By Raymond Billy
Today is Juneteenth, a day that memorializes the eradication of U.S. slavery. This happened on June 19, 1865 — more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation ordering the end of slavery went into effect. The delay was likely because it took that long for the news to reach Texas, the last state where slavery still existed at the time.
Christianity has an unmistakable relationship with the topic of slavery. Slavery was commonplace in the Roman Empire under which Jesus and his worshipers lived during the first century — which is why it is so frequently mentioned in early-church writings. Slavery is a topic in six of the apostle Paul’s letters as well as Peter’s first-known letter to fellow believers. Historians disagree about what percentage of the Roman world’s population was composed of slaves. However, by way of comparison, at the dawn of the U.S. Civil War about 12.5 percent of the nation’s population was black slaves. Historians are certain that the slave population was, at minimum, 25 percent in the first century Roman Empire.
Slaves in the Roman Empire were often indistinguishable from free citizens. Lawmakers once considered instituting a dress code for slaves so that they could be more easily identified. The idea was dropped because of the possibility that slaves would be emboldened by seeing their vast numbers, join forces and start an insurrection.
In the Roman Empire, there were probably four primary ways people became slaves. The most common way for people to become slaves was being born into a slave mother.
Second, some creditors in the ancient world would put their debtors who had defaulted on what they owed into a privately-owned prison. Those who were detained would remain so until their debt was repaid (presumably by a family member or perhaps through labor of equivalent value that the debtor could complete while in prison). This is perhaps what Jesus was referring to in Matthew 5 when He said “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” Very practical advice.
Slaves also were prisoners of war. But some people sold themselves as slaves in order to gain access to meaningful work as well as financial and personal security that they had no hope of attaining otherwise. For such people, slavery was not a circumstance to feel despair about. In fact, they might feel threatened by the idea of being released from their circumstances. Perhaps that explains why Jesus said “The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever.” When Americans read those words, we might think of it as positive that the slave does not remain in the house forever. But Jesus is saying it as a negative juxtaposed to a positive circumstance. Household slaves (who often served in a role similar to a butler) sometimes became very close to their masters and were practically incorporated into the family. For these slaves, it wouldn’t necessarily be a positive thing to be put outside of the household.
Because slavery was a prominent reality of life when the church was born, Bible writers were obligated to address the relationship between slaves and their masters just as they were obligated to address the relationship between citizens and their governments, wives and their husbands as well as children and their parents. As we have seen, the Bible does not categorically condemn slavery. The Bible treats slavery like any other economic relationship, such as: buyers and sellers; borrowers and lenders; renters and owners; entrepreneurs and investors; and employees and employers.
However, the fact that a social arrangement such as slavery is sanctioned by God doesn’t mean He endorses every example of it. The concept of government is God’s gift to humans because even an evil government is less harmful to society than anarchy is. However, that doesn’t mean that God approves of evil governing practices. God has ordained marriage and He says, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” That doesn’t mean that He approves of the way every husband treats his wife. God ordains that children must honor and submit to their parents, but that doesn’t mean that He approves of the way everyone disciples their children. And the fact that He doesn’t categorically condemn slavery doesn’t mean He approves of all forms of slavery.
Even within the context of a form of slavery God accepts, He requires that slaves be treated not only fairly, but lovingly. Jesus once used slavery in an analogy to explain how He wants His disciples to live their lives in obedience to Him as they await His second coming. This parable speaks of the way a household manager treats His boss’ slaves. Of course, in the story, the manager is a slave himself. But the message is still indicative of how Jesus feels about slave oppression, otherwise the analogy doesn’t work. The manager in this parable is in a place of privilege and uses that privilege wickedly. Jesus states:
“Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces and put him with the unfaithful.”
The Apostle Paul also wrote to the church in Ephesus that slaves should behave “with a good will as to the Lord and not to man” in their behavior toward their masters. But Paul immediately follows that command to slaves by saying “Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.”
But while the early church condemned certain practices within the Roman system of slavery, there’s no doubt in my mind that God categorically disapproved of the form of slavery practiced in the U.S. and in the Western world in general prior to the 20th century. How do I know that God condemns this kind of slavery? Because the transatlantic slave trade was propelled by the kidnapping of free Africans. Paul puts those who kidnap others for the purposes of slavery in the same category as many other sinners that get discussed and chastised much more often in modern Christianity. He said in his first letter to his protégé, Timothy:
“Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.”
That word “enslavers” is from the Greek word andrapodistes which means “a slave-dealer, kidnapper” or “of one who unjustly reduces free men to slavery,” according to Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament.
Given the fact that U.S. slavery was both instituted and practiced in a sinful manner (with physical and psychological abuse being normative) it’s no wonder Christianity played such a huge role in the downfall of slavery as an institution as it was brutally practiced in the Western world.
Abraham Lincoln, for example, was likely not a Christian, but he was heavily influenced by his Reformed Baptist upbringing. During the inauguration of his second term as president in 1865, Lincoln suggested that the carnage that was taking place in the U.S. Civil War was God’s judgement on America for slavery. Lincoln said:
“Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’”
Williams Wilberforce, who led the charge against slavery in the British Empire in the 1820s, once wrote regarding his involvement in the movement: “If it please God to honor me so far, may I be the instrument of stopping such a course of wickedness and cruelty as never before disgraced a Christian country.”
Frederick Douglass, an African American who escaped slavery in the 19th century and joined the abolitionist movement, said that his conversion to Christian strengthened his hatred of slavery.
“I consulted a good old colored man named Charles Lawson, and in tones of holy affection he told me to pray, and to ‘cast all my care upon God.’ This I sought to do; and though for weeks I was a poor, broken-hearted mourner, traveling through doubts and fears, I finally found my burden lightened, and my heart relieved. I loved all mankind, slaveholders not excepted, though I abhorred slavery more than ever. I saw the world in a new light, and my great concern was to have everybody converted. My desire to learn increased, and especially, did I want a thorough acquaintance with the contents of the Bible.”
Sometimes when I share the Gospel, I am asked how I — as an African American — can be a Christain when the Bible was used to condone slavery in the United States. In a distilled manner, the aforementioned facts are usually how I answer. Though Scripture does not forbid slavery, it does undercut the ideological framework for America’s slave trade. That ideology held that some people were inferior and less worthy of humane treatment than others. The God I worship does not condone that perspective, which is why Christians (convicted by their own consciences, the Bible and the Holy Spirit) fought so hard to bring an end to slavery in the West.
Raymond Billy is a former journalist who lives in Hawaii. His work has appeared in several newspapers, including the Tyler Morning Telegraph in East Texas, the Jacksonville (Texas) Daily Progress, The (Shreveport, La.) Times, The (Hammond, La.) Daily Star and The Odessa (Texas) American.