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. Sly

    Naturally – fact is that there are a lot of really stupid humans, and the more stupid you are the more likely you will find another race or religion to insult or enslave.

    It's no wonder that most racists are dumb southern white boys who just really dont have much education. They feel so inferior because everyone else told them how stupid they were, so they went out and tried to put down blacks so they could feel they were not the bottom of the cess pool.

    March 29, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  2. ChuckB

    The Catholic Church has also up until very recently supported dictatorial regimes. Most notably is its support of the Franco regime in Spain and the Ustasi regime in Croatia. Such support included priests arming themselves and participating in the execution of opponents of the regimes. Rather than being denied, the priest involved were proud of their involvement. A Hutu priest and several nuns encouraged and participated in genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda. Established, mainline chruches have a history of rationalizing and supporting the crimes of tyranical regimes.

    March 29, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  3. FactorX

    By now everyone should know.... you can not change anyone's opinion on religion....its fixated and wont move.... those trying to inform others are wasting their breath's because most people think their religion is the right one. Its a very difficult and tiring topic....

    March 29, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  4. us1776

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


    March 29, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • Common sense


      March 29, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • Diest

      Religion is the original Ponzi scheme. He just modified it.

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

      That is hard not to agree with.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
  5. Mike

    The Bible is in no way a means to justify the type of slavery that existed in the U.S. in the 1700 and 1800's.
    As the article states, slavery in biblical days was something entirely different.
    Just goes go show you how powerful a word's true definition can be and how dangerous it can be when mis-interpreted.

    March 29, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  6. Plug1

    I have a better question...how did America justify slavery!!!!!

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

      America justified slavery by claiming that African Americans were not People. They were lesser than people, more like animals, so enslaving them was ok.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  7. Joe

    Really, after all this Zimmerman\Martin crap, CNN really needs to post a front page article about slavery. Do you guys in the CNN news room have nothing else to do except to keep hate alive?

    March 29, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • I am God

      Hate alive? I think you have some serious issues if you think this is to keep hate alive. I just think you hate the fact that CNN reports things that you just don't want to believe is possible in the real world.

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

      So lets just pretend it never happened and never discuss it. Might as well never holocaust either because it will never happen again.

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

      It is not to keep hate alive but to expose its continued existence.

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

      I agree. It is always better to bury our heads in the sand. Then, no problems.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  8. hello

    this is not front page news

    shame on you cnn

    also shadowing your athiest nation hating liberal B S as an article is not true media

    shame on you cnn

    March 29, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • matt houston

      You haven't read the Bible or The Quran I see. Shame on you.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • Me

      (chuckles) Somebody has a guilty conscience.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • NutGrinder

      Go back to bed.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  9. Jerry Pelletier

    Just so you know...My wife absolutely loves bondage and we aren't even religious!

    March 29, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  10. Luis del Valle

    This is highly distorted biased article. The word 'slavery' is not even in the Bible; nor the word 'slaves,' not until Revelation 18:13 were its described as an evil.

    March 29, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • Jerry Pelletier

      Welcome to the Liberal bias media, where they slant anything for their own means...
      Now you didn't think that CNN had the guts to attack Islam without dragging in other religions!

      March 29, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • Dmarq

      Um....Letters of Paul???? Might want to pick up the book before you make pronouncements!

      March 29, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  11. fox

    Alexander the Great freed many slaves. Some chose to be his servant. He's never mentioned in the bible even though he had control of Jerusalem at one time, and a lot of Jesus's story was stuff Alexander even did. He liberated Egypt and was called "The Son of God (Zeus)" By them.

    The torah never believed in hell, nor eternal punishment. They called it gehenna. Be careful when following a bible you know that it was rewritten by king james and again by a large university hoping to make it interesting for people, rather than being a truth of God. Follow Jesus in your heart, or whatever name you choose to follow him (or her...or they)....those who sell themselves to slavery to foreign spiritual forces out of fear WILL be slaves in their heart.

    March 29, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  12. Justin

    Religion is the worst thing that ever happened to this world
    How much better would be off with the wars, deaths, hatred, and inequality that religion brings

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

      I have heard this argument so many times that it became impossible for me to resist my thoughts on this. Do you know this for a fact? Chances are we can never say. There are many people in the world who shun from doing evil with the religious compass in their head. Who knows how it could have turned out if religion was not there? For all you know it could be worse!

      March 29, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  13. houbie

    What we now call Christianity was largely decided by the emporer Constantine roughly 300 years after the life of Christ. It was carefully tailored to meet the requirement of becoming the state religion of Rome. The Bible was tailored in keeping with the needs of the state.

    This is not news and can explain a lot of what the author is pondering.

    The fascinating thing about all religions is that they are attempts to help mold the complex societies that they serve so the participants can function as effectively as possible. When the old paradigm no longer works, a new one that better suits that society is formed.

    Organized religion is how we first learned how to function in large, complex societies vs disjointed tribes. That is why it is still relevant today.

    March 29, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  14. KyRunner

    they are so big on trying to antagonize, they forget its atheists who caused almost all of the worlds atrocities. Ghingis Khan, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Pol Pot, just to name an extreme few were all atheists. Funny how THATS not mentioned

    March 29, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • I am God

      Wow first off Ghengis Khan wasn't an Atheist, Hitler was never an Atheist. That pretty much sums up how clueless you really are.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • just sayin

      Hitler was an atheist

      March 29, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • I am God

      Hitler was a Christian you idiot. Look it up. Hell go back to school and look it up. Sheesh.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • fred bazzeeda

      you are about as clueless as a box of rocks. do your search again and you will see all that you mentioned were religious at some point.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  15. Malcolm Xcrement

    Personally, I do not need religion to justify slavery.
    The recent shameful, racist behaviour of black leaders who are making endless hateful comments is all the justification I need to bring it back. Members of the BPP can go first to the highest bidder.

    March 29, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  16. Vino

    "Jesus says.." this, he says that. Jesus was a concoction of about 20 different writers...~!

    March 29, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • Lun

      So true. He's as mythical as Dracula.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  17. keefah


    March 29, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  18. Bill P

    John Blake. An interesting article but I think that you actually missed the point of what the Apostle Paul was trying to say about "obeying your masters". He was talking to Christians who were slaves. For those that think that this earthly life is all there is, then that would seem to be a monumentally harsh thing to ask. But this life is just a "vapor" in the context of eternity. Say that Paul railed against the evils of slavery to a Christian slave in order to stir up rebellion and he then overthrew and killed his master(s). Not only would that Christian have killed someone but he or she would likely have sent the master to an eternity without knowing the Lord. Jesus died on the cross for the slave, the free man, and the slave’s masters. The whole purpose of a Christian is to help lead others to Christ – not run a crusade against contemporary social evils. If the two can be accomplished together, then fine. But helping others to come to know the Lord is paramount. A slave could indeed be the instrument to make that happen and that slave would have likely saved two lives: his master’s as well as his own, as a slave in rebellion would be hunted down and killed.

    What you also do not seem to make very clear is that the American form of slavery was a great evil specifically prohibited in the Bible whereby folks were wrenched from a separate country and brought over to be made into slaves on a permanent basis. Our founding fathers that rationalized the American form of slavery were dead wrong in terms of Biblical truth. Slaves under the Israelites were either "indentured" (for mutually agreeable economic reasons) or they were enslaved as a result of the Israelites going into Canaan and conquering the land. How do you deal with a potentially hostile indigenous population? Do you simply kill them? Do you let them run free? It was a simple matter of maintaining control and peace. Then time could ease the anger and anxiety and the folks could be freed. Such agreements for servitude over a limited timeframe were made often. Again, to go into another country and pull people out for the purpose of making the inhabitants into your slaves was prohibited.

    Obviously, today, the whole concept of slavery is moot and unthinkable – at least in civil society.

    March 29, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  19. jujubear12938

    we are all slaves to taxes, gas prices and abuse of government powers....

    March 29, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • FactorX

      true that

      March 29, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  20. I am God

    All right we are going to say this out loud right now. As God says so, so you religious believers better believe in me. Atheism was around way before Communism ever was formed and the difference between the two is that Communism is political. Atheism is not political. So seriously stop trying to compare the two together.

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

      communism is actually an economic system not a political system...it's quite possible to have a democratic communist society...confuses a lot of people

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

      'Forgive them son, for they know not what they do'...What do you expect from this bunch, their logic and reasoning skills are obviously lacking.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
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About this blog

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.