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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. Tarek

    Islam is not a religion related to God..It is the biggest lie in history

    March 29, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • T-Max73

      One could make the same observation about any religion they were not indoctrinated into.
      "All religions are equal glimpses of the same untruth." ~Christopher Hitchens

      March 29, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • Zaximus42

      Interesting how you singled out Islam. I would kind of lump a lot more into the whole "made-up" category. I have guy who wants to sell you something...hold on a minute.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • serena Ali

      Islam is made out to be the biggest lie, and those who claim adherence to its holy book are in fact its worst enemies. The devil already has the sinners in his pocket, and those that do obvious idol worship, so he is going after those who know the right path but are weak in following it.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • Wootings

      All religions share the same validity. None.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  2. Jim in Florida

    Reading this article it seems tilted toweards Blake's ideas on how Christianity is related to slavery , yet he views eveything through the lens of today, Not surprising to see yet another attack on religion from Blake and CNN.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • T-Max73

      Are you suggesting that there was a time when keeping another human being in bondage was morally acceptable, or are you suggesting that the deity of the Bible understood the practice to be ethically permissible? It's an argument from which there is no escape. Peace.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
  3. Facepalm28

    I really like these articles that examine religion from a historical perspective, as they illustrate the key issue with organized religion. At their hearts, religions are still the product of man, since they must be interpreted and implemented by ordinary people. However, because they supposedly represent the "word of God", those who choose to abuse religion for their own ends automatically have added credibility.

    I find it ironic, given my own personal distaste for organized religion, that some of the best-thought-out articles on CNN are in this section: pieces that examine the positives and negatives of religion objectively through a perspective centered around historical fact. There are many valuable lessons to be found in religious texts, but only if we can view religions objectively for what they are and aren't. Being blinded by either absolute faith in, or absolute hatred of religion prevents us from seeing any of the truth.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  4. Jeremy

    Is anyone truly surprised? Religion is bondage. Brain melting rational thought neglect bondage. Anti-intellecual bondage. The flocks are slaves to their dieties. The world would be so much better without it. There is no magic, no master plan. People need to realize that it is themselves and their own actions which will shape their lives and the lives around them. Talking to yourself (praying) will not solve your issues.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  5. Vidaurri Higgins Jr.

    Joke of the day presented to you by Zaximus42 :). It was so funny i lost 10 pounds off my waist

    March 29, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  6. Benyoucef

    John Black needs to do some home work before he should have written this article.....he 's lack of knowledge on how slavery was banned in Islam shows a great reflection of his misunderstanding...nevertheless .....he has no knowledge on any of those religions he Mentioned..i have my email attached lets see if he will respond to me.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • Norman

      your opinion-his is valid and makes historical sense

      March 29, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  7. Lonewolf

    The article points to facts that most of Christians don't want to hear. Our revered religious leaders of past never address the issue of slavery/bondage. They never spoke up against it. Even the person we believe to be the be the Son of God did not address the issue during his time on earth. It existed during that time and did not get eradicated until 2000 years plus later. When you look at religion be it Chritian, Judaism or Muslim, how do you justify treating people of any race, religion, creed, etc. as animals to do what you want with. What we have seen in the past is that religious leaders and governments supported slavery/.bondage.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  8. James

    Religion has nothing at all to do with slavery...The Jews were slaves for over 400 years in Egypt....Man created slavery....people who don't know how to love their neighbor as themselves created slavery...Man is responsible for everything on the planet...Not just a group or class of people...The Pharos were really religious...They worshiped many gods...Made images of them....and they had lots of slaves....it is mean spirited people who caused slavery....

    March 29, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • Jon O

      You just lied.

      Lying is a sin.

      The bible specifically endorses the practice, assigns value, and outlines rules for how to manage them.

      Enjoy reality, liar.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • Norman

      man created god too...

      March 29, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • Nonimus

      Except for God of course who, supposedly, placed us here for the sole purpose of worshiping and obeying Him.

      Not sure how else to describe a slave, especially when one goes to Hell for seeking freedom.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • *facepalm*

      I challenge you to find ANY evidence, outside of the bible, that the jews were ever enslaved by the Egyptians. Interesting that the Egyptians – the rather good record keepers that they were – make zero mention of this supposed 'fact'

      March 29, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • T-Max73

      Read your Bible; the text condones slavery-in fact mandates it by divine command. What is your point?

      March 29, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • Wootings

      Man also created all religions. The fact that the religions he created intermingled with the slavery he also created is fairly unremarkable. You want to solve the problem of evil? Start by eliminating religion.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • serena Ali

      I am not surprised that the Bible promotes slavery – but it has endured many centuries of human interference and even though it contains a goodly portion of the truth (worship only God), it has been corrupted with idolization of Jesus and justification of sins. Devil's job is to mislead. The devil is like the bankers, wants us to blame everyone else so no one realizes the source of the problem.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  9. Dave

    Religion has been justifying evil for thousands of years.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • Giancarlo Taliente

      So has lack of religion!!!!!

      March 29, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  10. Claudia

    "Jesús le dijo: Amarás al Señor tu Dios con todo tu corazón, y con toda tu alma, y con toda tu mente. Este es el primero y grande mandamiento. Y el segundo es semejante: Amarás a tu prójimo como a ti mismo. De estos dos mandamientos depende toda la ley y los profetas." Mateo 22:37-40.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  11. Bastian Avser

    VIOLENT WORLD PSYCHIATRY-PSYCHOLOGY REVEALED(mindless mkultra crimes performed by police and psychiatrists/psychologists)

    USE OF MKULTRA + HUNGER GAMES TODAY....STATE OF THE ART EXPLANATION ON MIND CONTROL TECHNIQUES(violent world of government psychiatry/psychology and police revealed..... learn exactly per how is done and by whom... use of psychology/psychiatry for mass population or ethnic cleansing as well as crimes to which we witness daily on behalf of Zionism/communism/liberalism). SELF ELECTED GOVERNMENTS GOING AS FAR AS USING PEDOPHILIA TO RESOLVE THEIR MINDLESS CRIMINAL POLITICAL ISSUES AGAINST TARGETED VICTIMS WHILE BLAIMING IT ALL ON CHURCH !!!

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    http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xpkfh7_part-78

    All related to WHITES ARE NOT WELCOME IN AMERICA ANY LONGER !!! http://www.youtube.com/user/BostjanAvsec or rather http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xleq3o OBAMA'S HEALTH CARE RECORDED LIVE IN 2009 !!! EXILING WHITES(US citizens) WITH EXTREME PREJUDICE AND IMPORTING NON WHITES IMMIGRATION REQUIREMENTS FREE !!! WHY TO ACCEPT LIABILITIES FOR CRIMES COMMITTED WHEN WE CAN SIMPLY ASSASSINATE OUR VICTIMS(YOU) THANKS TO HUMAN RIGHTS ORGANIZATIONS AND FREE PRESS/MEDIA(most severe CENSORSHIP OF GENOCIDE in entire history of human kind) !! NOT HUMAN RIGHTS COURTS, BUT ORGANIZERS OF GENOCIDE AGAINST WHITES AND SPONSORS OF BOGUS "MULTICULTURALISM" CLAIMS AT EXPENSE OF WHITES !!!

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    March 29, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • marty

      Clearly tour meds have worn off

      March 29, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  12. Dissappointed in CNN...again!

    What is the point of CNN reporting this story? Hmmm, maybe to push an atheist agenda? Here's one for you CNN, there were non-believers that had slaves as well...OH MY GOSH, I know it's shocking, but religion has done more good in the world than not.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • T-Max73

      Your comment is specious; non-believers did not keep slaves because they claimed the creator of the universe commanded slavery-the religious did. I would expect those who claim to be in communication with a loving deity to behave better than those who do not, but we repeatedly see just the opposite. Stop trying to defend the indefensible. Peace.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • Norman

      pushign truth-religion is made up because primtives feared death-and sheep have been passing it down...

      March 29, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • serena Ali

      If you doubt the goodness of cnn, you are considered evil. How can CNN have an agenda? I guess I have to turn the other cheek because this one has tongue in cheek

      March 29, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Wootings

      "Done more good in the world than not?"

      Firstly, you're catastrophically wrong about that. Secondly...the fact that a "religion" would willfully do things that are harmful at all in the first place...even if less than the "good" things they do...simply points out how utterly invalid religion is.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  13. Dk

    Christianity wasn't adopted in the Roman Empire until 313 with the Edict of Milan. Before then Christians were thrown to the lions and killed by the Romans. You cannot take the Roman Empire's history and say it was Christan before the days of Jesus, ie your Spartacus insert which happened in 100 BCE.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  14. Douglas Dare

    Do you shop at WALL MART? Do you own things that are made in CHINA? Slave labor???? Why is our nation doing any business with China?

    March 29, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • Dave

      Maybe you mean WalMart ? Of course I do. I then take pictures of the odd people I see and post them online.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • marty

      ... Sent from my iPod

      March 29, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  15. mariner I

    People who hold on to their bibles as a source for moral and ethical pronoucements should be publicly flogged! The roots of slavery can be found in the very book that is supposed to be the word of god. what absolute BS. It has been suggested in the bible text that one could know the value of one's works by their frutis. "Ye shall know them by their fruits" god supports slavery and all of the major religions follow suit. If ever there were a more clear demonstration of the lunacy of the religious delusion it is here.

    “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.” Yea, this just makes sense doesn't it? That is why today, all around the world, people teach this BS to children, so that they can enslave them to control them using religion as the waterboarding technique of persuasion. Get rid of all religion, it does greater harm than all of the collective acts of man over the course of human history. Only then can we make progress as a civlization.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • Douglas Dare

      If you read you can understand that bond slavery and chattel slavery are two separate issues. Are military is a form of bond slavery. You individuals who want to live without any boundaries and justify your actions by bashing people who stand up for their own religious beliefs are very strange people. You don't stand for anything but hate. FLOG people the exact thing you are crying out against! GOD BLESS YOU!!!

      March 29, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  16. SHAIARRA a

    hi

    March 29, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  17. Douglas Dare

    Love your GOD with all your heart and soul and LOVE your neighbor as yourself! If that is not a bold statement against every aspect of slavery i"ll eat my BIBLE!

    March 29, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • SHAIARRA a

      lame excuse dude

      March 29, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • mariner I

      Yea, its the same BS rhetoric that got people on board in nazi germany. It is one thing to say and another to practice. They practiced slavery while spreading words you referenced.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • marty

      I love my neighbor, every afternoon while her husband is at work.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • *facepalm*

      @Douglas – thanks for proving that religious people simply cherry-pick the portions of their text they find convenient and ignore the rest. The bible was also pretty clear that it's ok to beat your slave to death, provided the slave doesn't die on the same day you beat them.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  18. PBurch

    Slavery is a terrible injustice in the history of humanity. Blaming any one culture or movement is irresponsible and ignorant. You need to crack open a history book a little more often before pointing the finger. Pagans, Christians, Muslims, "Non-believers" etc... practiced slavery because it used to be a common and accepted practice.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • T-Max73

      I think it's appropriate to blame slavery on ANY philosophy, ideology, or belief system whose foundational texts make condone or mandate the practice. Stop defending the indefensible. Peace.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  19. isthereadog

    What's wrong with slavery? I think I might be missing the point of the article

    March 29, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  20. dav

    It is time to get over the slavery BS.The whole world's peoples have practiced slavery;it was a way of getting things done and beating your enemy.Try working and making yourself useful or you will always be a slave.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:54 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.