Historians recently discovered that Georgetown University had sold off a number of slaves back in 1838 in order to raise capital needed to insure the school’s survival. This revelation has apparently plunged its present day administrators into paroxysms of guilt-laden remorse and penitential self-flagellation. And while I agree that it is necessary to honestly own up to the events of history, including its more unsavory aspects, too many academic culture warriors of today seem more than willing to dismiss offhand the social context in which those past events occurred.
Today’s historical revisionists seem to expect that what people did in the past ought always to be judged by current-day social and cultural standards. The hypocrisy in this approach lies in the fact that we pretend to remove the speck in our ancestor’s eye while ignoring the beam in our own. Taken in context, the year 1838 was a very difficult period of American history. A major financial panic was in full swing which also happened to threaten the very existence of the new country’s premier Catholic institution of higher learning. Located, as it was, in the South, it would not have been unusual for Georgetown to have acquired a few household slaves. Possibly these were donated by some rich patron or alumnus and, as slaves took money to feed and maintain, these subjected the school to even greater pecuniary pressure. Under such circumstances the disposal of a few slaves for hard currency undoubtedly made good business sense.
“But slavery is a reprehensible evil,” you might rightly counter, “and the school had no business holding slaves in the first place.” Granted, and while such an objection sounds perfectly reasonable today, two centuries ago the morality of slavery in general was still a widely debated question. Great Britain, which had introduced slavery into its former colonies, had only outlawed the vile practice about 15 years earlier. Although the institution of slavery was in its waning hours, it could still boast a long history of legal tradition supporting it. And as repugnant to our Christian sensibilities as it may be, slavery, curiously, is nowhere proscribed anywhere in the Bible, as opposed to various other vices which are still in high demand today: fornication, divorce, adultery, and sodomy just to name a few. In fact, many Biblical passages appear to be quite tolerant of this age old institution. In the sixth chapter of Ephesians St. Paul actually exhorts slaves to be, “obedient to your masters with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ, not only when being watched, but as slaves of Christ.” Christianity, he says, is actually akin to slavery since we are called to become “slaves of Christ.” This is hardly a ringing condemnation of slavery!
It seems that the ancient world was entirely built upon the institution of slavery. Enslavement was simply the price one paid for being on the losing side of some military campaign. In the Roman world slaves often became integral members of the family household, and were treated as such. Granted, there is one major difference which sets slavery in America from its more antiquated forms. Ancient slavery was not exclusively racial and it is that aspect of our American slavery which sheds a particularly ugly light on it.But of course, the original roots of the African slave trade are to be found in Europe, and this may be because the Europeans themselves were quite often the victims of African slavers. Historians estimate that over a million Christians were enslaved by Muslims, many of them women who were sold into seraglios and harems. Feudalism itself was a kind of lifetime bondage which was not fully eradicated in Europe until the 1860s, ironically the same decade that finally saw the emancipation of slaves in this country.
In that context it hardly seems reasonable to interpret the ownership of a few slaves by Gerogetown in 1838 as some hand-wringing “crime against humanity” when this was in perfect accord with history, Scriptures, and the normative social conditions of that day. But instead of attempting to “correct” history to their own way of thinking, modern deans might be better off working to correct a number of current moral shortcomings on the campus. Again I refer to Georgetown U. which has no problem accommodating a “Genderfunk” drag ball where male gay students mockingly parade about dressed as the Blessed Virgin. Nor have its administrators blinked at providing full spousal benefits to same-sex partners of employees, thereby practicing a despicable form of modern day slavery, i.e. enslavement to fashionable secular ideology, having all but renounced their own Catholic identity in favor of the practice of popular public piety.
Of course, neither Georgetown U nor the great State of Maryland which spawned it would even exist today if not for the “illicit” profits of tobacco. How shameful that millions of unsuspecting Europeans coughed their lungs out so that Chesapeake aristocrats like the three Georges: Brent, Mason, and Washington could all indulge in patrician plantation lifestyles. (Oddly enough, tobacco is another of those unforgivable vices that fail to receive any mention, much less opprobrium, in the Bible. What could God have been thinking?) Meanwhile the sexual revolution has its field day on the campus of Georgetown U under the watchful scrutiny of the same Jesuit overseers who perform public mea culpas over the supposed sins of neglect from the deep past. But then, revising history is so much more satisfying than tackling the hard problems of the present moment. Condemning the faults of our forebears equates to intellectual Phariseeism so long as we ourselves lack the will or integrity to defend the truth in the present crisis.
Slavery is not a pretty thing to be sure, but neither is sin. Yet slavery becomes a metaphor for sin in the Biblical context. And without that initial condition of slavery there can be no deliverance. The whole premise in the Book of Exodus is that we move from slavery into freedom through the power of God’s deliverance. That same message is further amplified in the life of Christ, himself the New Moses. Slavery (to sin) is indeed our natural condition from which we hope and long to be delivered, and the sole means of that deliverance is the Cross.
We are all slaves to sin in some form or another, the debauchery of the flesh being one of the more common forms of that enslavement. But there is also a Catholic remedy to that condition which is found in grace, applied through the liberating sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist. So instead of attempting to buy a clean liberal conscience by offering free tuition to the descendants of a few house slaves, Georgetown U would better serve its students and faculty by rejecting simple minded gender and identity politics and reclaiming its true Catholic identity and intellectual tradition. Thus, by using its own history to teach a much greater truth, Georgetown would truly demonstrate a heartfelt desire to atone for any transgressions, real or imagined, from the past.
Fran Pierson +a.m.d.g.