Slavery, Boundaries and Marriage

I have been reading Jennifer Glancy’s book Slavery in Early Christianity.  In one passage, Glancy discusses writing by St. Augustine.  Something was happening in North Africa that concerned him. It was not that there was slavery, Augustine acknowledged the scriptural tradition that slaves should honor their masters, it was that there was a growing trend of enslavement of free persons.  Glancy wrote:

…the instability of the slave body attracted attention throughout antiquity.  How to account for the fact that under some circumstances– say, in the aftermath of war– free persons could be enslaved, or that in other circumstances a formerly enslaved body could walk free?  Particular circumstances, such as the sale of slaves, the flight of slaves and the freeing of slaves, forced attention to these borderline cases, instances where the demarcation was blurred between the well-defined bodies of free persons and the defenseless bodies of slaves.  If the boundaries of the slave body were unstable, not only could enslaved bodies metamorphose into free persons, but free persons could be thrust into a nightmare condition of servitude.  On this view– the view of Augustine and perhaps the universal view of the Roman World– the horror was not slavery.  This was not the expression of abolitionist nor antislavery sentiment.  The horror was that free persons would not be able to protect the boundaries of their own bodies and that they would be treated as surrogate bodies for others to use as they chose, with no legal or culturally sanctioned means of self-protection.

If the boundaries of slave and non-slave were unstable, what was to stop the free person from having to endure what the slave did?

This ancient question of boundaries also drives the opposition to same sex marriage.  Why do people who are against gay marriage speak with such a sense of threat and danger?

This, I believe, is the mindset: If the boundary of social respectability that separates me (as a straight person) from you (a gay person) becomes cloudy or disappears, how can I be sure that I will not fall into a disgraced state?  How can I be sure that I will continue to be in the good graces of society?  If heterosexual/homosexual is not the dividing line, what might it be, and which side will I find myself on?

The horror, in this way of thinking, is not that there are people being treated as less than full members of society– the horror is that we won’t be able to tell which people those should be.  The horror is that the people who were once deemed beyond reproach might not be.  If you are not the outcast, maybe I could be.  I don’t like to think about that.  So let’s keep things as they are.

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