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. tekelder

    This article could only be written by someone who is either totally ignorant or has only the most superficial knowledge of the teachings of Judiasm, Christianity, and Islam. A well worn technique of religeous adherents is to extract (generally out of context) content from religeous writing to support whatever they are trying to justify in the world. The basic premise of this article is that because this author cannot find explicit condemnation of slavery in any of the religious writings he(sic) may have perused they all must therefore condone this abominable practice and by extension these religions are wanting/invalid and should probably be condemned based on this specific issue. Simply put, most of these teachings are focused on how the individual should conduct themselves in this world to assure a better place in the next, not how to build a utopian culture in this world.

    This article is a sad commentary on quality of the publishing organization and the laziness of the author.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  2. John

    As a person of no faith, this is an easy call for me. So what I find interesting is the notion that religious people have evolved, when in fact they adhere to books they insist are unchangeable, and just conveniently ignore what the books say when an issue gets embarrassing. My religious relatives and friends (most of them) routinely interpret the 6 days of creation as whatever length of time was necessary, reducing their faith in The Book' on that one issue to allegory. Since they must; they will stay literal on everything else until they are forced by evolving knowledge to retreat, one issue at a time. Of course they roundly condemn slavery. But as a person well educated in such matters, I say they cannot have it both ways. Slavery is wrong and always was. That makes religious -i.e., moral- leaders who didn't say that, even though it was in their faces, that makes them moral failures.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  3. John

    Much of the slavery referred to in the Bible within a Jewish context is Indentured Servitude, which is not at all similar to the slavery we think of today. Secondly, whether or not the Bible does not speak specifically to every subject matter does not mean that Jesus and the Prophets endorsed slavery. Jesus didn't speak in the Bible about forgery or pedophilia either. Certainly he wasn't endorsing them. Remember, Jesus spoke much more than anything that was captured in the Bible.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • charlieshen

      How about takeing a BIBLE and stuffing it up the furthest RECESSES of UR ANUS? SEE HOW IT FITS!!!

      March 29, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  4. dave

    religion has a way of rationalizing everything.....it truly is the opium of the masses..controlled by the powerful to keep people in line

    March 29, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  5. Allen

    You forgot to mention Communism, Evolutionism & Humanism.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  6. Piper

    God allowed slavery but never accepted it. Jesus talks about how Moses allowed for divorce because of mens hard hearts, but it wasnt supposed to be this way. It's the same with slavery. Also, if slavery was abolished in Moses' time then the Christians would have to abolish it as well and this would ensure the Church's demise because of Rome's ownership of slaves.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  7. charlieshen

    If it were the fair thing to do, every American here now would leave this coutnry to the Indians who originally here and owned it and get the hell out of here. It is not rightfully our country to begin with!!!

    March 29, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  8. zip

    Religion is and always will be a joke. Just think what the world could achieve without it.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • charlieshen

      Agreed! One's religion is in his heart and how good he treats others....other than that...going to church is completely BULLSHYTTT!!

      March 29, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • baj4q

      That is a very ignorant and one sided statement. Yes, there are those that wished (and still wish) to stifle sceintific thought and reason, like the Catholic church did with Galileo. But there are also people whose religious beliefs led them to do Great things like Mother Theresa and St. Francis of Assisi. Religion is not and never has been a problem. The problem is that bad people always have existed, and sometimes they are also religious.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  9. Fiona

    The Bible has long been used to justify the enslavement of women by their husbands. It still is, among extremists.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • zip

      Or Mormons

      March 29, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • outraged

      Not sure how much that is influenced by religion and not just simply human nature and inbedded in our DNA that men would hold power over woman.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  10. Really?

    This is simply one more reason that most people despise Americans, our arrogance emanates like sweat from our opinionated pores, our ignorance for world cultures and complete lack of respect for those things that we don't agree with drags us down to a level that demands no respect in return. I am very religious, I accept the fact that we as a civilization is flawed and that mankind as whole can achieve such terrible atrocities. I abhor the concept of slavery, the very thought of it churns my stomach, but does that mean that a few uneducated comments by the trolls under the bridge will displace my respect for each of these religious icons? Hardly – liberal media has its place and as long as we understand that there is an agenda behind their articles and as long as we try to read with open minds we won't fall into their trap.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • William Demuth

      The truth is an agenda worth pursuing, unlike imaginary sky kings.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • zip

      You are pathetically stupid. Do you realize the religion you choose is solely the product of where you were born?

      March 29, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • Really?

      Zip and William forgot your references... wasn't that Mein Kompf you were quoting? BTW thank you for proving my poing

      March 29, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  11. Bad Religion

    And there you have WHY religion cannot, should not, should never be, can never be, and utterly never has been a "moral compass" for greater humanity it's just a shame some people today can't seem to get past the bronze age way of thinking that the earth is flat and the center of universe ... blah blah blah. P-A-T-H-E-T-I-C

    March 29, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  12. ak2k

    Unbelievable how many people on these comments are defending the idea of slavery or indentured servantry. Absolutely unbelievable! It makes me sick!

    March 29, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • bart hoetz

      you are a slave to the lust of your flesh

      March 29, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  13. blake

    Another leftist slam on Christianity from the godless, leftist folks at CNN. Of course the article fails to mention the Christian leaders who strongly led the abolitionists movements in the U.S. and Britian.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • plucky

      Doesn't really matter because there is no God.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • Adam

      I'm an atheist and even I agree with you- if anything abolitionism was driven by Christian opposition to the practice. CNN is confusing religion with societal acceptance of an evil practice.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • William Demuth

      The truth huts don't it Blake?

      March 29, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • dennis

      NEWSFLASH: It doesn't matter if this criticism comes from the left or the right, you whiny, self-righteous, propaganda-devouring, cultist drone, you still have to defend the fact that throughout centuries and millennia of slavery, nearly ALL of history, the VAST MAJORITY OF CHRISTIANS, Muslims and Jews JUSTIFIED AND SUPPORTED slavery THROUGH THEIR RELIGION!!!! That doesn't change just because a tiny minority of Christians saw it differently. Or perhaps that is your point – That throughout history, the majority of the followers the major religions, including yours, were FOR SLAVERY, while just a few were against it until modern times? Great track record! It's a wonder we even had so much slavery throughout history with moral stewards like you running the show! Why not have religion be the moral stewards of our society again? The middle east is a sterling example of what happens when religion has all the power in modern times! Yay! Go live in Iran where you belong, you're UNAMERICAN. It's atheists and liberals who prevent people like you from justifying dark ages religious morals over common sense or compassion or decency. I hope your children get a good 'education' from their priest, it must be why you all turn out so demented and unstable.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  14. Gary

    Not very smart Blake. Man is always the culprit when it comes to the need to dominate others. Just like your opinion expressed in this article. You intend for it to dominate or enslave others opinions.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  15. D

    What a biased ignorant article. Let the bible scholar be the one to write about slavery, not some journalist who clearly hasn't done research.

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

      You should stop reading news all together. This is the way it works. People study it. Journalists report on it.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  16. Dan in Canada

    Religion has been – and is – used to promote an awful lot more than "just" slavery. It's the old "To get good people to do bad things, that takes religion"

    March 29, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  17. PraiseTheLard

    What a bunch of nonsense...

    March 29, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • Dan in Canada

      Praise he LARD ? HA HA HA HA Love it!

      March 29, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  18. Abdul

    Another display of the ineptness and disregard of CNN for posting accurate information. I'm tired of seeing articles with inaccurate information on Islam and Islamic history. I'm not sure about how accurate the information on Christianity and Judaism is either, due to me not having much knowledge on them, but those are probably wrong too.

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

      Never mind, I'm the idiot here. 😛 I made a judgement before even reading the whole article haha. My bad 😀

      March 29, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Note nothing specific in the camel jockeys complaint.

      Rarely are!

      March 29, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  19. Reality

    Christianity, Judaism and Islam as well as all other religions are a form of slavery as noted by the fact that said followers suffer in general from the Three B Syndrome, i.e. Bred, Born and Brainwashed in their form of religion.

    March 29, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  20. Qi

    Humans are animals dimwad

    March 29, 2012 at 12:59 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.