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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. Greg Not Jesus

    Mauritania's population is 100% Sunni Muslim, per Wikipedia.

    March 29, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  2. JonfromLI

    Maybe it's just me. They're including Judaism as "promoting" slavery because when Moses said to Pharoah, "LET MY PEOPLE GO!", he was only referring to the Hebrew slaves and no one else? WHO ELSE WAS THERE?!!!!! If there were black slaves from Alabama helping build the ancient pyramids in Egypt, Moses would have included them too.

    March 29, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • Jon O

      No, they're including Judaism because the Old Testament says its fine to enslave people as long as they aren't children of Israel.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • JonfromLI

      Maybe my knowledge of the Old Testament isn't the level of a Rabbi, but which passages suggest any indication about the ancient Hebrews enslaving people who weren't Jews?

      March 29, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
  3. jay12312

    Do we always have to be crying about something at all times in this country.

    March 29, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  4. El Flaco

    From the New Testament:

    Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ;

    All who are under the yoke as slaves are to regard their own masters as worthy of all honor so that the name of God and our doctrine will not be spoken against.

    Those who have believers as their masters must not be disrespectful to them because they are brethren, but must serve them all the more, because those who partake of the benefit are believers and beloved. Teach and preach these principles.

    Urge bondslaves to be subject to their own masters in everything, to be well-pleasing, not argumentative,

    Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable.

    March 29, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • serena Ali

      Actually the God of those who unquestioningly believe the Bible, are the people who wrote them. If the Bible had said Moses was son of God, the blind followers would believe it, just as they believe the verses about slavery. There is no proof that the Bible is in its original form as revealed, it was translated grom Aramiac, to Greek to Latin to English and used and abused by those who want to control the masses. Let us have a reality check on the Bible. There is only one God, whose awesome powers cannot be encapsulated in the being of a human Jesus. That very premise is an insult to God, the one and only.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • El Flaco

      So, Serena, God Himself told you all this? Otherwise, how did you come to believe it?

      Despite my many pleading prayers when I was young, God never answered me.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  5. jn0224

    Man, if we'd all just become athiests, think how good it could be...no murders, no robbing, no raping...utopia. Yeah, right. What an idiotic assumption. This constant drivel by atheists is tiring...

    March 29, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • Zaximus42

      Try listening to religious fervor...it's exhausting

      March 29, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • El Flaco

      The atheists I've met are usually pretty thoughtful, well-educated people. Unlike most Christians, most Atheists have read the Bible (I've read the Bible cover-to-cover once and the New Testament three times). They are pretty nice people. They are just tired of people of all religions wanting to write their holy books into our laws.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • Jon O

      No atheist has ever said it would solve all the problems.

      We just want to take away your fairy-tale excuses. Golden rule, bucko. Like Jesus said. Love thy neighbors as you love thyself.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  6. Glades2

    The problem is that the Old South took the Old Testament's word on slavery (common in the time of Moses) out of context to suit their needs – the New Testament is the New Convenent, and Jesus, as God made Man, suffered a severe whipping on Good Friday so that, as Scripture says, "By His stirpes we are healed" – but as mentioned in the earlier post, the Lord does not bless the ownership of slavery – never did in the time of Moses and does not to this moment, but God made Man and knows the human mind, and that is why it is spoken of in the Old Testament, and as Jesus said, "I do not call you slaves but friends"...

    March 29, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • El Flaco

      You should actually read the New Testament sometime. Here is what St. Paul had to say about slavery.

      Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ;

      All who are under the yoke as slaves are to regard their own masters as worthy of all honor so that the name of God and our doctrine will not be spoken against.

      Those who have believers as their masters must not be disrespectful to them because they are brethren, but must serve them all the more, because those who partake of the benefit are believers and beloved. Teach and preach these principles.

      Urge bondslaves to be subject to their own masters in everything, to be well-pleasing, not argumentative,

      Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • serena Ali

      El Flace, Saint Paul is not a credible source to quote, he created the religion of Christianity according to his dreams and introduced a concept of divine Jesus which was against everything the bible stood for. The Bible preached the worship of the one and only true God as per Jesus's own sayings. I would rather trust Jesus then Paul.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • El Flaco

      Serena, to me, you are just another religious person with his/her own little individual flourishes of theology. Ever believer is the same, except that no two believers believe the same things.

      If we locked the Pope, the head of the Mormon Church, a leading Televangelist, and a Seventh Day Adventist in a room and tell them not to come out until they all agree on the meaning of any verse in the Bible, all four of them would die of old age in that room.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • Glades2

      Like Baptists, we Catholics also follow St. Paul's teachings, though some again have taken his words out of context and are using them to approve of slavery – that is wrong, and even in St. Paul's teaching, he taught love and kindness between owners and slaves. George Washington followed that way and as history shows did not mistreat them – but that still does not mean slavery was or is right. As my Dad used to say, those who talk in favor of slavery and never been slaves themselves – so true...

      March 29, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  7. freetime1

    "Most modern people of faith see slavery as a great evil."
    Most mdern people with out faith see religion as a great evil.

    March 29, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • John

      The writer of this article does not know facts. There is slavery in Muslim countries till this moment, men and women, and children, are sold for life, never have a chance to be free. If the writer would read the old testament he would see that the law is, that after seven years the master HAS to free his slave, not matter what.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  8. Checkyourfacts

    Okay, I would suggest the author of this article to check their facts before speaking. Prophet Mohammad was completely against slavery, in fact he has encouraged slaves to be freed. For cases when that was not possible, he asked slave owners(?) to respect their subjects and not treat them badly. In fact Bilal was one of the many slaves freed by Mohammed's followers.

    March 29, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  9. Paul

    How about an article on "How at times" the Democratic party has endorsed slavery?

    March 29, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • Zaximus42

      I love how everyone talks about dems and liberals when they don't like article content. Who owns most media outlets? *scratches head* I wonder.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  10. Rene

    Unfortunately, God speaking to Pharoah through Moses in the Old Testament; Christ speaking through St Paul saying neither slave nor free, and the Popes in the early 19th and 20th century do not count in his bigot argument. This still overlooks the equality of man held by the Medievals scholastics, yes, even in their monarchy society. The principles of the equlity of all men were found in religious principles as well as philosophic. With the logic the author of this article is using he would like to say the Thomas Jefferson was did not speak against slavery. Evolution of thought does not fit here either?

    March 29, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  11. Br

    This author uses fringe sources to support his own pre-conceived notions. Economics slavery existed since the inception of war, society and money. Also, his ideas that Paul supported slavery are naive. The author should investigate with other sources that do not already agree with his ideas.

    March 29, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  12. Claudia

    "Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22:37-40.

    March 29, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  13. Nick

    Let's see... How else could that head line have been written? Let's replace the word religion in the headline. Instead of "How Religion Has Been Used to Promote Slavery" How about replacing the word "Religion" with money or politics or greed or humanism or Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini.

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

      Nick, exactly, thank you for quoting my favorite verse because it speaks the truth. When you love only God, there is no place for loving anyone else in a religious sense, like Jesus. Yet Christians get him in there, either as god, or son of god, or part of a trinity, or half man half god. Anything that detracts from the worship of God alone is from the devil.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Nick

      Serena Ali – I did not quote the Bible. BTW – the religious establishment had Jesus executed because of His claims of deity. See John 19:7. Further more Jesus proved the He is God. Jesus is the only person I know of who raised from death, a cold breathless corpse, to life everlasting.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  14. Bill

    Christianity has been the SINGLE most Powerful Ant-Slavery and Pro-RespectOfWoman force in History!!! Someone is skewing this Article bigtime.... WHY???

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

      Don't forge the choir boys. Go Christianity!!

      March 29, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • Michael Pfaff

      When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are. If she does not please the man who bought her, he may allow her to be bought back again. But he is not allowed to sell her to foreigners, since he is the one who broke the contract with her. And if the slave girl's owner arranges for her to marry his son, he may no longer treat her as a slave girl, but he must treat her as his daughter. If he himself marries her and then takes another wife, he may not reduce her food or clothing or fail to sleep with her as his wife. If he fails in any of these three ways, she may leave as a free woman without making any payment. (Exodus 21:7-11 NLT)

      March 29, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • vulpecula

      The biggest "Pro Respect for Women" force were women themselves.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • John

      Don't forget that Christians slaughtered Indians in the new world, enslaved them, and the owners of the black slaves from Africa, were Christians who went to church every Sunday.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • jason

      pro womans rights? is that why christianity still doesnt want to give woman the ability to choose what to do with their own bodies? Go christianity!

      March 29, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  15. really?

    someone has an agenda

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

    What a weak try to promote atheism. Blaming religion for what some followers do is ignorant on so many levels.

    March 29, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • Michael Pfaff

      Just following orders...

      10 “As you approach a town to attack it, you must first offer its people terms for peace. 11 If they accept your terms and open the gates to you, then all the people inside will serve you in forced labor. 12 But if they refuse to make peace and prepare to fight, you must attack the town. 13 When the Lord your God hands the town over to you, use your swords to kill every man in the town. 14 But you may keep for yourselves all the women, children, livestock, and other plunder. You may enjoy the plunder from your enemies that the Lord your God has given you.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  17. Don't Exclude !!

    The scholars who claimed that Prophet Muhammad (psuh) owned slaves did NOT mention the story of "Bilal." or CNN EXCLUDED it. Bilal was a black man, brutally tortured by his pagan owner. Prophet Muhammad freed him and appointed him to be a Mo'zen– a person who calls for prayers at the Mosque. Bilal was later nicknamed as the Mo'zen of the messenger.

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

      Prophet Muhammad would never disobey the Quran. He did not acquire new slaves, but freed the ones he had. Anything to the contrary is an insult to him.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  18. KRis

    This whole article is bs. Religion has never justified slavery. Maybe if the person writing this article was religious and knew what the religious texts actually say, then they would also know that it has never been justified

    March 29, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • Patsy

      Perhaps not, but slave owners were largely (at least in this country) men of faith, and they used the christian bible to justify keeping and beating slaves. That brings us to today when religious leaders justify the oppression of women by somehow knowing it's what a god wants. Preposterous.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Michael Pfaff

      Yup. Never.

      However, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way. (Leviticus 25:44-46 NLT)

      March 29, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • Max

      While religious people owned and used religion to justify slavery, the abolition of slavery movement was born, promulgated, and spread from the pulpit.

      March 29, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
  19. African descendant

    As an african descent , can I say safely that all these religious leaders were against my ancestors. Is it sin for me to say that plainly ?? I guess none of them should have represented me. They all enslaved and tyrannized my ancestors for centuries. The history of these particular religious leaders is very dark . God doesn't enslave his own creatures but I believe this happened because these religious leaders were simply human beings. Man can't be God .....lets us out from the box of dark colony

    March 29, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  20. faboge

    if you want to know why the world is so fudd up, look no further than your church, mosque or whatever house of worship you attend!

    March 29, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • KD

      How would you know if you're not in attendance?

      March 29, 2012 at 2:16 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.