In discussions with an atheist friend, the topic of Biblical approval of slavery came up. I must confess that I was quite unprepared for it. A barrage of Old Testament quotes from Almighty God that regulated slavery and upheld the concept were sent to me over Facebook. My first approach to this line of attack on the God of Revelation ('If God says this there is no God') was to place slavery in the historical context of the ancient world and to then go scrambling for apologetics on it. I don't think I convinced my theological adversary one bit. Personally, I need to understand it, otherwise it is not only God Himself Who is Mystery, but what He revealed in that time makes no sense. We cannot understand God but we can understand His laws - even those given at the time to the Jewish people.
|Luck of the Irish: St Patrick fled from his slave owners and eventually |
became a Bishop. St Patrick, of course, wasn't Irish, but he was a Saint
The lesser evil
Wherever slavery has been in any time in history it would appear that it has been bound up with conquest and war, subjugation of inhabitants for the acquisition of territory and land.
There is little evidence from the Old Testament that slavery was invented by God, but rather tolerated and, at times, endorsed, especially at those times when God's people were under threat from foreign aggressors. In the Old Testament, God is the mighty Protector to His People and He has no other people but the Chosen People. It is with them that God makes a Covenant. Some Catholic apologists point to the biblical support for slavery as the permitting of a 'lesser evil' by God. We need to ask what the 'greater evil' or could have been.
Catholic apologetics would first point to the Fall and the entrance of Original Sin into the world as the loss of the Ideal for which human beings were originally created - namely, to enjoy Paradise. The whole concept of 'work' or 'toil' is something that enters human history in the immediate aftermath of the Fall and the first ever job was, we are informed, gardening. Not that money was around so early on. Human beings were not originally created for a life of toil and work or war, but for the enjoyment of God in Paradise. Adam is informed in the wake of the disobedience of himself and Eve...
And to Adam he said: Because thou hast hearkened to the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldst not eat, cursed is the earth in thy work; with labour and toil shalt thou eat thereof all the days of thy life.
Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou eat the herbs of the earth. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return to the earth, out of which thou wast taken: for dust thou art, and into dust thou shalt return.
We might readily ask ourselves, in our modern conception of freedom and liberty, what the 'greater evil' might have been that God, in not prohibiting but tolerating slavery, which becomes apparent in Deuteronomy, might have sought to avoid. The defence of the Jewish people above every other nation appears God's first motive. From what I can tell - and this will take a little re-adjustment of our modern thinking - biblical law on slavery from God's side seems to be more pro-slave than pro-master, even if it is more pro-Jew, than pro-Gentile. God is consistently, throughout Scripture, on the side of the poor, not the rich, favours the oppressed, the orphan, the widow and never does He contradict Himself on this. Not even in this matter.
Law and Love
Before we examine what the greater evil in the absence of slavery might have been, let us remember too that in the Old Testament God permits to the Jews usury (lending money at interest) as a lesser evil to something worse - starvation of a person and/or destitution. That does not mean God loves usury or blesses it. Lending at interest is not good, it is not generous, but if a person is able to repay he will be grateful that someone took pity a little and lent to him in his hour of need (hopefully not at Wonga rates of return). God never says that he likes usury. In fact, the financial enslavement of the poor and their exploitation is consistently something God makes it clear He detests. It is the oppression of the poor, just as slavery in many circumstances would have been the oppression of the poor. I see no reason to imagine that if a rich man 'invested' in a slave and simply exploited a human being to make himself richer and never considered freeing him that God would have detested that too because God detests avarice and the oppression of the poor that is often motivated by that sin.
Under Mosaic law, God even permits divorce in certain circumstances. In the New Testament, Our Lord Jesus Christ recounts that Moses gave permission but only due to the 'hardness of heart' of God's People. Jesus Christ then denounces divorce and remarriage and calls it adultery, which, we can be assured, made some listening to Him very angry indeed. God detests incest, but incest, in the wake of the Fall, is of a lesser and necessary evil and God permits it in order that the human race springs from two first parents.
|Jesus Christ and the Pharisees: For some reason. they did not get along...|
Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to his disciples, saying: The scribes and the Pharisees have sitten on the chair of Moses. All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do: but according to their works do ye not; for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy and insupportable burdens, and lay them on men's shoulders; but with a finger of their own they will not move them.
One could be forgiven for thinking Pharisees kept Israelite slaves. Perhaps they did, perhaps they didn't, but Jesus condemned them for their strict observance of the law but complete lack of love in 'weightier matters' of justice and mercy. God, therefore, permits human initiatives and structures - even economic systems of trade - which have the potential for outright abuse and outright injustice and evil. God gives free will to His people to obey Him and love Him and our neighbour or not. He lays down guidelines for conduct, even in this case, but still allows human beings to be just, or to be unjust and, from what I can see, whatever evils perpetuated against the poor and oppressed by slavery were not according to His will. St Paul would later speak on the matter and tell the Christians that those who had slaves should treat them as brothers and slaves should treat masters in a similar fashion of brotherly love.
In Jesus Christ, it is revealed that what really angers God is an understanding of God's Laws that are more about 'what we can get away with' and observing a book of laws, rather than the worship, love and adoration of God, with the justice and mercy towards our neighbour that He commands and loves. At the same time, for God to have entirely removed slavery at the time as an option for the poor and oppressed would be excessively cruel since it would mean potential starvation, destitution, penury, perpetual debt and being forced into a life of crime or even male prostitution and you can't say that never happened. Debt slaves existed. Thanks to banks, they still exist today. Whole countries! Under Old Testament law, you could pay back a debt through giving your self to work without pay. It was not intended to be perpetual servitude and it is likely that God did not desire that anyone be kept in perpetual servitude if it was possible that they could be free.
"Death or slavery, you say? Let's think, now...give me a moment..."
The entire concept of the slave-master relationship appears to be held in tension with an evident divine wish that the slave - or bondsman - is permitted a healthy measure of human dignity and his humanity is respected - even when taken in warfare and even if the slave was a Gentile for God has commanded his creatures to love. That's why laws on the conduct and treatment of slaves are proscribed.
To us moderns, that sounds like a complete contradiction in terms but let us place ourselves in that era in order that we may at least understand the time. You've been invaded as a country. It's either slavery or...? What exactly? A job working for McDonalds? No. One rather suspects that it was either captivity and slavery or death in time of war. Armies invaded and if you were not taken captive, presumably you were generally killed in the war. That's kind of how wars were won and lost. That is how you subjugated a nation, otherwise, presumably, you were not taken seriously.
Before readers think I'm in any way advocating neo-colonial slavery - or think slavery is good with the attending conquest of nations, it should be understood that the slavery referred to in the Bible is not racial in its essence and that the overtly racial slavery depicted in 12 Years a Slave would be alien to the People of the Book. There were two kinds of slave. Israelite slaves and foreign slaves taken in times of war. In that sense, there was no 'discrimination'.
"Destitution or slavery, you say? Let's think, now...give me a moment..."
My understanding of Old Testament slavery for Israelite slaves is one of a 'safety net'. That is the only manner by which I can begin to understand the God of Compassion. This may have been a situation abused by His people and others, but we might ponder what a bankrupted or indebted, or destitute Israelite's options would have been. If there is nothing and noone else, the answer would appear to be destitution, crime, debt or begging - with all the stigma that would have come with that, or slavery - with all the stigma that would come with that.
|St Paul: Be kind to slaves. Slaves, be loyal to your masters|
For God to prohibit slavery entirely would have been to remove the possibility of being a 'bondsman' and would, in this situation, be cruel in the extreme. That person unable to provide for himself or his family would be denied work and being denied work would be to be denied bread and to either starve, beg or steal. Under divine law, God had made it clear that the man who does not work, does not eat. Working for your food and working to provide for family was written into not just the laws of God in the Old Testament but can arguable be found in the natural law as well. The main work of the times would have been rural and agricultural, growing crops, farming land and livestock. Slaves could marry and have family. They were, we can assume, given accommodation, food, drink etc. Again, this is not to say that slavery was good, nor that it was not bad, but that it may have been better than dying in the gutter, the lesser of all the social evils.
None of this means that God was the big slave owner in the sky who rejoiced at seeing poor people in a situation where they had to hand themselves over to a master who (hopefully) treated them in a virtuous and just manner (if they followed God's laws) in the event of destitution and poverty. All it means is that for the Israelite, at least, and even for the foreigner, God permitted something that would at least enable a person - and even that person's family - to survive. It does not mean God enjoyed or does enjoy slavery and servitude - unless of course, we are rendering such service to God or Our Lady.
Slavery: Not the only social evil
We see in today's society that the slavery permitted by God in the Old Testament, but never willed by Him for humanity, is a terrible blight on our history. However, even today, there are terrible social evils which are lamentable and which may, in antiquity, have even been reduced by such a social evil as slavery.
For instance, mass unemployment is a huge problem today. With mass unemployment comes great poverty, alcoholism, drug abuse, suicides, loss of purpose, crime, prostitution and - and this is important - the near total loss of the dignity of work. The benefits system, too, has reduced human beings to being cogs in a machine that does not consider them as valuable or worthy. Every person is a statistic and each claimant is seen as a burden, especially in times of economic austerity.
Nobody - myself included (I am unemployed) - would advocate any form of slavery for the mass unemployed, but it could be argued from biblical tradition that to be a 'bondsman' would have been the only way out of all those of all the evils and that slavery would have been the lesser evil because under divine law you would have had accommodation, the right to a family, the right to marry, the right to food and shelter and it was not to be perpetual.
It's coming back...
Yet we are now in the 21st century and we can no longer rule out that it may yet happen when, if as likely, the welfare state collapses, since in the event, what would be the choice for those who face destitution? It's payback time and every proposal is on the table. We could even see, in the United Kingdom, a form of slavery introduced soon that will see the State dictate to families that more than two children will not be supported by the Government, which will manipulate families on benefits to consider abortion, sterilisation or artificial contraception.
Now that contemporary poverty has grown to such a large extent in the West, the poor are more 'in the palm' of Big Government and Big Business than they ever were before. The benefits system has reduced the poor to financial dependence on the State in a way which is truly frightening. Already, men and women out of work (yes, women have to work now, sorry ladies) are facing draconian sanctions if they are discovered to be 'fit for work'. Many are being forced to work for companies for their meagre benefits payments which by no means cover the cost of living in the slightest. It is a small step between paying people £1.70 an hour in benefits for working in return and paying people nothing in benefits for working in return.
Would Almighty God approve of that? No. He might permit it, but He does not bless it. He would detest that, but then, hey, when a country is in debt slavery to the tune of billions, if not trillions of pounds, one could see how any Government could eventually decide that some form of slavery for the unemployed was 'the lesser evil' rather than, say, being their 'brother's keeper'. Of course, no secularist Government will be drawing upon the Old Testament as justification for such a proposal. We've 'progressed' from all that, you know. I guess that the very powerful social darwinists running this country could get that Fabian concept of 'full employment' after all. They might not all get paid much - or even, one day - at all, but at least there will be 'full employment'. The poor will not be able to volunteer themselves to a farmer as a bondsman. Why? Because now all the slaves will belong to the State. You will either behave and do as you are told, or starve.
The atheists will still maintain, of course, that God's the bad guy!