Jesus was a great reformer. In an age of extreme class division and status-consciousness, he identified with the poor and urged us to do the same. During a time when the Holy Land was occupied by a foreign power, he taught his countrymen how to maintain their dignity. When the religious leaders were corrupt, he called them to account.
So I find it puzzling that he never spoke a word against slavery, as far as we know.
If he was divine, he knew it would be nearly 2,000 years until most of the world would realize how immoral slavery is. He also knew that slave-owners would use the Old Testament to justify the practice. One clear word from him could have prevented the misery of millions. Why did he not speak it? (And it’s hard to believe that if the Bible is inspired, God would not have inspired at least one of the four gospel-writers to record Jesus’ words on so important a topic.)
It’s not as if there was no slavery around to speak against. Jesus often illustrated his points with stories about slaves and masters. Everybody was all too familiar with the concept, and it was as brutal as ever.
Slavery Was Brutal, and Jesus Knew It
Since Jesus never condemned slavery, we might hope that he thought of slavery in the relatively benign forms that are sometimes found in the Old Testament. Not so. When he spoke about the relationship of slaves and masters, he assumed that violence and abuse were the order of the day. Typical is Luke 12:47-48, where even a servant who doesn’t know what he ought to do gets beaten.
The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows.
That passage is part of a larger parable that is supposed to scare us into submission to God. Like a slave or servant, we will be physically harmed if we’re not good enough.
There are several parables like this in the gospels. Matthew 18:23-35 says we will be jailed and tortured. Matthew 25:14-30 says we will be cast into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Matthew 24:45-51 says we will be cut in pieces. All of these indicate how Jesus pictured masters treating their slaves.
Jesus held no illusions about slavery, yet did not decry the practice. In fact, in his parables he cast God as a slave-owner!
The Golden Rule Evidently Did Not Apply to Slaves
One might say that when Jesus gave the Golden Rule he implied that slavery was wrong. If we’re to treat others as we want them to treat us, that means we shouldn’t enslave them, right?
That point was not lost on the abolitionists.
There’s only one problem. When Jesus presented the Golden Rule, he cast it as a summary of Old Testament Law. As we have seen throughout this series of posts, the Old Testament not only allowed but in some cases commanded slavery. Jesus made a point of saying that he supported the Old Testament Law 100%, and nothing he taught should be interpreted as contradicting or negating the Old Testament.
That point was not lost on the abolitionists’ opponents.
At a minimum, we can say that if Jesus meant the Golden Rule as a command to abolish slavery, then millions of slaves in the next 1800 years would wish he had made his intent more obvious.
Jesus Was a Reformer, But Not with Slavery
Might Jesus have thought it was not yet the time to speak against slavery? Was he afraid of upsetting the social order and bringing persecution on his followers?
On the contrary, Jesus did not hesitate to turn society upside-down. Sometimes he did so literally, as when he upset the tables of the money-changers in the temple (John 2:13-17). At other times, he made radical demands such as giving away all one’s money (Matthew 19:16-24). He did not hesitate to speak boldly to those in power (Matthew 23:13-36). Nor was he afraid of persecution, calling it a blessing (Matthew 5:10-12).
Jesus did not hesitate to speak his mind, yet he never condemned slavery. Clearly he either thought it was just fine or he didn’t care much about it one way or the other. Maybe he just took it for granted.
I am tempted to leave it at that. Even Jesus might have been a man of his times to a certain extent. He was a moral revolutionary, but abolishing slavery didn’t quite make it into his manifesto. If you are a Bible-believing Christian, however, I think you are forced into a much darker position.
An Even Darker Take
According to John 10:30, Jesus and God the Father are one. John 1:1-3, with verse 14 says that Jesus was with God from the beginning. In John 5:19, Jesus says that he does whatever God the Father does. Someone who takes these verses as Gospel Truth must believe some disturbing things:
- Jesus was present and nodding in approval when God gave the command to take 32,000 virgins as plunder in Numbers 31 (discussed in the last part of this post).
- Jesus was present and gave a hearty “Amen” when God commanded Moses to enslave distant cities.
- Jesus was present and gave his blessing for Moses’ soldiers to force their most beautiful captives into rape-marriages (discussed here).
No wonder he never spoke against slavery or its brutality in the New Testament. He had already encouraged it in the Old!
Eternally present and of one mind with his Father, he approved every genocide; every stoning of man, woman, child and animal; every burning-alive; every death sentence for a trivial offense; and, yes, every enslavement that God himself commanded. That may seem far-fetched. I don’t believe it myself. But I don’t see how a Bible-believer can deny it.
[Postscript on December 9, 2012] In the year+ since I published this post, it has proven to be one of the most-read on my blog. I suspect many readers are interested in the topic of slavery and the Bible generally, and land here through a search engine because what’s uppermost in their minds is what Jesus said about it. Although he didn’t say much, the Bible says quite a lot — most of it disturbing. Evangelical apologists, in turn, offer many rationales. To get the lay of the land, I invite you to begin with the Introduction to this series. There, I summarize all the arguments I’ve heard and provide links to my responses.