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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. jdoggg81

    I think the author being of caucasian descent is trying to perpetuate the myth that slavery is some kind of twisted, god giving right. My Jesus would never condone the suffering of one of his children.

    Being of african american descent i find this article distasteful. This is clearly a blatant attempt at making the white man feel spiritually cleansed for the atrocities and ungodly act committed by his ancestors... sadly not so long ago.

    March 29, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • TrueBlue42

      Get over it. YOU have never been a slave any more than I've ever been a slave owner. I will not be held responsible for the sins of my ancestors, and I certainly will not answer to your "Jesus" or any other fake "god".

      March 29, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  2. For Reals

    Checks calendar..

    Yup, 2012..

    Mind blown that modern people still fall for this religion nonsense.

    March 29, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • shneevels

      "For He has set eternity in the hearts of men..." (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

      March 29, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  3. Social Android

    First of all... if you work doing a job – something that isn't your first choice, but rather to pay the bills, pay the tax man, and pay the bank to live in their house (if you have a mortgage... it's not really yours) Then you my friend ARE a slave by most definitions! Some would argue that Jesus was a great slave himself in that he lived to do his fathers "will".

    Whether or not you're religious doesn't matter... we are all slaves of someone/something.

    March 29, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • mike w

      Yes, working in a cubicle or having credit card debt is clearly equivalent to being property that can be beaten and branded at will, LOL.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  4. Mike

    It is a HUGE stretch to say Moses supported slavery because he helped free his own people and not other slaves. I'm not sure where you found your religious "scholars" but they certainly went through some wild contortions to twist the quintessential slavery abolishment story – Exodus – to suit their own narrative.

    March 29, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  5. shneevels

    Lets see. Moses killed an Egyptian because he was abusing a Hebrew slave. Then he led the Israelites out of slavery into freedom. Jesus talked constantly about being set free from slavery to sin and each other. So did the Apostle Paul. In the modern era William Wilberforce (a Christian) worked tirelessly to change the slave trade in England. And Martin Luther King worked hard at releasing blacks from white domination and discrimination. I don't know much about Islam but I do know that most of the key leaders in Judaism and Christianity have been anti-slavery.

    March 29, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  6. jdoggg81

    I think the author being of caucasian descent is trying to perpetuate the myth that slavery is some kind of twisted, god giving right. My Jesus would never condone the suffering of one of his children. Being of african american descent i find this article distasteful. This is clearly a blatant attempt at making the white man feel spiritually cleansed for the atrocities and ungodly act committed by his ancestors... sadly not so long ago.

    March 29, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • mike w

      And this is merely your delusional attempt to avoid seeing your religion for what it really is. I'm betting you've never even read your own holy books cover to cover.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  7. sher

    Mercedes, i don't blame God, I blame his people..for all mis-understandings of His word and world including contemporary Christians who continue to use Him as an excuse for THEIR belief/bigotry/etc

    March 29, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • shneevels

      .........zzzzzzzzzzzz

      March 29, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  8. kr

    One should not look at the past society with our present lenses. Pagans, atheists, Christians and Muslims all had some slaves at one point. However, not as condoning slavery, but history tells us that many slaves actually lived better and secured lives than most ordinary people in the Greek and Roman Empires.

    March 29, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  9. Ken

    One Christian's perspective: The whole concept of slavery stems from a fallen world and man's idolatrous nature to covet and control, even if it's done on the backs of other human beings. Does the bible and Jesus condone this practice? Absolutely not!

    March 29, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  10. Brad

    LookAndSEE-

    There are several interesting things going on in your post that I don't hear very often. Do you belong to a particular sect?

    March 29, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • slavery

      Slavery in Islam
      The Quran
      O mankind! We created you from a single soul, male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may come to know one another. Truly, the most honored of you in God's sight is the greatest of you in piety. God is All-Knowing, All-Aware. - 49:13

      March 29, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  11. Jorge

    Religion-Recruitment of an omnipotent, sympathetic power into the justification for man's ignorance of the world around him, his arrogant sense of existential supremacy and his terror of death.

    March 29, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  12. U so crazy

    Religion, specifically Christianity has been used both to justify and to combat slavery. Religion has been used through the ages for great good and for great evil. But a simple mind can only handle simple concepts, so we have simple minded atheists saying Christianity is "evil" and Christians acting as if it were unalloyed good.

    Religion is like science, in that it has done great good, yet is responsible the industrialization of warfare which has led to unimagined horrors.

    March 29, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • sam

      It can be used to justify or condemn anything; isn't that convenient?

      March 29, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • NutGrinder

      Name some of those "Great Goods" please...

      March 29, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • U so crazy

      Nut, science has given us medical care, material culture and many conveniences. Of course it has led to overpopulation, polution, industrial warfare and the threat of nuclear extinction. Or were you looking for the good from religion?

      March 29, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  13. sher

    I think the Catholic church does lots of good charitable works, but they do indeed charge a high tuition at their private Catholic schools..so I don't think they're "donating" education

    March 29, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • Chuck

      the Church pays a lot to lawyers too as it has been proven to be morally lacking in policing it's own.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
  14. Gerry Daley

    And let's remember that the same religious groups in this country who did everything they could to justify slavery are working overtime to make sure gays remain second class citizens as well.

    March 29, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  15. Godaveri

    How does mr Asani knows the Mohammad treated his slaves, like family, a slave is a slave they were treated like slaves in those days, Mohamad wanted to have an easy life by marrying a rich widow and slaves.

    March 29, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  16. Mercedes

    Astonishing how people can comprehend so little. Read history, people.

    Slavery is NORMAL for human beings. The last African slaves in Saudi Arabia were freed in the 1950s. All people groups from the dawn of time have enslaved others. The reason? People are selfish and lazy, and given the chance, they will live lives of ease at the expense of others. God calls us to be good, we choose to be evil, and we blame Him for the consequences.

    The abolition of slavery - brought about in great thanks to William Wilberforce - is a bizarre thing, an aberration in history. Wilberforce argued, better than others, that slavery was incompatible with Christianity. His ideas eventually took root with people who knew all along that slavery was wrong but found it convenient, and the days of slavery in the Western world were numbered.

    It took far too long, but Christians ended slavery, the first time anyone had done that in human history. Now, almost everyone thinks slavery is wrong. Nice that you all have finally come around to the Christian point of view.

    March 29, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • Gerry Daley

      Yes, but many of those same Christians are now working overtime to condemn gay people to a second class status in this country. And by the way, Jesus didn't have a single thing to say about this topic...which seems to obsess so many Christians today. Zero. Zip. Nada.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  17. jj

    Religion in general enslaves minds. Spirituality is quite another matter. Religion is for peoepl who are afraid to go to hell. Spirituality is for those that have been there.

    March 29, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  18. El Flaco

    When I was a boy growing up in Fort Worth Texas in the fifties, some of the men from the Baptist church I went to would go '[N-Word] Knocking' on an occasional summer evening for recreation. They would drive around until they saw a solitary Black pedestrian in a lonely location. Then they would beat him up. One of the men who did this was the father of a playmate of mine. This father allowed his son to accompany the group to see how men amused themselves. However, my playmate who was about 10, had to stay in the car and just watch.

    March 29, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • Geoff

      sounds like fun, Remind me to never set foot in Texas.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  19. LookAndSEE

    To those who reject God:
    In a time where money is just plastic (not too far in the future)
    A WORLD-WIDE major disaster will take place and a religious figure will SEEM to have a solution and u will be so desperate.
    U will follow, u will report any who don;t follow. There will come a day when all currency is electronic & the only way for access is to pay homage to the one world Church and it's claim to make Sunday holy.

    March 29, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • Brad

      LookAndSEE:

      There are several interesting things going on in your post that I don't hear very often. Do you belong to a particular sect?

      March 29, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • NutGrinder

      What?

      March 29, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  20. CARY CASE

    People will alway use any means to control and do wrong. Religion happens to be the perfect vehicle. If WE didn't have religion, Santa would be a great form of leverage. "You had better watch out! You better not cry! You better not pout! I'm telling you why! I'M COMING TO TOWN!!!!!!!!! Bottom line; we are ALL weak, corruptible and selfish! Religion did not make us that way and neither did God!

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

      Well, technically, "God" created all things.. so in essence, he created evil as well. Morbid Insanity.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • CARY CASE

      Technically you are right, he did create all things. Let's just for arguments sake say there is a God, Okay? Let's say he gave us lot's of choice's because arguably it is required for real love to exist. A relationship between man and women that is arranged and neither has a choice, would be considered forced and which by most standards defies the meaning of love? Others might say, love the one your with! Which is possible, but is it realistic?

      March 29, 2012 at 4:03 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.