Slavery and Racism in the Bible

Slave Market in Louisiana
Slave Market in Louisiana. De Agostini / W. Buss

Anytime the Bible is used to justify an action; a particular interpretation must be employed (after all, the Bible contains quite a number of broad, vague, and even contradictory statements). The problem arises when the person refuses to recognize that they are using an interpretation. Few Christian arguments annoy me quite so much as that someone's interpretation of the Bible is just "common sense" - and that thus anyone with a modicum of "common sense" will immediately see what the Truth is and agree with them.

The truth is, though, that it is rare that any interpretation of any text is really "common sense." Either an interpretation can be objectively defended by appeal to text and context, or it cannot. Those who can do so, and those who cannot most likely refuse to admit it. One of those issues which will appear to be "common sense" to the average Christian will be the biblical position on slavery.

Unfortunately, one of the most abominable chapters in the history of how the Bible has been used and interpreted involves the questions of race and slavery. Racial relations, especially between whites and blacks, have long been deplorable in the United States. They started out badly, got worse before they got better, and are nevertheless still poor with slim prospects of improving a great deal anytime soon. Although Christians will be loathed to admit it, their religion and how they interpret their Bible shares a significant part of the blame for this situation.

Old Testament

The first and most obvious, thing to remember is that there is no specific condemnation of slavery to be found anywhere in the Bible. At no point does God express even mild disapproval of enslaving human beings, robbing them of what freedom and independence they might have had. On the contrary, God is depicted of both approving of and regulating slavery, ensuring that the traffic and ownership of fellow human beings proceed in an acceptable manner.

In many cases, the regulations display a horrible disregard for the lives and dignity of enslaved individuals, hardly the sort of thing one would expect from a loving .

Passages referencing and condoning slavery are common in the Old Testament. In one place, we read:

When a slave owner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner's property. (Exodus 21:20-21)

So, the immediate killing of a slave is punishable, but a man may so grievously injure a slave that they die a few days later from their wounds without facing any punishment or retribution. All societies in the Middle East at this time were condoned slavery, so it shouldn't be surprising to find approval for it in this document. As a human law, the above would be commendable - after all, there was nothing quite so advanced anywhere else in the Middle East. But as the will of an all loving god, it's abominable.

As a side note, it should be observed that the King James Version of the Bible presents the above verse in an altered form, replacing "slave" with "servant" - thus gravely misleading Christians as to the intentions and desires of their God.

One more reason to reject fundamentalist claims that the KJV is the only true and valid translation!

New Testament

The New Testament, unfortunately, is little better. Jesus never even comes close to expressing disapproval of the enslaving of other human beings, and many statements attributed to him reveal a tacit acceptance or even approval of that inhuman institution. Throughout the Gospels, we read passages like:

A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master (Matt. 10:24)

Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. (Matt. 24:45-46)

Although Jesus is using slavery to illustrate larger points, the question remains why he would directly acknowledge the existence of slavery without saying anything negative about it?

The letters (rightly or wrongly) attributed to Paul are even worse, making it clear that the existence of slavery is not only acceptable but that slaves themselves should not presume to take the idea of freedom and equality preached by Jesus too far by attempting to escape their forced servitude.

Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful to them on the ground that they are members of the church; rather they must serve them all the more, since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved. Teach and urge these duties. (1Tim. 6:1-5)

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. (Eph. 6:5-6)

Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Savior. (Titus 2:9-10)

Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God's approval. (1Pet. 2:18-29)

What are we to make of passages such as those quoted above? We must conclude that the author(s) did not disapprove of the institution of slavery and probably regarded it as an appropriate part of society. Again, slavery was common in all contemporary societies, and it would be surprising to find condemnation here. But if those authors were indeed divinely inspired, as is commonly thought by Christians, then we must conclude that God's attitude towards slavery is not particularly negative. Christians are certainly not prohibited from owning slaves, and anyone who does not agree is directly condemned. There is, then, no conflict between being a Christian and being an owner of other human beings.

No "common sense" interpretation can deny such things without doing violence to the text itself, and nothing can be criticized as having been "taken out of context." Christians should perhaps consider admitting that their Bible was written in a primitive, barbaric age and as such represents the primitive, barbaric attitudes of that age.

Early Christian History

How did the early Christians deal with the issue of slavery? There was almost universal approval of slavery among church leaders. Christians vigorously defended slavery (along with other forms of extreme social stratification) as instituted by God and as being an integral part of the natural order of men. At all points, their reasoning was clearly and easily supported by the Bible passages quoted above.

Let's allow them to tell us in their words:

The slave should be resigned to his lot, in obeying his master he is obeying God... (Saint John Chrysostom)

...slavery is now penal in character and planned by that law which commands the preservation of the natural order and forbids disturbance. (Saint Augustine)

These attitudes continued throughout European history, even as the institution of slavery evolved and in most cases, slaves became "serfs" - little better than actual slaves and living in a deplorable situation which the church declared as being divinely ordered.

Not even after serfdom disappeared and full-fledged slavery once again reared its ugly head was it condemned by Christian leaders. Edmund Gibson, Anglican Bishop in London, made it clear in the 18th century that Christianity freed us from the slavery of sin, not from earthly and physical slavery:

The Freedom which Christianity gives, is a Freedom from the Bondage of Sin and Satan, and from the Dominion of Men's Lusts and Passions and inordinate Desires; but as to their outward Condition, whatever that was before, whether bond or free, their being baptized, and becoming Christians, makes no manner of Change in it.

American Slavery

The first ship bearing slaves for America landed in 1619, beginning over two centuries of human bondage on the American continent, the bondage which would eventually be called our "peculiar institution." This institution always received theological support from various religious leaders, both in the pulpit and in the classroom.

For example, through the late 1700s, Reverend William Graham was rector and principal instructor at the Liberty Hall Academy, now Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Every year, he lectured the senior graduating class on the value of slavery and used the Bible in his defense of it. For Graham and the many like him, Christianity was not a tool for changing politics or social policy, but instead to bring the message of salvation to everyone, regardless of their status of freedom. In this, they were certainly supported by biblical text.

As Kenneth Stamp wrote in The Peculiar Institution, Christianity became a way to add value to slaves in America:

...when southern clergy became ardent defenders of slavery, the master class could look upon organized religion as an ally ...the gospel, instead of becoming a mean of creating trouble and strive, was really the best instrument to preserve peace and good conduct among the negroes.

Through teaching slaves the message of the Bible, they could be encouraged to bear the earthly burden in exchange for heavenly rewards later on - and they could be frightened into believing that disobedience to earthly masters would be perceived by God as disobedience to Him. Ironically, enforced illiteracy prevented slaves from reading the Bible themselves. This is ironic because a similar situation existed in Europe during the Middle Ages, as illiterate peasants and serfs were prevented from reading the Bible in their language - a situation which was instrumental in the Protestant revolution. Now, Protestants were doing much the same thing African slaves: using the authority of their Bible and the dogma of their religion to repress a group of people without even allowing them to read the basis of authority on their own.

Division and Conflict

As Northerners decried slavery and called for its abolition, southern political and religious leaders found an easy ally for their pro-slavery cause in the Bible and Christian history. In 1856 Reverend Thomas Stringfellow, a Baptist minister from Culpepper County in Virginia put the pro-slavery Christian message succinctly in his "A Scriptural View of Slavery:"

...Jesus Christ recognized this institution as one that was lawful among men, and regulated its relative duties... I affirm then, first (and no man denies) that Jesus Christ has not abolished slavery by a prohibitory command; and second, I affirm, he has introduced no new moral principle which can work its destruction...

Of course, Christians in the North disagreed - and some denominations, like Quakers, appear to have never been afflicted by slavery. Interestingly, most abolitionist attacks were based on the premise that the nature of Hebrew slavery differed in significant ways from the nature of slavery in the American South. Although this was meant to argue that the American form of slavery did not enjoy Biblical support, it nevertheless tacitly admitted that the institution of slavery did, in principle, have divine sanction and approval so long as conducted in an appropriate manner.

In the end, the North won on the question of slavery. Although the Southern Baptist Convention was formed to preserve the Christian basis for slavery before the start of the Civil War, they did not feel it necessary to bother apologizing until June 1995. The reason was that even though the question of slavery had been settled, the question of race still burned.

Repression and Superiority

The later repression and discrimination against the freed black slaves received as much biblical and Christian support as the earlier institution of slavery itself. This discrimination and the choice to enslave blacks only was made primarily on the basis of what has become known as the "sin of Ham" or "the curse of Canaan." Occasionally there would also be defenses of the inferiority of blacks by asserting that they bore the "mark of Cain."

We read in Genesis, chapter nine, that Noah's son Ham comes upon him sleeping off a drinking binge and sees his father naked. Instead of covering him, he runs and tells his brothers. Shem and Japheth, the "good" brothers, return and cover their father. In retaliation for Ham's "sinful act" of seeing his father nude, Noah puts a curse on his grandson (Ham's son) Canaan:

"Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers" (Gen 9:25)

Over time, this curse came to be interpreted that Ham was literally "burnt," and that all his descendants had black skin, marking them as slaves with a convenient color-coded label for subservience. When and how this gained widespread acceptance is questionable, but anti-slavery religious and political leaders have worked to refute it for more than a century. Today, biblical scholars note that the ancient Hebrew word "ham" does not have to be translated as "burnt" or "black" - but there is unfortunately little consensus on how the name and passage should be interpreted. Further complicating matters is the position of some Afrocentrists that Ham, although not cursed (despite what the Bible says!) was indeed black, as were many other characters in the Bible. Once again, people end up reading the passage as supporting their racial assumptions.

Although many Christians today would be horrified at using the Bible as a support for racism, they should recognize that it was used in just such a fashion by Christians in America in the same way and with the same justification as Christians today use the Bible in their defense of their favorite ideas. Even as recently as the 1950's and 60's, Christians vehemently opposed desegregation or "race-mixing" for religious reasons. The "curse" of poor Ham lingered on in the minds of white Christians who fought to preserve a constant separation of the races.

A corollary to the inferiority of blacks has long been the superiority of white Protestants - something which has not yet dissipated in America. Although "Caucasians" are not to be found anywhere in the Bible, that hasn't stopped members of Christian Identity groups from using the Bible to prove that they are the true "chosen people" or "true Israelites." This may seem bizarre, but it has long been popular among American Protestants to see themselves as being "divinely appointed" to tame the American wilderness despite the "demon Indians." Americans are supposed to be blessed with a special destiny by God, and many read an American role in Armageddon in the book of Revelations. I am ever amazed at the degree to which Christianity encourages extreme egotism and inflated sense of self-importance or personal destiny.

Christian Identity is just a new kid on the block of White Protestant Supremacy - the earliest such group was the infamous Ku Klux Klan. Too few people realize that the KKK was founded as a Christian organization and still sees itself in terms of defending true Christianity. Especially in the earliest days, Klansmen openly recruited in churches (white and segregated, of course), attracting members from all strata of society, including the clergy.

Although Klan ceremonies have varied greatly, one common form will include an American flag, a cross, and a Bible opened to Romans 12, exhorting Christians to "godly conduct, godly nature." Also common is a sword representing the war against all enemies of the Christian life and the American "Christian Nation." Opening and closing prayers may often include "The living Christ is a Klansman's criterion of character." The origin of a burning cross is unclear - it may stem from the ancient Scottish tradition of burning a cross on a hill to call together the clans, or it may be representative of spreading the light of the True Cross in an effort to promote Christian faith.

Interpretation and Apologetics

The cultural and personal assumptions of the pro-slavery Christians (and pro-slavery biblical authors) quoted above are probably obvious to all of us now, but I doubt that they were obvious to slavery supporters at the time. Similarly, today, I'm sure that few people are aware of the cultural and personal baggage which they bring to their readings. They assume the truth of what they believe and are determined to find divine sanction for their beliefs in their holy book. I think that these Christians would be better off defending their ideas on their own merits, but I quite honestly doubt they are capable of it. Perhaps they doubt themselves too, and that's why they don't try.

My recommendation is against ever accepting any sort of "common sense" defense of any biblical interpretation. Throughout history, the idea that someone's interpretation is just "common sense" has been used on every side of every issue, including today's topic of slavery. Defense of an interpretation can only be done via rational, logical argument. Unfortunately for Christians, that has been used effectively on every side of every issue, too - including slavery.

Maybe that means that using the Bible isn't automatically a valid defense of an idea? Could be...