Monday, April 14, 2014

What the Bible says about slavery

Discourtesy of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason
and Science.
New Atheists have a tendency to ask questions about Scripture and Christian belief they intend to be purely rhetorical but which reveal defects in their knowledge and assumptions. Case in point: Mira Sorvino’s  set of “rhetorical” questions about the lack of a passage in the Bible stating positively the evil of slavery.

Precisely because the questions are intended to be rhetorical, the New Atheist isn’t looking for an answer — it’s supposed to be a slam-dunk “gotcha”, and anything you say is mere thimble-rigging, a pathetic attempt to rationalize an obvious error. Moreover, the proper response requires something of a full history lesson, for which many people have no patience … especially if it challenges cherished myths about ante-Internet European history.

That the Bible was never intended to be treated as the sole infallible source of Christian beliefs is not a sufficient answer in itself. To understand where the defect lies, first ask yourself this question: How, after thousands of years in which the propriety and naturalness of slavery was taken for granted, did the West come to believe it wrong? I’ll give you a couple of clues: 1) It had nothing to do with the rise of the scientific method; 2) it also had nothing to do with the Renaissance and the so-called “Enlightenment”.

It’s very tough for Americans to remember that we were almost the last of the modern First World countries to abandon slavery, and then only as a byproduct of a horrific struggle that decimated a generation of young men. It’s tougher to remember that people convicted of felonies can still be forced to work by the state, as a stated exception in the Thirteenth Amendment, or that international treaties still conditionally allow forced labor by prisoners of war. But only history wonks like me know that, from about 1100 until 1492, slavery as we understand it was all but dead in Christian Europe, hanging on mostly in the borderlands between the Christian and Moslem worlds.


The Bible doesn’t say in so many words that slavery is wrong. But the Bible also doesn’t say that slavery is right or morally neutral. In fact, in contrast to contemporary Greco-Roman and Arabic practices, the Law of Moses set limitations and obligations on Hebrew masters; as Fr. Angel Sotelo expressed in a recent conversation, the Law “introduced morality and ethics into the slave business.”

For instance, Hebrew slaves were automatically set free after six years’ service unless the slave refused to be set free (Exodus 21:2-6); in a jubilee year, once every fifty years, all slaves were freed (Leviticus 25:10). Stealing a free man and either using or selling him as a slave earned the thief and the “master” death sentences (Exodus 21:16; cf. Deuteronomy 24:7). Women sold into slavery as wives or concubines had to be treated as wives or daughters-in-law or be released (Exodus 21:7-11); women taken as captives in war had to be allowed to mourn for a full month before her master could espouse her, and could not be sold to someone else if they didn’t please (Deuteronomy 21:10-14). Slaves rested on the Sabbath as did their masters (Exodus 23:12); if they escaped and sought shelter with someone else, asylum was granted (Deuteronomy 23:15-16). Slaves who were damaged or disfigured by their masters were set free by that fact (Exodus 21:26-27).

Slaves and foreigners were to be treated with mercy and justice because, as God continually reminds the Israelites throughout the Law, “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 24:22). As the old Catholic Encyclopedia pointed out, “In Jewish society the slave was not an object of contempt, because labour was not despised as it was elsewhere. No man thought it beneath him to ply a manual trade. These ideas and habits of life the Apostles brought into the new society which so rapidly grew up as the effect of their preaching.”[1]

Moreover, when Christ fulfilled the Law and opened up salvation to the Gentiles with his sacrifice on the cross, all sorts of distinctions became irrelevant: “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35). Thus could St. Paul tell the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Thus also could he recommend to Philemon that the latter receive his runaway slave Onesimus “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, … both in the flesh and in the Lord” (Philemon 16).

“Primitive Christianity did not attack slavery directly; but it acted as though slavery did not exist.”[2] G. K. Chesterton, naturally, put the matter better:

Christ as much as Aristotle lived in a world that took slavery for granted. He did not particularly denounce slavery. He started a movement that could exist in a world with slavery. But he started a movement that could exist in a world without slavery. He never used a phrase that made his philosophy depend even upon the very existence of the social order in which he lived. He spoke as one conscious that everything was ephemeral, including the things that Aristotle thought eternal.[3]

Chesterton’s point — and mine, here — is that Christianity from its beginning wasn’t concerned with formal legal institutions but rather with the behavior of individual people towards one another. As an example: it doesn’t matter if the law permits me to sleep with a prostitute; I must not sleep with her, because the transaction is dehumanizing and depersonalizing. As you change hearts, communities and societies change in their wake. The key, then, to undermining and eventually destroying slavery always lay in teaching the intrinsic infinity of value of every person in the eyes of God, against which standard such a degrading practice must eventually become intolerable.

This is not to say that the Church never worked to weaken or end the institution through legal channels. Prior to the Edict of Naples (312), the pagan Roman emperors had started to place some protections on slaves; with the accession of the Christian emperors, more changes came. The barbarian invasions and the collapse of the Western Empire set this movement back; yet wherever the Cross went in search of converts, slavery receded. Matters were complicated and hampered as converts bestowed land on the Church complete with serfs; yet even this failed to stop the erosion of the institution under Church pressure.

In fact, it was no accident that slavery resurged back to life in the wake of the Protestant revolt and the Enlightenment. The classically educated could point back to Greco-Roman society (which, as historian Régine Pernoud has successfully argued, the literati of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries took such pains to emulate);[4] meanwhile the Protestants could wave off the writings of the Church Fathers, several church councils, and all papal bulls in favor of a cherry-picked Bible.

This is not to say Catholics didn’t participate; sadly, many did, especially the Spanish and Portuguese. The point is, however, that, to the extent that secularists and Protestants did rise in opposition to slavery, they were (as one writer once phrased it) “working off their Catholic capital”. It was when the so-called “enlightened” turned away from the religious authority of the Catholic Church to pursue their own visions of Truth that they found justification for resurrecting the age-old institution of slavery in all its barbaric hideousness. And even Robert Bolt’s historically unfaithful screenplay for The Missionary couldn’t help but admit that the precepts of the Church forbade slavery.[5]

This is something to remember, because irreligion doesn’t come packaged with a moral code. Because the irreligious are free to pick the moral principles they live by, they’re free to stop believing slavery to be wrong. If human history — especially recent history — is any guide, that’s precisely what will happen once the West’s Catholic capital is finally spent.

What’s the takeaway? The Bible doesn’t have to say that slavery is wrong because it teaches us that mistreating others is wrong, whether it’s legally permissible or not. If you don’t get that, then you won’t get why slavery is wrong.


[1] Allard, P. (1912). “Slavery and Christianity”. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved April 13, 2014 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14036a.htm.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Chesterton, G. K. (1953). The Everlasting Man. San Francisco: Ignatius Press; p. 195.
[4] Pernoud, R. (2000). Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths. (Nash, A. E., trans.) San Francisco: Ignatius Press; chap. 2 and passim.
[5] Madrid, P. (1999). Pope Fiction. Encinitas, CA: Basilica Press; p. 202.