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. olaadamsvi

    Reblogged this on Fufu and Okra and commented:

    December 17, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  2. Bob

    For 2000 years men have been trying to remove the name of Jesus from everything. Religion is mans way to worship God, but a true relationship with God is not only possible but needed and attainable. Since the Bible was written it has said a way things would go and we see changes more and more. This and the fact that the Bible and Jesus cannot be taken out of society is testimony to God. He is making sure His word is fulfilled. He can do that for your life also. If Church isn't your thing if things have seemed to hit a dead end then call out to Him who loves you. But LISTEN in your heart expect a reply and in the turmoil it may be hard to hear but He will answer. God has not let me down, ever!! We are supposed to model Jesus, this also applies to His miracles, can you imaging what awaits for those who press in to the calling of God? This awaits for you!! Along with peace, joy help in trouble, a friend that is always there. His testimony is already in our hearts hidden away. It is not till we call on Him that we begin to understand the true loving, powerful, caring nature that is God. Jesus died on the cross for the forgiveness of sins so we could not only go to heaven but have a relationship NOW with Him. The separation from us to God has been removed if we just ask for help.

    October 28, 2012 at 8:55 am |
  3. Lorraine

    Wrenn_NYC, respectful, deferential, gracious, complaisant, suave, affable, urbane, courtly. Civil, affable, courteous, polite all imply avoidance of rudeness toward others. Civil suggests a minimum of observance of social requirements. Affable suggests ease of approach and friendliness. Courteous implies positive, dignified, sincere, and thoughtful consideration for others. Polite implies habitual courtesy, arising from a consciousness of one's training and the demands of good manners.

    These are the synonyms for civil, which are all words pertaining to being of a peaceful manner you cad.

    7, 8. boorish, churlish. Is truly what you are you nick picked on something so frivolous, dang. Don't you have better things to do?

    July 28, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
  4. Bob

    Slavery was abolished long ago so this argument is pointless unless you are a atheist looking for a argument. Utterly pointless!!!!

    July 20, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • Who invited me?

      truth hurts doesn't it bob

      July 20, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • PAUL


      July 21, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
    • 0G-No gods, ghosts, goblins or ghouls

      But unfortunately religion has not been abolished. Anything that informs people, especially young people, about the truth of religion, that it is all bullsh!t, is invaluable.

      July 21, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
  5. Bill Deacon

    Feast of Saint Thomas, Apostle
    Lectionary: 593
    Reading 1 Eph 2:19-22
    Brothers and sisters:
    You are no longer strangers and sojourners,
    but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones
    and members of the household of God,
    built upon the foundation of the Apostles and prophets,
    with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone.
    Through him the whole structure is held together
    and grows into a temple sacred in the Lord;
    in him you also are being built together
    into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.

    July 3, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • A Frayed Knot

      Purple prose from Paul of Tarsus, with not a shred of verified evidence regarding its factualness.

      July 3, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  6. chikaezeanya

    Slavery is the manifestation of the unchecked human inclination to subdue others. While African chattel slavery in Europe and the Americas happens to be the most prominent, it is not a singular occurrence. Slavery existed in Africa hundreds of years before the Europeans and Americans took advantage of it to ship off millions of Africans to work for in their plantations. But slavery in Africa was drastically different from what was obtainable in Europe and the Americas. To know more about slavery in Africa, read the hisorical fiction Before We Set Sail http://www.beforewesetsail.com

    June 26, 2012 at 6:08 am |
  7. Lorraine

    tom tom tu you are doing the pipe, you are stupid. hehehaha, insane in the membrain haha. Get a grip the truth is ripping you up huh, hang in there ok, there is more.

    June 21, 2012 at 7:23 am |
  8. Lorraine

    Wrenn_NYC, I did say that men, the high priest then had bent the laws of slavery, among other ordinances, laws, and judgements, going against YHWH, and changing it from YHWHs law, and is why we are in the turmoil of this world now. Men creating religions to rule over mankind for gain, and power. Its been this way for over 2000 years until now today, they are still doing it misleading the flocks, the people.

    June 20, 2012 at 10:49 pm |
    • Lorraine

      ISAIAH 24 VS. 5.

      June 20, 2012 at 10:52 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      SEUSS 54:320-350.

      June 20, 2012 at 10:53 pm |
  9. Lorraine

    Slavery, in those days of old, of Moses, Abraham, etc..were then considered an honor, for the slave was treated just as a family member, and loved within the tribes. The laws were bent by men, the high priest, who changed them, and wanted to do whatever they wanted to of their own hearts for their convenience, going against the Creator YHWH of peace, and righteousness. Even until this day they the shepherds of the flocks; the priest, pastors, popes, the elders, are all misleading them, taking them away from YHWH the King.

    June 20, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • Wrenn_NYC


      I suggest you read your bible again. Slaves were not 'just as family' as the rules state in them the pecuniary remuneration if a man damages or kills another man's slave. If a man damages or kills another mans wife or children, it's an eye for an eye, not a financial response.

      June 20, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  10. kwabena jjemba

    This is absolutely why these three religions specifically have been horrible for the human family. For anyone to follow them in 2012 without a sincerely, full acknowledgement/apology/reparations for the crimes/murders of millions of innocent human beings is ludicrous. The full true story of the complicitness of these religions even into today's miindset about "others" hasnot been told and until leaders and followers of these religions come "clean", there will be no salvation for any of the followers.

    June 19, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • LightBarer23

      But if the religions come 'clean' about slavery and the parts they played in it, do you think there will be religion?

      June 20, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  11. meow!

    And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished. [3] 21 Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.

    June 12, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • Lorraine Voss

      meow, it's apparent that this book must be discerned, as taught in Micah 7, for the high priest did do many things that they were not told to do by YHWH, as men in authority do sometimes, they play gods, and try to bend the laws to their convenience, for YHWH never condone any of these slave laws, man did; this was part of them all going astray from YHWH, disobeying His laws, and this is why the sword of wrath from YHWH came down on the people, the priest then, as they are doing now were misleading the flocks. As YHWH tells us in Ezekiel 20, of the elders, and Malachi 2, of the priest, and Jeremiah 23v1-5 of the pastors, and in Ezekiel 36v22,23, of how they all even profaned the name of YHWH, and how He will avenge His name in His day of His return, and in Ezekiel 34, YHWH speaks to the sheppards about His flocks, for in Isaiah 51v5, YHWHs righteousness is near. As prophesied in the book of Hosea 6v1-3, it gives us the time when His 'will' and 'spirit' will be again upon this earth. Many are awakening to His truth now in Isaiah 51a future prophesy that is in progress.

      June 12, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  12. meow!

    "If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property."

    June 12, 2012 at 9:23 am |
  13. Lorraine Voss

    Ron , yes it matters, especially when all religions are pagan, idolatry to the Creator of all life, YHWH, who is spiritual of righteousness, and peace, for all in the world, not just some, and no religion has accomplished these yet , and YHWH the Almighty, did not condone any religion, man did.

    June 11, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  14. Lorraine Voss

    Isaiah 56, teaches us that we all are favored by the creator YHWH, by accepting the law of life, and this is the law of the 10 commandments, the sabbath, and the pass over in Exodus 12, these ordinances are for all nations, along with the chosen people, and none of it has changed as YHWH the only savior, and redeemer, has told to us in Isaiah 49v26, and Isaiah 60v16, and that He never changes as prophesied in Malachi 3v6, so that we are not deceived. In Daniel 11v39-45,and from Moses in Deut. 32v17, of the prophesy of strange gods, devils that the future generations will worship, idols, of christianity,legalized by Constantine in 311bce, and islam they both were told to us to watch out for. Also, in Malachi 1v6, YHWH ask us of His honor if He is the father, why would anyone praise the son, if YHWH is the sole creator of it all?, in Isaiah 44v24, and Isaiah 45v7. YHWH continues all through the OT, the obvious truth,and called the book of remembrance in Malachi 3v16, that tells us that He YHWH longs for our praise to Himat least from all He has done for us,giving us 'Life'

    June 10, 2012 at 9:14 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.