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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. masrvneck

    look this did happen....anyone see the red bull commercial on jesus? you just need to know where the stones are, people seriously slavery is still out there racism is still out there the untied states of americas prison system is slavery...prisons need 98% of it to be full and on top of that they make them work for like 15c an hour so the prison can save money now you may say that they are bad or they are criminals and they made a bad choice over 70% of people in jail right now are non violent drug offences.....they were normal people got caught with a natural thing and now work 15c for a jail so they can collect a paycheck from the government.

    March 29, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  2. Terrell

    A someone who has studied the historical context of the Bible, I can tell you that much of what is referred to as slavery would simply be called "employment" by todays standards. In fact, many of the slaves or servants noted in the scriptures opted to stay on with their "masters" when they could have left. They would have an awl put through their ear to symbolize a life-long commitment to serving their master and they did this on their own! Don't let people who have not studied the Bible tell YOU what it teaches. Study it for yourself!

    March 29, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • seyedibar

      They also tattooed their faces and sometimes injured a leg ligament so they could never run far. Thats not quite the same as employment.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Horus

      Interpretation of the Bible is subjective. How do you know the author hasn't studied it?

      March 29, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Artofwar

      ...To Terrell– Thank you for your correct and exact comment. After reading most of the comments on this issue-I was beginning to think that 100% of the commentators are STUPID.

      Now I can rest easier knowing that at worse only 99% are indeed STUPID.

      March 29, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
  3. Barowner

    So, is the author justifying slavery because of the fact that many men used religious justification for slavery in the past??? Or is this just the blame religion game. NO RELIGION JUSTIFIES SLAVERY–ONLY MEN DO THAT. Just like no religion justifies murder–only men do that. Get off religion's back people. Call a criminal act what it is and stop trying to use excuses for abhorrent human behavior.

    March 29, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • jellylee2020

      Yet people justify bigotry and hatred using religion all the time, for example, Westboro Church. The Muslim countries routinely executes men and women citing religion or even religious moral code. Human legal system should be based on science, logic and public safety, not on religious mumbo jumbo.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  4. brutus

    CNN loves to voice its anti-religious sentiment. You'll never see an article on how atheism was the root behind Stalin and Mao's mass murders, Marx's communism, or eugenics...always one-sided.

    March 29, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • I am God

      Um because they weren't. Duh.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • seyedibar

      Theye were without religion, but neither were they scientifically minded. Stalin and Mao both renounced modern science and genetics studies and eugenics except when it was politically expedient to use as thievery. Viewing eugenics as a successor to darwinism is a fallacy.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • ensense

      but they were atheists.

      March 29, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
    • Brad

      @ensense. So what? They were also men. So they killed people because the were men. This is such an obvious logical fallacy that is you believe it, you are not worth talking to.

      March 29, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
  5. Horus

    Religions are themselves nothing more than bondage to a God, or Gods depending on what you choose to believe. After you explain why you don't believe in all the Gods but yours you will then understand why I believe in none.

    March 29, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  6. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    March 29, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • Chewbacca

      Attempting to telepathically communicate with a bronze-age, middle-eastern deity makes people stupid, so yes, it changes things.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  7. Triple A

    and the BHO and clans' assult on religion continues.

    March 29, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • bcshaw

      1. I see no indication that Obama was involved in this article in any way, shape, or form. 2. Religion has been used to justify slavery throughout history. Ignoring the abundant links because they do not fit your narrative takes a great deal of historical revision. I might respect your defense more if you attempted to give the "other side" and build a little nuance in the argument of this article, which is a bit overstated...but hard to call an "assault" on religion. Here, I will help you: why not mention Wilberforce? He was an evangelical Brit who was a great abolitionist and pretty much led to the banning of slavery in Europe. Similarly, religious Americans were at the forefront of the Abolition movement in the USA and instrumental in getting the North to recognize the evil of slavery.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  8. sunpacific

    Spot on. The Spaniards had no issues enslaving the South Americans and stealing their gold since they could justify it by saying, "They aren"t Christian- and, therefore, not truly human." Hinduism, with its caste system, also lends itself well to slavery. Religion: preaching one thing while doing another.

    March 29, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  9. BobInIrvine

    OK, religious scholars, please reconcile "... 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" with the belief that the Bible is God's word.

    Was God Mitt Romney?

    March 29, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  10. Joel

    What practices do we engage in now that will be considered a form of slavery in a thousand years? Conscription? Consumer debt? Interesting to think about.

    March 29, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • Original Sin

      The practice of charging interest on a loan was considered immoral (usery). You could charge a set amount for giving a loan but that amount can't increase over time. If someone is unable to payback their debts they can become a bonded slave where they have to work for you for a set number of years (up to seven) to pay it back but all debts are erased in the year of jubilee so no one can be burried under debt forever. Seven years is the maximum.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
  11. James Anderson

    John Newton who composed "Amazing Grace" was a slave owner.

    March 29, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • Average Joe

      Former slave trader, who renounced it after becoming a Christian.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • Post the whole truth...

      He did participate in the slave trade (i don't know if he owned slaves personally). But he became an ardent abolishionist and fought to have the practice outlawed in Britain.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • ensense

      Another Atheist trying to twist a fact. Its funny how the scream when other do it.

      March 29, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
  12. JOEL

    Man has been around for 10s of thousands of years. Slavery has been around just as long. It still exists today in many forms. Sweat shops in China. The service industry here where "the customer is always right" etc.

    March 29, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  13. Gonzalez

    Sooo no "exclusive" piece on how atheism has been used to promote genocide?? Nice propaganda cnn-pravda..

    March 29, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • Kiljoy616

      Less see your dumb view. Prove it. If you say Hitler (christian without a doubt), Stalin (build more churches when he was in power) nothing really atheist about him just opportunist. Atheism is what we are, even you numhuts except I believe in one less mentally disturbed god than you. But how about you show us your wisdom without using straw man arguments.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • uh...

      if your referring to Pol Pot and the like, they were not atheists, they were saying that they (themselves) is/are a god, and that everyone worship him/ them. In short that is not atheism. Even if there has been a few crazies that happen to be atheist, at least they are not following a thousand year old text saying that killing whole villages of non believers is not only OK, but encouraged, or that killing an entire civilization's children (Egyptians) is rightful punishment for the crimes of their parents.

      So in short, there have been many more religion incited genocides than a few (3 or so) that can be arguably (barely) atheist.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • ak2k

      explain please?

      March 29, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • ensense

      New manufactured facts regarding Stalin and pol pot when confronted by reality?

      March 29, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      @ensense

      Then give corroborating evidence to the contrary. How about actually addressing the points instead of just spouting off.

      March 29, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  14. Surer

    I have trouble with this article in respect to Islam. The first man to do the call to prayer in Islam was a Abyssinian slave by the name of Bilal. He was a highly revered Muslim. It was the policy of the religion in its youth to pool money and free other bonded slaves if they converted to Islam. Considering this, how can the argument be made that Islam PROMOTED slavery? I understand those who claimed to be Muslim participated in the practice, but is that the fault of the religion when it is clearly against scripture and practice?

    March 29, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • masrawy

      please go read the quran and stop the spinning.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • Kiljoy616

      This is a small article, there is more to it. but you also have to take into content Islam of today is not the Islam of yesterday and its become worse. Where Christianity has been civilized (not that it is sane what Christian believe or do), Islam we can not say the same yet. Also Islam does tend to have in it some disturbing parts dealing with lying and subversion.

      Who knows what Mohammed really said since he did not write anything down so most may just be made up stuff, same problem with Christianity, Buddhism, the list goes on. We now know Jews (Israelites or what ever they want to be called) did not built the pyramids but just made it up for what ever reason primitive people made stuff up. Just happen that their religion became corrupted buy what we today call Christianity and Islam.

      There is no realign that stand up to scrutiny which is also why we see the fear and hatred of followers.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  15. Cheek

    Hey everybody, let's get butthurt about CNN saying something we disagree with, and instead of offering a counter argument let's whine and call it religion-bashing!

    March 29, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  16. BlackDynamiteNYC

    Religion has been the cause of death of more people than any other cause in the history of the world.
    FACT.
    BD

    March 29, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • rickincambridge

      Did you count the millions murdered under Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc. Let's see some numbers other than your limited IQ.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • Mott the Hoople

      60,000,000 died in WWII alone, far more than all other wars combined. Religion had nothing to do with that. The murders you read about in the papers, every day, across the country, have nothing to do with religion. It has more to do with atheistic hedonism: "my girlfriend dumped me, I'll kill her". "This drug dealers is in my territory, I'll kill him". Stop lying to yourself.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • ProudAtheist

      Estimated to be over 20 million depends on the number of people in the world during the "great flood" where only 1 family survived and the population of Sodom and Gomorrah when your myth destroyed those cities. More proof? From your own myth book – 2 Chronicles 14 – your mythical god killed 1 million Ethiopians just because it was asked by Asa. If your book is real then it happened. Right?

      Your god is no more real than the greek or roman gods that people quickly refer to as a myth.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • horeally?!

      Statism is the leading excuse to kill people being of a certain race, ethnicity, religion, etc.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • ProudAtheist

      Statism? Those darn statisticians.

      What you described sounded more like the Inquisition "Catholics suspected of being heretics, witches or others considered of dubious faith, including Muslims and Jews who had converted to Catholicism, were among the targets." And your god approved of everyone of those deaths because your god did the same many times previously.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • ensense

      proudatheist You Atheist buddy Stalin and pol pot killed more in 1 decade then all of history combined.

      March 29, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
  17. KK Denver

    We as a species are still just one step out of the trees........... we have far to go reading some of these posts here

    March 29, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  18. TownC

    Has religion justified slavery or have people used religion to justify slavery?

    March 29, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • Erky

      Both.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • KK Denver

      Religion is people...... you know, like corporations and unions

      March 29, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • seyedibar

      Many early Americans saw African slaves as carrying the curse of Ham or the curse of Canaan. They basicly felt that God had okayed this particular tribe of humans to be held in contempt and justified to hold as property. Today it's quite shocking to see how many African-Americans have taken up the bigoted religion of their oppressors.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • Jamie

      American slave owners waived the Bible in the air in order to defend their use of slavery

      March 29, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  19. liz

    great attempt at drawing another argument against religion CNN. So moral of the story is to vote for republicans means your promoting promoting slavery right? so over your BS

    March 29, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • Sybaris

      and yet you read the whole article.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • KK Denver

      why does the right hate facts? learning is never bad, knowledge is power

      March 29, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • Brooklyn Boy

      Well – isn't that what Rick Saintorum wants? Sure seems like it to me.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • ProudAtheist

      Don't forget it was a republican that tried to end slavery and caused a civil war because of those who were against ending it.

      Religion is used as a crutch for people's action every day. "Thou shalt not kill" yet people have killed probably billions (excluding the over est 20 million just by their god alone) in the name of religion in mankind's history just look at the Inquisition and people continue to do so every day.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, The Piper's Son

      @liz
      I think you need to look up the definition of attempt. Considering these comments alone I’d say it was successful and rightfully so. I’m sorry you associate yourself with such a backward party but that is your choice. What you call BS people call fact. -independent.

      @ProudAtheist
      Sorry but no. The Civil War wasn’t over ending slavery. It was over expanding it. It was economics! Old Abe said if he could end the war without freeing a single slave he would do so. However your other point is correct, Christians are the biggest hypocrites in history.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  20. Idiocracy

    Wow. usually the trolls show up in the comments. I guess now they can author their own articles on CNN.

    March 29, 2012 at 12:25 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.