2004: Slavery, Oppression, and Prejudice: Ancient Roots and Modern Implications

Slavery, Oppression, and Prejudice: Ancient Roots and Modern Implications
Thursday, September 30-Saturday, October 2, 2004

Slavery, Oppression, and Prejudice: Ancient Roots and Modern Implications will assemble an interdisciplinary group of scholars for an international conference addressing the nature, origins, and implications of the practice of slavery from antiquity through modernity, with special attention to the wide-ranging moral and theological responses the phenomenon has prompted among Christians.

Slavery-as a means of (dis)ordering economic, political, and social life, and as an instrument of oppression, racism, and prejudice toward the "other" -has been a part of the culture within which the church found itself from the beginning. Through its history, Western Christianity has addressed the subject any way but univocally, sometimes acknowledging the practice without complaint, sometimes rationalizing it on the basis of specious biblical interpretation, and sometimes actively decrying its dehumanizing, morally, and socially destructive consequences. Curiously, the early church took up the ubiquitous practice of slavery and turned it into a metaphor descriptive of both the unredeemed life held hostage to sin and the redeemed life devoted to Christ. In so doing, it theologically re-enacted the central story of the ancient Hebrew people who were led by God through Moses out of a land of oppression and into a promised land. Christians understood that they could serve their Lord (who accepted slave status himself in dying on a cross) in whatever station in life they found themselves. By regarding slaves as "brothers" and therefore equals before the Lord, the writers of the New Testament transformed the meaning of slavery. That the church has so many different biblical, historical, and theological resources for reflecting on slavery, and that the practices of Christians in relation to slavery have ranged so widely, jointly underscore the value of a conference on the proposed subject.

Further, the debilitating effects of slavery in our own recent American past linger on. Regrettably, the church can claim no better than a mixed record regarding slavery, oppression, and prejudice in this context. The institution of slavery varied widely in the Americas, but the United States serves as an example of both changing and conflicting religious assumptions about slavery. Colonial Quakers were the first Christian group in the British American colonies to protest slavery actively, but by the late eighteenth century, other Christian bodies also became vocal antislavery adherents. Influenced by the spiritual egalitarianism of the Bible, as well as by the political ideology of the American Revolution, many Christians joined in a crusade to expunge slaveholding members from their congregations. By the early nineteenth century, however, the antislavery message began to splinter. Northern Christians continued to contest the legitimacy of slavery, but as cotton became entrenched in the South, southern Christians generally silenced their opposition to slavery, and over time turned their argument in a different direction, utilizing religion and the Bible to defend slavery as a positive good. Christianity, then, provided resources for two conflicting positions in America, one that sanctioned and endorsed slavery along biblical lines, and one that condemned slavery as a moral evil. Only civil war would decide the fate of slavery, and then not without a hard and prolonged fight, one in which both sides relied heavily upon religion to legitimize their cause.

The symposium will bring together distinguished plenary speakers, paper-presenting scholars from varied disciplines, parish pastors, seminarians, students, and others, and (with their help) clarify the underlying economic, political, social, and spiritual causes for slavery; understand the deforming effects of slavery on both slave and slaveholder; illuminate the complex history of Christian complicity in and censuring of slavery; examine morally and theologically credible conclusions about the antebellum practice of slavery, the perpetuation of prejudicial and oppressive practices in today's society, and the church's appropriate responses; and explore the merits and limitations of slavery as a metaphor for the life in Christ. It thus will support the aims of the Pruit Memorial Endowment by addressing an issue of perennial and contemporary social significance, by enabling an interdisciplinary group of participants to exemplify the morally bounded nature of Christian scholarly inquiry, and by showing the importance of a Christian scholarly vocation that does not retreat to ivory tower abstruseness, but which contributes to the improvement of public and ecclesial intellectual life.

Plenary Speakers
Keith R. Bradley, Eli J. Shaheen Professor and Chair of Classics, University of Notre Dame.
Allen D. Callahan, Visiting Professor, Harvard Divinity School.
Jennifer A. Glancy, Georg Professor of Religious Studies, Le Moyne college.
Caleb Oladipo, Duke K. McCall Professor of Christian Missions, Baptist Theological Seminary of Richmond.
Albert Raboteau, Henry W. Putnam Professor of Religion at Princeton University.
Ralph Wood, University Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University.