“When the Missionaries arrived, the Africans had the Land and the Missionaries had the Bible. They taught us how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible.” This witty quote very much encapsulates the perception people have about the role of Christianity in the Transatlantic Slave trade. The Transatlantic slave trade alone, saw some 10 million Africans transported to the Americas between the 1400s and 1800s. According to many, the Bible motivated the slave masters to brutally rob Africa of its vital and vibrant human resource. How true is this?
We must first establish the fact that the issue of slavery is quite complex. The characteristics of slavery is so complicated that it is almost impossible (and largely erroneous) to provide a generalized definition of the term. That makes perfect sense considering the fact that child labor, indentured service, chattel slavery, forced labour, sex trafficking, apprenticeship-internship etc. were all commonly referred to as ‘slavery’ during biblical times. Since the mention of slavery brings to the table several forms of servitude, this discussion will employ terminologies to help identify the form of servitude being spoken of at each point in time.
It is very sad that people blame the New World chattel slavery (slaves were treated as actual property, had no legal protection and no means to attain liberty) on Christianity when the traditional leaders of the land exchanged their own people for manufactured goods, weapons, sugar, mirrors,whiskey etc. How do you bypass this fact to blame the Transatlantic Slave trade on the supposed ‘tool’ the oppressor used? Slavery is against the human rights of human beings. The world has come a long way in the fight for human rights. Is it not ironic that Christianity played a major role in the abolishment of the New World chattel slavery especially in the U.S? Even long after the New World chattel slavery was abolished, the black civil rights movement was also spearheaded by people like Dr. Martin Luther King. And although many forget this fact, he was a reverend minister. A house divided against itself shall not stand. If the bible indeed promotes such form of brutality, how come Christians made major contributions to its abolishment all over the world?
The Old Testament alone contains many alarming instances of slavery that open our eyes to how widespread and lucrative it was in those days. Remember the story of Elisha and the wife of the prophet… the prophet who left his wife at the mercy of his creditor when he died? One of the things the creditor told her was that, either she paid up all the money her husband owed him before his death or risk having her sons sold into slavery. This compelled the widow to contact the prophet Elisha for help. Again, this scenario tells us that slavery was very widespread and lucrative then. It was perhaps very common too; it appears one could easily have contact with slavers. I made this inference from the manner in which Joseph’s brothers sold him to slave-merchants who later sold him into slavery in Egypt. Speaking of Egypt, I can tell that Egypt was probably one of the ancient hubs of the slave trade. Remember how the Egyptians enslaved the children of Israel for about 430 years? The unfortunate thing is, many people tend to disassociate Egypt from Africa. No, Egypt is very much an African country. And historical accounts show that some other African countries had slaves from other continents too.
Indeed some of the most heinous crimes ever reported in human history are said to have been motivated by some approval culprits discovered in the bible. This includes the New World chattel slavery. It is very alarming, considering the level of damage the Slave Trade has done to Africa as a continent. But none of it is true. The bible doesn’t tell Christians to go about enslaving anybody they can overpower. Enslaving defeated foes was almost like the winning prize of a war. Considering the number of wars in the bible, I believe that gives you a fair idea of how many instances of slavery there are in the bible. Slavery was a form of punishment in the bible too. Anytime the Israelites rebelled against God or reverted to idol worship, God allowed their enemies to defeat them in a war and capture them. This scenario recurs so many times in the Old Testament that one would wonder if the Israelites didn’t ever learn from their past mistakes and that of their forefathers.
Obviously the Israelites must have had slaves too. As stated already, slaves are amongst the ‘spoils’ soldiers brought back home from wars. The issue here is what the bible says about how the children of God should treat slaves. One of Paul’s unconventional epistles in the bible is the book of Philemon. We see Paul use a more soft and apologetic tone in this epistle. This is even more stunning considering the fact that Paul was talking to someone he has authority over. He states it clearly that he could compel Philemon to do as he says, but out of love he would rather appeal to his conscience to do the right thing. All this was in connection with Philemon’s slave,Onesimus. Onesimus had wronged Philemon and had left to be with Paul. It appears his departure is what caused the rift between him and his master as it must have been that he ran away. Paul had worked closely with Onesimus and had great love for him. The former slave was now a staunch Christian. Paul was sending him back to his former master and required Philemon to treat him like a brother in Christ and not a slave. He could have imposed this initiative on Philemon but chose to make an appeal out of love. Here, we see Paul making a great contribution to the liberation of a slave.
In the New Testament, Christian ‘slave masters’ are admonished to treat their slaves like brothers and Christian slaves are admonished to honour their masters no matter how mean they are to them. This is where the contention is. It appears by admonishing slave masters to deal with their slaves kindly, the issue of slavery hasn’t been dealt with at its roots. As stated earlier, several forms of slavery did occur in biblical times. In Timothy 6 for instance, Paul made reference to economic-based slavery (known as ‘indentured service’) where people offered themselves as slaves to work for other families in order to survive or pay off a debt. God regulated this form of servitude by establishing a set of strict laws to protect men and women (be it Hebrew or Gentile) from any form of cruel treatment by their masters. God’s Law for example:
- Forbade masters from running big interest charges on servant’s loans (Leviticus 25:35-38)
- Provided marriage rights (Exodus 21:4,10-11)
- Physical protection rights ( Deuteronomy 10:19; 24:14, Leviticus 19:34, Exodus 21:26-27, Leviticus 25:39-41)
- Provided freedom rights (Deuteronomy 15:1;12, 23:15)
NB: Most of the laws of the Ancient Near East gave room for chattel slavery as the laws provided very little or no protection at all for the slaves. God’s Law on the other hand offered protection for slaves in Israel at that time amidst harsh conditions faced by their counterparts elsewhere.
It’s of no surprise then that some slaves rather preferred to stay behind looking at the great benefits that came along with working in their master’s home. Most of them for instance had access to formal education and also had the opportunity to learn a trade like carpentry and medicine. There was the sense of belonging to a family unlike chattel slavery that equated one to nothing more than a piece of furniture. ‘To fire a bullet into a slave was like firing a bullet into a pumpkin, not like firing a bullet into a human.’, as one researcher described the plight of chattel slaves. It’s sad that many feel God’s Law made provisions for chattel slavery when in the actual fact, God’s laws prohibited any form of servant mistreatment (check scriptural references above). In the Bible, kidnapping people and making them slaves against their will was very clear: it was a crime punishable by death! (Exodus 21:16). Paul actually emphasized God’s disapproval of this kind of slave trading in his letter here. What Paul is doing over here is harking to Old Testament ethic and condemning chattel slavery alongside heinous acts like lying, murder and sodomy. Several forms of master-servant relationship existed under God’s Law BUT nowhere in scripture did it ever endorse a dehumanizing relationship such as New World chattel slavery. Yet skeptics will somehow manage to read a portion of scripture and criticize it for supporting such brutality while the entire Bible, in its rightful context, makes plain God’s disapproval of any deplorable acts of cruelty and injustice.
Anyway, with respect to warning Christian slave masters to treat their slaves kindly, there’s a potential problem we need to bring to light over here. There’s almost always the tendency for one to abuse his or her newfound freedom. This is nothing new. Just as many of the women at that time misunderstood their newfound freedom in Christ (referring to gender equality), it was very likely some slaves had also began to overstep their boundaries by disobeying their masters. Some probably got complacent, seeing no need to either work hard or show respect to their masters–someone they were now equal with. Well, too bad because Christianity came not to extinguish social positions BUT rather to make them completely irrelevant to accepting the new life in Christ. This is how Christianity differed from the Greco-Roman culture in that the latter placed much emphasis on one’s status based on one’s family or wealth. In God’s family, both the Jew and Greek, Circumcised and Uncircumcised, Male and Female, Barbarian and Scythian, as well as the slave and free are all in a common relationship with Christ Jesus. One group has absolutely no basis to undervalue another group because there’s no such thing as superiority/inferiority. The slave master in this case isn’t better than his servant because he himself is also a slave to the True Master in Heaven! This is why Slave masters were being admonished to treat their servants with utmost respect and dignity as a means to exemplify the approved relationship between those who were in a similar position. After all, each servant bore the image of Christ and as such deserved to be treated as God’s beloved.
Though the Bible is against practices that abuse and dehumanize a human being, many still feel the New Testament writers should have outlawed all forms of slavery altogether. If you’ve been following closely, you’ll agree that annulling the morally permissible, economic-based slavery would’ve done more harm than good to impoverished families. In the sense that this was the only means by which they could fend for themselves. Moreover, about 40% of the Roman population comprised slaves; most of which were young children but some were adults. Paul really understood the times he was living in knowing very well the social catastrophe he would have caused had he managed to persuade the Roman government to free all slaves. This is not to say that Paul had no future plans of instructing the church to move away from the general slave system. We already know that Paul opposed slave-trading (1 Timothy 1:9-10) and in addition to that, advised people to pursue freedom (1 Corinthians 7:21-23). Until a much better social welfare program had been established, tearing down the only ‘welfare program’ that existed at that time would have exposed many to the harsh environment out there.
Written by Elvis Sampson and Elikplim Sabblah
References: 1 Timothy 6, Exodus 21, Leviticus 25, Deuteronomy 15, Galatians 3:28, 1 Corinthians 12:13, Colossians 3:11, Philemon, Does God Approve of slavery according to the bible?, The Atlantic slave trade: what few textbooks told you – Anthony Hazard, Does God condone slavery in the Bible? – Glenn Miller.