Saturday, June 19, 2021

How Could They?

Have not other nations found great benefit from the use of slaves in repairing high roads, making rivers navigable, draining bogs, and erecting public buildings, bridges, and manufactures?

— George Berkeley

Happy J

What better day than today to ask, how could White Christians have enslaved Blacks and still believe they were practicing Christians?

I think it's smart to look for answers in the writings of the most thoughtful Christians of the period.

One was the Irish philosopher George Berkeley.

A brilliant and outspoken Anglican bishop (and a slave-owner, as well), Berkeley shared the belief with many of his White contemporaries that obedience to God demanded you support slavery, because it was good for the slaves.

Berkeley was as conservative as they come, and not much different from today's conservatives in believing some people are bums

Skin color didn't much matter to Berkeley: bums in the 18th century were all the same. God made them that way.

Berkeley worried a lot about poverty and unrest in his native Ireland and in 1735 wrote The Querist, a book in which he asked, who's to blame for the fact that Ireland is poor?

His answer was clear: the bums are to blame.

Bums represented to Berkeley a dissolute, drunken, cynical, lazy and antisocial form of life. 

Forcing bums to participate in infrastructure projects was better than leaving them at liberty to wallow in their own filth. 

Forcing them to work would, in fact, give them dignity and guarantee their personal development.

If compulsory labor made them slaves, so be it. Slaves, as the Bible made clear, are just servants. Turning bums into servants served the public good, stimulated the economy, and was the "best cure for idleness and beggary." Forced labor, in fact, was a bum's way of demonstrating his or her "Christian charity."

Berkeley could justify an institution we find repugnant, because he valued an orderly Christian society—one that curbed some individuals' liberty, when that liberty hampered self-improvement.

We might call it charity under the lash, or self-help at the barrel of a gun. Whatever you call it, you know Berkeley's argument is weird and deeply flawed.

But it sounds hauntingly familiar.
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