Monthly Archives: January 2022

What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? Jesus and Slavery/Civil Rights III (What If—20)

If the message of Jesus was the key to the abolition of slavery, why did it take nearly 2000 years to achieve that goal? I would argue that the teaching and practice of Jesus on the treatment of others was truly revolutionary. But the early church was powerless in human terms. Many Christians were in hiding and they had little influence on the laws and actions of the Empire. When the Roman Empire turned toward Christianity in the early fourth century, it could have not only abolished the branding of slaves, but abolished the institution of slavery itself, along with abortion, the gladiatorial games, infanticide and crucifixion. But whenever the church is melded with the state, politics and economics enter into the calculation and doing the right thing can be very difficult. Slavery was so embedded into the social order that many feared its abolition would destroy the economy and the whole social order.

But the foundations upon which slavery was built had been shaken. A powerful theological voice arose in central Asia Minor (Cappadocia), Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 335-395). In AD 379 Gregory articulated a power argument for the abolitions of slavery as an institution. He condemned institutional slavery on three biblical grounds. 1) Since God owns everything, owning slaves robs God. That is a very serious charge. 2) Every human being is made in the image of God. When you mistreat another human being, you are mistreating God. 3) Every human being was given dominion over the earth at creation. So when you buy a slave, there is a sense that you are buying the whole world, and the richest person on earth cannot afford to do that. While the third argument may seem a stretch to us today, the first two eviscerate the whole argument for slavery for anyone who accepts the inspiration of Scripture.

So in the big picture of Christian history, something crucial had changed with the coming of Jesus. In the Greco-Roman world slavery was the norm and was to be accepted as such. But in the early church, slavery was now seen as evil, contrary to both God and Scripture. But given the realities in the world most felt that this evil must be tolerated until Jesus comes and wipes the institution of slavery away. This set the context for people like Pastorius and the Quakers in colonial America. They felt the call of God to eradicate slavery NOW. The teachings of Jesus propelled them not to wait for the Second Coming but to follow Jesus in the present and carry out the principles he taught and lived.

But if the anti-slavery movement arose in Seventeenth Century America, why did it take nearly 200 years to finally abolish the institution? It has to do with deep political divisions within the territory from the first. New England was settled by conservative Christians from the lower classes in England. Virginia and the South were settled more by the upper classes, who were used to letting other people do the work. Slavery began in Virginia as a form of indentured servitude, new settlers working for a time to pay off debts. But the Deep South instituted a harsher form of slavery imported from the British territory of Barbados.

When the thirteen American colonies won their independence from Great Britain, they were deeply divided over the issue of slavery. There would have been no union between the states if the northern states tried to abolish slavery, as Massachusetts and Pennsylvania would have been happy for the new nation to do. So a series of political compromises left the slave system in place, even though roughly half the country was against it. It seems, however, that the Civil War became inevitable when the union was created without truly settling the issue. So while America was the place where abolition of slavery was conceived in modern times, it was slower than England to actually carry it out.

A note on the fascinating role of Thomas Jefferson on all this. Abolition might never have happened in America or England were it not for his powerful words “all men are created equal”, which inspired many. Yet he was a slaveholder all his life. He freed some of his slaves while he was still alive and all of them in his will. Why was he so slow to act to act on his convictions? He believed that sudden freedom would be harmful to them. They needed life skills in order to survive. So he hesitated, at the expense of his own legacy. But his convictions were not a sham. On one occasion he said: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just. The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us (the slavemasters) in such a contest.@ He advocated no slavery in any new territory (this motion lost in Congress by one vote—the country was so evenly divided). When the Northwest Territory (today’s Midwestern states from Ohio through Wisconsin and Michigan) was established in the 1780s, he successfully supported establishing it slave free. So Jefferson’s words inspired freedom for the slaves, but his actions feel short of his ideals. I can relate to that myself.