Thoughts on Christians and Leviticans


Categories: Religion

John Scalzi coined the useful term Leviticans for the subset of people who identify as Christian but appear to be more focused on compelling other people to follow particular moral rules than on being nice to people. I only just now noticed this, because I happened to have a copy of his delightful Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded.

On the one hand, I have to say, I love the concept. I really like the idea of being able to make a distinction between the people who go around feeding the hungry and loving everyone as best they can, and the people who appear to consider the entire concept of doing so laughable.

And yet, there is a problem, and it is a very basic problem, and I can’t quite overcome it. The thing is… The problem I have with the “Leviticans” is that they are in the habit of judging and condemning people; of deciding whether other people are or are not doing things well enough. And I am not sure it is a good response to react by declaring that they are not doing things well enough. It may well be that they are following Christ very poorly, or even not particularly trying. But, without access to information I cannot have, I cannot say with certainty that they are not following Christ as best they can, or within the limits of their ability to understand things.

For most of the last two thousand years, Christians accepted slavery as part of the nature of the world. People love to make excuses, and claim that this was a different kind of slavery, not the kind we had in the US in the 1800s. Or it was different then. But the most common defense I see, from the people I find most odious and most terrifying, is that those people weren’t really Christians. And the more I think about this, the more I think it’s the wrong approach. These people, by our current understanding, failed dismally to apply the teachings of Jesus to a situation which confronted them. They did not love their neighbor as themselves. They didn’t even treat their neighbor as entirely human. But I have to ask; are we that much stronger and wiser today, or are we merely beneficiaries of a society which has taught us different things about how human worth is defined, and how people should treat other people? If a person with my genetics and soul had been born in the late 1700s, in the US, do I have any confidence that he would have realized that slavery was horrible? I don’t.

Worse, telling people they have failed and are unworthy does not help them do better. They may react defensively and become even more entrenched in their ways, or give in to despair and stop trying. They very rarely react by trying harder.

And because of this, I am not ready to claim that the Leviticans are not Christians. They may not be doing it the way I’d do it, but I cannot prove that they are not doing it at all, or to the best of their ability.

I still sort of like the term, though, so I may use it, but I would ask that people consider it perhaps better used as a qualifier; a Levitican kind of Christian, just as one might refer to someone as a Catholic or Baptist or Lutheran Christian. I am willing to tell people that I do not think they are following Jesus very well, but it is not my place to say that they aren’t following Jesus at all.

Comments [archived]

From: Dave Leppik
Date: 2012-06-25 14:55:34 -0500

Slavery has been controversial since at least the 1700s, and probably long before then. But morality is always relative: people have blind spots that tend to be defined by the actions of their peers. There are those who claim to be completely law abiding, even while they are driving 70 miles per hour in a 55mph zone. It’s easy to forget that you’re breaking the law when you are surrounded by law breakers. And it was easy for Southerners to rationalize their slave ownership when their wealth— or the wealth of their community— was tied up in a slave economy.

From: RiverC
Date: 2012-06-25 16:09:55 -0500

Well, if the slavery wasn’t so much different in the 1800’s, then what is this whole calling democracies ‘free societies’ about?

Here’s my take: In a monarchy or archaic society, every person is effectively a slave of their superior. The king is then either the true monarch (single source, from the Greek) or he is a servant/slave of God.

In a free society, there now becomes a peculiar distinction between those bought and sold as servants and those doing the buying and selling: the one is truly autonomous, not subject of anyone, whereas the other is subject.

Combine this with the racism that was mostly constructed to protect societal interests and you do get a particularly virulent strain of slavery.

But there are many shades of slavery (as opposed to autonomy) and trying to draw the line of who should be or who deserves to be free of which subjection is hard. Our understanding of slavery for the moment makes a pretty clear distinction, based on our understanding of ownership.

It is worth noting that Christians, despite common claims to the contrary, have been generally against slavery since Christ’s time. It however was never feasible until a certain point to make a public action against the practice, much like the lackluster resistance we find in most people to abortion – ‘I’d never do it, I think it’s wrong, but I’m not going to tell another person what they should do with their stuff.’ Combine that with the economics involved and you have quite a pickle — ! Machines have to some extent saved us more than our self-righteousness could ever muster.

From: seebs
Date: 2012-06-25 18:52:16 -0500

I’d be interested in seeing your sources on the idea that Christians were generally against slavery; I find very little evidence of them saying so in any significant way before the 1600s, and even then it was often pretty isolated before the late 1700s or early 1800s.

From: Phil Nadeau
Date: 2012-06-29 00:33:34 -0500

I got quite a bit of schadenfreude from your description of ‘leviticans’. However, you remind me that the misguided and judgemental are just as worthy of mercy. Consider me regretful.