Tag Archives: Jesus and civil rights

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.

What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? Jesus and Slavery/Civil Rights II (What If—19)

In the United States, the anti-slavery movement picked up steam around the time slavery was abolished in the British Empire. A major galvanizing development was John Rankin’s book Letter on American Slavery, published in 1826. It was a series of letters he wrote to his slave-holding brother Thomas. Rankin was very clear on his motivation: “If you really want to follow Jesus, you need to free your slaves.” These letters convinced Thomas to free his slaves and join the anti-slavery movement. The book also inspired William Lloyd Garrison to begin publishing his magazine The Liberator. The masthead of the magazine included the language of Scripture: “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matt 19:19; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27), and “I come to break the bonds of the oppressor” (based on Luke 4:18). The illustration connected with the latter quote is a black man kneeling before Jesus and the cross and a white man cowering in fear. Both are equal at the foot of the cross. Rankin’s book also inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose later book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, had a major anti-slavery influence on the American public in the years leading up to the Civil War.

In 1833, the same year in which the slavery was abolished in the British Empire, the American Anti-Slavery Society was founded, under the leadership of William Lloyd Garrison. 75% of the founders were Christian ministers. A short time later Elijah Parish Lovejoy (1802-1837) was murdered by a pro-slavery mob. Trained as a pastor, he moved to the slave state of Missouri and started an anti-slavery newspaper. Repeatedly attacked for his views he moved across the Mississippi River to Alton, Illinois, which was a free state. Nevertheless, he continued to be attacked by pro-slavery mobs until at the age of 35 he was killed by a gunshot while defending his printing press. What motivated Lovejoy to take so many risks in order to advance the abolition of slavery? He confessed: “I am impelled to the course I have taken because I fear God.”

Born into slavery in Maryland, Harriet Tubman (1822-1913) escaped to Philadelphia in 1849 and became a key figure in the establishment of the so-called “Underground Railroad” which rescued many slaves from the grip of the American South in the years leading up to the American Civil War (1861-1865). She too was motivated by the teachings of Jesus. This is witnessed by her own prayer for her slave master: “O dear Lord, change dat man’s heart, and make him a Christian”. For her, Christianity was about following Jesus, not just attending church.

Like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) escaped from slavery in Maryland to become a leader of the abolitionist movement in the North. A key element in his anti-slavery work was his conversion to Christianity. Because of his conversion he said, “I loved all mankind, slaveholders not excepted, though I abhorred slavery more than ever.” When one looks deeply into the abolitionist movement, every significant abolitionist, black or white, was a committed Christian. Prominent in more recent times was Martin Luther King (1929B1968). Like the others we have mentioned, he was motivated to do what he did by Jesus and Scripture. In one of his famous sermons he uttered: “Jesus still cries out in words that echo across the centuries, ‘Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you.’ This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love.”

I would argue that if Jesus had never been born, open slavery would likely be condoned and practiced today. After all, slavery has been the norm for the human race throughout history. It took a massive effort in England and the United States, motivated by Jesus, to turn that norm around and make slavery a despised institution. But that leaves the question unanswered, Why the more than thousand-year delay between the time of Jesus and the arrival of Daniel Pastorius? Why did it take so long for Christians to demand the abolition of the institution? To be continued . . .

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.