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. Jac

    The irony of this article is, not the historical inaccuracies, but the reality that the ones it intends to criticize are the ones who work to free those who are oppressed and held captive today. Those who are in slavery today, widowed, hungry, poor, orphaned, or oppressed can turn to organizations that a mainly faith based.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  2. niblick

    The CNN website headline for this article said, "How Religion has Justified Slavery". I see the article as further evidence that history has not justified religion.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  3. Brian

    yet another article about religion that won't make any religious people question their "faith". When will people realize that religion is the cancer of the world diguising itself as a positive thing. It does nothing positive except provide false sense of hope and comfort. I hope that humans continue to evolve and come to their senses. Unfortuneately we still have people who prefer to live in the dark ages and believe in magical people in the sky who will protect us for evil if they pray hard enough. delusional america

    March 29, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  4. Mike from CT

    Yeah today I am spamming because the pages go by quick..

    Reality must be wetting himself today as Crossan was the person they went to on the subject

    For a more complete view I would offer


    or the audio

    March 29, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  5. allaisa

    The Tenth Commandment only said 'Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's SLAVE ...." and not "Thou shalt not ENSLAVE thy neighbor.." So if GOD says its OK to have slaves, who is man to question HIS judgment?

    March 29, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  6. Mahal

    Love these Troll "News Stories".....geez, CNN is as bad as F0X at it....! Subtle agenda, guys...

    March 29, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  7. Ron

    I am not here to bash religion but this article is one example of the flaws of fundamentalist religion of all types. There is a very large group of fundamentalist Christians in the United States that are very vocal about how we need to live EXACTLY as the bible says we should live. Sometimes they qualify their statements (although it tends to happen issue to issue) based on whether something is in the newer or older parts of the Bible. However, they tend to ignore that even when they put this qualification on their demands the Bible is contradictory. People have done amazing good and amazing evil in the name of religion (if you get credit for one you have to take responsibility for the other) but fundamentalists need to accept that the contradictions exist. When you do that we can have the discussion about how it isn't right to impose any beliefs on others even if you have worked out the contradictions.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  8. Hanksteroni

    A good, relevant, read:

    Robert Wright
    The Evolution of God
    Publisher: Little, Brown and Company; 1 edition (June 8, 2009)
    Language: English
    ISBN-10: 0316734918
    ISBN-13: 978-0316734912

    Wright taught philosophy at Princeton and religion at the University of Pennsylvania. He was the author of several insightfull works.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  9. Jose Antonio

    In the Bible slavery existed. In the heavens, it's an authoritarian regime. There is no equality. It's either obey or go to hell. EP6:1/Col3:20Children obey your parents. And I don't know if that makes sense you have an abusive parent, etc. EP5:22 Wives submit to your husbands. I mean what would you do if you have an abusive husband who exploit you and treats you like dirt. What's happening to these women in Afganistan right now. EP6:5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters. As long as we're here on earth, slave, obey your master. That's what it says.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  10. Barney

    Man made religion. Follow Jesus Christ, the original rebel against organized religion. Love God, and love others as you want to be loved. Christianity does not encourage slavery one bit. Man encourages it, and uses text to rationalize their distorted insanity.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  11. Matt

    Paul told slaves to obey their masters, not Jesus. Jesus did, however, heal the slave of a Roman centurion who was "very valuable to him", and the implication is economic, not emotional. So Jesus tacitly excepted the practice as part of the culture of his day.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  12. Aaron

    "Let my people go!" – Moses.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • Alpa Chino

      "...but keep the others". Uh huh.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  13. Roy

    May be, because they knew slavery will always exist in one form or another. I am not a religious person. But, I think, those wise guys realized that there will always be slaves. There will be people who will always be leading the pack and there will be others who will follow them. Welcome to this 21st century, when slaves look different. They work in cubicles, live in pigeon holes, eat trash food and watch trash TV. They can not get out of this slavery unless they win the Mega Millions(now running at half a billion). Off course, constant media advertisements make them believe, this is good life. The TV sitcoms fries the slaves’ brains and kills their spirit. So, no, slavery will never end.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • Godisnot

      Your statement is extremely disingenuous to those who have been truly enslaved against their will.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  14. wwwFBCAKEcom

    Set the record straight.

    No where in the Bible does God or Jesus approve of Slavery. The teachings of Jesus speak against everything immoral when it comes to treatment of others. Jesus even went as far to state you should love your enemies and do good to them.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • Alverant

      You may want to re-read your bible. And this time do it critically and don't gloss over the parts you don't like. Jesus told slaves to obey their masters. Nowhere did Jesus say that slavery was wrong, thereby giving passive approval of it.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • A. Smith

      Yet, in the Old Testament we read that god instructed his chosen people to murder every man, woman, and child in communities that didn't believe in him. A really great god you have there.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • allaisa

      You never the Tenth Commandment then.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  15. emad salam

    You've managed to offend all religions in one article.
    Where and how did you get your information for this substandard piece of "journalism"?
    Islam was BUILD on abolishing slavery and the very first converts were mostly freed slaves who joined the religion for this very reason. Belal ibn Rabah, who was a freed and a tortured slave, was the prophet’s main prayer caller.
    Islam message was that WE'RE ALL EQUAL IN THE EYES OF GOD!!!
    How are you allowed to post for CNN with so little knowledge and research?

    March 29, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • Alpa Chino

      What should be done about it?

      March 29, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • allaisa

      Not all religions. Obviously you do not know how many religions are in the world. No mention of Hinduism and the real religion of peace - Buddhism. Not only Buddhists have no GOD, they dont believe in slavery either.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • allaisa

      It is not CNN that did not do research. Its you who never read Quran or may be you never understood it. Read Surah 33:52

      March 29, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  16. Zach Mercurio

    This is an interesting, but ultimately weak argument. I suggest that you read, Eric Metaxas' "Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery" Wilberforce utilized the Christian gospel as the sole foundation to not only abolish the slave trade and slavery in Parliament, but was the leader in re-framing how human civilization has conceptualized slavery over the last century. Without the teachings of redemption, grace, and mercy from the gospel of Jesus Christ, slavery may have taken much longer to be abolished.

    I was surprised this was not noted anywhere in this post. This is a great example of how the secular world enjoys to scrutinize the negative perceptions of religion, when in this case, Christian beliefs abolished the slave trade.

    We must remember, it is human beings who cause violence and sin, not any one religion.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  17. Steve

    Of course, officially atheistic regimes have shed more human blood than any others.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • just sayin

      Old, false argument: still old and false. GTFO

      March 29, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • Steve

      The Coms led the pack in death toll. And the Nazis were hardly religious.

      I'm an atheist, and I can admit this. It's no praise of religion.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Alpa Chino

      Uh...saying you're atheist doesn't make you less wrong, here, dude...

      March 29, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • Alverant

      Actually Steve the Nazis were very religious. Hitler repeatedly talked about how he was doing God's work and the SS required you to say an oath to God. As for communism, that's an economic/political system not a religious one. Christians can be commies too. In fact christianity and communism have a lot in common. Both don't like it when facts get in the way of their proclimations. Both spy on their own people. Both deal with desscent by banishing the offenders to a bad place. Etc.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  18. xiran

    Slavery existed before any religion came about; there was slavery before Christ was born; there was slavery in India, China, Africa before it spread to Europe and Americas. Cannot blame religion on that, much less the Catholic Church. Get your facts straight. medicolegal.tripod.com/catholicvslavery.htm

    March 29, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
  19. caesarbc

    John Blake is an atheist, and somehow uses CNN as a forum to promote atheism. This is intolerance towards those with beliefs other than his own.

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

      How is promoting a belief (or lack thereof) intolerance?
      You kinda turned that concept up side down here, brother.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • Alpa Chino

      All beliefs are mainly fiction anyway, so what does it matter?

      March 29, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • sam

      I think you meant to say "This person does not believe what I do, therefore he is intolerant."

      March 29, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  20. nolimits3333

    Science flies you to the moon.

    Religion flies you into buildings.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • Mike from CT

      No no it doesn't in either case.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • Alverant

      Mike, and I suppose we got to the moon by magic.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • Shayna

      Sooooo true!

      March 29, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • Mike from CT

      The mechanism of discovery did not get us to the moon but the motivations to get hard working people who wanted to get to the moon, the science was always there before the first flight. Just like gravity existed before newton.

      But if you are going to use that logic science created the plane that went into the building, the difference is the motivation of the people. Nowhere in the Christian doctrine does it say to take hostages.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:29 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.