The Jubilee Year and Abolitionism

On Gary North’s article The Jubilee Year and Abolitionism

Jesus Christ was an abolitionist, for He was the incarnation of the jubilee year principle, but He did not propose an overnight program of manumission or abolition to His people in the first century, or for seventeen centuries thereafter. That task had to wait until the advent of the modern world — specifically, until the Industrial Revolution made possible new sources of economic productivity that dwarfed anything that the old slave and serf systems could produce. This does not mean, however, that the Industrial Revolution as such led inevitably to the abolition of slavery. Historical causation is more complex than mere economic determinism or “mere” anything else. Nevertheless, it was in non-slave cultures that the new industrialism flourished. For the first time in history, exponential growth became a fixture in society, and a new era dawned. Men were ripe for radical changes as never before, especially changes in law and philosophy.

Positive Feedback in History

Christianity is a force for total transformation, even of the cosmos (Rom. 8:18-22). Nevertheless, it is not self-consciously revolutionary. It does not seek to overthrow civil governments by force. There is a system of positive feedback between new ideas and social change, but when the whole of a civilization refuses to consider a new idea, God is content to let the members of that civilization suffer the consequences. When a Bible-based group at last began challenging slavery in the late eighteenth century, God made possible the extension of abolition into society at large. His means of change was the advent of industrial capitalism, which opened the labor markets to price competition and widespread mobility. Slavery became an economic anachronism in the minds of the majority of those who believe in the rhetoric of the free market. A few diehards held out in the American South, but they could not resist the floodgates of history.

Does this mean that God works through history, bringing theological anomalies to light, pressuring His people through historical forces to rethink their theological presuppositions? Quite clearly, He does exactly this. There is no better proof of this than the history of slavery. Lifetime chattel slavery was wrong in principle from the start of Christ’s earthly ministry (Luke 4), but it was not so great an evil that God felt compelled to reveal to the New Testament authors that they should stand against it publicly, making it a major dividing line between Christians and non-Christians. Slavery was not among the adiophora — things of no importance — but it was not a major ethical issue, either. It was like representative constitutional government: implicit in the principles of biblical self-government, but not of pressing importance.

That Paul did not write his epistle to Philemon in order to condemn chattel slavery should be no more surprising to modern readers than the fact that he did not write Romans 13 in order to promote parliamentary democracy. What should also not surprise us is that privately owned chattel slaves are today a thing of the past, as are kings. There are but five kings left in the world today, said deposed Egyptian “King” Farouk: the king of England, and the kings of spades, hearts, clubs, and diamonds. That would not have been a believable possibility for most Europeans in A.D. 1900. By 1918, it was an inescapable reality. For the first time in three millennia, we no longer hear the cries of God’s people: “We will have a king over us, that we may be like all the nations” (I Sam. 8:19-20a).

I understand and respect North’s shift of emphasis regarding the Industrial Revolution, to support Deirdre McCloskey’s focus on the Calvinist-driven respect for wealth generation and respect for property. I even respect his view of slavery as a secondary matter so far as history is concerned, compared to salvation and the rule of law.

(No doubt, numerous Black Americans will cry out about this… but the Black Africans, the brothers who sold them to slavery over the seas, will be mysteriously silent…)

But I still like the idea of the Christian West finally abolishing slavery… and so getting a leg up on the Industrial Revolution, and some serious wealth generation.

And the converse: gaining a huge evolutionary-driven racial superiority complex… and so leading to immensely destructive European wars, family breakdown, and widespread sterility.

None of which would have happen, I suggest, if this atheistic nonsense about the Race and the Deified State was avoided.


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