Sundays With The Christianists: Mark Twain Was Really Unfair To Slavery In 'Huckleberry Finn'
We'll give Colorado radio preacher and homeschooling maven Kevin Swanson some credit: the guy has Big Ideas, and in his ebook Apostate: The Men Who Destroyed the Christian West, he's not afraid to make bold claims. His goal, after all, is to prove that Western civilization has been in decline ever since Thomas Aquinas started letting pagan Aristotelian logic into his theology, and that virtually every aspect of what people think of as our culture is really an attack on the Bible, which is our real culture. So maybe it's no surprise that when it comes to slavery, the central sin of American history, Swanson explains that the worst thing about it was that America didn't do slavery in the way the Bible intended.
As we noted last week, Swanson embeds his thoughts on slavery in a chapter on the pernicious influence of Mark Twain. Huckleberry Finn, Swanson insists, is an evil book because it portrays Southern Christians as supporters of slavery, and presents Huck as a wise naïf who boldly breaks from the warped Christianity of his upbringing, becomes a humanist, and liberates Jim from slavery.
But wait, says Swanson: What if Twain's attack on Christian support for slavery is mistaken? After all, as we saw last week, 19th-Century progressives like Twain "won the propaganda war" that followed the victory of the "Northern Unitarians" over "Southern Presbyterians and Baptists" in the Civil War, and skewed the way that Americans have thought about Christianity and slavery ever since. So Swanson carefully explains what the Bible really says about slavery, and why Twain got it all wrong.
We want to be clear from the outset that Swanson is not defending American slavery -- he's not some neo-Confederate claiming that it was a benign system whose abuses have been exaggerated by Yankee liberals. Kevin Swanson's goal is far grander: he's defending Christianity itself from humanists like Twain who condemn the Bible's support of slavery. The historical crime of American slavery is almost secondary to Swanson -- he just wants to make sure that Christianity and the Bible are held blameless (along the way, he does end up downplaying the horrors of slavery, as we'll see). He at least recognizes that it's a serious problem for defenders of the faith:
The issue of slavery deserves a clear response from biblical Christians, especially since opponents to the faith still argue that the Bible is pro-slavery and therefore fundamentally flawed. Regardless of nationality, skin color, or denominational background, Bible-believing Christians ought not be ashamed of the Scriptures. They should be able to address this argument that has been used so effectively to dismantle the Christian faith in this country.
Happily, Swanson has the answer: You can't blame Christianity for American slavery, because the American system of chattel slavery actually violated the Bible's rules for how slavery should work. If anything, says Swanson, slavery just proves how badly America had already fallen from following biblical precepts, and is just more evidence of our apostasy. Twain errs, says Swanson, in not recognizing "that Southern slavery was born out of the English and Spanish apostasy."
As proof, Swanson says the Bible actually condemns slavery as it was practiced in America:
Kidnapping and enslaving another person is a capital crime in the Bible.
“And he that steals a man, and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death” (Exod. 21: 16).
This would have been enough to condemn the slave trade that ravaged Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Now, sure, there is slavery in the Bible, but it's a very special kind of slavery that was unlike the kind practiced in America:
Sometimes, a nation may punish criminals (either those who violate the laws of the land or those who invade the country) by imposed slave labor. Even this form of slavery was subject to regulation by Old Testament law (Exod. 21: 2-4).
What's really stunning is what comes next: Swanson then suggests that if only we'd institute a biblical system of bondage as punishment for crime, we'd be much better off than we are with today's criminal justice system:
This may come across as repulsive to the humanist, who has been carefully indoctrinated in the hopelessly defective ethical approach taken by the 19th century progressives and social gospel do-gooders . After their brave new experiment with humanist solutions, we can see the chaos that has ensued. The massive prison systems they have erected are not biblical, and their solutions have proven to be even more restrictive, cruel, and costly than slavery. They fragment the family, saddle the taxpayer with exorbitant costs, and associate criminals with other criminals in an unhealthy community. Biblical Christians must oppose these humanist systems of civil punishment on the basis of God’s laws.
You thought you were going to see an attack on slavery? Forget it: the real abomination is that we're not sentencing criminals to terms of involuntary servitude instead of prison. Almost as an afterthought, Swanson adds, without elaboration, "Additionally, a fairly high percentage of those incarcerated are doing time for crimes that do not meet the biblical definition of crimes (although they probably meet the biblical definition of a sin)."
We can hardly wait for Kevin Swanson to write a book on prison reform. And just think of the MSNBC weekend programming!
We'll at least give Swanson partial credit for calling attention to racial disparities in incarceration, noting that "the incarceration rate for black men is seven times that of the rest of the population." He even very charitably rejects the notion that "criminal tendencies are determined by skin color," because "there are plenty of examples of Africans living in other time periods and other places which would never substantiate this." Isn't he nice? Swanson fails to mention that blacks are also far more likely to get harsher sentences than whites for similar crimes, because his goal isn't really to address race at all: his goal is to prove that the real form of slavery in America is Big Government, which is a totally new and creative idea that we've never seen before:
While men are responsible for the sins they commit, much of the crime in America is a product of social planning , education, welfare programs, culture, churches, politics, and economics. These are consequences of the humanist, socialist experiment of the last 150 years.
Getting back to the Bible's version of slavery, Swanson notes that while the Good Book
stands opposed to slavery in the same way that it opposes divorce and debt ... Scripture is realistic. The life of slavery, debt, and divorce may be counter to God’s design, but these things are inevitable in a sinful world.
Also, he notes, since sin and slavery are part of a fallen world, there's no point in trying to achieve a utopia "by burning down banks, creating revolution, and refusing to pay off our loans. Paul does not advocate slave rebellions in 1 Corinthians 7: 21-23." You gotta have order. Besides, real freedom comes not from rebellion, but from submission to Christ, after which you can also be free from physical slavery:
If one is called as a servant, Paul says he should be content in that state. However, if the opportunity for freedom presents itself, he should “use it rather.” This applies to freedom from big government tyranny, debt, and any other forms of unnecessary servitude [...]
Paul concludes with, “You are bought with a price, be not the servant of men.” Evidently, Christ’s blood pays for more than just the release from the bondage of sin and death. He delivers us from bondage to local fiefdoms and tyrannical governments as well. This is because slavery is a consequence of sin. America’s founders understood this lesson well when men like Benjamin Franklin or William Penn would write, “Men who will not rule themselves will be ruled by tyrants.” Without personal morality and self-government, men will always revert to some measure of servitude. If men and women will be delivered from sin, tyrannical inclinations, and failure to self-govern, this can only happen by the salvation provided in Jesus Christ.
Ah, but the problem of slavery is actually much greater than mere physical bondage: We are actually all slaves right now, says Swanson, who is not downplaying slavery one bit by extending it into a metaphor for Big Government:
The kind of slavery we experience today is much larger in sheer numbers than that which Mark Twain accused the Southern churches of promoting. Throughout history, we have seen human society moving from decentralized fiefdoms (as in the slave plantations of the South) to large, centralized tyrannies. Governments control over 50% of the Gross National Income in most modern nations today, which means that most people have far less freedom now than they did in previous centuries.
See? Slavery! Oh, but it gets worse, friends:
As of the beginning of the 21st century, the majority of Americans receive aid from the government in the form of welfare or social security. As humbling as it may be to admit, those on welfare are hardly different from the slaves on the plantations in the 18th and 19th centuries. Their needs are supplied by faceless masters, and their minds are manipulated and formed by government-funded education. Sometimes they are forced to work, but often they try to avoid work. After several generations of this chattel slavery, the family is decimated, and record numbers are confined to another “plantation” called prisons.
These are the sad results of Mark Twain’s glorious humanist vision.
Yep, you heard it here first: Mark Twain: Father of the welfare state and the school-to-prison pipeline. Both of which are exactly like slavery, but worse, because we don't even recognize we're enslaved.
Just in case anyone notices that he's actually stopped talking about slavery as practiced in the American South, Swanson does at least return to the theme, noting a couple of other ways that the American version got it all wrong. For one thing, the biblical concept of a "jubilee year" -- in which every 50 years, debts are forgiven and slaves are freed -- means that "permanent slavery is unacceptable for any Christian society," and that Christians are likewise obliged to "seekmore freedom from governments, from banks, from corporations, and from bond-slavery to fiefdoms." He is careful to remind us, however, that this "cannot happen by revolution," but only through "regeneration of the hearts and lives of the masters and servants that hear the Word of God and the Resurrection message of Christ."
Also, too, says Swanson, there was one last perversion of Biblical law in American slavery: it didn't recognize slave marriages, which undermined the stability of the family. Now, you might think this was a terrible thing in itself because it led to families being torn apart when slaves were sold, but it's actually much worse than that: it undermined the authority of black men as the heads of their families, and everyone knows that men have to run families or they aren't even real families. As an example, Swanson notes, "the enslaved man could not pursue charges if somebody committed adultery with his wife," which is the closest Swanson comes to acknowledging that masters routinely raped their slaves. And why was that bad? Because it left the poor slave husband with no legal recourse for the harm done to him! No mention of the rape of unmarried slave women, because why would Swanson even notice them?
And when slave families were broken up by masters, "the child custody would always fall with the mother," creating unstable female-headed families. Here again, Swanson is quick to shift his discussion to today, which is just as bad, if not worse:
Sadly, the same violations of God’s law continue in our day unabated. Humanist slave-based systems in the form of prisons and welfare programs still divide up families and unravel the social unit. Both prisons and welfare systems are to blame for the ongoing disruption of families in America (to include African-Americans).
And now you know why Mark Twain's condemnation of Christian support for slavery was so very misguided: "Mark Twain used slavery as a ruse to undermine the Christian faith, refusing to condemn the Southern form of slavery by biblical law."
It seems pretty churlish of Mark Twain to have had his priorities all screwed up like that, doesn't it?
Next Week: More on why Huckleberry Finn is a terrible book that destroyed America.