Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
A reader writes:
One of my atheist/anti-Church friends posted a sign by American Atheists quoting Colossians 3:22 (Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in singleness of heart, fearing the Lord.”) (Funny how they always jump on the controversial stuff but never quote “Love your enemy as yourself”). This prompted a Google search on my part to try and find a suitable explanation of this and other references to slavery in the New Testament that would not make the Church look awful, but I couldn’t find anything really very helpful. What are your thoughts?
I think that atheists like your friend really need to break free of fundamentalist magical thinking and learn to read books written by and for grownups.
It’s curious to me that so many atheists simultaneously deny the existence of God and insist that believers have to learn to live in the real world—and then complain that he does not do magical things. One of the things grownups understand is that things like the epistle to the Colossians were not written by a wizard who could wave a wand and eradicate an institution that had existed absolutely everywhere the fallen human lived since the dawn of time. He was the messenger of a small, harrassed religious sect which possessed absolutely no political power in either the Roman empire to which he went, nor in the tiny Jewish country from which he hailed. His mission was not to be a second Spartacus, but to announce the death and resurrection of the Son of God. Much as normal people have always done, he worked within the granite “givens” of his culture. So just as nobody holds it against, say, President Obama because he neither claims to be able to eradicate all war from the human condition forever (and would, indeed, regard him as a utopian loon if he did make such a claim), so neither Paul nor his audience had in view some proposal for eradicating the immemorial institution of slavery. He was not a political reformer. And even if he had been, such reforms would not be possible for centuries. Holding Paul’s attitude toward slavery as one of the “givens” of the culture in which he was obliged to work as though it were some sort of crime on his part is like complaining that Gandhi “refused” to end all war on planet earth. It’s a childish complaint.
Not that Paul was not hostile to slavery. People who read the Bible looking for more than Selected Ammunition Verses, would realize that contained within the New Testament is, ultimately, the only thing that succeeded in finally extirpating slavery: namely, the insistence that man is made in the image and likeness of God and that Christ loves the slave as much as the master. The mystical dogma of human equality in the eye’s of God (and that is what it is, not an empirical observation based on reason) is the only thing that has ever succeeded in killing the dragon of slavery. Of course, the New Atheists are stone blind to this in their deep ignorance and arrogance and so fail to realize that the first result of extirpating Christianity is the return of slavery: a practice which goes on unabated outside of all the spheres of the world untouched by the Christian tradition and soon to return to the West if the New Atheists succeed in suppressing the Christian tradition. Suggested reading for your friend: the epistle to Philemon, with its heavy hint to Philemon that his runaway slave Onesimus not only be welcomed back, but freed. Tradition says that the ex-slave not only was freed, but went on to become a bishop.