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Mark Twain and Spiritual Slavery


Mark Twain had a deep aversion to slavery.  That was an unusual attitude at the time. In fact most people in the south of  the United States, and elsewhere for that matter, including many people in Canada, felt slavery was natural. That was just how things worked.  But Twain did not always feel that way. Like Huck Finn he grew into hatred of slavery, because he grew up with it and thought it was normal and therefore right. Only later in life did he realize that slavey was a sin and must be resisted.

Late in his life Twain said this:

“In my schoolboy days I had no aversion to slavery.  I was not aware that there was anything wrong about it. No one arraigned it in my hearing; the local papers said nothing against it; the local pulpit taught us that God approved it, that it was a holy thing, and that the doubter need only look in the Bible if he wished to settle his mind—and then the texts were read aloud to us the matter sure; if the slaves themselves had an aversion to slavery they were wise and said nothing.”

This reminds me of an argument I had once had with a young lawyer. I don’t remember what we were arguing about, but it was an ethical argument about whether or not a particular action or activity was wrong. His ultimate position was that he had been brought up to believe that so he believed it. He was a slave to his parent’s opinions. He was not free.

Frankly, I was stunned that an educated person who had spent 7 years in a university could hold that was an answer to my argument. But really, he was just clearly enunciating a position held by many people in society. They implicitly believe what their parents believed and do not question the authority of the parent to control their beliefs even deep into maturity. This is what I call spiritual slavery.  When we are growing up we naturally believe what our parents tell us, but I believe when we are mature we have a duty to question what we have been  told us, even if we continue to respect the parents.  What Friedrich Nietzsche said about teachers and students is equally applicable to parents and children: “One repays a teacher badly by remaining always a pupil.” Would you want your children to believe as you believe just because you taught them to believe it? I think not. We want our children eventually to think for themselves. Perhaps even to teach us where we went wrong!

I would even hold this position if I were God. I would not want people to believe me only because I said something was true.  I would not give them a Holy book with prescriptions that must be followed. I would want them to think for themselves. Again, I would want them to teach me if I was wrong. I want people—all people—to be spiritually free!

Later in his life Twain realized what he had been taught by his elders was wrong. Slavery was wicked.  As Azar Nafisi said, “his childhood memories left such a mark on him that slavery became to his mind a universal symbol of man’s cruelty, stupidity, and depravity.” This is what I now think about racism. It too has been inculcated in us since the days of our youth by a system of systemic racism that we have not recognized, because we were like fish who don’t see the water in which they swim. At one time slavery was  like that. It is not like that anymore. But racism is still like that. And we must resist it.

If we are not free to think for ourselves we are not free.