Sunday, September 14, 2014

What does God say about slavery?

I've been blogging lately in response to some challenges posed by my friend and one of my most excellent high school teachers, Johnston Smith.  Those efforts have lead me to write about the evolutionary origins of morality (how an unguided process that looks like it might only reward selfishness can produce selfless agents) and about the failures of Judeo-Christian divine command theory (the idea that real, objective morality can only come from the dictates of God) but something has been left out. That something has for a long time bothered me about Christian theism and its many claims for the moral high ground. What bothers me most about it is how Christians somehow manage to deal with their cognitive dissonance on this subject. I'm talking now, about a heinous immorality that our species has largely overcome: slavery.

Presumably, the immorality of chattel slavery represents one of many transcendent, objective, moral truths, the likes of which emanate from the will or nature of God.

What then, does God have to say about slavery? I've been meaning to write a blog post about this for some time, but then I stumbled upon this one and I really don't think that I could do a better job considering how well linked this one is to relevant Bible passages. 

The only thing I would add is that the idea that the slavery instructed in the Bible only represents "indentured servitude" (where someone serves another as a debt and only until the debt is repaid) is just false. While the Bible does instruct indentured servitude of some Israelite slaves, it also endorses chattel slavery (life-long, permanent ownership of slaves and their offspring) and sexual slavery (Exodus 21:7-11) for non-Israelites. This is the most despicable type of slavery imaginable, and Leviticus 25:44-46, well, let me just let NonStampCollector make the point as only he can:

So without further ado, here's someone only known to me as "The Beagle". You can follow the active link over to his blog for other interesting reads.

What did Jesus Say About Slavery?

[This post is a Beagle's Bark. It is part of a series on biblical slavery.]
Jesus was a great reformer. In an age of extreme class division and status-consciousness, he identified with the poor and urged us to do the same. During a time when the Holy Land was occupied by a foreign power, he taught his countrymen how to maintain their dignity. When the religious leaders were corrupt, he called them to account.
So I find it puzzling that he never spoke a word against slavery, as far as we know.
If he was divine, he knew it would be nearly 2,000 years until most of the world would realize how immoral slavery is. He also knew that slave-owners would use the Old Testament to justify the practice. One clear word from him could have prevented the misery of millions. Why did he not speak it? (And it’s hard to believe that if the Bible is inspired, God would not have inspired at least one of the four gospel-writers to record Jesus’ words on so important a topic.)
It’s not as if there was no slavery around to speak against. Jesus often illustrated his points with stories about slaves and masters. Everybody was all too familiar with the concept, and it was as brutal as ever.
Slavery Was Brutal, and Jesus Knew It
Since Jesus never condemned slavery, we might hope that he thought of slavery in the relatively benign forms that are sometimes found in the Old Testament. Not so. When he spoke about the relationship of slaves and masters, he assumed that violence and abuse were the order of the day. Typical is Luke 12:47-48, where even a servant who doesn’t know what he ought to do gets beaten.
The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows.
That passage is part of a larger parable that is supposed to scare us into submission to God. Like a slave or servant, we will be physically harmed if we’re not good enough.
There are several parables like this in the gospels. Matthew 18:23-35 says we will be jailed and tortured. Matthew 25:14-30 says we will be cast into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Matthew 24:45-51 says we will be cut in pieces. All of these indicate how Jesus pictured masters treating their slaves.
Jesus held no illusions about slavery, yet did not decry the practice. In fact, in his parables he cast God as a slave-owner!
The Golden Rule Evidently Did Not Apply to Slaves
One might say that when Jesus gave the Golden Rule he implied that slavery was wrong. If we’re to treat others as we want them to treat us, that means we shouldn’t enslave them, right?
That point was not lost on the abolitionists.
There’s only one problem. When Jesus presented the Golden Rule, he cast it as a summary of Old Testament Law. As we have seen throughout this series of posts, the Old Testament not only allowed but in some cases commanded slavery. Jesus made a point of saying that he supported the Old Testament Law 100%, and nothing he taught should be interpreted as contradicting or negating the Old Testament.
That point was not lost on the abolitionists’ opponents.
At a minimum, we can say that if Jesus meant the Golden Rule as a command to abolish slavery, then millions of slaves in the next 1800 years would wish he had made his intent more obvious.
Jesus Was a Reformer, But Not with Slavery
Might Jesus have thought it was not yet the time to speak against slavery? Was he afraid of upsetting the social order and bringing persecution on his followers?
On the contrary, Jesus did not hesitate to turn society upside-down. Sometimes he did so literally, as when he upset the tables of the money-changers in the temple (John 2:13-17). At other times, he made radical demands such as giving away all one’s money (Matthew 19:16-24). He did not hesitate to speak boldly to those in power (Matthew 23:13-36). Nor was he afraid of persecution, calling it a blessing (Matthew 5:10-12).
Jesus did not hesitate to speak his mind, yet he never condemned slavery. Clearly he either thought it was just fine or he didn’t care much about it one way or the other. Maybe he just took it for granted.
I am tempted to leave it at that. Even Jesus might have been a man of his times to a certain extent. He was a moral revolutionary, but abolishing slavery didn’t quite make it into his manifesto. If you are a Bible-believing Christian, however, I think you are forced into a much darker position.
An Even Darker Take
According to John 10:30, Jesus and God the Father are one. John 1:1-3, with verse 14 says that Jesus was with God from the beginning. In John 5:19, Jesus says that he does whatever God the Father does. Someone who takes these verses as Gospel Truth must believe some disturbing things:
  • Jesus was present and nodding in approval when God gave the command to take 32,000 virgins as plunder in Numbers 31 (discussed in the last part of this post).
  • Jesus was present and gave a hearty “Amen” when God commanded Moses to enslave distant cities.
  • Jesus was present and gave his blessing for Moses’ soldiers to force their most beautiful captives into rape-marriages (discussed here).
No wonder he never spoke against slavery or its brutality in the New Testament. He had already encouraged it in the Old!
Eternally present and of one mind with his Father, he approved every genocide; every stoning of manwomanchild and animal; every burning-alive; every death sentence for a trivial offense; and, yes, every enslavement that God himself commanded. That may seem far-fetched. I don’t believe it myself. But I don’t see how a Bible-believer can deny it.


  1. I think I have stated this before but pulling the bible out of his historical context is as fundamentalist as all the religious extremists you try to oppose. Even the wikipedia page on this topic is more balanced.

  2. Thanks for your interest, Rik.

    If I've properly understood you in the past, you don't believe that an intelligent disembodied agent (God) inspired the Bible and used it to convey important messages, including moral laws, to humanity. I think that we agree about that and I therefore think that we agree that the Bible is solely the product of the human minds alive at the time of its writing: no influence from an omnipotent, omniscient moral lawmaker.

    So I agree with you that the bible in that case has to be taken completely in that context.

    However, billions of other people consider the Bible in a different context. They think that it is the intended message of a morally perfect, omnipotent agent. My post challenges that particular belief. I believe that there is no context in which a morally perfect, omnipotent agent would create the enduring message regarding slavery that is found in the Judeo-Christian Bible. So I see what the Bible itself says about slavery to represent strong evidence against certain important ontologic and moral claims that the Bible and billions of people otherwise seem to explicitly endorse.

    I'm finding it hard to see how challenging these very popular views makes me a fundamentalist, but as I've written before, there's nothing wrong with fundamentalism, itself, if the fundamentals are correct. Furthermore, we seem to again agree on the fundamentals. I'm open to hearing more from you about this if I've misunderstood something.

  3. Rik,

    Regarding the Wikipedia link, of course Christian views on slavery are going to be different from what Jesus specifically said about slavery. Christian views are going to be affected by non-Biblical influences including secular ones.

    This does not detract from the idea that Jesus could, with one clear sentence ("you must not own or trade in human lives") have dramatically accelerated the slow and bloody progress that humanity has made on this topic. Slavery is no more morally ambiguous than murder. If the Bible is supposed to represent the message of a morally perfect and omnipotent agent, one must wonder why Jesus wasn't that clear about it. On the other hand, this failure is not at all mysterious if the Bible is merely the work of primitive, Near Eastern, iron age people. That's the point.

  4. Rik,

    See how "fundamentalist" your Christian brothers and sisters over on this side of the Atlantic are: