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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. Don

    Jesus may not have specifically condemned slavery but he did say two things that, if they were followed, would have eliminated slavery. (1) Give away everything that you own to the poor and follow me. Slaves are property which Jesus said to give to the poor. (2) Do unto others what you would have them do unto you. If you were a slave you would want to be freed.

    March 31, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • Anon

      And it's better to remove your eye, castrate and amputate thyself if you lust after married woman.
      Mythological Jesus is a moron.

      March 31, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  2. Prayer changes things

    Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things .

    March 31, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  3. CJ

    We humans can be so pathetic.

    March 31, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • damnyankee

      We are ALL slaves to someone. In America, we are slaves to the Government from January to May – because all that money we earn during that time goes to the Gov't in some sort of tax. And to think my forefathers fought in the Revolution because the King was trying to rip them off of 10% of their earnings...

      March 31, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • AGuest9

      However, it's OK when your employer is trying to rip off your sick child's or spouse's insurance? It's OK when they rip off your over-time (which is supposedly granted by law?) It's OK when they rip off the money that is supposed to be going into a retirement plan? Before you ask "Why don't you quit?", I'd like to ask "Who is going to pay my mortgage?"

      March 31, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  4. Sudan

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pOPD7_SCFNA&w=640&h=390]

    March 31, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  5. Blake

    Homework for this author

    – to read up on concentration camps
    – current slave owners in places such as Sudan/Mauritania

    March 31, 2012 at 10:14 am |
  6. sam kohen

    Actually I see nothing wrong with slavery. I think President Lincoln was wrong and that slavery should be legalized.

    March 31, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • thymat

      .......Each and every religion or cult enslaves the minds of it's followers......Slavery is not always physical..........Mind control of the masses is the intent of all religions...................

      March 31, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  7. Pipe-Dreamer

    Knowing the hidden-in-plain-view scriptures that turns the table(s) against what religious Christendom Emotifies/Declares, is what Life becomes for those who are not emotionally caught up in Christendom's webs of emotionalism. I rise and fall emotionally on my own merits and means then to be uproted by the religious harlots of demigod freedom worshippers. If anyone and by this, I mean, anyone willing to put up their scriptural hindsightiveness to either condone and/or dismiss Godliness, then let's have at it! I have 3 hours to kill beofre I must go to a banquet.

    March 31, 2012 at 8:39 am |
  8. Reality

    Contemporary Islam and slavery:

    "Dr. Abdul-Latif Mushtahari, the general supervisor and director of ho-miletics and guidance at the Azhar University, has said on the subject of justifications for Islamic permission of slavery:[124]

    "Islam does not prohibit slavery but retains it for two reasons. The first reason is war (whether it is a civil war or a foreign war in which the captive is either killed or enslaved) provided that the war is not between Muslims against each other – it is not acceptable to enslave the violators, or the offenders, if they are Muslims. Only non-Muslim captives may be enslaved or killed. The second reason is the se-xual propagation of slaves which would generate more slaves for their owner."

    "Saudi Arabia is a destination for men and women from South and East Asia and East Africa trafficked for the purpose of labor exploitation, and for children from Yemen, Afghanistan, and Africa trafficking for forced begging. Hundreds of thousands of low-skilled workers from India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and Kenya migrate voluntarily to Saudi Arabia; some fall into conditions of involuntary servitude, suffering from physical and se-xual abuse, non-payment or delayed payment of wages, the withholding of travel docu-ments, restrictions on their freedom of movement and non-consensual contract alterations. The Government of Saudi Arabia does not comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so.[134]"

    March 31, 2012 at 8:06 am |
  9. Nii

    Atheists suffering to find anything sensible to say? Thats real cute. Christians really do study their religion don't they?

    March 31, 2012 at 7:53 am |
    • Pipe-Dreamer

      Nii,,,

      I sense it is too early for meaningfilled conversation(s). Still workin on my 1st cup of joe. Still, in between the sips I do dare to write.

      Have you Nii ever read in scripture that we labour together with God? Have you even read that we ars God's Husbandry much the way cattlemen husbandry their herds? Do you NOT believe that we are God's buildings?

      March 31, 2012 at 8:23 am |
  10. Religion is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer is delusional.

    March 31, 2012 at 7:29 am |
    • Casey

      LOL... you must be like 8 years old or something.

      March 31, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • Stan

      Casey, LOL, you must be really stupid.

      March 31, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • Cq

      Casey
      If he is, so is the guy who promotes prayer in a similar fashion, right?

      March 31, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  11. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    March 31, 2012 at 6:08 am |
  12. Muneef

    Tax slavery;

    A lady, with her little boy of 10 years, is eating in a restaurant. In an oversight, the kid swallows a coin and chokes.

    The mother tried hitting his back, slapping on the neck, shaking him hard without any success to make him spit the coin.

    Now the boy begins to show signs of choking turning blue. The desperate mother starts screaming for help.

    A man gets up from a nearby table, and with astonishing tranquility, without saying a word, he lowers boys pants, squeezed and pulled down violently his testicles!

    Naturally, the boy with irresistible pain spits out the coin. The gentleman with the same astonishing ease & tranquility returned to his desk without a word.

    Soon the mother calmed down & approached the gentleman to thank him for saving his boys life.

    She asked Sir, are you a doctor?

    No, ma'am, I AM an assessor of the Tax Department. We are trained to squeeze the balls of everyone to make them cough up the last penny.

    March 31, 2012 at 5:01 am |
    • Reality

      But there is no humor when it comes to Islam and slavery:

      "Dr. Abdul-Latif Mushtahari, the general supervisor and director of ho-miletics and guidance at the Azhar University, has said on the subject of justifications for Islamic permission of slavery:[124]

      "Islam does not prohibit slavery but retains it for two reasons. The first reason is war (whether it is a civil war or a foreign war in which the captive is either killed or enslaved) provided that the war is not between Muslims against each other – it is not acceptable to enslave the violators, or the offenders, if they are Muslims. Only non-Muslim captives may be enslaved or killed. The second reason is the se-xual propagation of slaves which would generate more slaves for their owner."

      "Saudi Arabia is a destination for men and women from South and East Asia and East Africa trafficked for the purpose of labor exploitation, and for children from Yemen, Afghanistan, and Africa trafficking for forced begging. Hundreds of thousands of low-skilled workers from India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and Kenya migrate voluntarily to Saudi Arabia; some fall into conditions of involuntary servitude, suffering from physical and se-xual abuse, non-payment or delayed payment of wages, the withholding of travel docu-ments, restrictions on their freedom of movement and non-consensual contract alterations. The Government of Saudi Arabia does not comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so.[134]"

      ====================================================================================

      March 31, 2012 at 8:08 am |
    • Angelica

      hahahah

      March 31, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • Muneef

      Reality.

      Well as you see it is saudi Arabia and not Islam...to be blamed...it is greed and not religion...
      The facts of slavery in which you point out are of the past but now everybody gets paid for their work and no slavery exists under republican countries except for rare cases in the outskirts of the countries boarders such as one of few cases found in Yemen and when those slaves were told they will be freed they rejected to be freed stating that who will support them to live or give them food,shelter and jobs... After all they said they great grand fathers were slaves belonging to this family man and they were inherited generation after generation working on his lands... The present owner did not mind releasing them if they will but they rejected any intervention from the Gvt...

      April 1, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  13. Brian Comments

    Let's just admit that some people are born to be masters, and some people are not.

    March 31, 2012 at 2:35 am |
  14. WOT

    REPEAL the 13th and see what happen to AMERICA as we know it: Prison is the new Slavery for Black Americans!

    March 31, 2012 at 2:18 am |
  15. WOT

    Zack, I can tell your never took geometry!

    March 31, 2012 at 1:40 am |
  16. b4bigbang

    And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.

    Luke 6:31

    March 31, 2012 at 1:25 am |
    • HEAVENBENT

      Is that why you're into banging kids?

      March 31, 2012 at 1:42 am |
  17. b4bigbang

    1Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him,

    2That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand.

    3Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition;

    4Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God.

    5Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things?

    6And now ye know what withholdeth that he might be revealed in his time.

    7For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.

    8And then shall that Wicked be revealed, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of his coming:

    9Even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders,

    10And with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved.

    11And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie:

    12That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.

    2 Thessalonians 2

    March 31, 2012 at 1:17 am |
    • HEAVENBENT

      Wall of scripture. Nice.

      Now post something worth reading.

      March 31, 2012 at 1:43 am |
    • Get Real

      b4bigbang,

      What makes you think that Paul of Tarsus (and his voluminous words) is any big whoop?

      March 31, 2012 at 1:56 am |
    • Tom

      Bigbang, Fantastic mining of verses from the scriptures.

      March 31, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  18. b4bigbang

    33 Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
    How unsearchable his judgments,
    and his paths beyond tracing out!
    34 “Who has known the mind of the Lord?
    Or who has been his counselor?”
    35 “Who has ever given to God,
    that God should repay them?”
    36 For from him and through him and for him are all things.
    To him be the glory forever! Amen.
    Romans 11

    March 31, 2012 at 1:04 am |
    • HEAVENBENT

      That just says, "You can own as many slaves as you'd like because no one knows better than god. No one understands god's alleged will, so why question it? BUY SLAVES."

      March 31, 2012 at 1:16 am |
  19. WOT

    Slavery is only a word! Bondage of a people has always been and always will be.
    The Jews were slaves to the Romans, the untouchables in India , the serfs in England, Irland,Scottland, ect.. The
    African Americians forefathers in Anerica, which I am one . Slavery is in the mind not the body.

    March 31, 2012 at 12:46 am |
    • Kafir

      Sooo, reintroduce slavery because it's no big deal?

      April 2, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  20. b4bigbang

    And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
    2 Corinthians 4:3-4

    March 31, 2012 at 12:29 am |
    • Zack

      Please tell me how quoting scripture to prove scripture makes any sense? I'm right, because I said I'm right...? GROW A BRAIN.

      March 31, 2012 at 12:47 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Translation of b4Iwasthisdumbiwasacompletemoron: duhgbubhdughdooobeee dughDUH buth goyye houfg helkjrhtoBUH!@ GUH!!!!

      March 31, 2012 at 12:49 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Zach nails it in one. b4 is an idiot.

      March 31, 2012 at 12:50 am |
    • just sayin

      He is right because God said it is right.

      March 31, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • Stan

      just sprayin, go google "circular reasoning", you stupid little sh!t.

      March 31, 2012 at 11:18 am |
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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.