October 30, 2005

Slaves to an Idea?

An interesting discussion has been talking place over on Brad Drell's blog, concerning the place of slavery in Scripture and church history. I commend it to your attention. Here is my closing comment as of today:

A brief further comment: I certainly see your point about [the curse of Canaan in] Genesis 9 being an etiological myth, i.e., This is why the Canaanites are suitable as slaves. But the generation of such myths is, if I can express this in sociological terms, one way in which a culture justifies its behaviors -- essentially giving itself a kind of "historical mandate" whether as a command from God, or as in this case, an ancient curse from the (second) progenitor of all people.

But let me press the matter a tad further, bringing it to issues of more note (and division) than whether slavery is wrong or not. If Genesis 9 preserves an etiological myth, what about Genesis 2-3? Certainly that is a reading common among OT scholars: we are not reading literal history, but rather a parabolic (I prefer that word to mythic which some folks find upsetting) explanation for "Why things are the way they are." Why do men leave home and set up households with their wives? Why is childbirth such a difficult and painful phenomenon? Why do we die? Why do we experience shame? Why do we have to work so hard? and so on.

The problems we are facing at present in the Anglican Communion, I would humbly suggest, come in part from asking the wrong questions of these parables; or perhaps asking questions they were never intended to address; or accepting them as universal answers to all questions globally, rather than as particular reflections (within particular cultures) on a limited range of concerns as those cultures understood themselves and their world.

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