prescriptive hermeneutic which utilized relevant Scriptural passages polemically for the cause of slavery.

Polemic or prescriptive hermeneutics are characterized by the practice to extrapolate or isolate from a given narrative or text a principle which is then said to be (necessarily or ideally) applicable to the contemporary situation. In the Christian tradition this hermeneutic is most widely utilized by the cleric whose duty it is to not only educate congregation members of the content and meaning of Scripture (descriptive hermeneutic) but also to move individuals toward Christian practice. The latter effort is generally attempted in what we know as the "application" of the sermon wherein a rule for living or principle of practice is (often creatively) drawn from the text and laid before the audience in a form requiring a response. It is clear that this application or prescriptive hermeneutic, if done well, grounds squarely in the descriptive hermeneutic.

But to maintain a distinction between these two is critical for any thinking individual, for there exists a qualitative difference in how one arrives at the statement "Lot pitched his tent toward Sodom" and how one then claims "You ( or I or Americans) also should pitch your (my/their) tent toward Sodom". The second statement clearly demonstrates a presupposition that the principle "Pitch a tent toward Sodom" either necessarily ("You must/should") or potentially ("You may") applies equally to the contemporary audience. Thus unlike the first statement which grounds simply in the face-value reading of the narrative, the second statement grounds in the speaker's evaluation and decision regarding the universal significance of that narrative. [29]

The same distinction is required between statements describing the existence of slavery in biblical times and those using such description to justify ("We must/should/may") contemporary instances of slavery. This, however, is all but a moot point in contemporary society since little, if any, slavery is practiced, much less condoned. But what then of the other "applications" of the Ham story whereby not only enslavement but physical difference and social hierarchy are "explained"?

Any such attempt to utilize the Ham story will at core amount to the claim: whereas "Ham was cursed", so also "people of color are cursed". It is apparent that this claim utilizes both descriptive and prescriptive hermeneutics and derives its claim regarding the contemporary state directly from the historic narrative. This pair, however involves a slightly more difficult text, for the historic narrative seems to implicate Ham's descendency (namely, Canaan) in the curse, and thus it belongs to the descriptive hermeneutic to suggest that the curse extends beyond the single character of Ham.

Helpful inqury into the Ham story could proceed along several lines, for example, into whether or not it is correct to simply associate Africans with the descendents of Ham, or more specifically whether contemporary ethnic differences find their origin in distinctions among Noah's sons. But the central element of the Ham story pertains to neither descendency nor ethnic difference but subjection to slavery as a fallout of the curse. It has been shown how during periods in which slavery was practiced, the Ham story, which is primarily a story about slavery, was gradually expanded to include explanations of biological difference through interaction with external considerations such as polygenism. With the end of the slave era, the Ham story naturally lost its polemic strength as regards slavery, yet has maintained its role as explanatory tool for biological difference. Within contemporary racist propoganda, the theme of ethnicity which had been appended to the Ham story now stands as the story's central point and is used to explain the social plight of people of color in contemporary society.

But when we look further into the nature of the curse, we find little justification for extending even this appended impact of the curse beyond the scope of the Old Testament. First, to suggest that there is any contemporary manifestation of the curse of Ham is to elevate the status of Noah's curse to unrivaled heights. Whether social or biological difference effects are the subject of Noah's curse, there is no other instance within the biblical narrative of a mortal's proclamation having such a universal and long lasting effect as this. In fact, no other human statement has ever been thought to carry such immense authority. The only other biblical scenario which comes close to this suggestion is that of God's own curse of humanity in the Garden of Eden whose ramifications are said to continue to this day. But to suggest that the significance of Noah's angry curse of his son is similar to a divine curse raises more problems than one can seriously answer.

The most reasonable approach to Noah's curse of Ham is to look for its historic fulfillment. Having decided on this tact, one need not read far into the Scriptural narrative before encountering a very clear bias in favor of the descendents of Shem. Even within the Ham story itself Canaan is identified as the primary son of Ham and is in fact named in the curse in the place of his father. Thus specifically Canaan and his descendents are those cursed and to be subject to Shem and Japheth. It is from the descendents of this Canaan that the same name is applied to the land which God promises Abram (a descendent of Shem we are specifically informed). And it is also the descendents of this Canaan whom Joshua is informed to fight against and terminate, but as Scripture indicates, were in many cases enslaved by the Israelites. In fact if one stands back to gaze upon the Old Testament as a whole, it becomes quite visible that it is in fact a story regarding the struggles among the descendents of Shem, Ham and Japheth, the last of whom's descendent, we are told, were "people of the north" who gave rise to, among others, the Assyrians, the Medes and the Persians, the Romans, and the Greeks, each of which greatly extended its territory and eventually ruled the Palestinian region, subjugating not only the descendents of Ham, but also clearly occupying Shem's dwelling place. (see Gen 9:27). To look beyond this obvious fulfillment of Noah's curse in the biblical narrative of the Old Testament and seek rather to claim its relevance to various epochs of institutionalized slavery or racial discrimination is to employ a hermeneutic which relies much more heavily on subjective commentary than upon the text.

But if the text of Scripture has anything to say directly regarding the extent of Ham's curse it must be found in Jeremiah 31. For here a "new covenant" is announced whose nature will differ from previous covenants. For in previous covenants God punished sin to the third or fourth generation, but in the new covenant each man would be judged according to his own conscience. No longer would the sin of the father result in the punishment of the children. It is generally held by Christians that the new covenant which Jeremiah announced is in fact the "new covenant" which Christ initiated.

Although we have shown that Ham's curse is not a divine curse and thus should not even be granted the priority of possibly obtaining such universal ramifications, the Jeremiah text should put to rest any notion that God is somehow still operant through Noah's statements such that the Ham story continues to have explanatory relevance. For to insinuate otherwise is to suggest that the Ham curse constitutes one major though unannounced exception to Jeremiah's new covenant, a position we leave to those who wish to take it up.

The second issue which this account raises, which we have deemed anthropological, involves the question of how it is reasonably possible to hold notions of God, Christ and salvation in the one hand while aggressively promoting and practicing oppression with the other. This duality seems unjustifiable and unimaginable if in fact the Gospel of Christ is reflected upon. For although the story of Noah may allow us to entertain ideas about slavery, it is inevitably the Gospel of Jesus with which we must reckon in these matters. And yet it is precisely this duality which inherit as soon as we claim to be a Christian in the classic Western tradition.

What then shall we do? Shall we cast of our tradition? You could not if you tried. Shall we warn others to flee from their admiration of the grandeur of the Western Christian tradition? We would, on good grounds, suggest not. In light of the knowledge from whence we come, we may only hope to gain the insight into our tradition which millions outside have gained through terrible means. We may hope to gain an appreciation for those who sincerely decry the devastation wrought and defended in the name of a Christ who shed his own blood for the masses which the Church has gainfully oppressed. We may hope to realize that culture, technology, and power do not easily lend themselves to the fulfillment of the Great Commission to go into all the world, preaching, baptizing and teaching what Christ himself taught.

This paper has attempted three things, namely to provide an objective though limited account of the relation between slavery and Western theology, to enforce the distinction between Scriptural theology and those contextual elements which may reside in theological formulations, and to provide a case study of this distinction through a treatment and analysis of the Ham story. All that is left undone is for the reader to apply his or her own prescriptive hermeneutic to the historical narrative presented here and arrive at an application which accords with principles of Christian practice.



[1] For a vivid example one might easily look to John's choice of the philosophically and theologically loaded term "Logos" to describe Christ's relation to the Father. This choice is quite commonly held to be due to the popular (and likely gnostic) religious milieu of John's time.

[2] Gaudium et spes, paras. 27,29.

[3] This statement neither negates the contrary actions and efforts by Catholic Theologians against such policy nor exempts "Protestant" traditions from agreement with notions of slavery.

[4] Canon 3. C.J.C. Decriti Gratiani,11, C.XVII, Q.IV, c.37.

[5] In his discussion on slavery in Ephesians, Paul clearly intends the latter notion among all relations in the Church, including not only slave to master, but also master to slave (6:9), child to parent (6:1-3), father to child (6:4), wives to husband (5:22-24) and husbands to wives (5:25-33). Paul introduces this section with the community-wide exhortation to "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (5:21).

[6] Enarratio in Ps.CXXIV, n.7.Migne Patr. Lat. 37, 1653_4; Enarratio Ps.XCIX, n.7. MPL 37, 1275.

[7] The name "Ambrosiaster" is that given to the author of a commentary on all the Epistles of the Apostle Paul. It is usually published among the works of St. Ambrose, to whom it was mistakenly attributed throughout the Middle Ages. The first doubts regarding the authorship of these works were raised by Erasmus in the sixteenth century. Since that time the author has been known as Ambrosiaster or Pseudo- Ambrosius. Though the identity of the author remains undetermined, evidence points to a date of writing in the late fourth century AD. See also: Souter, "A study of Ambrosiaster" (Cambridge University Press, 1905); Bardenhewer, Patrologie (Freiburg, 1901), 382, 387; Nirschl, Patrologie (Mainz, 1883), II.

[8] Commentary on Colossians (IV 1). MPL 17, 439.

[9] Quaestiones in Heptateuchum, L.1, c.153, MPL 34, 589-590.

[10] City of God (De Civitate Dei), XIX, 15. Augustine writes: " The prime cause, then, of slavery is sin, which brings man under the dominion of his fellow -- that which does not happen save by the judgment of God, with whom is no unrighteousness, and who knows how to award fit punishments to every variety of offence… Moreover, when men are subjected to one another in a peaceful order, the lowly position does as much good to the servant as the proud position does harm to the master. But by nature, as God first created us, no one is the slave either of man or of sin. This servitude is, however, penal, and is appointed by that law which enjoins the preservation of the natural order and forbids its disturbance; for if nothing had been done in violation of that law, there would have been nothing to restrain by penal servitude."

[11] Expositio in librum B. Job. L.XXI, c.15, MPL 76, 203-4. Q. Maxwell, John Francis, Slavery and the Catholic Church, (London, Barry Rose Publ. 1975) 36.

[12] This paper understands "racism" in terms of the following definition: "Racism is any set of beliefs that organic, genetically transmitted differences, (whether real or imagined) between human groups are intrinsically associated with the presence or the absence of certain socially relevant abilities or characteristics, hence that such differences are a legitimate basis of invidious distinction between groups socially defined as races." Taken from Pierre L. Van den Berghe's "Race and Racism: A Comparative Perspective" (New York, 1967) 11.

[13] Sententiae, L.111, c.47, MPL 83, 717.

[14] Canon 104, Mansi, Collect. Concil. 14, 212.

[15] See Maxwell, 46-7.

[16] Reynaldus, XXIX, 94, n.65.

[17] Bulls Eximiae Devotionis and Inter Caetera. May 3,1493.

[18] Davis, David B. The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (New York: Cornell Univ. Press, 1966) 9.

[19] Errand into the Wilderness (New York: Harper, 1956) 100_115; Q. in Peterson, Thomas V. Ham and Japheth: The Mythic World of Whites in the Antebellum South (London: Scarecrow Press, 1978) 13.

[20] Clebsch, Wm. A. From Sacred to Profane America (New York: Harper & Row, 1968) 47; Q. in Peterson, 14.

[21] "Hammond's Letters on Slavery," The Proslavery Argument, 117; Q. in Peterson, 15.

[22] Ibid., 117.

[23] Dabney, quoted in Peterson, 21.

[24] A polygenist theory is any theory espousing multiple (poly) origins (genesis) of the "races". Most common is the quasi-religious view that certain species of men were spawned through Eve's intercourse with the Serpent. (One may recall recent media reports in which racist propoganda referred to people of color as "mud people") Since such offspring would not formally be defined as human (if we take Adam as the father of humanity), they would by default be outside the scope of God's salvation plan for his chosen people. According to certain polygenistic theories, not only would Africans constitutue a race of subhumans, but would also thus fall outside the sphere of human social ethical responsibility and thus may, like an animal, be possessed and used at will by the owner.

[25] Attempts to relate certain spiritual sins to physical and social differences certainly precedes the Antebellum practice, as is clear from an old Jewish legend speculating on the cause of the African physical features: "The descendants of Ham... Have red eyes, because Ham looked upon the nakedness of his father; they have misshapen lips, because Ham spoke with his lips to his brothers about the unseemly condition of his father; they have twisted curly hair, because Ham turned and twisted his head round to see the nakedness of his father; And they go about naked, because Ham did not cover the nakedness of his father." Q. in Ginzberg, Louis The Legends of the Jews, 7 vols. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publ. Society, 1909_38) 1, 168-9.

[26] Slavery, 15, 27-8.

[27] Though our analysis seems to suggest that such racism derives solely in an overemphasis of ethnic differences in light of the Ham story, what may also possibly be at work here, as Peterson suggests, is an adherence to polygenist sentiments wrapped in the garb of the Ham story. For although the southerner seemed slow to compromise Scripture as a reliable standard, it is very clear that he also quickly and enthusiastically engaged in theorizing on the "obvious deficiencies" of the African.

[28] Cobb, Thomas R.R. An Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery_in the United States of America. To Which is Prefixed an Historical Sketch of Slavery. 1858; (rpt.New York: Negro Univ. 1968) clvi-civii.

[29] Here we will not raise the issue of whether or not there are any such universal principles to be found in narrative, nor whether or not such universal principles, if present, present themselves clearly to reason or whether they remain obscure until skillfully discerned.

Other works

Anstey, Roger The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition 1760-1810, (New Jersey: Humanities Press,1975)

Cohen, William B. The French Encounter with Africans: White Response to Blacks, 1530_1880 (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1980)

Davidson, Basil The African Slave Trade (Boston: Little,Brown and Co., 1980)

Davis, David Brion The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (New York: Cornell Univ. Press, 1966)

_ _ _ _ _ __ The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution 1770_1823, (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1975)

Gossett, Thomas F. Race: The History of an Idea in America (Dallas: Southern Methodist Univ. Press, 1975)

Maxwell, John Francis Slavery and the Catholic Church: The History of Catholic Teaching concerning the Moral Legitimacy of the Institution of Slavery (Chichester: Barry Rose Publ., 1975)

Peterson, Thomas Virgil Ham and Japheth: The Mythic World of Whites in the Antebellum South (New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1978)

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