Exploring the links between slavery, sex and scripture

Bernadette Brooten's new book takes on a once-taboo subject

Photo/Mike Lovett

Bernadette Brooten

Much has been written about slavery, but not much has been written about the sexually charged scriptural supports of the “peculiar institution,” as it was once euphemistically called. Throughout history, discussion of the taboo subject of sex with slaves and its echoes through the generations has been off limits.

But, says Professor Bernadette Brooten, if humanity is ever to understand and eliminate the last vestiges of slavery, that painful legacy must be confronted.

Exploring and confronting the biblical roots of sex and slavery is what she is attempting in “Beyond Slavery: Overcoming Its Religious and Sexual Legacies,” a just-published book that she edited as part of the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project. The book brings together essays and poetry by scholars, activists and artists to dig deeply into the roots of slavery and to illuminate ways in which we still live with the fallout.

“We want people to take a hard look at the fact that for most of their history, Jews, Christians and Muslims tolerated slavery,” says Brooten. “It’s codified in the writings.”

“When you take a deep look into ancient history... slavery and chastity rarely co-exist,” Brooten says. “Sexuality and slavery are intertwined from the beginning.”

Brooten is the Robert and Myra Kraft and Jacob Hiatt Professor of Christian Studies, and a professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, Classical Studies, and Religious Studies. She fixes an unblinking eye on a subject that for millennia evoked only whispers but has come increasingly into the public consciousness with new revelations. In the case of a slave named Sally Hemings, DNA testing on her descendants confirmed family lore that she bore multiple children with her master, founding father Thomas Jefferson.

Brooten stresses that she and the other writers of the book “are not arguing that Christians, Jews and Muslims invented slavery. There is no question that it was there before these religions had their scriptures written and codified.” But once slavery was codified in the sacred texts, those texts could be cited as justification for slavery and other social institutions.

Brooten notes that “the subordination of women is certainly in the text; the New Testament says ‘Wives obey your husbands as is fitting in the Lord.’ If you’re going to say that we have to take that literally, then that makes a difference in how you understand marriage.” Scripture that prohibits relations between people of the same sex is often used to condemn homosexuality.

“If we look at some of the ways people in the past have used literal biblical interpretation to justify unjust social institutions, that might caution us today about using literal biblical interpretation,” Brooten says. “Some of those literal methods of interpretation were developed in response to slavery. In order to justify slavery, people said, ‘okay, it says here that Abraham had slaves, therefore we can.’ If you wanted to justify that a social institution was legal, you had to be able to say ‘well the biblical law says it, so our law should say it.’”

But the notion of literal interpretation actually is relatively new.

“Interpreting the Bible literally is a modern method of interpretation,” says Brooten. “In most of history, people interpreted the bible metaphorically, symbolically, allegorically or had different kinds of interpretations. Literal was not the favored method.”

“Beyond Slavery” analyzes how slavery crosses over to other social conceits. “Slavery is not an individual thing,” she says. “It’s a social institution. It’s an economic institution. Marriage is not an individual thing. It’s an economic and social institution.”

In Jewish law, “a man acquires a wife as one might acquire an enslaved laborer,” says Brooten, “The category is the same.” And this theme of ownership extends to Islam, she adds. “A man has authority over his wife, and authority over his enslaved laborers. In other words, there is a conceptual overlap.”

“What we found is that if you start with the moral assumption that it is permissible to own another person’s body, it’s going to affect everything about your life,” Brooten concludes. “It affects the way that married people relate to one another, it affects the way parents relate to their children."

Brooten notes that within the institution of slavery, with few exceptions, it is not illegal to rape an enslaved woman.

“In classical Islamic law, a man is actually explicitly allowed to have sex with his slave women. In the classical Jewish and Christian texts, owners are not explicitly allowed to have sex with their slave women, but neither are there penalties on them for having done so,” she says. “In Christianity we have found some significant early church writers who show that they are aware that Christian men might be having sex with their slave women and they don’t like it and they preach against it.  But when it comes to… Are they going to place a penalty on a man for having done this, they don’t do it.”

In Islam, she notes, a master could have sex with his slave, but if a child resulted the child was free, he was not allowed to sell her, and the mother was freed upon his death.

“I often ask my students to think about which is less bad: To regulate it, to say 'okay it’s allowed,' or to look the other way as the Jewish and Christian leaders did?”

Students from Harvard Law School worked with Brooten to shed light on what was going on. One case they explored involved a slave woman in Missouri named Celia who was forced to have sex with her master on a regular basis.

“She was in a relationship with a fellow enslaved man who said, ‘Look, if you’re in a relationship with me, you can’t sleep with the master any more,’ so there she was with a horrible dilemma,” Brooten says. “When the master came to have sex with her, she killed him. Her defense lawyer said that this is justifiable homicide, that she was defending herself against rape. The court held that the law of rape does not apply to a slave woman.”

“Even today a black rape complainant faces greater hurdles with the criminal justice system then does a white complainant,” says Brooten. “She’s probably more skeptical of the criminal justice system and is less likely to report. If she reports, the prosecutor is less likely to prosecute and if there’s a prosecution, the jury is less likely to convict than if the rape complainant where white.”

This, says Brooten, “points to a broader social understanding of sexuality. It’s very racialized. That one makes certain assumptions about different categories or persons or whether they are consenting, what kind of sex they are having, what their morals are…it’s understandable that they are part of our collective psyche, because we had slavery for so long.”

Some people who see the relationships between scripture and slavery “would say ‘then throw the Bible out,’ but that’s not what we’re arguing at all,” Brooten says.  “Courageous people worked to abolish slavery, may of them religious and many with religious arguments. And I see us as working to complete the work of the abolitionists.”

Proceeds from this book will go to the Mende Nazer Foundation to rebuild a school in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, and to Spelman College in recognition of its contributions to black women's education.

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, Research

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