In fact, all known societies above the very primitive level have been slave societies—even many of the Northwest American Indian tribes had slaves long before Columbus’s voyage. Amid this universal slavery, only one civilization ever rejected human bondage: Christendom. And it did it twice!
― Rodney Stark,
The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion
I came across the writings of René Girard, a French philosopher and anthropologist whose brilliant career culminated in a position at Stanford University. Girard became fascinated with the fact that in modern times a “marginalized” person assumes a moral authority . . . Girard noted that a cavalcade of liberation movements—abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement, animal rights, gay rights, women’s rights, minority rights, human rights—had gathered speed in the 20th century.
The trend mystified Girard because he found nothing comparable in his reading of ancient literature. Victors, not the marginalized, wrote history, and the myths from Babylon, Greece, and elsewhere celebrated strong heroes, not pitiable victims. In his further research, Girard traced the phenomenon back to the historical figure of Jesus. It struck Girard that Jesus’ story cuts against the grain of every heroic story from its time. Indeed, Jesus chose poverty and disgrace, spent his infancy as a refugee, lived in a minority race under a harsh regime, and died as a prisoner. From the very beginning Jesus took the side of the underdog: the poor, the oppressed, the sick, the “marginalized.” His crucifixion, Girard concluded, introduced a new plot to history: the victim becomes the hero by being a victim. To the consternation of his secular colleagues, Girard converted to Christianity.
When Jesus died as an innocent victim, it introduced what one of Girard’s disciples has called “the most sweeping historical revolution in the world, namely, the emergence of an empathy for victims.” Today the victim occupies the moral high ground everywhere in the Western world: consider how the media portray the plight of AIDS orphans in Africa or Tibetan refugees or uprooted Palestinians. Girard contends that Jesus’ life and death brought forth a new stream in history, one that undermines injustice. It may take centuries for that stream to erode a hard bank of oppression, as it did with slavery, but the stream of liberation flows on.
Sometimes Jesus followers join the stream, and sometimes they stand on the bank and watch. Yet over time the gospel works its liberating effect. (You can see the contrast clearly in societies that have experienced little Christian influence.) Women, minorities, the disabled, human rights activists—all these draw their moral force from the power of the gospel unleashed at the cross, when God took the side of the victim. In a great irony, the “politically correct” movement defending these rights often positions itself as an enemy of Christianity, when in fact the gospel has contributed the very underpinnings that make possible such a movement. And those who condemn the church for its episodes of violence, slavery, sexism, and racism do so by gospel principles. The gospel continues to leaven a culture even when the church takes the wrong side on an issue.
What Good is God
[T]he defender of sexual freedom sees a parallel between what is seen as anti-gay prejudice today and racial prejudice as it was practiced at its lowest point decades ago. Here, a word game has entered the vocabulary. Relativist convictions are supposedly prejudice-free, while absolute convictions are branded as phobias. Any stigma can lick a good dogma, it is said. With that verbal deconstruction of a worldview, all questioning of sexual freedom is castigated as a phobia. Quite amazing that atheists are not called “theophobes” or that those against Christians are not called “christophobes.” Pejoratively, the counter positions have been appended with phobias till we may have a whole new polyphobic dictionary.
But that is the lesser problem. I contend that equating race with sexuality is actually a false premise and an unfortunate analogy. In the matter of race it simply doesn’t matter how I feel about it; my ethnicity transcends my preferences or inclinations… Why is this analogy unfortunate? Because it moves the debate from what is right to what are one’s rights. Ironically, the political party now most aligned with arguing for rights was once the same party that argued against the emancipation of slaves because of the slave-owners’ “rights.” In that case, those rights were overruled by what was right. Interesting that a new word wasn’t coined then to describe those who made moral arguments against the slave-owners’ rights as “slaveophobes.” Thankfully, essential human worth and moral reason trumped existential and pragmatic preferences and by God’s grace, what was right was deemed to be right and the slave was freed.