Christianity and Slavery

Today many Christians go above and beyond justifying the value of their faith by also attempting to re-write history in order to implicate Christianity as the source of all Western achievements of the last 200-300 years. One of these gross lies is the idea that the abolishment of slavery was due to a proper teaching of the scriptures, a view taught by Dinesh D’Souza in his article How Christians Ended Slavery.1 In the article, D’Souza implies that the rise of Christianity in the Middle Ages ended slavery, by attempting to whitewash serfdom as a great improvement. He also claims that African Americans of the 19th century found solace in Christianity, that atheists played no part in the abolitionist movement, and that Thomas Jefferson was a racist man of science who couldn’t help but appeal to the bible when defending abolitionism.

I. Slavery in the Bible

First of all, I believe it is necessary to undertake a careful examination of the bible’s discussion of slavery, as it will reveal that there is no encouragement to the liberation or equality of slaves that Christians could have based their support of abolition on.

All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered.

-1 Timothy 6:1

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.

-Colossians 3:22

Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive.

-Titus 2:9

Raising this issue to a believer once, I was assured that, according to the books of the law, slaves are to be freed in the seventh year. Ignoring for a moment that in such a case the bible would still be sanctioning slavery for six years, the books of the law actually include some fine print that our good Christian neglected to mention.

If you buy a Hebrew slave, he is to serve for only six years. Set him free in the seventh year, and he will owe you nothing for his freedom. If he was single when he became your slave and then married afterward, only he will go free in the seventh year. But if he was married before he became a slave, then his wife will be freed with him. But the slave may plainly declare, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children. I would rather not go free.’ If he does this, his master must present him before God. Then his master must take him to the door and publicly pierce his ear with an awl. After that, the slave will belong to his master forever.

-Exodus 21:2-6

If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as menservants do.

-Exodus 21:7

Note that these verses specify that only a male Hebrew slave can be freed after six years. Granted, there are also verses in the bible which command masters to treat their slaves well (Colossians 4:1 comes to mind), but this is no encouragement to emancipation, as it still entertains the ownership of human beings as property. While it is apparent that the bible’s purpose is to spread the message of Jesus Christ and salvation, not to free slaves, and there were indeed some Christians in the 19th century who worked in the cause of abolition out of their religious conviction, the religion of Christianity itself cannot justifiably be said to deserve all the credit for ending slavery.

II. Serfdom vs. Slavery

After his little tirade against atheists, D’Souza sets up his first ridiculous argument:

Now serfdom has its problems but at least the serf is not a “human tool” and cannot be bought and sold like property.

While he may be partially right on the second claim, the very concept of serfdom involves a landowner using humans as their own personal tools or laborers. According to Wikipedia:

Serfdom was the enforced labor of serfs on the fields of landowners, in return for protection and the right to work on their leased fields.

Serfs were the lowest social class, and certainly considered to be the property of the landowners. One might try and point to the promise of ‘protection’ as the difference factor between serfdom and slavery, but slave masters surely protected their slaves when it meant they would lose part of their labor force and therefore lose profit. D’Souza’s entire argument seems to rest on the idea that serfdom was Christianity’s answer for ending slavery, and this assumption is made on the basis that it is, in Dinesh’s opinion, the lesser of two evils. It is interesting to note that as Christianity’s stranglehold on the world began to dwindle during the Renaissance, serfdom became increasingly rare.

Slavery did not completely evaporate during the medieval era, of course, as many prominent figures in the church were still espousing pro-slavery views. St. Augustine, one of the prominent figures in Catholic history and philosophy, affirmed that “for it is with justice, we believe, that the condition of slavery is the result of sin”.2 Likewise, St. Thomas Aquinas said:

It belongs to justice to render to each one his right, the distinction between individuals being presupposed: for if a man gives himself his due, this is not strictly called ‘just.’ And since what belongs to the son is his father’s, and what belongs to the slave is his master’s, it follows that properly speaking there is not justice of father to son, or of master to slave.3

III. Religion of the Slaves

While it is true that many slaves found comfort and solace in the teachings of Christianity, Dinesh does not properly address how this fact implicates Christianity’s role in abolitionism. Perhaps they found comfort in the religion because it was all they knew, after missionaries invaded their country and forced Christianity upon them, and if their masters talked often about the promises of salvation. If slaves had read verses like Titus 2:9 or Colossians 3:22, how likely would it have been that they would have fought for their freedom?

Not all slaves appreciated the way they were being treated in the name of Christianity either. The well-known American author and former-slave Frederick Douglass had the following to say:

The church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors…. For my part, I would say, welcome infidelity! Welcome atheism! Welcome anything! in preference to the gospel, as preached by these Divines! They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny and barbarous cruelty, and serve to confirm more infidels, in this age, than all the infidel writings of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Bolingbroke put together have done!4

IV. Atheism and Abolitionism

Only in recent decades has it started to become socially acceptable among the general public to openly admit one is an atheist. So it is curious how D’Souza names ancient Greece and pre-Christian Rome as examples of “atheist” cultures that, in his view, stood by and let slavery happen.

…slavery pre-dated Christianity by centuries and even millennia. As we read from sociologist Orlando Patterson’s work, all known cultures had slavery. For centuries, slavery needed no defenders because it had no critics. Atheists who champion ancient Greece and pre-Christian Rome somehow seem to forget that those empires were based on large-scale enslavement.

I sincerely hope he realizes that among all the advancements and enlightened approaches of those empires which atheists admire, slavery is not included. Shall we cease to appreciate the wonders of history simply because some were built by slave labor? One can easily praise certain, specific aspects of a culture without having to approve of all of its darker associations, too. I think its worth noting that atheists do not consider Greece or Rome to be archetypal atheist cultures or anything of the sort. They are praised for their interest in reason, science, and philosophy, and their propagation of free-thought, but they are hardly flawless examples, as practically every non-believer knows.

D’Souza is right about one thing, though: slavery has indeed existed in all known cultures. But instead of following this to its logical conclusion, he seeks to lay the blame on atheism. I’m not exactly sure of what Dinesh would expect, as many atheists still have a disdain for uniting even today. Did he expect a centralized effort of atheists to end slavery in the medieval era or in the 19th century? Such an idea is preposterous, but what else could be meant? Slavery pre-dates many systems of ethics and is born from a racist paradigm of hate and superiority, not out of religion or a lack thereof.

V. Jefferson’s Racist Abolitionism

Next, Dinesh evokes Thomas Jefferson in three interesting ways to make his last argument. First, he admits that Jefferson is a skeptical thinker and not exactly orthodox in a religious sense. However, without even pausing to take a breath, he then claims that Jefferson uses “biblical language” when he presents his view on slavery, citing the following:

…the Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest… And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that His justice cannot sleep for ever.

Does the simple mention of God constitute “biblical language”? I’m at a loss here for what Dinesh considers to be biblical, let alone Christian, about Jefferson’s words. It is well known that Thomas Jefferson was a Deist, and so there is little dispute that he believed in a creator. He also believed, as is famously written in the Declaration of Independece, that men are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. Yet these quotes D’Souza has provided us with show absolutely no remote connection to Christianity, and certainly none to atheism.

Then returning to form, Dinesh blasts Jefferson for holding racist opinions based on “the latest science”. I’m not quite sure what the target of his attack is, because evolutionary theory was not proposed until 33 years after Jefferson’s death, and surely D’Souza must know that. Nonetheless, if he’s actually criticizing science itself at the time of the 18th century, he has some explaining to do. As a Christian apologist who enjoys parading out science as evidence of a god, you might think he would steer clear of ridiculing science in general, but perhaps not.

It appears that Thomas Jefferson, like any other slave-owner in his time, did believe whites were superior, only in a letter written in 1809, it seems he later regrets this view and retracts it:

Be assured that no person living wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a complete refutation of the doubts I have myself entertained and expressed on the grade of understanding allotted to them by nature, and to find that in this respect they are on a par with ourselves. My doubts were the result of personal observation on the limited sphere of my own State, where the opportunity for the development of their genius were not favorable and those of exercising it still less so. I expressed them therefore with great hesitation; but whatever be their degree of talent it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others. On this subject they are gaining daily in the opinions of nations, and hopeful advances are making toward their re-establishment on an equal footing with the other colors of the human family. I pray you therefore to accept my thanks for the many instances you have enabled me to observe of respectable intelligence in that race of men, which cannot fail to have effect in hastening the day of their relief; and to be assured of the sentiments of high and just esteem and consideration which I tender to yourself with all sincerity.5

The mention of Sir Isaac Newton in Jefferson’s letter is a bit comical, considering how D’Souza asserts that science won over Jefferson to racism, when in the end it played a role in correcting his understanding. Even while he held the opinion that non-white races were inferior, Jefferson was very vocal about the immorality of slavery. Still, it seems rather interesting that Dinesh spends most of the article bashing the figures whom atheists respect, and not so much time establishing how it is that Christianity supposedly ended slavery.

So who really ended slavery? No one did. Slavery exists in many parts of the world today, while the focus of outreach in many churches is often centered on things like abstinence programs and anti-abortion propaganda. How can we work towards ending slavery? By promoting methods of reason and a positive system of ethics, and that can take virtually any different face of religion or philosophy – but those essential methods must remain at the forefront of any abolitionist effort. For they are truly all that can be responsible for ending slavery.

 


Sources:
1. D’Souza, D. (2008) How Christians Ended Slavery. Townhall.com. Last retrieved June 2, 2009.
2. Augustine. (c. 410) The City of God. Book XIX, chapter 15.
3. Aquinas. (1265-1274) Summa Theologica. “On Justice”.
4. Douglass, F. (1852) Reported to be from a speech in Rochester.
5. Jefferson, T. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. Volume V, p. 429.