Slavery and revisionism

As quoted by Florida Baptist Witness, Chuck Colson is trying to argue that Christianity deserves credit for ending slavery.

Christopher Hitchens states, “religion makes people do wicked things they wouldn’t ordinarily do … the licenses for genocide, slavery, racism, are all right there in the holy text.”It is a rather empty accusation when put alongside a man like William Wilberforce, who as the film Amazing Grace shows, attacked and abolished the slave trade because of his Christian convictions.

Sorry Charlie, but the accusation would only be empty if the licenses for genocide, slavery, and racism weren’t in the Bible. Latter-day liberal believers like Wilberforce may have chosen to take their religion more from their conscience than from dogma, but that doesn’t change what was originally taught and practiced in the apostolic Church.

For example, consider what Exodus tells us that God wanted to happen in His new nation of Israel:

If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free.

But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life.

If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as menservants do. If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.

So you can buy a slave even from among your fellow Israelites. Technically, you have to let him go at the end of 6 years, but if you can manage to get him to marry one of your female slaves and have a kid or two, then you can blackmail him into choosing between losing his wife and kids, or becoming your slave for life. Israelites could also sell their daughters into sexual slavery, which was not limited to a six-year term. There are a few restrictions on how he can treat her, but he is her property for as long as he cares to keep her, provided he keeps what few demands the law requires of him.

This is not Christians keeping a low profile in the midst of a profane and godless culture. This is God dictating from Mount Sinai exactly what kind of culture He wants established in His new kingdom of Israel–a fact which Colson conveniently overlooks:

In ancient times in the Roman Empire, slavery was a fact of life-one which the writings of the Scripture reflect. But acknowledging social reality is not the same thing as “licensing” it.

Even in New Testament times, however, Christians did not limit themselves to merely acknowledging the existence of slavery. They acknowledged the existence of idolatry, adultery and prostitution too–all of which were also facts of life in the Roman Empire–but there’s no question that they denounced and opposed such practices, no matter how popular they were. Slavery, however, was not condemned, but embraced as a normal part of the way things ought to be. Nowhere are Christians told that they should not own slaves. They’re told to treat them fairly, but not that there’s anything wrong with one man owning another (or owning a woman who is not his wife).

Even Colson obliquely acknowledges this, in the way he gropes for some kind of connection between what the Bible says and how Wilberforce behaved:

When the Apostle Paul wrote to Philemon and when he wrote that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” he planted the seeds that would, one day, lead to the demise of the institution of slavery.

Philemon was a slave-owner to whom Paul was returning a runaway slave, and the quote from Colossians 3:11 is no more a call for the end of slavery than it is a call for Christian men to stop being men and Christian women to stop being women. Yet that’s the best Colson can come up with as a Biblical justification for opposing slavery, and it overlooks many other passages, such as Revelation 6:15, that seem to see slavery as an institution enduring until the end of time.

Likewise, Paul included “slave traders” among those he identified as “lawbreakers.”

Well, not quite. Buying and selling slaves was explicitly permitted by the Law of Moses, so Paul can’t call slave-trading a sin without implying that God is a sinner. The word Paul used in I Tim. 1:8-11 was andrapodistais, or “man-snarer,” i.e. someone who kidnaps a free-born person and sells them into slavery. The sin here is not so much owning a slave, or selling him, but rather the offense of turning a free man into one. One might argue that this still could count as one of the seeds of abolition, in that it shows the hypocrisy of the Mosaic Law regarding slaves, but in New Testament times no one took it that far.

It is true that Christians have not always lived up to the moral teachings of the faith: The record of the Church is not without blemish. But it is also true that when Christians kept and traded slaves, they were going against the teachings of their own religion.

This is quite simply a lie (as in bearing false witness, something the Bible actually does forbid). If there were a verse in the Bible that told Christians not to keep, buy, or sell slaves, Colson would have quoted it by now. Online search tools like make it trivial to type in a few key words and look them up. What slave-owning Christians were going against was the more modern, humanistic ideal that all men are inherently equal and are not born into ranked social classes of differing worth.

Thus, when Spanish and Portuguese traders brought slavery to the New World, successive popes condemned the practice and even threatened to excommunicate slave traders and slave owners. And when in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, men like William Wilberforce in Britain and William Garrison in America led the fight against slavery and the slave trade, they led, like their early Church counterparts, motivated by Christian teaching on human dignity and equality.

Colson is forgetting the equally strong biblical arguments supporting slavery by Christian pastors and teachers in the South.

When Christians obey their teachings, they are the greatest defenders of human rights in the world. Hitchens and company deny this, but the evidence belies them.

Well, we’ll see. The same verse that says “there is neither slave nor free” also says there is “neither male nor female.” When Christians start supporting equal rights regardless of gender issues, when they stop insisting that women should be raising kids at home, and stop opposing gay marriage, and start actively combatting those who would forbid these rights to others, then they can start bragging about what great defenders of human rights they are.

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Posted in Current Events, Unapologetics. 4 Comments »

4 Responses to “Slavery and revisionism”

  1. ausyoyo Says:

    Oh yes and the pope was a great supporter of jews against the nazis. Except he wasn’t. I hate this rewriting of history to imply that christianity has always been a force for good.

    Crusades anyone?

  2. mrrage Says:

    The same verse that says “there is neither slave nor free” also says there is “neither male nor female.”

    If you disregard every Christian argument that selectively used a text like this, would there be any arguments left? I guess Christians think they have license to do it though, seeing as that most of the Old Testament quotes in Matthew & Mark are out of context.

  3. kbbales Says:

    While I am not so convinced by your selctive quotation of the Hebrew torah to convict Christians of failing to end slavery, there are two points I’d make – 1. the first history of the first abolitionist movement was written by Wilberforce’s sons. They systematically excluded Thomas Clarkson the real organizer of that movement, his role has been now restored in a new book by Adam Hochschild. 2. Colson MIGHT have a point if slavery had ended, but it didn’t, it was only made illegal. There are, conservatively, 27 million slaves in the world today – see

  4. The Professor Says:

    Thank you for that link, I’ve added it to the link list, and I hope that my readers will support this urgently-needed initiative.

    My quote of the Torah was not intended to convict Christians of failing to end slavery, but merely to document that the Old Testament portrays God Himself as providing for a well-regulated practice of slavery within His own nation. Since Christians of Colson’s ilk like to present the Bible as being an infallible source of moral authority, in both Testaments, I thought that was a relevant point.