John Locke Treats the Bible as an Authority on Slavery

John Locke insists in section 24 of his 2d Treatise on Government: “On Civil Government” (in Chapter IV "Of Slavery") that true slavery is a state of war against the slave. But in doing so, he insists that much of historical slavery was not true slavery, because there were limits on what a master could do to a slave:

This is the perfect condition of slavery, which is nothing else, but the state of war continued, between a lawful conqueror and a captive: for, if once compact enter between them, and make an agreement for a limited power on the one side, and obedience on the other, the state of war and slavery ceases, as long as the compact endures: for, as has been said, no man can, by agreement, pass over to another that which he hath not in himself, a power over his own life.

I confess we find among the Jews, as well as other nations, that men did sell themselves; but it is plain, this was only to drudgery, not to slavery: for, it is evident, the person sold was not under an absolute, arbitrary, despotical power: for the master could not have power to kill him, at any time, whom, at a certain time, he was obliged to let go free out of his service; and the master of such a servant was so far from having an arbitrary power over his life, that he could not, at pleasure, so much as maim him, but the loss of an eye, or tooth, set him free, Exod. xxi.

To modern sensibilities, the limitations set out in the passage Exodus 21: 26,27 that John Locke alludes to leave it a horribly reprehensible form of bondage:

“An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye. And an owner who knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave must let the slave go free to compensate for the tooth.

In the images at the top, you can see other passages in which the Bible gives some relatively unrestrictive regulations on slave-holding and slave-buying and selling into slavery, and tells those in bondage to accept their status. There are many other images about slavery in the Bible that I could have chosen from:

Some of the results from googling "slavery in the Bible," images

Some of the results from googling "slavery in the Bible," images

There are several remarkable things about 21st century Western culture's relationship to slavery in the Bible:

  1. Even most of those who consider themselves Biblical literalists have managed to reject or interpret their way out of the Bible's seeming endorsement of slavery. This is a wonderful thing.
  2. In the aggregate, every day a large number of people read or listen to Bible stories involving slavery without recoiling at the slavery, and often even unconsciously seeing the slavery with a rosy glow given the narratively declared goodness and righteousness of the slave-holder in the story.
  3. The putative author of the Bible has by and large escaped the majority cultural opprobrium that has fallen on other cultural heroes—such as many of the framers of the US Constitution—for insufficient opposition to slavery. Instead, much greater opposition to slavery has been read back into the views of the God of the Bible than He clearly expressed. To the extent this is a prerequisite in many cases for rejecting the Bible's seeming endorsement of slavery, this is a very good thing. But it is unclear that it is historically accurate. To make the case that the God of the Bible was against slavery all along, one needs to argue that He chose to speak subtly against slavery, while speaking with a voice of thunder against other sins. This seems an odd prioritization for speaking against sins. 

Let me compare the lack of condemnation of slavery in the Bible to something within my own lifetime of much smaller consequence. From the time of Brigham Young until 1978, the Mormon Church did not allow those of black African descent to be priests or to receive important rites in Mormon temples. I wrote about this in "Flexible Dogmatism: The Mormon Position on Infallibility" and about a related issue in "Will Women Ever Get the Mormon Priesthood? Speaking as a nonsupernaturalist, I have wondered why the Mormon Church did not change this policy sooner. There is a complex and detailed history, but I think it has something to do with the Mormon Church being governed in modern times by relatively old leaders.

Being governed by old leaders is likely to be a plus when the general culture moves in a bad direction; old leaders with a long life of experiences are better able to resist bad innovations. I view the greater cultural acceptance of casual sex as such a bad innovation. And Mormonism has had a salutary influence on its adherents in resisting the casual acceptance of casual sex. But when the general culture moves in a good direction, as it did in embracing the full equality of people of all races, old leaders may be more apt to fear change and resist a genuine cultural advance. 

How is it possible to get the good effects of the accumulated wisdom of age without the bad effects of the rigidity and risk aversion that sometimes come with age? A good answer could help avoid many tragedies. Perhaps the best we can do is to try to have a very long, honest, argument among those of all ages and beliefs that gives those who are in the right the chance to convince those who are in the wrong. I am honored to have friends with whom I can have such long, honest arguments, at least on lesser topics, and occasionally on topics of great moment. I hope we all nurture the capacity for such extended, heartfelt arguments with those who have dramatically different views than our own.  

Don't miss other John Locke posts. Links at "John Locke's State of Nature and State of War."