Playing the Indian Card

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Slavery and the Bible

Joseph being sold into bondage.

A friend who claims she is an atheist has linked on Facebook to a poster with the caption: “If the bible got the easiest moral question humanity has ever faced wrong, and that was slavery, then what are the odds that it is wrong on something as complex as human sexuality?” – Dan Savage.

Let’s respond: both major premise and minor premise are wrong. Therefore, the conclusion does not follow.

First, slavery is not the easiest moral question humanity has ever faced. It is a complex issue. Second, it is not clear what the Bible’s position is on slavery (whereas its positions on human sexuality are generally straightforward).

What is “the easiest moral question humanity has ever faced”? Surely murder, not slavery; is enslaving someone worse than murdering them? Is life less important than liberty?

So, murder is the easiest moral question. But to be clear, there are degrees of murder. Surely mass murder is worse than individual murder: killing a million people is worse than killing one. So, mass murder is the easiest moral question. In addition, surely killing someone who is absolutely blameless is worse than killing someone whose own deeds are dark—there are various shades of gray on the path to what becomes justifiable homicide. Moreover, surely killing someone who is about to die the next day of natural causes is not as bad as killing a young person with their whole life before them. The net natural lifespan remaining enters into the equation.

Therefore, being precise, the easiest moral question mankind has ever faced is, in fact, not slavery, but abortion on demand: the mass murder of innocents at the very beginning of life.

I think you will find that the Bible is against this. The evil of killing children is a central theme throughout the book.

Slavery, by contrast? While an evil in itself, it may easily be preferable to the alternatives available.

First, let’s define our terms. Merriam-Webster defines slavery as “the state of a person who is a chattel of another.” This I find unsatisfying, because what a “chattel” means can vary greatly; what ownership entails may vary greatly depending on the laws in force. Moreover, being owned is not necessarily an unpleasant thing: when my kids refer to me as “my Dad,” or my wife as “my husband,” I tend to feel proud, not oppressed. Yet this is, literally an assertion of ownership.

William Wilberforce, Evangelical Christian, the man who ended slavery throughout the British Empire.

Wikipedia says slavery is when “one human being is legally the property of another, can be bought or sold, is not allowed to escape and must work for the owner without any choice involved.” Again, let’s skip that “legally the property of another” as too vague. Let’s say a slave “can be bought or sold, is not allowed to escape, and must work for the owner without any choice involved.”

Notice that that comes close to a definition of what happens when you are sent to prison. It is also pretty close to what happens when a divorced father is ordered to pay child support. The only thing missing is the “bought or sold” bit. Which does not really seem to be the most oppressive part, does it? Athletes have long been “bought and sold” by their teams, but we don’t think of them as suffering too much because of it.

So, are you willing to insist that these arrangements, prison for crime and mandatory child support, are obviously immoral? Not even the “easiest moral question humanity has ever faced,” but just obviously immoral? What’s your alternative?

Think carefully, because the obvious and historical answer is, in fact, “slavery.” Until fairly recently, societies were not strong or rich enough to support police forces and prison systems, to track down debtors, or to tend abandoned children. These necessarily had to be farmed out to individuals, and that means slavery. Recall that there were not even any organized police forces in Europe until the early 19th century—Robert Peel and his “Bobbies” being a famous early example.

Not coincidentally, this is the same time slavery started to fade out. At the beginning of the 19th century, three-quarters of the world’s population was still held in slavery of some sort. By the end, slavery in all forms was banned throughout Europe, America, and most of the rest of the world.

From the beginning of recorded history, slavery has been used to address four problems: 1. Punishment for crime; 2. Inability to repay debts; 3. Poverty, and 4. Conquered people.

Punishment for crime seems obvious: if you do not have a prison system, what do you do? Either you execute for every crime, or you torture, or you exact fines for everything, or … you enslave them. None of these sound good, but you must have some punishment for crime. Especially in the case of theft, but also assault and any other form of personal harm, enslaving them seems an obvious solution: the criminal’s labour can actually pay the victim back. Is our present system, in which the victim usually gets nothing, obviously better?

By extension, slavery also works as a way to pay back debts. Is our present system, of declaring bankruptcy and walking away, obviously more just? Although it brings economic benefits, it is surely not as fair to the creditors.

Poverty explains the bit in the Bible about selling your daughter. When there is no welfare system, what do you do? Is selling yourself or your child into slavery worse than leaving them and you to die slowly of starvation in the street? Is it even fairer than forcing others to pay for your upkeep without recompense, as we do at present?

Enslaving conquered people seems less fair than these other forms of slavery. But here, too, there was a practical necessity. Prisoners of war require a prison system. Without one, what do you do with a defeated enemy to prevent him from just running home, re-arming, and coming at you again tomorrow? Okay, you could kill him and eat him. It’s been done. Slavery seems a bit better. It takes a very high level of trust for both sides to sign a paper promising not to take up arms again right away, and let that suffice.

The Bible does not clearly take a stand either for or against slavery; it accepts it as a fact of life. Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers, or the Hebrews being in bondage in Egypt, are hardly presented as good things. And that, given the alternatives, seems to be the morally proper position. A comparable case is that of usury. In the Bible, charging any interest on a loan is considered a sin. This is no longer held to be so, by most Christians and Jews, because the danger of usury has been eliminated by the bankruptcy laws. Now it is only excessive interest that is condemned. Another is capital punishment. This is obviously permitted in the Bible; that does not mean it is presented as something good. It was a practical necessity. Now, on the other hand, when almost all nations have dependable prison systems, the Catholic Church holds that the underlying principles of the Bible make it immoral.

It seems likely, too, that the Bible would have been opposed to the particular form of slavery practiced in the US South up until the middle of the 19th century, which is probably what most of us think of when we hear the word “slavery.” In fact, it was Christianity that ended it.

European Christians enslaved in Barbary.

The biggest problem with US slavery was that it assumed human inequality: it saw Africans as an inferior race who were better off as slaves. The Bible insists on the moral equality of all human beings, as children of God. Locke took this religious assertion, and from it developed his political ideas, later enshrined in the US Declaration of Independence: that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are a right to liberty.

This “right to liberty” was the doctrine that eventually ended slavery, and it came, says Locke, from the equality of man as asserted in the Bible.


JennJenn said...

I do not ''claim'' to be atheist...I am! Proudly, openly, unapologetically atheist Old Friend! It will take awhile for me to take this in. First thought, instinct is as follows...''are you kidding me???!!!" Hence the need to digest this. Visceral reaction was ''Stephen,I hope I am simply misreading what you are saying here'' or my fibro fog is causing me to misunderstand your I shall take time to reevaluate what you have said. I'm not taking anything personally here but you must accept I am never going to revoke my non belief. Not gonna happen. So to say I ''claim'' to be atheist somehow implies this will or can be changed. There is always a ''but'' attached to ''claim'' statements. She claims to be atheist, but...(teeheehee) I'm pulling your chain...or am I?

Steve Roney said...

Heavens, Jen-Jen, don't complain! I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt!

JennJenn said...

As I said my Friend, I haven't had a chance to "digest" this last blog, or I really am becoming addled. I'll re-read it at leisure.

I just wish you would say "my atheist friend" not one who claims to be. That would mean the door to faith may still be open. A year ago? Perhaps. Now? Firmly and permanently closed.

Jen-Jen said...

I have found 46 references to slavery in your bible. All with a two word google search...slavery+bible. It seems very clear to me just what the book says about slavery. I found these at

To be fair some do speak against slavery in the sense that "buying and selling human beings for the purpose of using them as unpaid and indentured servants and treating them like animals",is wrong, yet in many verses it does say how a slave is to be treated, never, not ever, this is wrong in all ways.

Leviticus 25:44-46
As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever. You may make slaves of them, but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another ruthlessly.

Exodus 21:20-21
“When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.

Ephesians 6:5
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ,

Colossians 4:1
Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.

The true meaning of the word slave is I think fairly clear...the buying and selling of human beings to be used as unpaid labour, bought and sold at the owner's leisure and have no say regarding the conditions in which they are forced to live and are, at all costs up to and including murder, not free to leave. The quote from the Ephesians would almost dictate the master be looked upon with the same reverence as Jesus! Is the master Jesus? This would suggest its so.

You are right about one thing and that is murder is indeed worse than slavery...but I think the book is fairly agreeable that murder, killing is wrong. Not so slavery, no mention of it being wrong. I believe he was making a point that the book is all over the place about slavery,(just stick to the rules and you're good) not so all over the place about murder (dont) and way out in left field about sex. Doesn't matter how its written or why...incest is wrong (father/daughter) in my recollection.More to come...:-)

Anonymous said...

Dan Savage is easily the worlds greates moral slug. I can't imagine a more pathetic person. "Vile" seems to be the best adjective to describe him, and "Vile" seems to touch everything he does. And he seems to glory in it.

bill bannon said...

This was a very good essay but what many Catholics on the internet don't understand is that the Church can be non infallible in morals. Catholicism does not claim infallibility in morals but many converts...especially think it does. You actually prove that Popes e.g. can err on morals if they do not access infallibility. John Paul II called slavery an "intrinsic evil" in section 80 of Splendor Veritatis and it is not; it is an evil by context as you prove and as does God's giving permanent chattel slavery over foreigners in Leviticus 25:44-46. Abortion by the way is infallibly condemned in section 62 of Evangelium Vitaeby John Paul II who polled the world's Bishops on that matter and
two other matters and because of that uninimity was able to use infallible wording not unlike the ex cathedra formula.
So there you have one same Pope being infallible on abortion and being incorrect on slavery when he did not access infallibility. On capital punishment he was incorrect and so were his two successors. Prisons only protect society from caught murderers; they deter less than execution does also. We know this because the murder rate went up after the Supreme Court halted the death penalty in 1972 and the murder rate went down when the Supreme Court resumed permission for capital punishment. That means only executions strongly deter murders but as Joanna Shepherd of Emory U. points out, they must be done more than rarely to deter; if they are done rarely, they actually cause a blip upwardin murders.

J. Siemion said...

Came here via Bigpulpit. I agree that slavery is generally misunderstood nowadays. Most people in history have been slaves. Could there have been a better way to handle things? Not sure. It's reasonable for us to expect the Greatest Mind in the Universe (GOD) to propose such a thing, isn't? Why didn't God give any alternatives? God also doesn't seem to mind killing too much. Capital punishment was pretty much the most prescribed penalty. Finally, another thought: taxing the rich to pay for the poor -- is that really worse than having mothers sell their children into slavery? That's kind of how what you wrote sounded.

Steve Roney said...

Welcome, J. Siemion!
I suppose, if the alternative to slavery were obvious and simply implemented, God could have included it in the Mosaic Law. But it is not: it is complicated and involves many steps. Had God included the necessary steps in the Mosaic Law, he would have been guilty of micro-managing: bypassing our own reason, conscience, and free will. This would have defeated the entire purpose of creating us.
The alternative to slavery for poverty is not really “taxing the rich to pay for the poor.” For the rich, paying taxes is always more or less voluntary. They can afford to play the system, or to get up and leave if this seems preferable. Instead, welfare requires paying the poor with money others will sometimes have felt they needed themselves, and sometimes they will have been right. We may find this far preferable to indentured servitude for the undeserving poor, but let’s be clear-eyed on what the alternatives are.

Steve Roney said...

Dear Bill:

You seem to be more learned than I on the matter, but I do believe you are wrong in saying that the Church does not claim to be infallible on morals. I believe it does, although of course individual Catholics, including popes, are quite fallible. Is this what you meant to say?

I think you are also misreading me a bit. I am saying, in my post, that slavery IS an intrinsic evil, something evil in itself, but that it was the best solution available to certain real problems. For comparison, bankruptcy is also an intrinsic evil, but it can be the best available alternative.

I also believe that the recent popes are correct on capital punishment. The studies I have seen—which I am just now too lazy to look up—seem to show that there is no deterrent effect to capital punishment over life in prison. But even if you are right that there is some deterrent effect, can we be confident that it is strong enough to outweigh the possibility that we have, at times, executed an innocent man?

Anonymous said...

You could also have mentioned that slavery has existed in every human society throughout history, with the sole exception of those which were motivated to abolish it by the influence of Christianity. The Fathers of the Catholic Church being the first people in world history to ever call for the abolition of slavery.

Steve Roney said...

Firmly and permanently closed, Jen-Jen? That would mean you are no longer open to either argument or further evidence? In other words, your atheism is an article of faith.

Which is another way of saying, you are not really an atheist. You do not hold the position on the basis of logic or evidence, but because it is what you want to believe.


Steve Roney said...

Jen-Jen, you have done a good job of verifying my second point, that the Bible's position on slavery is not clear. But now what about my first point, that slavery was the best solution available to a set of problems until the modern era?

MJN said...

Perhaps I am wrong, but the "slavery" spoken of in most of the old testament Jewish law probably referred to a type of indentured servitude (often voluntarily entered for payment of debt).

Steve Finnell said...


Those who claim that the King James Version of the Bible is the only accurate translation of God's written word invalidate their position by not believing the accuracy of the King James Version itself.

Example: Acts 2:38 Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.(KJV)

Virtually all "King James Only" advocates assert that "for" in Acts 2:38 has been mistranslated and should have been translated as "because of". For, has not been mistranslated, but the meaning of "for" has been denied in order to claim that water baptism is not essential in order to has sins forgiven.

King James only advocates, by their own admission say Acts 2:38 has been mistranslated.

There is not one translation of the Bible that translates the Greek word "eis" as, because of, in Acts 2:38. Sins are forgiven after water baptism, not before. Men are not baptized because their sins have already been forgiven.

Is it plausible that God waited until 1611 to give men an accurate translation of His written word? Where in the Bible does God say that the only trustworthy translation of My word will be the 1611 version of the King James Bible?

The original King James Version included the 14 apocryphal books. Do King James only advocates use the 14 apocryphal books for faith and practice? I doubt it.

There are many trustworthy translations of God's word. The KJV is just one of them.