Christian Slavery

We Brits abolished slavery two centuries ago and applied ourselves to the task of eradicating it throughout the Empire. Across the pond, our colonial cousins fought a bloody civil war over it but they too finally outlawed slavery. In both cases, the aftermath of abolition was badly botched and descendants of slaves across the world still find themselves too often second class citizens. For a long time now in the west, we have recognised that slavery in any form is abhorrent and our law enforcement agencies fight hard to root it out. But it remains a curse today as much as it ever did – it is estimated that the number of slaves today range from at least 20 million up to more than twice that number. The traditional kind of slavery still exists in parts of Africa, but modern slavery takes many other forms – the trafficking of adults and children for enforced sex, marriage, and labour continues in many parts of the world. It seems obvious that it is wrong, and one must suppose that many who still practice it recognise its moral depravity. Yet in some cultures, this does not seem to be the case – evidence that the human sense of morality is not absolute and inborn, but develops and evolves with human civilisation. Religious believers of course do not accept that. For them, good and evil are absolutes to be defined in terms of obedience or otherwise to the dictates of the deity. If this was indeed the case, one might have hoped that the deities concerned would have made it clear that slavery is evil; surely it follows as night follows day, that if humans are made in the image of god, and are all equal in the sight of god, then for one human to enslave another is to transgress the most basic of the requirements for decent human existence. 

Yet nowhere in the Bible does God condemn or forbid slavery. Indeed, in the Old Testament, Jehovah actually sanctions the practice for Jews:

You may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way. (Leviticus 25:44-46).

Typical of the Jewish scriptures – one rule for the Jews and another for the rest of us! But (I hear you cry), Jesus did away with all this. The Old Testament is full of such awfulness (as indeed it is) but we live in the new dispensation wrought by Christ’s death on the cross, in which we are no longer bound by the old laws. Strange then, that the Apostle Paul – or probably, more correctly, someone else writing under his name – also wrote:

Slaves[1], obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ. (Ephesians 6:5)

Pretty much the same sentiment appears in his letter to the Colossians too (3.22) - so he was hardly in too minds about it. As with the call to male castration that I highlighted last week, this cannot be explained away as Old Testament anachronism. It may well be an anachronism nonetheless but it says nothing for the much vaunted absolute righteousness of the Christian deity. And next time you are morally outraged by hearing in the news about some poor Eastern European girl, forced into prostitution and worse in a town near you, you can relax in the confident knowledge that Almighty God is OK with it, so who are you to have scruples? 

[1] The King James version conveniently has ‘Servants’ but  modern translations correctly have the more troubling ‘Slaves’.