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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. abnbear

    The truth is that NONE of these religions promoted (promote) barbaric acts against fellow brothers and sisters. Satan also works in mysterious ways and has laid an egg in these churches. Satan has a counterfeit for everything Holy. Here is the fork in the road for ALL of us: you can simply shrug it off and move on or you can really delve into some study. Your life may depend on it.

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

      The passages in the bible that support slavery and other things that most of us would now consider pretty evil, are very clear. Would you claim that Satan put those passages in the bible?

      If instead, you think that those passages are being read incorrectly, which is a very tough claim to make when they are so explicit, then that puts the existence of your god into question from quite a different angle. Is that your claim, that we are reading the text incorrectly?

      March 29, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • Sybaris

      You obviously need to read the old testament with on open mind.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • max33333445555

      satan who? find satan in the bible. very hard to do

      March 29, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • PeterVN

      Sybaris, was your comment directed to me, or to abnbear?

      March 29, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
  2. hussein

    Slavery in Islam is not allowed for men. For women, islam teaches that their enslavement to men is a joy. If they were not so, they would engage in foolishness and lose their souls.

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

      Where did you learn that? This is not what it is, and you are not supposed to mislead anyone based on your fantasy.

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

      I opine that billions of women would likely say that they do not agree to such enslavement, and most who are so enslaved do not find it a "joy". -at least, if they are in situations that even allow them to voice opinions at all, which, thanks in large part to certain religions, is frequently not the case.

      Perhaps some women will present here their take on your statement and my opinion

      March 29, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • Ed

      And, by the way, you who is preaching others to read their Quran, go check it ut yourself, and learn what Prophet Muhammad taught his brothers and sisters at his time, and still teaching them through his Sirah (History). He actually even taught his followers that one of the ways to seek forgiveness from Allah is by "liberating a neck", or "Freeing a slave" if you wish.. You do not know how big of a deal this is . All in all, I suggest that you read the quran yourself and what Prophet Muhammad delivered from his Lord.
      Also, I would like to clear up a point. The message that Moses, Jesus, or Muhammad brought to humanity was all based on the same principles. Read some books! Good luck!

      March 29, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • Justcause

      Heussein***********nice name but I don't think you are a Muslim. provide proof!! what are you saying is completely false

      March 29, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  3. ebraiter

    As far as I'm concerned, slavery [in some form] is still alive and well in most Arab countries when women are treated as second [if lucky] class citizens. They are being used to crank out kids. They are abused. I'm sure some have been killed because they keep on cranking out females or because they aren't cranking out any [in both cases, it's their master/husband who are probably at fault.] If a man commits adultry, maybe some fine or something. If a women? Probably killed.

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

      Women must be controlled by men or they lose themselves to foolishness. Read your quran, cover yourself and voice no further opinions amongst men. Then, you will be truly happy and Allah will bless you.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
      • ebraiter

        And the Quran was written by whom? Men. They assume women would be "foolish" – but idsn't it men who actually cause wars? Or men who lead organizations bent on killing others for religion or other views? Wouldn't you say that men are foolish?

        March 29, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • Justcause

      Heussein**************************You are missinterpreting I am not sure where are you getting this from, no such things are said int the Koran.. Provide prove!!! Islam abolished slavery period it does not matter if it is man or a woman.... you are confused or don't know anything about Islam

      March 29, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
      • ebraiter

        Or just brainwashed. Then there are the extremists/radicalists who misinterpret the Koran [as well as other religious books] to bend it towards to what they want to hear. [Sort of like Bob killing John. Then it's OK for other to kill as Bob did it.]

        March 30, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  4. Dan

    This article is really stupid. What's your point? And to say that Jesus, Mohammad, and Moses didn't really care about slavery? Is that what this is about?
    I'm pretty sure that Moses helped free his brothers and sisters from slavery. In fact, that is what Moses is most known for, bringing the slaves out of Egypt! What a bogus, uninformed, and ambiguous article this is.
    CNN, DON'T PUT OUT CRAPOLA LIKE THIS.
    Are others confused on the purpose of this article as well?

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

      > This article is really stupid. What's your point? And to say that Jesus, Mohammad, and Moses didn't really care about slavery? Is that what this is about?

      Jesus did care. He told slaves to love their masters. He of course didn't say "Don't have slaves".

      > I'm pretty sure that Moses helped free his brothers and sisters from slavery. In fact, that is what Moses is most known for, bringing the slaves out of Egypt! What a bogus, uninformed, and ambiguous article this is.

      Yes, he did free his people as slaves. Then he enacted rules to allow his people to keep slaves. Perhaps you should read your bible instead of pretending you know what you're talking about.

      > CNN, DON'T PUT OUT CRAPOLA LIKE THIS.

      It is crap, but it's a doctoral thesis compared to your viewpoint.

      > Are others confused on the purpose of this article as well?

      The purpose is to report on the bible, even the stuff that people don't like about it. More often then not, people of faith cherry pick certain sections of the bible. That's wrong.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • Not Confused

      No, seems to be only you.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Paul

      The author of this article is not only confused but uninformed as well. It clearly shows how subtly evil can put doubts in our minds when scripture is taken out of context. Reading the Bible without prayer does more harm than good.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Rundvelt

      > The author of this article is not only confused but uninformed as well. It clearly shows how subtly evil can put doubts in our minds when scripture is taken out of context. Reading the Bible without prayer does more harm than good.

      Allow me to translate.

      Anyone taking anything in the bible as negative is clearly uninformed and/or taking it out of context.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  5. open400

    I really do not think Moses,Jesus or the Prophet Muhammad would approve of salvery or be slave holders. People using holy scriptues to do truly evil things has gone on for literally thousands of years.

    March 29, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      Prayer changes things .

      March 29, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  6. lance corporal

    so gayness is absolute but slavery is relative...............

    hmmmmm way to cherry pick the bible there christians

    March 29, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  7. j

    And out come the brainwashed slaves to defend their masters.

    Drone on about how incorrect the article is. Drone on about the author. Drone. Drone. Obey. Obey. Submit. Slave.

    March 29, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  8. us1776

    Religion is the worst thing that ever happened to the human race.

    .

    March 29, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • just sayin

      Not anywhere as bad as your post.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • voice.of.reason

      Religion is the best thing that happened to humans...without religion, we'd be roaming around like monkeys. All morality & ethics have their basis in religion. The unfortunate part is the over time humans always seem to abandon true religious teaching and are bent on going back to animalistic ways. Look at history as a whole and there are signs for those who want to truly understand our purpose...the message is the same but over time there is always something that drives human to distort it ...maybe the pursuit of power. Seems those days are here for us now, we have definitely created a culture that is moving away from religious values and if it continues, then we may end up like those before us !

      March 29, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, The Piper's Son

      @voice.of.reason
      I’m afraid not. We a social animal and all social animal have a code of conduct. Otherwise they cannot be social. This predates religious concepts. Try again.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  9. FaithIsNoble

    Love Your Creator!
    Let me know when you are able to create an ocean or paint the morning sky with a real sunrise, or cause the winds to pick up seeds and have them scattered at random in just the right places so that magnificent trees sprout to create shade for other living things or more importantly create an original human cell, not a clone, but an original to create life like no other. When you have all of this creationism thing down, let me know and we’ll talk again about how smart you are, those that fail to believe in God.

    With the same mighty Hand that assembled man from top to toe, so can He that Holds the Key of Life, unlock the demise which accompanies years of control by the heathen, striking their seed of unrighteousness to discipline and bring his people back to his heart and lovingkindness. He is a jealous God.

    (Thought I would toss that thought in for good measure for those that think they are equal or greater than God).

    March 29, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Question Everything

      Ahh the ultimate show-stopper, the epitome of anti-intellectualism and curiosity... The broad stroke ending all exploration and the unknown. The blanket answer.... God did it! So easy, isn't it.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • lance corporal

      jealously strike down to bring us back to his loving heart.........WOW

      sounds more like a wife beater to me

      BTW I'm not knocking God just your understanding of what god is
      if you want to remove the blinders and see god the first thing you have to do is leave the churches
      and the hateful wrong dogma they spew

      March 29, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • max33333445555

      the point you are trying to make has no bearing on someone that doesnt believe that god exists. the only folks you make sense to are those that already believe.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • Annrafnk

      " And, I will make you like Gods"...look that one up !

      March 29, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • ORBuckeye

      If God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and "kind"...... why is it.... MILLIONS died during WW2 at the hands of evil? Why do babies die? Why do children suffer cancer?

      You can work your theocracy till you're blue in the face but you'll never convince people such as myself as to why this occurs. People such as yourselves only look to "excuses" to justify your rationale.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • ORBuckeye

      If God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and "kind"...... why is it.... MILLIONS died during WW2 at the hands of evil? Why do babies die? Why do children suffer cancer?

      You can work your theodicy till you're blue in the face but you'll never convince people such as myself as to why this occurs. People such as yourselves only look to "excuses" to justify your rationale.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • Hence21

      I think the only people who think they are equal or greater than god are people like you who cast judgment based on what you think god would be thinking. Most people just think that god probably dosn't exist, and if he did, that he obviously doesn't care what we do. Religion would be so much better if it was not used as a foundation for society. I could live my life thinking god existed, if I wasn't being told that god wants me to hate gays and single mothers and scientist. People who shoe horn religion into politics have soiled god's name and just convinced people like me that it is all bs and none of it is real.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • Vorlon

      Amen!

      March 30, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  10. dolson1014

    More on the Pope's travels to Central America in today's News From the End of the World:

    http://www.newsfromtheend.com/2012/03/popes-hat-shrinks-overnight-will-go.html

    March 29, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  11. JLS639

    “Religions redefine themselves and people draw on different stories and underplay other stories. This happens constantly.”

    This is the wisest thing the article said. It has long amazed me how so many people seem to not be aware of this.

    March 29, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  12. pemullen

    Sheer garbage. John Blake and CNN should be ashamed for publishing such crap.

    March 29, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • Concerned Citizen

      Yeah, the truth stings, doesn't it?

      March 29, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
      • pemullen

        If you think this is the truth, you are a complete idiot

        April 13, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
  13. svann

    “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.”

    Say what? When did Jesus condemn polygamy? I think Paul said that a church leader should have only one wife, but that is far from a condemnation – and Jesus never said anything at all about it afaik.

    March 29, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • JLS639

      Are you saying apologists for slavery in the United States played fast and loose with Biblical teachings? Are you surprised by this?

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

      I didnt comment on slavery, I commented on polygamy.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • JLS639

      I was not commenting on slavery, either. I am commenting on the tendency to not check a holy book and assume it must say what you think it should say. In this case, the apologists for slavery needed a list of sins condemned by Jesus to compare to slavery which was not condemned..

      March 29, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  14. jamfs

    Is there an ostrich in the house? So we can stick our heads up his___ and not profess our stupidity. Hurry up before I become a religion and sentence you all to ignorance,stupidity,and endless guilt.

    March 29, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  15. Al in chi-town

    Ah another 'bold' agenda piece wrapped in the guise of journalism. Nice pravda work.

    March 29, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  16. Justcause

    IT IS COMPLETELY FALSE ..Islam abolished slavery from day one, the Prophet Mohammad, used to buy slaves from their owners and free them. His closest firend "Abu Bakr " used to be a very wealthy man and used alot of his money freeing slaves..

    I don't believe neither Chritianity nor Judaism encouraged slavery....as Muslim belief in all the Prophets, the Koran talks about them from Adam , Noah, to Abraham and his offspring to Moses, Jesus, they all freed slaves and abolished slavery. Didn't Moses freed "Beni Israel" the nation of Israel from salvery!!!!

    March 29, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • max33333445555

      there is some dispute as to whether the jews were actually slaves in egypt, at least using the typical definition.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • Justcause

      Iam not sure where is the dispute, the old testaments, Torah attest to the abusive state of the Jews under the pharoa using them as slaves... !!

      March 29, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  17. Chewbacca

    Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ. (Ephesians 6:5)

    ----------------–

    The Old Testament is such a disgusting book!

    March 29, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  18. Steve in Iowa

    To he11 with slavery, how about doing a story on how religion has justified KILLING millions..... That'd be something worth reading.

    March 29, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • Carmella

      Nice reach farmboy, Better yet how about a piece on how atheist marxists have killed HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS over the last 100 years.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • max33333445555

      could just say that humanity is built on war and death, regardless of religion

      March 29, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  19. Annrafnk

    "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."

    The real reason was that Rome had no compassion for slaves and would kill them without provocation. It was fear that kept the slaves in order.

    March 29, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  20. tingle007

    Buddhism,Hinduism, and even atheists have done the same they were called, the Han system, Caste system, and Soviet Gulags respectively.

    Slavery is a part of human history and I fear it may always be with us.

    March 29, 2012 at 12:33 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.