Today I read a CNN blog entitled, “How religion has been used to promote slavery”, written by John Blake. He opens up his article by asking the question, “which revered religious figure–Moses, Jesus, or the Prophet Muhammad–spoke out boldly and ambiguously against slavery?” Blake answers, ” None of them.” From that answer forth, Blake attempts to show that since none of the religions directly opposed slavery, then there isn’t any reason that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam had members in their respected religions who condoned slavery at some point in their history. The question, however, is this: is it true that Christianity is guilty of not condemning slavery? Better yet, is Jesus guilty of not openly condemning slavery? This article will answer these questions by responding to both Daniel C. Peterson, and John Dominic Crossan’s assertion that Christianity, both Old and New Testament, fails to condemn slavery.
When dealing with Jesus and the issue of slavery, one has to first admit that Jesus did not deal with slavery by condemning it. Jesus, however, never condoned it either. Even Crossan had to admit it, ” He[Jesus} doesn’t say anything for or against it.” Crossan believes that despite Jesus lack of judgement for or against slavery, Jesus would have opposed slavery. I most certainly agree with Crossan on this point. Jesus loved all people and didn’t show partiality toward anyone. He who commanded His followers to “love your neighbor as yourself” demonstrated it throughout His entire three and a half years of ministry. Slavery, as we are familiar with, is in complete opposition to the “second greatest commandment.” A person cannot abuse and love his neighbor at the same time.
While Jesus is given a pardon for not addressing the issue because He was a perfectly moral person, the Bible as a whole and the Apostle Paul are not as fortunate. It is regularly argued that the Apostle Paul was for slavery because of what he taught and commanded in Ephesians 6:5-8. Crossan called the Apostle Paul of this book to be a “Pseudo-Paul” which was created by early church leaders to appease Rome. The real Paul was the Paul who opposed slavery as indicated in 1st Timothy 1:10 where “men stealers” or “kidnapping” is against the law. Is there two different Paul’s in Scripture? The authentic Paul who opposed slavery and the “Pseudo-Paul, supporter of slavery? No there isn’t.
The Apostle Paul in Ephesians 6:5-8 does not describe slavery in terms of forced labor and abuse. It couldn’t because of what this same Paul goes on to say in verse 9, ” And you, masters, do the same things to them, giving up threatenings, knowing that your own Master also is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.” The Apostle Paul here clearly warns slave masters to treat their slaves with respect and dignity, not threatening them and abusing them. Therefore this kind of slavery is not the type of slavery which is oppressive and demeaning. Both slave and master are commanded to respect each other. Both are given ethical guidelines on how to treat each other. There are no signs of unethical treatment being promoted against a slave. The slave is commanded to obey his master and the master is commanded not to threaten and abuse his slave. Both are to do so unto the Lord (v. 5, 9).
Another attack on the Christian faith regarding slavery is from the Old Testament where the Israelites had slaves. This also is an attack against Judaism since the Old Testament is their Holy Scriptures as well. Daniel C. Peterson attempts to undermine the morality of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by questioning why He and His people Israel would sanction slavery at all. Peterson says, ” But how could ancient Israel sanction any form of slavery given their exodus from Egyptian captivity? Didn’t their God explicitly condemn slavery when he ordered Moses to tell Pharaoh to ‘let my people go?'” So how could God sanction any form of slavery?
First of all, before we answer that question, we should ask, “Are all forms of slavery immoral? If yes, says who? On what moral grounds do one base that on? Biblically only one kind is condemned. In Deuteronomy 24:14-15 it says, ” You shall not oppress a hired servant [slave} who is poor and needy, whether one of your brethren or one of the aliens who is in your land within your gates. Each day you shall give him his wages, and not let the sun go down on it, for he is poor and has set his heart on it; lest he cry out against you to the LORD, and it be sin to you.” Here we see God commanding slave masters in Israel to not oppress their slaves, but pay them their wages for working for them. Slavery here is the poor servant working for wages. The kind of slavery here is not the kind of slavery Israel experienced in Egypt. In Exodus 3:9, God says, ” Now therefore, behold, the cry of the children of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them.” God brought Israel out of Egypt not because of slavery itself, but because of the type of slavery: oppressive slavery. The type of slavery that caused Israel to cry out to God for deliverance.
The slavery described in Deuteronomy 15:12-18 is again a worker-employer type of slavery. The Hebrew slave works for six years and is released in the seventh year during the year of Jubilee when all debts are forgiven and released. In verse 18 Moses, by the Word of the Lord, sternly instruct masters to release their slaves in the seventh year; for in doing so that master will be blessed by God.
Therefore in no way is slavery condoned in either Judaism or Christianity. Clearly we have seen from both the Old and New Testament that the only form of slavery which is condemned time and time again is oppressive slavery. In the Bible a labor for wages type of slavery is presented in Scripture. Moreover, the protection of the slave from oppression is commanded in both Testaments. I would say this is far from the unethical slavery of times past which sadly has been practiced and preached by Muslims and so called “Christians”. Both Crossan and Peterson are guilty of selective interpretation; picking out only those passages in Scripture in order to interpret them to teach what the whole of Scripture does not teach. I would strongly encourage Blake, Crossan and Peterson to search all the Scriptures which speak on the issue. In doing so they would see how frail their arguments are. It is true, unfortunately, that religion has been used to promote and practice slavery. Christianity however, was used in this way due to either false brethren or by true brethren who did not know the whole counsel of God [the Bible} on this subject. Sadly to this day, Christianity still has the ethical black eye due to this. The good news is, however, that the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the Christian Church has never and will never endorse oppressive slavery because God is a God who is morally perfect and stands for human value and dignity.