We Americans believe that slavery is wrong, and we’re appalled that anyone ever believed otherwise. We’re even inclined to tell ourselves that, if we lived a couple centuries ago, we would have been abolitionists. Yet as historian Jay Case writes, we shouldn’t be so smug:
You and I believe that slavery is wrong, but neither of us came to this conclusion on our own. We did not reach this conviction by wrestling with complicated ethical, economic, political and theological issues. . . . Neither of us have ever been confronted with the reality that we would lose a large proportion of our wealth, should our society decide that slavery were wrong.
Instead, we grew up in a culture where we did not see legalized slavery around us anywhere. We were raised in a society that told us in thousands of ways, explicitly and implicitly, that freedom was good and this system was wrong. We accepted this great truth without thinking about it. It cost us nothing.
He reflects further on the abolition of slavery on his blog.
Historian Chris Gehrz (The Pietist Schoolman) happened to read Case’s post two days before lecturing his Bethel College students on European imperialism and the transatlantic slave trade. Gehrz hopes to teach his students to avoid the “I wouldn’t have [owned slaves, condoned slavery, committed some historical injustice]” temptation,
first, because they don’t understand all the experiences, ideas, and assumptions that shaped those who participated in such systematic injustice; and second, because, if they’re perfectly honest with themselves, they would acknowledge that they — as much as the Spanish of the 16th century or the British of the 18th or any people at any time since the Fall — are tempted by greed, power, and cruelty, or at least prone to ignore the stirrings of their conscience when acting on it would bring risk or inconvenience.
I [also] worry . . . that our students will hear these stories, feel some sadness, but then insulate themselves with thoughts like “But that was the Spanish, and I’m American,” or “They were Catholics, and I’m Protestant,” or “That was five hundred years ago, and this is a new day.” That’s a bit better in the sense that it starts with a recognition of difference . . . but it’s a problem for a history class taught at a Christian college. Like it or not, the story of slavery is part of the story of Christianity — for the most part, the slavers (and a good number of the slaves) share the name of Christ with us. Which should do still more to strip away our own self-righteousness.
A sobering reminder that we, too, are capable of grave injustice, and that we should not assume that our own age is incapable of such sins.