Religion and Law, Essay Example
During the seventeenth century time, the laws took away the rights of individuals who were slaves. Religion was a way for slaves to escape their lives, but they were forbidden to decide their religion on their own. Most slaves could not read, so the only religion they knew was what they learned from their owners. If religion was allowed, the denomination was determined by their owner. Church helped slaves cope with their environment, giving them something to believe in. It was a hope for abolitionist. On the negative side of religion, it made excuses for slavery to be accepted. There are positives and negatives of religion, for both the slaves and the owners, but it was based on convenience. Spiritual commands towards slaves did not always benefit the owners, but the laws did. Religion was an important part of life during this period, but when it did not benefit the best interest of the owners it was disposable and the laws prevailed. Legal and ecclesiastical laws contradicted at times creating a way for personal gain to triumph over humane treatment.
During the seventh century slaves were very valuable property, mainly in the south and New York. Slaves were considered property of their owners. The laws of them being property were legally enforceable. If a slave went against the demands of their owners, they would be legally punished. They had no rights to defend themselves or speak on their own behalf. There were slave codes, laws that determined what was right and wrong in addressing American slaves. The laws made it illegal to teach slaves how to read or write. “Religious motives sometimes prevailed, however, as many devout white Christian’s educated slaves to enable the reading of the Bible. These same Christians did not recognize marriage between slaves in their laws. This made it easier to justify the breakup of families by selling one if its members to another owner.” (USHistory) The religious laws recognize a union between a man and women; however the legal laws did not. So the union of marriage honored by God is void because the law decides that slaves are to be treated as property. The slave owner’s marriages were binding, both legally and religiously. Just one example where the whites were able to determine which laws they would most benefit from.
Religion played an important part in the cultural traditions and practices. However, when religion did not benefit the people or became unprofitable, the laws prevailed over the Bible. An example is in Exodus, “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything.” (NIV, Exodus 21:2) ”If a fellow Hebrew, a man or a woman, sells himself to you and serves you six years, in the seventh year you must let him go free.” (NIV, Deuteronomy 15:12) Slaves were property for life, so following the religious laws of setting them free on their seventh year was never followed. The legal law did not consider this Biblical law when they said that slaves were property for life. The owners know the standards in the Bible, but most chose to benefit from keeping their property working instead of letting them go. The religious laws were broken, or overlooked because it was not in their best interest. The Declaration of Independence also aided in superstation of the church and state. It says, “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” (Boyd 16)
In A Mercy by Toni Morrison it talks about African American’s life with slavery and freedom. Morrison goes back to the begging of slavery in the seventieth century. The story is told from the main narrator Florens, an American born African slave. Floren’s mother offered eight-year old Floren to settle her master’s debt with Vaark. Floren felt her mother abandoned her by giving her away. In a way, she saved her. Slaves, especially female, were property and the slave owners could do anything they wanted. Jacob was a fair and religious man who felt sorry for orphans. The house had a mixed race of servants, not just blacks. Jacob Vaark was the owner who was trying to create heaven on earth. Much like religion and laws, this was a contradiction in this as well. The big dream mansion he was trying to build killed his daughter. His humane treatment of slaves was only for the ones he can see. The slaves that worked the sugar plantations in the Caribbean were treated as bad as most slaves. “To be given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing.”(Morrison 167) This Presbyterian owner forced his religion on his household, but did not uphold the religion when it came to making his money. It was just another example of the clash between the two governing laws. The religious man did not free his slaves after six years. He coveted money, and even though his treatment of his slaves was not abusive, he still acted with his own best interests. Which the legal laws protected his decision.
In this book, Morrison looks at the religion during this time it was mainly Catholicism, Church of England, and Presbyterianism. This affects attitudes on life and death and a person’s ideal of what is right and wrong to God and other men. The slaves were under natural law not ecclesiastical law. The whites wanted direction from the spirit world that was what they felt they could get from church. This means, they wanted to feel good about their decisions and that was based on their religion. A reason Vaark had a kind heart towards Orphans was because he was an orphan himself. He traveled from New York, to Virginia, to Maryland to make his fortune. He was able to see firsthand how religion in the different cultures affected the attitude towards slavery. When people did not follow the law set by society, the individuals where not spoken to. This was true for both the legal and ecclesiastical laws set towards slaves and their treatment. Society determined that following the self-interest of laws was the most important thing. They wanted to feel better about themselves by incorporating religion, but that did not change their minds how to treat their property.
Women slaves were victimized by the expectations from society, and they had no rights in either law or in religion. “They have all learned that women are “of and for men,” that they are people who “never shape the world, the world shapes us.” (Morrison 71) This is a Biblical philosophy too. “The man said, ‘This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man’.” (NIV, Genesis 2:23) The women, especially slaves of this time were the lowest in form of importance. The laws of society and the laws of religion both require women to honor men. Lina, Vaarks first slave, village was destroyed by smallpox and her reputation was ruined because she was raped. According to the Bible she was an adulterous, because she had sex outside of marriage. The community law determined the same, even though Lina did not agree to have sex. This is a perfect example of when both religion and civil laws are used to benefit the white man. Vaarks wife, Rebekka, too had little choice at her young age of sixteen. Being shipped over from England she had the option to be a prostitute, a slave, or a wife. Laws during this time were not established against prostitution or slavery. The Biblical law however labeled such actions as fornication. This is another example of how different society views religious and legal laws. Marrying Rebekka was in Vaarks best interest and the laws protected his decision. There was no consideration to the Biblical laws associated with buying a wife.
Florens was a literate slave, despite the laws the priest had taught her how to read and write. During this time, literacy was not a right for slaves, but instead forbidden by law. It is linked with freedom, but how can the slave practice religion if they cannot read the Bible? “Baptists, Presbyterians, tribe, army, family, some encircling outside thing was needed. Pride, she thought. Pride alone made them think that they needed only themselves, could shape life that way, like Adam and Eve, like gods from nowhere beholden to nothing except their own creations.” (Morrison 58) This was a way to make sure that white people were not challenged by their slaves. They wanted to encourage religion, but not educate the slaves to learn they can fight the treatment. Slaves only learned what their owners wanted from Religion. Jacob did not feel this was a law he needed to enforce with Floren. She was able to read and learn about religion as she chose. But she was expected to abide by the rules that Jacob set. This is another contradiction between religion and legal laws of this time.
Legal and ecclesiastical laws contradicted at times creating a way for personal gain to triumph over humane treatment. During this time period, religion and government were supposed to support each other but this was not the case. It provided two sets of laws and an ability to argue which one has precedence over the other. Since the legal laws benefited slave owners in most cases, the whites chose to abide by these laws instead of their religious obligations. When it benefited them more to follow the religious laws, they did so. It set two different standards that allowed the owners to follow the directives that they wanted and left the slaves with no rights at all.
U.S. History: Pre Columbian to the New Millennium. USHistory.org. 2011. Web. 5 May 2012.
Bible New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986. Print.
Morrison, Toni. A Mercy. New York: Random House 2008. Print.
Boyd, Julian P. The Declaration of Independence: The Evolution of the Text. Reprint, Charlottesville, N.C.: International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, 1999. Print.
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