“You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.”
― William Wilberforce
If you haven't seen the film Amazing Grace
I recommend it highly. Its one I'd like to own, some time, on DVD. The story of how the anti-slavery movement, largely led by William Wilberforce, found triumph in the English Parliament is truly moving and amazing to watch. It also was presented without overt political statements or smears on any modern people, at least from the perspective of an American. And these days, that's pretty fresh.
As I wrote a few years back, slavery is still with us. The bulk of it in the west is sex slavery, where mostly young women are sold for sex and have no ability to escape or freedom. Often trapped by drugs and violence, but sometimes by actual chains, these slaves are among us even in nations proud of having rejected slavery over a hundred years ago.
The more ordinary sort of slavery still is in place in parts of the world as well, where someone is sold and works for another without pay or hope of escape. Almost all of these nations are Muslim: Far East Asia and North Africa/Middle East.
This topic, whenever it comes up, often brings with it an attack on Christianity. Yes, its true that Christians were the ones who were the primary driving force in both England and the USA to end slavery. Yes, its true that Christians were the ones running the escape routes and helping slaves to be free. But critics point something out that some find very difficult to deal with.
Jesus never said anything against slavery. In fact, nowhere in the Bible is the idea of slavery, the concept, ever condemned or even criticized. The Old Testament has specific rules and laws regarding how to own slaves without any critical statement. The practice is presumed and treated as ordinary, not requiring comment.
The closest the Bible comes in this topic is in the book of Philemon, a little-known letter by the apostle Paul, in which Paul almost, but does not quite, order Philemon to free his escaped slave Onesimus. However, Paul does not do so with an argument against the practice of slavery, he simply notes that Onesimus is also a Christian and should be treated as a brother.
So the objection is that fellow Christians ought not own one another, not that slavery is somehow innately evil. And in the lead up to the Civil War, many pastors in the South pointed this out: slavery cannot be an evil or a sin, or the Bible would have said so.
So where did the Christian objection to slavery come from? Well, to understand this, you have to understand a bit of history.
In the past - particularly the Biblical times, both Old and New Testaments, slavery meant something a bit different from it did in, say, Alabama in 1832. Slavery in antiquity was handled differently. In the more modern period, slaves were mostly - not exclusively, but in the great majority - black men and women seized by force from Africa and sold to white traders.
These slaves served their entire lives without hope of liberation, and were slaves because they were black and easy to identify (making it difficult to escape). Slaves would serve for generations, children of children of slaves.
In antiquity, slavery was more economical and martial in nature. There were three categories of slaves. The first was criminal - someone could be enslaved because of criminal activity, punishing them with servitude. Many gladiators for example were in this category.
The second was martial: often, when an area was subjugated or conquered, at least some of the people there were enslaved, forcing labor out of them as a method of keeping them under control and dominating the territory.
The third, and most common type, was economical: people became slaves because they were too far in debt or were ruined economically. Sometimes these would be orphans, who had no place to go to survive, and became slaves for a place to sleep and eat. Some were people who gambled or in some other way found themselves in debt so far they could not pay it off. So they would enter slavery to work off the debt.
All of these systems in the past (except, usually, the military) had a system to reach freedom or manumission. It was in practice difficult and often did not happen, but it was possible. They also had a system by which you could, if you chose, remain a slave after paying off your debt. Some did, preferring the security and predictability of a wealthy owner over the uncertainty of making your own way.
None of these systems were based on race. None of them chose a specific ethnic group or by appearance and enslaved them because of that race or considered them sub-human. In Rome, for example, an African merchant could own Roman slaves. In Israel, a Hebrew could own fellow Hebrew slaves.
Especially in the Bible, the laws given to Moses specifically set a time when all slaves were to be freed, no matter what their origin or cause, on the Year of Jubilee, which took place every 49 years. Now, Israel never, ever celebrated this year or did what they were told with it, but the slavery laws necessarily and specifically required liberating slaves at a certain point.
So in this context, the slavery mentioned in the Bible is a bit different than is presumed in modern culture and understood in, say, 19th century America. Instead of a dehumanizing system of racial suppression that kept slaves for their lives by ripping them out of their homes and treating them as subhuman, the Biblical understanding was much more humane and limited.
That doesn't make slavery something fine that I'd want to be a part of. Even a well-treated slave is still a slave, and sometimes even ordinary work and the pressures of life and parenthood can give a glimpse what that life would be like. What it does is change perspective slightly.
And this brings us to why Christians such as William Wilberforce were so opposed to slavery. Because the Bible teaches that all humanity is made in the image of God, with innate value and dignity. None of us, according to scripture, is better than the other. None of us is lesser in value by our nature. All of us, the Bible teaches, stand equally condemned and guilty before God: we're all going the same place, but for the grace of God in Christ Jesus through the Holy Spirit.
So slavery that treated some as less than human, by their ethnic background, and imprisoned them forever as property that could never find liberty simply because they were purchased and black... that was a severe violation of many biblical principles. In other words: it was very unChristian to buy a black man ripped from his home in Africa and own him, acting as if he wasn't really human, without any hope of liberty. Evil. Sinful.
And that's why Christians opposed slavery as it was being practiced in England and the US and France and elsewhere around the world, even though the Bible doesn't specifically condemn slavery.
Now, at least some readers are saying "the Bible still says slavery is okay" and you're sort of right; it doesn't approve of slavery, or condemn it. The New Testament treats slavery as just a part of life you had to move around and through without specific judgment.
However, so do you. Yes, you, the person reading this. You have no problem with slavery, I suspect. Here's what I mean, and its from my previous piece on slavery
In 1865, the 13th amendment of the United States Constitution was ratified to prohibit slavery:
Prisoners, convicted criminals are worked every day in jails without compensation and without possibility of escape or refusal. They are punished for failing to work and cannot run away without being hunted down and returned to work. This is not only legal, it's actually a good thing; prisoners are given exercise, but more importantly they are made to work their debt to society off, they are compelled to do something in exchange for the expense of housing and feeding them.
- Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
- Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
We enslave prisoners, legally, by specific exemption of the 13th amendment, regularly in the United States, and unless you'd rather prisoners sit in a box all day with some time in the sun to lift weights, you support this, too. Personally, I think we should have more of this in prisons: productive labor. If you're going to get huge and more dangerous in prison, at least do it by breaking rocks or something useful instead of lifting weights.
Many people who came to the new world in America's past got here through a system called "indentured servitude" which I go into with greater detail in the slavery essay. In essence, it let people buy their passage to America by serving as a slave temporarily to pay off their debt and usually in the process learn a trade (silvermaking, for instance, in the book Johnny Tremain).
So the bare existence and concept of slavery is not the evil horror people presume it to be. And the problem modern readers have when they see it in the Bible is they flash back to Kunta Kinte chained to a barn wall being lashed by a bullwhip. That's not what the Bible is talking about, and if you understand that, the lack of total condemnation in scripture changes this perspective considerably.
Should we, then, not care about slavery as Christians? As Paul puts it in Romans, may it never be!
We should long to set free all unjustly captive and bring comfort and liberty to the enslaved. The Bible spoke in terms of everyone being equal to God - and thus each other - and freedom quite often. But the truth is, scripture is far more concerned with our souls than our present life on earth. Better, scripture teaches, a holy and righteous slave than a freed reprobate. Ideally one would be free and holy, but of the two, holiness takes precedence.
So working to end slavery is good and scriptural, but working to save souls is a higher priority. Because we have but a dozen decades at most on this earth, and forever after that. Where you end up in the bulk of your existence matters far more than how comfortable and free you are in a tiny sliver of it.
*This is part of the Christian Response