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Why Not Slavery? And Other Matters

May 1, 2014 Frontpage No Comments

By GEORGE A. KENDALL

Regarding the Pelletier case (see Stephen Krason, “The Justina Pelletier Case and the Abusive Child Protective System,” The Wanderer, April 17, 2014, p. 8B), some are arguing that there must be more to the case than we are hearing, that the authorities in Massachusetts must have information that they are not sharing with us, which, if made public, would justify the apparent atrocity they are committing against Justina and her family.     But if that is the case, it is incumbent on them to make this information public — immediately. As long as they do not, it is legitimate for us to ask: What are they hiding? It reminds me of the way both Presidents Johnson and Nixon used to tell us they had information which showed that they were right in prosecuting the Vietnam War, but of course couldn’t share this information because it was classified, so we just had to trust them.
My guess is that the people at Children’s Hospital, the DCF, and the juvenile court got into this situation thinking they could easily get away with it (given the arrogance so endemic to our elites), and eventually found themselves mired in a situation from which they can’t extricate themselves by just backing off, because 1) governments, being, in their own view, infallible, cannot acknowledge mistakes or wrongdoing, and 2) to do so now would be comparable to letting go of the tiger you’ve got by the tail, with possible serious, consequences, such as civil suits and even criminal prosecution (I do think everyone involved in this should be prosecuted, including the judge).
The rationale for taking Justina away from her parents was that they were the cause of her health problems, so that, once separated from them, she would get better. Instead she’s gotten worse. She is Catholic and is not being allowed to go to Mass, receive the sacraments, or see a priest. This alone is criminal, a classic case of the mentality that says, “We’re the government, and we can do anything we want!” These are the kind of people who tend to believe that Christianity, especially in its Catholic form, is a principal cause of mental illness.
If Justina’s parents are guilty of abuse, why aren’t they being prosecuted? I suspect this is not happening because there is no evidence, and they would be acquitted.
The parents have been accused of verbally abusing the staff at Children’s Hospital. How very shocking! If I were Justina’s father, I would be tempted to do a great deal more than verbally abuse the people who were destroying my child. Any good father would be.

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Why not slavery? If that isn’t a politically incorrect question, nothing is, and yet it makes sense to ask it. Through most of human history, slavery was the default setting when it came to the organization of work — it was just part of the taken-for-granted background of life. Someone a few years back made the claim that the Church had changed her teaching on slavery — that, having at one time taught that it was morally acceptable, indeed, in accord with the natural law, she, in modern times, came to condemn it. That is at most a half-truth. The early Church’s failure to condemn slavery had something to do with the fact that, in the Roman Empire, it was, again, just part of everyone’s world taken for granted. It never really occurred to anyone to start a movement to abolish slavery, especially when such a movement would have had zero chance of success.
The Church had more pressing and immediate problems to deal with. And, of course, Christians were so conscious of having been, on a deep level, set free by the truth of Christ, that the accident of having the status of a slave probably seemed comparatively unimportant. But while many theologians may have held slavery to be acceptable, there was never, to the best of my knowledge, any formal magisterial teaching to that effect. It was just left on the back burner for centuries.
Yet, for Christians, there was always cognitive dissonance about the idea that a creature made in the image and likeness of God could be someone’s property, a feeling that “there is something wrong with this picture.” If I am the image and likeness of God, then I have a certain dignity, a certain inviolability, which makes it inappropriate for me to be treated merely as a means to someone else’s ends. A person has intrinsic goodness and value which cannot be reduced to utility. As the Church came to reflect on this more and more, it became clear that an institution which made the human person a commodity was incompatible with the Christian understanding of the human person. Hence slavery had to go.
While there is universal agreement in the Western world, though not so much so in the Third World (especially where Islam is dominant), that slavery is an evil, yet it is hard to see any logical reason why this view should be upheld by our elites, which are today largely anti-Christian and atheistic. If there is no God, then man is not the image of God, and is not a person with intrinsic dignity and value. In that case, there is no particular reason why people should not be treated as mere things, to be used as tools or owned as property. B.F. Skinner at least saw this clearly in his book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity.
But our elites for the most part still condemn slavery while holding to a worldview which is perfectly compatible with slavery and perhaps even requires it. They are unconsciously still clinging to a Christian principle here, and sooner or later they will realize how incongruous this is, and will begin to say openly that freedom and dignity are, as Skinner taught, remnants of Christian dogma and overdue to be tossed into the dustbin of history. That will clear the way for a return to slavery.
And that is already happening. When wage labor is pretty much how most people earn a living, workers become to some degree the property of their employers. Only look at how our corporations increasingly assert the right to control even the private lives of their employees. Then there are things like embryonic stem-cell research which basically treat the embryo, a human person at an early stage of development, as no more than a commodity.
And of course when we proclaim the acceptability of abortion, we are doing something comparable, because in doing so we implicitly see the unborn child as a piece of property, to be kept or discarded based on utilitarian criteria. Right now, we are still more or less at the stage of seeing the child as the property of the mother, but sooner or later we will come to see it as the property of the state — as in China.
As Christianity erodes, there is less and less reason why anyone should think slavery is a bad thing.

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I’ve been having problems for many years now with the New American Bible, used in the liturgy in America, and its habit of eviscerating the word of God. The latest offense to come to my attention is the passage in Luke 2, where Mary and Joseph find Jesus in the Temple. In the NAB version, Mary says to Jesus: “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” Both the Douay and King James translations render the second part of this passage as: “Thy father and I have sought thee, sorrowing.” The Greek word translated as “sorrowing” is “odynomenoi,” meaning suffering pain, being in agony, grieving, sorrowing. This word packs a much greater emotional wallop than “with great anxiety” suggests, though even “sorrowing” understates it.
Mary and Joseph must have gone through hell during the three days they looked for Jesus. Certainly, they had God’s promise that their Son was to be the Messiah, reigning on the throne of David forever, but then Abraham had God’s promise that a great nation would come from Isaac, but that didn’t prevent him from suffering horribly when told he had to sacrifice him. He didn’t have the certainty that God would give Isaac a last-minute reprieve. God’s ways are mysterious, after all.
Which brings me to the principal point here: When we look at what went on in the lives of the principal actors in the drama of salvation, we tend, in our imaginations, to over-spiritualize things. We imagine people like Joseph and Mary, not as the flesh and blood human beings they surely were, but as just kind of going through the motions of playing their roles, as if they were actors on the stage, knowing full well how the play is going to turn out, hence never disturbed by anything that is happening. But the fact is, they didn’t have that kind of foreknowledge. We tend to read into their lives what we know today long after the fact. But they were always in the midst of the action.
One example here would be St. Joseph’s situation in Matt. 1, when he learned of Mary’s pregnancy. In the history of the Church, there have been many interpretations of his initial decision to divorce Mary quietly rather than submit her to disgrace, maybe even stoning. These often involve the idea that Joseph never doubted Mary for even an instant, perhaps even that he knew already that the pregnancy was miraculous, and perhaps wanted to remove himself from the whole situation because he didn’t see himself as worthy to play a role.
But is there really anything wrong with at least considering the most obvious possibility: that Joseph reacted the way any normal man would react on learning that his fiancée was pregnant, while knowing the he himself was not responsible? Is it really out of the question that Joseph might have wondered if perhaps he was gravely mistaken about Mary?
At the very least, he would have felt hurt and confused. All this was later clarified for Joseph when an angel appeared to him in a dream, but the very fact that he needed this clarifying vision, this revelation, suggests that his initial response was most likely the all too human response of the natural man — because he was, indeed, a flesh and blood man, however holy, not some kind of icon.
Even Jesus, though knowing everything that was to come, nevertheless, having a human nature, experienced the natural human reactions to things. I have heard people say that, during the agony in the garden, Jesus experienced horror over the loss of so many souls in spite of His sacrifice, but did not experience fear of His own suffering and death. He was no coward. But I would suggest that, given that He was true man as well as true God, His human nature would of course recoil at suffering and death, especially violent death. Throughout the Gospels, He gets angry, He grieves over His rejection by those He came to save, and He even weeps.
Jesus was a flesh and blood human being. His life was not some kind of stately procession in which He simply recited his lines from a script that was already written. He genuinely lived it out.
And yet we always find this a little shocking. We still want to imagine the story of salvation as a kind of solemn pageant acted out by robots. When we look at it this way, we can keep the whole thing at a comfortable distance. We get nervous if it starts to seem too vividly real and alive, and we tend to start taking evasive maneuvers. That is why, throughout Christian history, people have looked for ways around the Incarnation. The Arian heresy was one of these, Islam another.
Even Christian piety that formally affirms the Incarnation often tends to put it on the back burner. It seems that there is always, even in the minds of quite devout Christians, a little voice whispering that there is something not quite respectable about God becoming man (I mean, what could He possibly have been thinking about when He did that?).

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(© 2014 George A. Kendall)

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