Slavery and the Bible
by Thomas Katsampes

October 14, 2015

"...The industrial revolution and subsequent mechanization of society came along and made slaves obsolete. It's easy to condemn others for engaging in a practice that you no longer need due to technological advancement. Had you been a southern plantation owner in 1812 America you would most certainly have owned slaves."

Response:

Slavery is primarily a moral question. Slavery in America was not ended as a consequence of technological innovation. Slavery in America was ended because people who believed slavery was wrong prevailed in war against those who did not.

The Biblical writers do not appear to condemn the social institution of slavery directly but rather condemn the cruel and unjust treatment of slaves. This is a subtle but significant distinction.

God brought the Hebrews out of the "House of Bondage" (Egypt) because He heard their cries after a "Pharaoh arose who knew not Joseph" (Exodus 1:8). But the Hebrews were also slaves under Pharaohs who remembered Joseph and treated Hebrews justly. After a Pharaoh arose who had forgotten Joseph and as a result, treated the Hebrews cruelly, it was the beginning of the end of slavery in Egypt.

In the New Testament, there is no direct repudiation of slavery as an institution; there is a passage where St. Paul talks about how in Christ, differences are abolished, there is no male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free; this explains salvation, and our relationship in Christ; it does not morally pronounce on the social institution of slavery.

By today's Western, Enlightenment standards, slavery was and is an evil institution. However, personal liberty as an objective moral good (as expressed by the fathers of the Enlightenment) seemed to be a little-known concept to the Biblical writers. Authors of the Bible primarily stressed how we treat others, regardless of their station in life, whatever that station may be.

In other words, for the Biblical writers, the sin consists in treating a slave (or anyone else, for that matter) unjustly or cruelly, not in the fact that the person so treated happens to be a slave. Admittedly, this is a difficult and uncomfortable concept for us moderns to get our arms around.

Our moral problem with slavery as an institution, regardless of how well slaves may be treated, is that we believe human liberty is an inviolable gift from God, and therefore we hold that one person cannot "own" another person as he would own real property or possessions. But this idea originated with the Enlightenment, not with the Biblical writers. The notion that one person could not be a slave of another would likely have puzzled the Biblical writers. The necessary philosophical and moral thinking which prized the human person's individual liberty as sacrosanct had not yet been fully developed.

People run around claiming that "The Bible says this, the Bible says that, the Bible condones this, the Bible condemns that," and so on. But the reality is that the "Bible" does none of these things. The Bible - especially the Old Testament - is mostly a historical record. The Bible merely tells us what happened. The Biblical writers, not "The Bible," make moral pronouncements, or record God doing so, such as His giving of the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule.

We do know that how we treat our fellow human beings was of paramount importance to the Biblical writers. The authors of the Bible seemed to be less concerned with overthrowing institutions, creating revolutions, new social orders, and so forth. The Hebrew Prophets emphasized doing justice, showing mercy, and walking with God. Christ's disciples and apostles emphasized faith in the revealed Saviour (John 3:16) and good works arising from that faith (St. James).

However much it may grate on our modern sensibilities, the Biblical writers seemed to accept slavery as a fact of life, a life which was too often miserable and short; slavery along with other evils such as sickness and death were yet another consequence of the fallen state of humanity - but mistreating a slave was a sin. No one, regardless of position, has fully mastered human decency and kindness.

The Biblical writers do not ask, "how do we get rid of the institution of slavery?" but rather, "given my lot, how do I live a good and moral life?" Micah 6:8 is the Old Testament's answer to that question, and Christ's Golden Rule - Do unto others as you would have them do unto you - is the New Testament's answer to that question.

Neither answer calls us to overthrow social institutions such as the crown, or even slavery for that matter. The moral and theological impetus and justification for large-scale societal and institutional change would not be fully developed until centuries after the Bible was written. The theological and moral justification for final abolition of slavery is rooted in the Protestant Reformation and subsequent Enlightenment period. One of the chief exponents of the abolition movement was the Englishman William Wilberforce. Slavery in the civilized world ended with Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 and General Robert E. Lee's surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.



Surrender of General Lee

Abraham Lincoln

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