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How religion has been used to promote slavery
Moses led the Israelites out of slavery, but he and other religious giants accepted slavery for others, scholars say.
March 29th, 2012
09:19 AM ET

How religion has been used to promote slavery

By John Blake, CNN

Editor’s note: The CNN documentary 'Slavery's Last Stronghold' airs on CNN International TV March 29, 30, 31 and April 22. Check local listings for times.

(CNN) - Which revered religious figure - Moses, Jesus, or the Prophet Mohammad - spoke out boldly and unambiguously against slavery?

Answer: None of them.

One of these men owned slaves, another created laws to regulate - but not ban - slavery. The third’s chief spokesman even ordered slaves to obey their masters, religious scholars say.

Most modern people of faith see slavery as a great evil. Though the three great Western religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – disagree on many matters, most of their contemporary followers condemn slavery.

Yet there was a time when Jews, Christians and Muslims routinely cited the words and deeds of their founders to justify human bondage, scholars say.

At times, religion was deployed more to promote the spread of slavery than to prevent it.

Read about present-day slavery in Mauritania

“The lesson in all this is we need historical humility,” says Daniel C. Peterson, author of “Muhammad, Prophet of God.” “It’s stunning for us to look back now and say, how can people face themselves in the mirror after doing what they did, but they did.”

But what did the founders of the three great Western religions do? Did they have slaves and did they condemn the practice? Or were they, at least on this issue, squarely men of their times?

The answers to these questions are as murky and contradictory as history itself.

What’s a slave?

Part of the problem is historical context. Most contemporary people think of slaves as people condemned to a lifetime of bondage, working on plantations and being whipped like oxen.

That kind of slavery did exist during the lives of Moses, Jesus and the Prophet Mohammad. Many slaves were prisoners of war; concubines, gladiators, laborers in salt mines. They could be killed, raped and discarded at any moment.

Yet there were layers of slavery in the ancient world. Many slaves would be seen today as indentured servants, or people trying to pay off debts; royal bodyguards and entrepreneurs, historians say.

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Sometimes the slaves became masters. In medieval Egypt, Muslim rulers trained and educated slaves to be their bodyguards. One group of slaves grew so powerful that they overthrew the rulers of Egypt and established their own dynasty, says Ali Asani, a professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Languages and Culture at Harvard University.

“Slavery meant different things in different cultures,” Asani says. “There wasn’t always this sense of powerlessness and oppression. In certain forms, it became an access to power.”

In other forms, it became access to freedom, says John Dominic Crossan, one of world’s leading scholars on the life and times of Jesus.

That was the case in the world of Jesus. The Roman Empire was the dominant power of Jesus’ day, and it survived on the backs of millions of slaves. Yet there was only one mass slave revolt against Rome, which was led by Spartacus, a gladiatorial slave, Crossan says.

The reason there were so few massive slave rebellions against Rome was because some of its slaves had avenues for advancement, dim though they may seem to modern sensibilities.

Slaves could buy their freedom. They ran businesses for their masters or tutored their children. Greek slaves, in particular, were often valued because of their education and culture, he says.

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Roman slavery was cruel and capricious, but not all Romans saw slaves as subhuman.

“One of the most extraordinary aspects of Roman slavery,” says Crossan, author of “The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus became Fiction about Jesus,” was that the Romans ended up with a huge number of slaves who were smarter than their masters.”

The uncomfortable historical record

It’s been said that great religious figures transcend history. They rise above the peculiar customs of their day to show a new path forward.

It’s a matter of debate if Moses, Jesus and the Prophet Mohammad did that with slavery. All three seemed to either ignore or tolerate some forms of slavery, some scholars say.

The parables of Jesus, for example, were full of references to slaves. Terms like “servants” or “stewards” are what we would call slaves today. Yet Jesus doesn’t seem to make any moral judgments about slavery in his parables, Crossan says.

The subject may have been irrelevant to him or his audience, says Crossan, the Jesus scholar. Jesus didn’t own any slaves. Neither did his disciples or the crowds Jesus addressed. They were all too poor and lived under desperate economic circumstances.

“It may well be that the people he talked to were small farmers who would not have the luxury of slaves,” Crossan says. “He [Jesus] doesn’t say anything for or against it.”

Still, Crossan says that he believes that Jesus would have opposed slavery, given the nature of his teachings. Scholars aren’t so certain about Jesus’ most influential disciple, the Apostle Paul.

The man whose writings make up most of the New Testament had to deal with slavery. As Christianity spread through the Roman Empire, many slaves joined the church.

At various parts of the New Testament, Paul seems to accept slavery. He tells slaves to obey their masters. At other times, Paul seems to challenge the morality of slavery. In one New Testament letter, Paul intercedes on behalf of a runaway slave and chides the master for calling himself a Christian and holding a slave.

Crossan, along with some other biblical scholars, says there are actually two versions of Paul in the New Testament: the authentic, “radical” Paul who opposed slavery and a “Pseudo-Paul” inserted into the texts by early church leaders who were afraid of antagonizing Rome.

“It’s one thing to say that Jesus is Lord,” Crossan says. “Now if you’re saying a Christian can’t have slaves, then something must be wrong with slaves. So now you’re attacking the Roman system, which is a slave economy.”

Jesus’ apparent silence on slavery and Paul’s ambiguous statements on the issue had dreadful historical consequences. It helped ensure that slavery would survive well into the 19th century in the U.S., some scholars say.

American Christians who owned slaves had a simple but powerful defense in the run-up to the Civil War. The Old and New Testament sanctioned slavery and, since the Bible is infallible, slavery is part of God’s order, says Mark Noll, author “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.”

“The defenders of slavery said Jesus condemned quite a few things that were standard in the Old Testament,” Noll says. “He condemned polygamy, violence, easy divorce, but he never condemned slavery.”

Let my people go, but keep the others

Neither did Moses, the founder of Judaism, say other scholars.

There’s no record of Moses owning slaves, but the Mosaic laws permitted and regulated slavery, says Peterson, the author of “Muhammad, Prophet of God” and a religious scholar at Brigham Young University in Utah.

Still, under Mosaic law, a master was encouraged to free slaves and forgive debts after a certain period of time that was called the year of jubilee, Peterson says.

“They were not trying to create a permanent underclass of slaves that went from parents to child and child and grandchildren,” Peterson says of the ancient Israelites.

But how could ancient Israelites sanction any form of slavery given their exodus from Egyptian captivity? Didn’t their God explicitly condemn slavery when he ordered Moses to tell Pharaoh to “let my people go?”

The text is not clear on that question, says Brannon Wheeler, a religious scholar.

He says the Exodus stories suggest that the God of Israel was angry at Pharaoh not for enslaving a group of people, but for unjustly enslaving the “Chosen People” - the people God had promised to give their own homeland.

“In order to make that promise stick, He [God] has to get them out of Egypt,” says Wheeler, director of the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the United States Naval Academy in Maryland.

“It’s not like He [God] says slavery is bad and I want to abolish it.”

The Prophet Mohammad never explicitly condemned slavery, and actually owned slaves, some scholars say.

Yet he recognized the humanity of slaves, teaching followers that freeing slaves was an act of piety. He allowed slaves to buy their freedom and demanded that they should be treated with love and respect, says Asani, author of  “Celebrating Muhammad: Images of the Prophet in Popular Muslim Poetry.”

“He himself did own slaves but he treated them as family,” Asani says. “One called Zayd he treated like an adopted son and one of his wives was a Coptic Christian slave.”

The followers of men like the Prophet Mohammad, though, would take a harsher attitude toward slaves.

By the time of the crusades, Christians and Muslims were enslaving one another by the thousands. They cited their faith as justification, says Robert C. Davis, author of “Holy War and Human Bondage.”

“Religion was the defining principle of slavery—this person is another faith and can be enslaved,” Davis says.

Some church leaders preached that enslaving others was an act of evangelism, Davis says.

“One pope said that the justification for slavery was that it was important for spreading the faith,” Davis says. “Once they were enslaved, they would more readily take to Christianity.”

Those kinds of actions may now seem barbaric, but the texts and stories that were used to justify slavery still exist in the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Few, though, would quote those scriptures today, and many don’t even know they exist.

“We shouldn’t be surprised,” says Jonathan Brockopp, a religion professor at Pennsylvania State University. “Religions redefine themselves and people draw on different stories and underplay other stories. This happens constantly.”

It happened with slavery, and, who knows, perhaps it’s happening again in our time. There may be a religious practice accepted today that future generations will look upon and ask the same question we ask about people who enslaved others in the name of God:

How could they?

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Africa • Belief • Bible • Books • Christianity • Church and state • Egypt • History • Islam • Islamic law • Islamic law • Israel • Jesus • Moses • Muslim • Uncategorized

soundoff (3,207 Responses)
  1. dennis

    Finally, an article that says the truth, whether religious people like it or not, they have some CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY to explain. I'll be the first response will be, "Hey, Christendom enslaved people for thousands of years, but a just few decades ago we decided it was a little harsh, though we still like our racism, don't get me wrong..."

    March 29, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  2. Cecilie

    Look up 1 Cor 7:21 – 24 (KJV)
    [21] Art thou called being a servant? care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather.
    [22] For he that is called in the Lord, being a servant, is the Lord's freeman: likewise also he that is called, being free, is Christ's servant. [23] Ye are bought with a price; be not ye the servants of men. [24] Brethren, let every man, wherein he is called, therein abide with God.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  3. Angela

    “The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me
    To preach the gospel to the poor;
    He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
    To proclaim liberty to the captives
    And recovery of sight to the blind,
    To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
    To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.”
    ~~Jesus Christ

    That doesn’t sound like it supports slavery to me.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • dennis

      How about you read the bible in its entirety before you cherry pick? Just because Christ contradicted himself constantly doesn't exactly help him out too much, he also supported the old testament which explicitly supports slavery, how do you explain that? You can't.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • dennis

      funny how in that poem Jesus didn't bother to mention slaves as being oppressed while the economy he was living in was supported entirely by it. lol.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  4. closet atheist

    wow... all the religious nuts are out on this thread!! it's funny reading through comments. it is soooo hard to reason with a believer. most of the logic they use is circular. by this, for you slow ones, i mean that they keep referencing the bible (in the case of christians) when arguing the validity of their christian beliefs. it doesn't work like that, people.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  5. Hassan

    Is this really an actual article on CNN? This is so pathetic. How can you post such article aboutany of these religions without even knowing anything about them. This article shows big the un-education and disknowledge is in whoever wrote or approved this article. Nuff said!!

    March 29, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • downinfront

      Disknowledge? Oh the irony.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  6. jj

    I'm not often a fan of this site, and came to jeer. But it was actually a good article. Slavery is one of those extremely interesting topics. Especially if you have the luck of not being one!
    Something to remember – even in the 1700's, 3/4ths of the world was a slave of some sort (being without free will – the ability to do or work where they wish).
    Slavery is still big in many parts of the world – even in the US. Unsanctioned, hidden. The garment industry, orange pickers and field workers, people smuggled into the country trapped until they pay off their ever-growing expenses... It wasn't that long ago that they stopped sheriffs in Texas who would be paid to grab guys who wouldn't be missed much, and send them directly to a private work farm.
    And not a religious angle, but one filled with irony... The first man to buy and own black slaves in the Colonies – was a black man.
    And today's term – wage slave, is apt. As the comfortable middle class collapses, and jobs are scarce as wages tumble, people are trapped in low-wage jobs. Maybe multiple ones, that they can't afford to leave.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  7. John Blake

    Hi my name is John Blake. I am a genric atheist. CNN carries terrible stories. Did I mention I hate religion? so does CNN.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  8. Nadir

    You can find a credible source of information on Islam and slavery here...
    Follow link:

    http://www.alislam.org/library/books/Islam%20and%20Slavery-20080616MN.pdf

    March 29, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  9. DefyTheGods

    Free-thinking human beings don't need religion. Such talk of gods and devils is beyond silly. Slavery happened, because it was profitable. It just happened that human lives and dignity were were sacrificed for profit. How could an enterprising slave owner NOT take advantage of religion's failure to combat slavery? Ultimately, however, religion DID play a role in ending the practice; long after the damage was done. As for the slaves, they were given religion as a way to make a life of bondage more acceptable. With the promise of an afterlife with Jesus or whomever, the here-and-now of slavery was "only temporary". For example, Christ led by example through his suffering.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • jj

      Good point. And may we introduce a phrase 'RELIGIOUS SLAVE'? Some people are so caught up in their religion, they lose their free will. Free thinking is frowned upon. They become pawns of their heavenly masters – via the earthly leaders. History tells us this is not a good thing!

      March 29, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  10. Conrad Shull

    "There’s no record of Moses owning slaves..." How can people write such drivel? There's no record of him taking a dump, either, although, smart money says he did – lots of times.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  11. John

    Another article by CNN to fan the winds of racism off the heels of the Martin Case ......Bravo

    March 29, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  12. Rynomite

    The Bible is Pro-Slavery. Yet, according to Xtians it is the word of God!

    And Xtians don't see a problem with this logic? (or the misogny, racism, or murderous God in its pages..)

    Maybe they should actually try and read their own "good book" instead of getting cherry picked sermons from the ministers that like to take their money.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  13. BobZemko

    Jesus, save me from your followers.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  14. Jonathan

    Anyone who works for another person could be considered a 'slave'.

    This article is rubbish.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      "Anyone who works for another person could be considered a 'slave'. "

      no, not really.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • Jon O

      Not according to the actual definition of the word.

      I'm ashamed to share a name with you. I think my IQ just dropped.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • Phyrro

      "Anyone who works for another person could be considered a 'slave'. "

      Then anyone who kisses a child could be considered a pedophile. And on and on until meaning of all words become useless.

      Anything could be considered anything else by your logic.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  15. M Openminded

    I liked this article very much. Slavery meant something different during Jesus' life than it did during the settlement of this country. Some slaves were paid, educated, fed, clothed and given a roof over their heads and that of their children. I don't see any employers in this country taking care of our daily needs in such a fashion. Some slaves were required to pay off a debt, which means they were given a loan and now they need to pay it off – fair deal. If Jesus did not speak out against slavery, that is probably why: people were treated decently. I think that our country's view of slavery in this day and age has tainted the views of it during biblical times. Our history with slavery is, well, horrific. And we only have ourselves to blame. Jesus never said "bludgeon your neighbor and chain him/her to the wall". But that's how it was "interpreted" to serve greedy people back in the day. I don't think this article says that Jesus et al condoned slavery in the context that we know it today; it is saying that times were different and the term "slavery" had a different meaning.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      sorry but you need to think again if you think the whole paid, educated and treated fairly was to the norm for slaves at any point in history.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • Nii

      That is what I also got from the article but the atheist commentators seem to have missed most of it and just choose to exhibit tgheir bigotry and christo.ph.ob.ia instead.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • M Openminded

      Nii – you made my day!!

      March 29, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  16. What

    What is the religion? F all of them

    March 29, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  17. willie

    Quran 2:221

    And do not marry polytheistic women until they believe. And a believing slave woman is better than a polytheist, even though she might please you. And do not marry polytheistic men [to your women] until they believe. And a believing slave is better than a polytheist, even though he might please you. Those invite [you] to the Fire, but Allah invites to Paradise and to forgiveness, by His permission. And He makes clear His verses to the people that perhaps they may remember.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  18. mork

    Religion is a joke. Has caused more problems on this planet in recent history than any other. Jews, Muslims and Christians are the worst of the lot. Always poking their noses into places that arent their business and annoying the general public or brainwashing their denizens into thinking completely and utterly against common sense.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • What

      Right on the money. Can we be friends?

      March 29, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  19. Mek

    I'm switchin' to MSNBC. Bye

    March 29, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • Iceman

      Haha, another religious bigot upset by the increasing amount of secularism in our world.. "IN GOOD WE TRUST"

      March 29, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • Darwin

      Lol, that's awesome

      March 29, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  20. ce

    Moses was not the founder of judaism

    March 29, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.