What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? Jesus and Slavery/Civil Rights (What If—18)

Regarding the issue of slavery and civil rights, there is a popular narrative in the secular Western context. That narrative notes that the Bible writers didn’t condemn slavery and at times even seem to support it. As a result, it is argued, slavery in recent times was perpetrated primarily in United States of America, with aid from England. These were both Protestant countries, with societies based on the Bible and driven by the conviction that the white race was superior to all others and was mandated by God to subdue inferior races. The most radical conclusion of such narratives is that Christianity is the enemy of genuine equality and freedom for all. Where there is a grain of truth in this narrative, there is much evidence that is left out and results in a one-sided and skewed narrative. Let’s take a more extensive look at the evidence.

The first fact that is often overlooked in the popular narrative is that slavery is not a recent invention of European powers. In fact, about seventy percent of the population of the Roman Empire of Jesus’ day was slaves. And these slaves had absolutely no societal rights. When Jesus was born, in fact, slavery was a global norm. Historians estimate that 40% of the world population at that time was slaves. Ancient artifacts and documents reveal ancient evidence for slavery among the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Vikings, the Irish, Africans, Arabs, and also in southern and eastern Asia. There is also evidence that slavery was common in North America long before 1619. It was practiced by the Aztecs and by most native American tribes. One exception to this picture might be the Incas, which used a corvee approach. That means that people could be conscripted into forced labor or military service for set periods of time, rather than for life. Slavery has been a worldwide reality for millennia.

Then Jesus came. He re-affirmed significant teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures, such as that all human beings were created in the image of God and, therefore, endowed with value and dignity. In Isaiah 42:1, speaking of the future Messiah, Yahweh says, “My servant . . . will bring justice to the nations.@ Isaiah further clarifies regarding the Messiah: The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” Jesus applied this text to Himself in Luke 4:18: “He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and . . . those who are oppressed.” Jesus’ mission was on behalf of the marginalized, enslaved and oppressed. But He and His followers went even further. Jesus stated: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Matt 22:39. Paul understood every human being to be a soul for whom Christ died (Rom 14:15; 1 Cor 8:11). And while no Bible writer called for the abolition of slavery as an institution, Paul instructed Philemon to treat Onesimus like a brother rather than as property. While the teachings of Jesus on this topic did not have such an immediate impact upon society as on other matters, in time it made all the difference.

While Christian institutions were complicit with slavery institutions for more than 1000 years, the abolition of slavery was purely a Christian phenomenon, motivated by Jesus and Scripture. The anti-slavery movement started in the United States of America. Daniel Pastorius, a German-born lawyer well-verse in Christian Pietism, founded Germantown in 1683 as a place where German Mennonites and Quakers could settle and be free to practice their faith. In 1688 he helped draft the Quaker petition against the institution of slavery. It was the first petition against slavery in the Thirteen Colonies. From America the anti-slavery movement spread to England, where in 1783 the Quakers drafted a petition against slavery in all the British territories.

Then, in 1786, Thomas Clarkson, a commitment Anglican Christian wrote an award-winning essay (An essay on the slavery and commerce of the human species, particularly the African) while a student at Cambridge University. The essay laid out in graphic terms the intense suffering caused by the slave trade. The essay gained wide circulation in Great Britain and helped lead to the founding of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which expanded the movement beyond the Quakers and other non-conformists in the country. Clarkson’s work awakened people to what was really going on with the slave trade. Clarkson was unequivocal, if you are a Christian, you must commit to ending the institution of slavery.

Clarkson has an enormous influence on William Wilberforce, who also studied at Cambridge University. Wilberforce, as a member of Parliament and a friend of the future Prime Minister (William Pitt) was able to bring this issue powerfully to the attention of the governmental authorities of Great Britain. Wilberforce didn’t much care about the slavery issue until he became a Christian. He then read the New Testament through with care and wrote the book Real Christianity, advocating the complete abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire. Through his efforts, British involvement in the slave trade was ended in 1807 and the holding of slaves was fully abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833. Because of the vast influence of the British Empire at the time, Christian nations succeeded in ending slavery also in Africa and the muslim nations in 1890 through the Brussels Conference Act. The abolition of slavery in the United States of America is worth a blog of its own.