Thursday, 11 October 2012

Do You Agree With God About Slavery?

If you're a humanist and/or an atheist you'll have no doubt at all: abolition of slavery was one of the great social advances and righted a monstrous and hideous wrong. But, if you're a Christian who looks to the Bible for your morals, and you agree with us that slavery was wrong, perhaps you should think again. You either have to believe you have higher moral standards that the people who wrote the Bible, or you believe there is nothing wrong with slavery.

The first thing to point out is, there is not a hint of condemnation of slavery anywhere in the Bible. Throughout the Old and New Testaments there is nothing but acceptance of slavery as a perfectly normal part of everyday life; something that doesn't raise the slightest concern or a hint of a moral qualm. There are even instructions on how to treat slaves, when and how to kill or beat them, who you can own, etc.

In the Bible, slaves are not even regarded as human beings. Take these two passages:

He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.

Exodus 21:12

And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished. Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.

Exodus 21:20-21

The only way to reconcile these two laws is to assume that a slave wasn't regarded as a human being. No irony there, in a book of the Bible which purports to be about the escape from slavery of the Israelites. As we shall discover, the issue of slavery is firmly linked to the notion of race and racial supremacy too.

And of course, the racist idea that slaves weren't fully human underpins just about everything else we read in the Bible regarding slaves and their treatment.

If a man be found stealing any of his brethren of the children of Israel, and maketh merchandise of him, or selleth him; then that thief shall die; and thou shalt put evil away from among you.

Deuteronomy 24:7

Clearly, an Israelite can't be bought and sold as a slave; other people are just fine because they're not fully human as we shall see in a moment.

So, as a good Christian who takes moral guidance from the Bible and accepts the Bible as the eternal word of a loving god, how should you treat a slave, or, if you're an unfortunate member of one of the lesser peoples, how can you expect to be treated?

If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing. If he came in by himself, he shall go out by himself: if he were married, then his wife shall go out with him.

If his master have given him a wife, and she have born him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be her master's, and he shall go out by himself. And if the servant shall plainly say, I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free: Then his master shall bring him unto the judges; he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an aul; and he shall serve him for ever.

Exodus 21:2-6

Obviously, if you're a slave and you've been used as breeding stock, it would be better not to get too fond of your 'wife' and children otherwise you'll have to choose between staying with them in perpetual slavery, or freedom for yourself. Note: there is nothing wrong with keeping a women and her children as hostages to ensure the male slave doesn't exercise his right to freedom.

But it's not all bad. If you're a girl and your father has sold you as a slave to a man you have some rights.

And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do.

If she please not her master, who hath betrothed her to himself, then shall he let her be redeemed: to sell her unto a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he hath dealt deceitfully with her. And if he have betrothed her unto his son, he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters.

If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish. And if he do not these three unto her, then shall she go out free without money.

Exodus 21:7-11

You're his for life just so long as your owner feeds, clothes and has sex with you. Not clear if you lose those rights if he gives you to his son. It seems the role and status of slave and wife are pretty much the same. See also "So You Think You're A Christian" for more good Christian advice on what else you can do with spare daughter, and "Women. Are You Free Or Christian?" for more on the proper role of Christian women.

But all that was in the Old Testament and only applied to the Jews, or so you're probably telling yourself.

Not a bit of it. Slaves are treated with just the same racist contempt as sub-humans in the New Testament. See what Paul has to say in his various letters and epistles:

Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ;

Ephesians 6:5

Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honour, that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed. And they that have believing masters, let them not despise them, because they are brethren; but rather do them service, because they are faithful and beloved, partakers of the benefit. These things teach and exhort.

1 Timothy 6:1-2

Here's Jesus talking about slaves in a parable.

And the Lord said, Who then is that faithful and wise steward, whom his lord shall make ruler over his household, to give them their portion of meat in due season?

Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing. Of a truth I say unto you, that he will make him ruler over all that he hath.

But and if that servant say in his heart, My lord delayeth his coming; and shall begin to beat the menservants and maidens, and to eat and drink, and to be drunken; The lord of that servant will come in a day when he looketh not for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in sunder, and will appoint him his portion with the unbelievers.

And that servant, which knew his lord's will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.

Luke 12:42-48

Note, not a single word is said in condemnation of slavery. The right of a master to beat his slaves is taken for granted as perfectly natural and normal. Jesus it taking the mundane and the ordinary to illustrate a point.

Here's Paul again:

Exhort servants to be obedient unto their own masters, and to please them well in all things; not answering again; Not purloining, but shewing all good fidelity; that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things.

Titus 2:9-10

And Peter agrees.

Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward. For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God.

1 Peter 2:18-20

Now, if you're a Christian who believes the Bible is the word of your god and that this is above the law of the land, you're probably wondering who you can own as a slave. Don't worry, the Bible has that covered:

Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids.

Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession. And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever: but over your brethren the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with rigour.

Leviticus 25:44-46

Admittedly, this is a little ambiguous. It either means you can't own a 'child of Israel' or it means you can't own someone from your own race. It doesn't seem to mean you can't own someone of your own nationality because it's okay if they are 'heathen' (presumably, not Christian, or maybe just not your brand of Christian). Owning the children of strangers, even if they were born in your country, is just fine.

Many people interpret this confused passage to mean you can own people from neighbouring countries but not your own (notwithstanding that owning children who were 'begat' there is specifically allowed) so, for example, a Canadian or a Mexican can own an American as a slave. It's not clear how this applies to the English, Welsh and Scots though. On balance it looks like we can own each other.

But anyway, the important thing here is that the Bible is explicitly permitting slavery. So, if you're a true Christian you need have no qualms about the immorality or inhumanity of owning slaves, or even selling your daughters as slaves, because you believe the Bible is the source of all morality what with being the word of the god you believe gave mankind his morals.

What then of more recent Christian teachers? How did they see the issue of slavery?

Here's how historian Kenneth M. Stampp saw it:

...when southern clergy became ardent defenders of slavery, the master class could look upon organized religion as an ally ...the gospel, instead of becoming a mean of creating trouble and strive, was really the best instrument to preserve peace and good conduct among the negroes.

In 1856 Reverend Thomas Stringfellow, a Baptist minister from Culpepper County, VA, had this to say:

...Jesus Christ recognized this institution as one that was lawful among men, and regulated its relative duties... I affirm then, first (and no man denies) that Jesus Christ has not abolished slavery by a prohibitory command; and second, I affirm, he has introduced no new moral principle which can work its destruction...

Here is the Pope's view in 1179:

...Therefore we declare that such persons [people who aid Saracens, i.e. Muslims] should be cut off from the communion of the church and be excommunicated for their wickedness, that catholic princes and civil magistrates should confiscate their possessions, and that if they are captured they should become the slaves of their captors.

Nothing much had changed nearly 700 years later in 1866.

Slavery itself, considered as such in its essential nature, is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law, and there can be several just titles of slavery and these are referred to by approved theologians and commentators of the sacred canons. ... It is not contrary to the natural and divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged or given.

So, Christians, why do you think slavery is wrong? How did you arrive at that conclusion in direct contradiction to what your god says in the Bible?

Or maybe you don't see anything wrong with it...

Further reading:
Christianity and History: Bible, Race & Slavery - Austin Cline.
Christianity And Slavery.

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  1. "And of course, the racist idea that slaves weren't fully human underpins just about everything else we read in the Bible regarding slaves and their treatment."

    You bring race into this as if the only slaves were of another race. Jews were slaves in Egypt for instance.

    1. Sorry your obviously primitive moral code doesn't allow you to understand that treating some races as inferior is racist.

      Have you ever considered revising your moral code and making it fit for living in a modern, technological society rather than relying on one more fitted to a brutal, pre-wheel Bronze Age nomadic tribal society?

  2. "The only way to reconcile these two laws is to assume that a slave wasn't regarded as a human being."

    The only way?
    Mosaic law and God's moral law are two different things. And if you didn't know slavery is a fact of life, whether it's to drugs, money, or something else.

    1. A shame you couldn't think of another way to reconcile these two laws but had to try to get away with the mere pretence that you could. It might have made your comment slightly more credible, and you a little less dishonest.

      Can I suggest that, in future, if you have nothing worth saying, it might serve you better to say nothing, even when you lack the courage to come out from behind a cloak of anonymity.

  3. I'm with you on the Old Testament, but not the New.

    As I see it:
    1. "Servant" is not the same as "Slave": it is anyone who takes orders from someone else (which is pretty much all of us, these days). Could be a slave, could be an employee, could be someone with a feudal obligation of some sort.
    2. The point of the much quoted Ephesians passage is that we should take pride in our work even when we are not being directly supervised. I don't see a problem with this.
    3. I won't go through the others point by point, but the underlying message is in all cases practical advice to the servants.
    4. The servants were part of the target audience of the epistles, which militates against the idea that they were not considered fully human at this stage, at least by the fathers of the church.

    I do agree that Christianity didn't take a principled position on slavery one way or the other. Generally, it seems to have been more concerned with showing people how to behave than overturning fundamental social structures. That came later, when they had the necessary leverage (but had possibly lost touch with some of their ideals).

    It is quite true that an explicit goal of the gospels appears to have been to promote harmony between master and servant, and the position attributed to the C19th southern clergy appears defensible in those terms. However, there are clear injunctions to treat the most unfortunate members of society decently, and the clergy would have been required to insist on this as well. In so far as they failed in this respect, I don't see how the institution of slavery as practised in the USA was defensible by reference to scripture.

    1. "Servant" is not the same as "Slave"

      You forget that the New Testament was NOT written in English, so your comparison is invalid. The actual word used in the greek text of 1 Peter 2:18 is roughly "οἰκέται". See

  4. I guess you've never heard of William Wilberforce.

    1. Why on Earth would you guess something so absurd? Are you a child or an idiot?

      Please try to deal with the subject of the blog, if you can. If you can't you might do better not showing the world.

  5. Slavery is an abominable trait that humankind inherited from the Annunaki ~ our "creators", known in the bible as God


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