Author’s Note: I’ve been occupied this summer. I just became aware of the the book “Fifty Shades of Grey.” This post has NOTHING to do with that. The picture is supposed to depict the shock of a Traditionalist or Compassionate when they find out that God is not simply a God who deals in black-and-white choices. I apologize for any misunderstanding.
The Bible is a fascinating Book. On the one hand, it paints a world in striking black and white, good and evil. What is disconcerting is that God sometimes relates to that world in what appears to be shades of grey.
That statement in my previous blog probably raised some eyebrows. The Compassionate crowd prides themselves on being able to see ‘nuances,’ and making fine distinctions, and generally regard the Traditionalists–or anyone else who doesn’t share their absolutist compassionate-ism–as black-and-white thinkers.
Until it comes to one of their hot-button issues. The Old Testament, they continually remind the rest of us, tolerates and even accommodates slavery. The God of the Old Testament also commands the ‘genocide’ of certain groups. And then, there’s the treatment of women. These, to the Compassionates, are unpardonable sins, and one of the clearest indications that the Old Testament is not a revelation of the Divine, but merely the misguided spiritual speculations of primitive intellects.
In their view, God should have abolished slavery, educated the recalcitrant cultures, and proclaimed feminism somewhere just after the Flood. After all, we ‘know’ these are the right way to do things, and any God worthy of the name would act just that way.
Actually, we have a historical experiment much closer in time, which demonstrates just how false these ideas are. In late nineteenth century, European missionaries flocked to Africa to spread the gospel. They took with them their western ideas and values, including ones regarding marriage.
In their zeal to save the poor Africans from their benighted culture, some missionaries declared that a man should have only one wife, and that this standard should be applied retroactively. In other words, they did not simply say, “The marriages we perform will be monogamous.” Instead, they decreed that existing polygamous marriages should be dissolved, and that the man should retain only his first wife.
That’s very much the type of thing the Compassionates would like to see in the Old Testament. Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai, abolishes slavery, insists on monogamy retroactively, both policies to be implemented immediately and without exception.
What happened in Africa is a cautionary tale. The Christian Africans may have understood what was going on, but the rest of their society and culture did not. Their culture did not comprehend the position of a faithful wife who had lost her husband because his religion demanded he get rid of her. An unattached former wife whose husband still lived must be really damaged goods, the non-Christians reasoned. And neither the African Christians nor their European mentors had considered how these former wives would function in the existing culture. For many of these poor women, it was disastrous.
God understands that. He knows that human cultures can only assimilate so much change at a time. If asked to adapt too rapidly, the culture simply breaks down in some way, with terrible consequences for those who are weakest.
The American experience with slavery also demonstrates why God did not simply abolish slavery. At the end of the Civil War, tens of thousands of slaves were free for the first time. But what were they to do? They had been dependent for generations. I’m not suggesting that they should not have been freed. Indeed, they should never have been enslaved.
But that choice was not available. In 1865, the reality was we had tens of thousands of people without a clear cut role in society. What followed was Jim Crow laws, abusive sharecropping arrangements, and racial segregation. In some ways, we are still dealing with this legacy. And this is a society whose founding document declares that all men are created equal.
Ancient societies knew nothing of such an idea. Indeed, they were based upon privileged birth. And there was no opportunity for entrepreneurship in these ancient societies. A freed slave might simply be free to starve.
So at Sinai, God stepped in to make things better. Not perfect, better. Slavery could only be lifelong if the slave desired it. That’s a pretty radical notion in a society that took slavery for granted. Slaves who did not wish to remain in slavery were to be freed after a defined term of service. Once again, radical and previously unheard of. And after Sinai, wives could not simply be dumped outside the conjugal tent like so much trash.
And that’s what we see again and again. God knows that we are dust, that we are weak and cannot cope with radial change. And so, rather than wrenching us from black to white, He moves in shades of grey. He is more concerned with making some actual improvement that endures, rather than making a moral statement that makes him look good, but results in more harm than good for the people affected.