I was baptized into Christ at the Crossroads Church of Christ of Gainesville in 1981. There I studied the Bible with Dan Davis out of Reese Neyland’s bible talk and counted the cost with Sam Laing. As God would have it, Sam also performed my marriage to my lovely wife Debonaire nine years later in Davie, Florida. We’ve been married for 26 years and have 4 children. I grew up spiritually in what is now called the South Florida Church of Christ.
I am African American and Puerto Rican. I grew up on in a Puerto Rican home and have throughout my life felt comfortable in several cultures, whether Latin, black or white. I did not grow up angry about being black or under the heavy glare of racism, though I knew it was there and was peripherally affected by it.
Captivated by US History
I did, however, study history in college and earned my B.A. in the subject. I was drawn to the Civil Rights Movement in my studies and that interest stayed with me after I finished school. In 2005, I found myself going through a spiritual dry season and felt the need to draw near to God. I decided to go through the book of Genesis to better understand the personality of God as displayed in that book. My love for God was renewed and I went through a personal spiritual revival of sorts. I decided to write a book on God entitled “Reintroducing God from Genesis: Can He be this Good?”
It was in Genesis 15 that I got the idea about God and slavery. In that chapter, God predicts to Abraham what would happen to his descendants in a foreign land, how they would be enslaved and mistreated for 400 years, and how God would punish the nation they served as slaves. It was there that I was struck with the parallels between the Israelites in Egypt and African Americans in the U.S. Africans first reached North America in 1619, almost 400 years ago. I began to wonder if God felt so strongly against chattel slavery that he would be willing to punish a nation over it, and whether that was a possibility in the U.S. in view of the parallels between Israelite slavery in Egypt and African American slavery in the U.S.
A Unique Study in Earning My Master’s Degree
As it would turn out, I had the opportunity as a teacher to enter graduate school to continue my education in U.S. History. It was there that I asked one of my professors if there is any evidence that anyone in U.S. history believed that God would punish this nation for slavery. Sure enough, she emphatically asserted that none other than Thomas Jefferson was “haunted” by the possibility that God would punish the United States for its system of slavery. It was then and there that I decided to do my 2010 master’s thesis on the subject: “The Spirit of 1776: Abolitionists and the Ideology of Divine Retribution for Slavery.”
In my research for my master’s degree, I found that starting in 1776 and continuing all the way to the Civil War in 1861 there were several abolitionists and public figures who believed that God’s wrath would come on the U.S. for its system of chattel slavery. Further, I discovered that ultimately Abraham Lincoln himself believed in 1865 that the Civil War was divine retribution for slavery. All the while, I was amazed at how professors I heard and books I read blamed Christianity for American slavery. They had a point. They cited the many proslavery apologists who used the Bible to justify American slavery. I felt, however, that such arguments did not agree with my understanding of God, Christ and Christianity, especially as my understanding of the real nature of American slavery became clearer to me through my research.
The Bible and American Slavery – My PhD
When the time came for my dissertation, I realized I needed to broaden my topic. It was at that point that I decided to track the biblical arguments of abolitionists against American slavery. Though the topic has hardly been addressed by U.S. history scholars, the primary source literature was so abundant that I had to cut my time period of study in half so that I could finish my dissertation. I originally planned to track the subject from 1776 to 1865 but decided to stop in 1837 and then add an epilogue that tracked antislavery doctrine during the Civil War years (1861-1865).
My research has shown that the Bible was the cornerstone of the abolitionist argument against American slavery and galvanized the American movement against slavery, a key part being the Women’s Movement against American slavery. In October 2017, I successfully defended my dissertation thesis, and graduated with a Ph.D. in U.S. History. My dissertation committee, which was made up of 4 university PhDs, most of whom are published scholars, believe my dissertation will be published for the academic community. One, a scholar in the field of Religious Studies, told me “I have become your student on this topic.” I have been hired by Florida International University to teach a course on American slavery and the Bible this year.
My Church and Its Growing Diversity
Getting back to the church, when I first visited Crossroads in 1981, I remember seeing a white and black man hug. I knew right then that this church was special. A year after my conversion, I returned to South Florida and placed membership with the then Plantation Church of Christ in Broward county in 1982. When I placed membership, I noticed that out of a congregation of roughly 100 members, there were only 6 blacks. I felt that needed to change and so I devoted myself to reaching out to blacks to build diversity in the church. I felt we were a Bible church, but we just needed to work on our diversity.
Since that time God has done amazing things. We are now the South Florida Church of Christ and one of the most diverse congregations in the ICOC. I certainly don’t claim any credit for that, but I share only to say that I love the church and want to see it grow spiritually, numerically and in its diversity. In the time I’ve been in the church, I have built great relationships with white, black, Latino and Asian brothers and sisters. When I begin to share about many of my brothers and sisters from all racial groups and what they mean to me, I get choked up. I love them deeply.
It’s All About Honoring God
Most importantly, I love God. My readings in the book of Genesis and the rest of the Bible prepared me for my research. I am convinced that the notion of American slavery being approved by God, who is Love, is a direct smear on his character based on revealed scripture. The more I studied American slavery, especially in the light of scripture, the more I understood that the enemy, who is known as the father of lies, has deceived many to believe this most heinous falsehood that is spread across the universities and colleges of the land. Unfortunately, many Christians have believed this slanderous accusation against God. The very idea should make us shudder. God’s honor is at stake. This is ultimately why I have spent the untold hours researching, reading, and writing. I believe that my labor will not be in vain. As Jesus himself said, ironically while addressing the issue of spiritual slavery, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)
I believe it is on this last point, defending God’s honor, that we have an opportunity to stand out as a movement. We are after all, his children and ambassadors who hold out his Word in a dark, racially divided and deceived world. I look forward to once again contribute to the growth of our family of churches by sharing my research to the glory of God.
American Slavery and the Bible—Part 1
By Richard Rodriguez
I want to thank Gordon Ferguson for the opportunity address this issue of American slavery and the Bible on his forum. I have come to respect him a great deal and appreciate his focus on the issue of race and its history in our nation and specifically in the churches. The topic I am writing about is weighty and somewhat painful. Yet I hope I can contribute to our collective knowledge of this topic and bring about mutual understanding. My hope is that by bringing clarity to our nation’s past we can heal as a people. As Jesus said, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)
In our nation’s history many have defended American slavery on the basis of history and the Bible. Books have been written on the subject and professors have even insisted that the Bible is to blame for American slavery and racism. But could the Bible, a book that teaches that the greatest commandment is to love God and man, support a system of bondage and injustice? As David asked, “Can a corrupt throne be allied with you— a throne that brings on misery by its decrees?” (Psalm 94:20)
Perhaps the reason for this is that both American slavery and the Bible have both been misunderstood. Therefore, both American slavery and the Bible must be examined to allow the truth of both to emerge. This is what I will try to do here. I am therefore submitting a series of articles that deal with the subject of American slavery as it was. The first two articles will engage the research of U.S. History scholars and primary source documents. At the risk of sounding too academic, I will provide citations for two reasons. One, to attest to the facts of the seemingly shocking things I will relate in this article. Two, to provide a reference list for those who would like to read further on the subject. The next five articles will explore servitude in the Old and New Testaments respectively to differentiate the slavery legally practiced in the United States (American slavery) from the acceptable system of servitude in the Bible.
Also, it is not my intention to make anyone feel bad (or good, for that matter.) No one alive today is responsible for what I will share in this article. However, we would be naïve to think that the past does not affect the present. It is, therefore, enough to recognize, reject and renounce the misdeeds of the past to foster mutual understanding and healing today. Having said that, let’s dive in.
Human servitude in one form or another has been with us since the time recorded in the book of Genesis. Indeed, an angry Noah pronounced judgement on Ham’s son Canaan and his descendants consigning them to the lowest form of servitude for Ham’s disrespect. Later in that same book, Joseph was sold into servitude by his brothers only to rise to become governor of Egypt. The scriptures document various forms of servitude ranging from the highest forms in which servants served in palaces as Nehemiah served in Persia, to the lowest forms in which humans were used as beasts of burden as was the case in Egypt as recorded in Exodus. Many of the ancient societies had some sort of system of servitude in place from Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome and even in Africa. None of those systems, however reached the level of oppression that American slavery reached at its height in 1861 when the institution provoked the Civil War—our worst national calamity.
American Slavery—A General Description
American slavery involved a system of servitude that stripped human beings of all human and civil rights. It denigrated the person to the status of property or “chattels personal.” As “chattels personal” slaves, and thus deemed as property, the enslaved were reduced to the status not much different from cattle under the complete control “in the hands of their owners and possessors and their executors, administrators and assigns, to all intents, constructions and purposes whatsoever…” The word “chattel” is closely related to “cattle.” Since masters were protected by law in their actions toward their “property” they naturally took liberties with their slaves.
American slaves had no legal rights, beyond the right to sue for freedom in the North as northern states began to gradually abolish slavery after the American Revolution. Slaves could not bring an accusation against their masters in a court of law as their testimony was not permissible in court. They could not vote nor could they participate in political life or hold public office. It was against the law to teach them how to read. In many cases their owners did not want them learning to read or even converting to Christianity, lest they get ideas about being created in God’s image and freedom. While some slave owners might provide their slaves the opportunity to some education, many other owners forbade it and they were supported by law. Many enslaved African Americans became Christians despite their owner’s objections and worshipped in secret though prohibited from meeting.
As “chattels personal” the enslaved were not allowed to live in their own communities nor could they provide for themselves beyond what their masters provided. They were prohibited from owning property or livestock, planting their own crops or building wealth of their own—without the permission of their masters. Indeed, the enslaved lived on their owner’s property in shacks unless allowed to live in the owner’s mansion. If a master killed his slave while disciplining him he was held harmless since the person was considered his property. The movement of slaves was severely restricted. They were forbidden from moving off the plantation unless with a pass called a “ticket” or a “certificate.” If a slave was seen off the plantation they could be called into question “or corrected” by any white person. If upon being “corrected” by the white person the slave retaliated in any way, that slave could be “lawfully killed.” Slaves received thirty lashes for merely lifting their hands to a white person, no matter if in self-defense. Slaves who were considered disorderly could be legally dismembered. If the slave died in the process of being corrected by a white person who was not their owner, provided the death was considered unintentional, it would not be considered murder but perhaps manslaughter after a trial.
How it all began in North America
How did it come to this? How did a people come to be reduced to such a lowly status in this nation? The first Africans arrived in North America when they arrived in Virginia in 1619 aboard a Dutch ship and were sold to Virginia tobacco planters. These first Africans were not necessarily deemed slaves for life—yet. They joined many white settlers also worked on the Tobacco plantations as indentured servants. During the early colonial period between 1619 and 1662, Africans could gain their freedom and develop their own wealth as did their white settler counterparts who were indentured servants. However, the wealthy Virginia tobacco planters, who were British, realized after about 40 years that they needed a permanent labor force that could handle the rigorous but lucrative plantation work. White settlers were unwilling to work as slaves beyond the allotted time to which they had agreed—usually six or seven years as indentured servants. And, there were laws against permanently enslaving white settlers. Of course, Africans who then worked on the plantations, naturally looked forward to gaining their freedom and building something for themselves and their families, and in some cases, they did so with the help of their masters. This all changed by the 1660s.
In the 1660s the wealthy Virginian planters decided they would seek a permanent work force from Africa. The African slave trade had already been in operation since the 1500s as other European nations such as Portugal, Spain, France and the Netherlands were already involved in the business of human trafficking, and Virginia planters had already purchased Africans beginning in 1619. Furthermore, the Africans themselves, who remained on the continent, were willing partners with the Europeans in capturing and selling fellow Africans to the Europeans to be brought to the New World through the international slave trade. The wealthy Virginia planters therefore began to purchase Africans in earnest through the international African slave trade.
The Africans who were brought to the colonies from Africa through the international slave trade were kidnapped or captured in village raids and brought over forcibly and in chains. Europeans enticed Africans with firearms, textiles and rum to raid villages and kidnap other Africans and deliver them to the Europeans to be forcibly brought to the New World. In this way, by the time the international African slave trade ended in the 19th century, as many as 9 million Africans were brought to the New World in the largest forced migration in human history.
The Africans that were brought over were transported in what is called the Middle Passage. After being kidnapped by fellow Africans, they were sold to Europeans for commodities and packed tightly into the bowels of slave ships. The Africans were stripped down, men, women and children alike, and forced to travel for months on the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to places like Brazil, the West Indies and North America. Of the over 9 million enslaved Africans, roughly over 400,000 made it to the North American colonies. The enslaved (men, women and children) would be forced to make the voyage packed together in layers of shelves. Because of heat and sea sickness, vomit and dysentery flowed and many died in the voyage from disease. Since the enslaved were considered property for the slave traders, they could easily be thrown overboard at no loss to the slave traders as the slave traders invested in insurance to protect their investment. Women were particularly at risk of exploitation. Pregnant women were not spared the rigors of the voyage.
The beginnings of “White Privilege” in North America
As the number of enslaved Africans began to increase, the wealthy Virginia planters had to figure out a way to control the growing population. Understandably, the enslaved Africans that were forcibly brought to the colonies were already in state of frenzy and confusion, and perhaps hostility, having been separated from loved ones and familiar surroundings. To solve this problem the colony of Virginia’s legislative body, the House of Burgesses, passed a series of what became known as “slave codes” which codified the system of American slavery as it came to be known.
In 1662 the House of Burgesses passed a law that “all children born in this country shall be bond or free, only according to the condition of the mother.” This law was because the question arose as to what to do when a white man impregnated an African enslaved woman. Thus, all the offspring of enslaved Africans were deemed by law to be slaves for life—regardless of who the father was, white or black. By 1740 South Carolina clarified the condition of slaves moving forward by decreeing: “All Negroes, Indians […] mulattoes, and mestizos, who are or shall hereafter be in this province, and all their issue and offspring born or to be born, shall be and they are hereby declared to be and remain forever after absolute slaves, and shall follow the condition of the mother.”
As slaves and property, the enslaved Africans were by law subject to the above listed “slave codes” that only applied to them as black people. To keep the enslaved in check, the wealthy Virginia planters shrewdly enlisted the help of poor whites by granting them special “privileges” over and above the debased enslaved Africans. It has already been noted that any white person could approach any African and demand to see their “pass” or “certificate” and “correct” the African if it was deemed that their response was inappropriate. This in effect helped wealthy planters control the growing population of enslaved persons. But that was not all, area officials held the right to confiscate and sell any property that the enslaved may have earned outside of their labor for their masters or even from their masters, and redistribute the proceeds to the white poor of their communities. Also, poor whites were often hired as overseers to manage and control the enslaved Africans. These slave codes, which unjustly distinguished between whites and blacks, were established in the 1660s through 1705 and continuously evolved for 200 years to effectively control the enslaved population that was exclusively black. As such, racism and American slavery were formerly simultaneously established in this nation.
Because colonial white Americans had grown accustomed to a culture in which debased and enslaved blacks were not considered equals or have any rights, by the time of the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence, any notion of liberty or equality was not considered to apply to black people. In other words, when Thomas Jefferson penned the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” it was widely understood among white Americans that these words of the Declaration of Independence did not apply to black Americans. But it was these very words that would be seized upon by abolitionists and the Africans themselves, coupled with scripture, to assert the rights of blacks before God to these same rights and privileges. Abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic asserted that it was hypocritical for white Americans to complain that their rights were being violated by the British while they held blacks in bondage. Nevertheless, the nation did not move to generally emancipate their African slaves in keeping with the spirit of independence that imbued the revolutionary period. Only limited emancipation was granted to those who fought for the United States, and after the war, Northern states began to pass laws gradually emancipating their slaves.
American Slavery and the U.S. Constitution
When the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, the nation set about the business of establishing its government by drafting, debating and ratifying the Constitution. At the meeting of the delegates in 1787 where the final decisions were to be made concerning the Constitution, several key developments occurred that legally established American slavery. First, at the onset of the deliberations Benjamin Franklin urged his fellow delegates to pray to God for guidance before they made their decisions in establishing the new nation. The delegates largely declined to open the proceedings with a prayer thus refusing to seek God’s counsel. Secondly, led by the delegates from South Carolina and Georgia, the southern states declared that they would not approve the Constitution unless some protections for their property in slaves were put into the Constitution. When the northern delegates, whose states were beginning to pass laws of gradual emancipation for slaves, raised their objections by citing moral arguments against slavery, the delegates of South Carolina and Georgia stated flatly that the issue of slavery had nothing to do with religion or morality, but what was in the economic best interests of the new nation. The northern states acquiesced and allowed three constitutional compromises that legally and constitutionally established and protected American slavery. They were:
- The International Slave trade was extended for 20 years thus allowing for the type of treatment of the enslaved that was described above.
- The Fugitive slave law that allowed masters to go anywhere in the union to pursue and recapture runaway slaves.
- The 3/5ths Compromise which allowed southern states to count every 5 slaves as 3 persons toward representation in Congress. This allowed the southern states to use enslaved blacks, who themselves had no rights, to add more representation in Congress to protect their slave institution.
The first two measures served to further dehumanize enslaved and devastated Africans and differentiated American slavery from other forms of slavery. First, while the international slave trade constitutionally ended in 1808, the Constitution said nothing about protecting the rights of the enslaved from the coming domestic slave trade. More on that later. Second, the fugitive slave laws were the legal chains that permanently fastened the enslaved to the plantation. With the help of the third and last compromise, the southern states successfully fought off any attempts to abolish their institution through Congress before the Civil War. We will discuss the devastating effects these compromises had on enslaved African Americans in part 2 of this series of articles.
 For literature on how the Bible has been used to defend American slavery or blamed for it see the following literature: Larry E. Tise, Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701-1840 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987); Drew Gilpin Faust, The Ideology of slavery: proslavery thought in the antebellum South, 1830-1860 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press 1981); William Sumner Jenkins, Pro-Slavery Thought in the Old South (Gloucester, Mass: P. Smith, 1960); and Forrest G. Wood, The Arrogance of Faith: Christianity and Race in America from the Colonial Era to the Twentieth Century (New York: Knopf, 1990).
 For more on American slavery and other forms of bondage see David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2006).
 Davis, Inhuman Bondage, p. 30; John C. Hurd, The law of freedom and bondage in the United States (New York: Negro Universities Press, 1968), p. 303.
 Hurd, Law of freedom and bondage, p. 311. For more on how enslaved African Americans converted to Christianity in the New World, many times despite their masters’ disapproval see Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); on the conversion of enslaved African Americans see also Sylvia R. Frey and Betty Wood, Come Shouting to Zion: African American Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998).
 Hurd, The law of freedom and bondage, p. 228, 232, 233, 299, 303. For more information on slave codes see Dwight Lowell Dumond, Antislavery: The Crusade for Freedom in America (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961) pp. 3-15.
 For the connection between racism and American slavery see Winthrop D. Jordan, White over Black: American attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (New York: Norton, 1977), p. 44 and Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.: New York, 1975), p. 315.
 For more on the collusion between Europeans and Africans in the International slave trade see John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800 (1998) and David Eltis, The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 124.
 Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, p. 7; Eltis, The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas, p. 124.
 Philip D. Curtin, The Atlantic Slave Trade; A Census (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969), pp. 88-89 cited by Raboteau in Slave Religion, 89-90; Samuel Hopkins, A Dialogue Concerning the Slavery of the Africans; Shewing it to be the Duty and Interest of the American Colonies to Emancipate all their African Slaves: with an Address to the Owners of Such Slaves, Dedicated to the Honorable The Continental Congress, 8-11.
 Morgan, American slavery, p. 330-338; Dumond, Antislavery, p. 8; Hurd, Law of Freedom and Bondage, p. 303.
 Morgan, American slavery, p. 330-338; Dumond, Antislavery, pp. 3-15.
 Morgan, American slavery, pp. 4-6, 333-338, 369; Gary B. Nash, Race and Revolution (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), p. 3.
 Max Farrand, and David Maydole Matteson, eds., The records of the Federal Convention of 1787, vol. 1 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 451-452, 364.
 For more on the connection between American slavery and the Revolutionary era and the U.S. Constitution see George Van Cleve, A Slaveholders’ Union: Slavery, Politics, and the Constitution in the Early American Republic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010) and Paul Finkelman, Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson (M.E. Sharpe, New York, 1996).
American Slavery and the Bible—Part 2
In the first part of these articles we looked at how American slavery developed in the 17th century, through the Revolutionary War and was established in the Constitution. This part will discuss how the constitutional compromises, especially the international and domestic slave trade and the fugitive slave laws, targeted enslaved African Americans and devastated their families.
The Domestic Slave Trade
The domestic slave trade was particularly harsh on enslaved African Americans and diminished them, as “chattels personal,” to be things to be sold and traded. By the time of the beginning of the domestic slave trade in 1790 after the ratification of the Constitution, many of the enslaved African Americans by now were the offspring of the union of Africans that were imported in the international slave trade, and their white owners. While over 400,000 Africans were imported into the colonies from the 1660s up to 1808, about 1.2 million African Americans were separated from their families between 1790 and 1861. In other words, while it took 148 years to import over 400,000 enslaved human beings, it only took 71 years to force the migration of three times as many (1.2 million) human beings through the domestic slave trade. Simply put, Americans doubled and tripled down on the slave trade insofar as the domestic trade after the nation was established.
The domestic slave trade was devastating to African American families and particularly women. Because African Americans lacked any legal standing or civil rights their marriages were not legally or formerly recognized. As such, their owners could and did separate their marriages to sell the husband or wife in the domestic slave trade. Furthermore, the rights of parents over their children was not recognized by law. As such, children could be and were legally and regularly taken from their parents and sold as a part of the domestic slave trade. As a result, thousands of African American families were torn asunder never to see each other again, to satisfy the demand of the domestic slave trade. The familial DNA of thousands upon thousands of African American families were thus affected permanently because of the domestic slave trade. Husbands and wives, parents and their children were separated, preventing the cohesion of African American families. White Americans, of course, did not face such threats to their families.
African American women were particularly vulnerable because of the domestic slave trade. Because they were considered “chattels personal,” they were at the mercy of their owners who could, and often did, approach them for sex. Slave owners also could, and did, allow their sons and overseers to have sex with their enslaved women to grow their number of slaves and thus increase the value of their estates. As “chattels personal,” enslaved African American women could not refuse lest they be beaten severely. Of course, any offspring of such a union was considered a slave since the status of the offspring followed the condition of the mother. The offspring, being deemed slaves and property could be sold in the domestic slave trade. The women themselves could be bred and sold into slavery as a sexual companion of whoever bought them. Such enslaved women were called “fancy maids.” The laws of American slavery in the slave states deeming the enslaved African Americans as “chattels personal” allowed these practices.
The overarching purpose of the domestic slave trade was for the expansion of the cotton plantation industry in the South. Beginning with states like Virginia, Delaware and Maryland, slaves were sold south to Georgia, Louisiana and Alabama to develop cotton plantations further west heading into Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas. As such the plantations of the south did not just grow crops for sale, they grew and bred enslaved African Americans for sale into the western territories that would eventually lead to the establishment of new states. The establishment of new states after the Constitution was ratified corresponds with the beginning of the domestic slave trade in 1790. Very early in the nation’s history the following slave states were added: Kentucky (1792), Tennessee (1796), Louisiana (1812), Mississippi (1718), Alabama (1819), Missouri (1822), Arkansas (1836), Florida (1845) and Texas (1845).
The domestic slave trade dehumanized African Americans through a process of turning them into merchandize with a price point. In other words, as “chattels personal” and “things,” the enslaved each had a price to be bought. African Americans, therefore, were priced according to gender, age, shade of color, job skills, fertility, and in the case of a “fancy maid,” attractiveness, etc. The cost of purchasing an enslaved person would be akin to the purchase of a car in today’s prices. To get an understanding of 19th century prices in comparison with today’s prices, a multiple of approximately 30 should be employed. In other words, an enslaved person who sold at $600 in the early 19th century, would today cost approximately $18,000. A “fancy maid” or “fancy girl” could be sold for up to $1,200 (approximately $36,000 today). Obviously, only the wealthy could afford such prices. Of course, none of the cash exchanged made its way into the hands of the enslaved African Americans.
The cotton plantations are better understood if they are labeled as labor camps because that is what they were. They were especially harsh because enslaved African Americans were given daily quotas that must be met. If quotas were not met, enslaved blacks faced severe punishments and savage torture. One mode of torture involved stripping and whipping enslaved African Americans while they were laid face down, tied to four pegs on the ground and beaten until the skin on their backs was flayed and the blood flowed. Modes of punishment and torture were varied in their inhumanity and the tools of torture diverse. The enslaved endured unspeakable mutilation that included branding, scarring, eyes poked out, ears lopped off, teeth knocked out, maiming, toes and fingers cut off, etc. We don’t have the room here to describe all of them in detail, but to get a strong sense of the cruelty that enslaved African Americans endured see Theodore Weld’s Slavery as It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses, published in 1839. The document is made available online for all to see free of charge by the University of North Carolina: http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/weld/weld.html.
The cotton industry that the enslaved African Americans worked for without pay, made the United States a very wealthy nation. The industry, also known as the “Cotton Kingdom,” allowed the U.S. to become a major economic world power. Cotton, a commodity that was vital to everyday clothing, came into huge demand. Great Britain, the most powerful empire at the time, became the largest consumer while the U.S. became the second largest consumer of cotton in the world. The number one producer and supplier to both these colossal consumers was the U.S. Cotton gave rise to very important financial sectors in the U.S. Banks financed the purchase of land and slaves, the insurance companies insured the land and slaves for their owners and Wall Street brokers sold the commodities, namely cotton, home and abroad. This is not to mention the Industrial Revolution and the rise of textile factories in the north and in Great Britain, which were fueled by the explosion in cotton production. The unpaid harsh labor of enslaved African Americans, therefore, aided this nation’s economic rise.
Fugitive Slave Laws
If African Americans could safely escape such circumstances they could at least defend themselves from these horrors. By law, however, they could not count on the protection of others. Fugitive slave laws were the legal chains that bound enslaved African Americans to the plantations. These legal measures were in place throughout the colonies for about 100 years before American Independence in 1776. After they were established in the Constitution in 1787, they were in force for another 76 years, and helped slave owners keep their slaves fastened to their slave plantations. Beginning with the Fugitive Slave clause that was ratified in the Constitution, white Americans continuously retooled the law to make it more punitive. In 1793 they passed the federal Fugitive Slave law to put more teeth into the Constitutional measure. Fugitive slave laws allowed slave owners to pursue their runaway slaves or deputize others to do it for them. According to fugitive slave laws, it was against the law to aid a runaway or give them shelter. By law, all were required to turn a runaway slave to his or her master.
Upon capture, runaway slaves were severely punished and even mutilated. In early colonial times an “R” could be branded on their faces. Repeat runaways were severely punished in ways that included being hunted and attacked by dogs, shot, driven for hundreds of miles on foot, whipped, branded, maimed, forced to wear metal collars or unbending leg braces designed to restrict movement or even execution in front of other slaves to send a message. In 1850, when yet another version of the Fugitive Slave law was passed, made to be even more punitive making even northern states unsafe. Abolitionists were so incensed by this law that one named William Lloyd Garrison, burned a copy of the Constitution in Boston in protest calling it “an agreement with hell.” Abolitionists invoked Deut. 23:15-16 in their objection to the Fugitive slave laws. Other abolitionists created and ran what was known as the Underground Railroad, a secretive system designed to aid slaves run away from their bondage to safety in Canada.
This all does not mean that every slave owner was a monster or harsh. There is evidence sometimes a bond was created between enslaved African Americans and their owners. But such bonds were often tenuous, temporary and the exception. If the enslaved were fortunate they might have an owner who was compassionate and with whom they felt safe and whom they trusted. Harriet Jacobs, a former slave, wrote about such a female owner. The woman’s slaves mourned when she died but were comforted knowing they would be freed upon her death. The woman had treated her slaves humanely while she lived. In other cases, however, upon the death of such benevolent masters, the enslaved dreaded their fate knowing they were at the mercy of the owner’s surviving family members. In those cases they could expect to be sold by members of the surviving family who did not feel the same bond with the enslaved, or maybe resented the humane treatment the enslaved received from the deceased owner. On other occasions, the surviving family members chose to sell off the enslaved to settle debt left behind by the deceased owner. Even when the family treated an enslaved African American like family, because of their legal status as “chattels personal,” the enslaved African Americans had no legal standing and could do nothing to prevent their sale in such cases.
As the nation headed toward the Civil War, the issue of African American rights came to a head in the Supreme Court. In the 1857 Supreme Court case titled Dred Scott v. Sanford, a slave by the name of Dred Scott sued for his freedom claiming that because he lived in the Wisconsin territory, based on the Missouri Compromise, he should be free. The Supreme Court disagreed. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney asserted in his written majority opinion what white people in general thought of black people:
They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for [the white man’s] benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it. This opinion was at the time fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race. It was regarded as an axiom in morals as well as in politics, which no one thought of disputing, or supposed to be open to dispute; and men in every grade and position in society daily and habitually acted upon it in their private pursuits, as well as in matters of public concern, without doubting for a moment the correctness of this opinion.
Since as a black man Dred Scott was not a citizen, had no legal standing to file suit in federal court, and no rights that needed to be respected, the Supreme Court, led by Justice Taney, denied Scott’s lawsuit. As harsh as it might seem, Justice Taney was merely stating a legal fact accepted in the American society for almost 200 years. From the time of the wealthy Virginia tobacco planters in the 1660s to the Civil War in 1861, the rights of black people were legally and systematically trampled. Beginning with the international slave trade and simultaneous slave codes, the domestic slave trade and the fugitive slave laws that spanned throughout, the enslaved African Americans were denied the rights that were available to white Americans. All this, as Justice Taney stated, was based on the color of their skin. Such was life for enslaved African Americans under American slavery.
As has been stated, proslavery apologists justified American slavery with scripture. Were they right? On the other hand, what about David’s question to God that we considered in the introduction? “Can a corrupt throne be allied with you— a throne that brings on misery by its decrees?” (Psalm 94:20) We have reviewed the system known as American slavery and have engaged research and primary source documents to describe that system that clearly brought misery to enslaved African Americans. In the next series of articles we will compare and contrast American slavery with the Old and New Testaments systems of servitude and hopefully come to some conclusions.
 Michael Tadman, “The Interregional Slave Trade in the History and Myth-Making of the U.S. South,” in The Chattel Principle: Internal Slave Trades in the Americas, Ed. Walter Johnson (Yale University Press: New Haven, 2004), 120.
 Tadman, “Interregional slave trade of the U.S. South,” in The Chattel Principle, 131.
 George Bourne, Picture of slavery in the United States of America, Middletown, Conn., 1834, Slavery and Anti-Slavery, Gale, Florida International University, 10 July, 2016, 92-96; Solomon Northup, Twelve years a slave: narrative of Solomon Northup, a citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the Red River, in Louisiana, Auburn, 1853, Slavery and Anti-Slavery. Gale. Florida International University. 28 Feb. 2017, 52, 86-87; Deborah G. White, Ar’n’t I a woman?: Female slaves in the plantation South (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999), 36-37; Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul, 113; Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told, 240-243.
 For more on the connection between the domestic slave trade, the breeding and sale of enslaved African Americans, and westward expansion in the U.S. before the Civil War see Peter Passell and Gavin Wright, “The Effects of Pre-Civil War Territorial Expansion on the Price of Slaves,” Journal of Political Economy 80, no. 6 (1972): 1188-1202; Laurence J. Kotlikoff and Sebastian Pinera, “The Old South’s Stake in the Inter-Regional Movement of Slaves, 1850-1860,” Journal of Economic History 37, no. 2 (1977): 434-450; and Richard Sutch, “The Breeding of Slaves for Sale and the Westward Expansion of Slavery, 1850-1860,” Southern Economic History Project Working Paper 10 (Berkeley: University of California, 1972); Dumond, Antislavery, p. 68-69.
 For the pricing system employed on the enslaved African Americans see Daina Ramey Berry, The Price for the Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved from Womb to Grave in the Building of a Nation (2017), p. 85, 96; see also Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told, p. 242.
 For the role on the harshness of the plantation system and the use of torture to extract labor from enslaved African Americans see Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told, p. 135-143. To read about the modes of punishment see Solomon Northup, In Twelve Years a Slave, p. 167-75 and Theodore Dwight Weld, Slavery as It Is: The Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses.
 For a study of how cotton production through American slavery helped the U.S. develop its financial institutions and achieve economic prominence see the collection of essays in S.W. Bruchey, Cotton and the growth of the American economy, 1790-1860 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967); for the specific role of cotton production and its role in developing the financial institutions in New York see Sven Beckert, The Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850-1896 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 22; Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told is also a good resource because it deals with slavery’s role in the making of American capitalism.
 Van Cleve, Slaveholders’ Union, 168-169.
 Dumond, Antislavery, p. 9; Weld, Slavery as It Is, pp.9, 74, 91, 97, 103-4, 159, 161.
 Harriet A. Jacobs, Incidents in the life of a slave girl. Boston, 1861, [c1860], pp. 110-111, Sabin Americana. Gale, Cengage Learning, 16 June 2017; Northup, 12 Years a Slave, 52, 86-87.
 United States Supreme Court, The case of Dred Scott in the United States Supreme Court: the full opinions of Chief Justice Taney and Justice Curtis, and abstracts of the [Supreme Court], New York, 1860, p. 9, Sabin Americana. Gale, Cengage Learning, 16 June 2017.
American slavery and the Bible—Part 3
In parts 1 and 2 of this series American slavery was described from its beginnings in Virginia in the 1660s up through the Civil War. Racism was born with, vital to and inseparable from American slavery. It was a system that was oppressive to African Americans and offered no human or civil rights. American slavery lasted 200 years in this nation and was deeply embedded in American society while supported by local, state and federal law, the Constitution and reaffirmed by the Supreme Court. Despite its abolition in 1865, racist laws persisted in the South for another 100 years before the Civil Rights movement succeeded by prevailing on the federal government to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
We also observed that proslavery apologists used the Bible to support this oppressive system and scholars have therefore blamed Christianity for the scourge of American slavery and racism. But the question posed by King David thousands of years ago is still relevant today: “Can a corrupt throne be allied with you— a throne that brings on misery by its decrees?” (Psalm 94:20)
David’s question is a good one to apply to the system of American slavery, a racist system that brought misery to millions of African Americans. Upon scrutiny, it becomes clearly evident that American slavery and the Bible have no more in common than night and day. The next five parts of this series will show just how far apart American slavery is from the Bible. In this installment, we look at American slavery versus the Old Testament.
Noah, Ham and Canaan
If you recall, we noted in part one that the Constitutional delegation not only refused to pray and seek God’s counsel to open deliberations, the southern delegates rejected any moral objections to protecting their institution of slavery. They made no pretenses about creating a moral nation. Nonetheless, the institution of slavery had come under fire and continued to be criticized by antislavery activists and abolitionists who used the Bible in their arguments. Proslavery apologists therefore were forced to use the Bible to answer in kind. One of the first places they went to was the story of Noah and Ham as recorded in Genesis 9.
As the story goes, Noah was laying naked in his tent after drinking too much wine and was discovered by his son Ham. Instead of covering his father, Ham informed his brothers Shem and Japheth. They, rather than walking forward into the tent, chose instead to walk backwards with a sheet on their backs and covered their father’s nakedness. When Noah awakened and found out what Ham had done to him he pronounced a curse on Ham’s progeny Canaan pronouncing “Cursed be Canaan!” and declared he would be the “lowest of slaves” to his brothers Shem (progenitor of the Israelites) and Japheth (progenitor of Europeans). Proslavery apologists have taken this passage to mean that all the descendants of Ham would be slaves of both Shem and Japheth.
Noah said no such thing. Moses, the author of the book of Genesis, is careful to point out that this curse specifically fell on Canaan. Later it is clear that Canaan was one of Ham’s four sons and that he settled in what is now known as the Middle East, not Africa (Gen. 10:6, 15-19). This is the land that the Israelites conquered 40 years after their Exodus from their own Egyptian bondage. (Ex. 3:8, 17)
It should also be noted that this was Noah talking—not God. Nowhere does Noah say, “This is what the Lord says…” Why is that important? Two reasons:
- God was not bound by what Noah said concerning his sons. Despite what Noah proclaimed, God later predicted to Abraham the enslavement of the Israelites (descendants of Shem) for 400 years. And it came to pass in Egypt. And guess who Egypt descended from? Ham! This was contrary to what Noah wanted!
- Nowhere in scripture does God affirm Noah’s pronouncement regarding Japheth. As Noah would have it, Japheth, the progenitor of the Europeans, was destined to enslave Canaan. But God never goes on record through his prophets that this proclamation by Noah, regarding Japheth’s enslavement of Canaan (or Ham, for that matter), must be fulfilled. God does, however, reiterate Noah’s proclamation concerning the Israelites and Canaan, several times (Ex. 3:8, 17; Ex. 6:4; 34:11; Lev. 25:38; Nu. 34:2; Dt. 7:1).
Yet even the systems of servitude of the Israelites in Egypt, or that of the Israelites when they subjugated the Canaanites, did not approach the oppression in American slavery, as we will see.
“Abraham did not do such things”
In a debate with Jesus about sin, the Jewish leaders asserted that they were not slaves to sin, but had Abraham as their father. Jesus answered frankly that since they were trying to kill him they were not acting as Abraham. He then noted that Abraham “did not do such things.” (John 8:39-41) Proslavery apologists have asserted that American slavery was simply replicating what Abraham did. As the line of argument went, “Abraham had slaves. If he could, why can’t we?” Jesus’s words are appropriate here: “Abraham did not do such things.” Let’s look at Abraham’s supposed “slaves” and compare his situation with American slavery.
Abraham’s supposed “slaves” were not slaves, they were servants. Slaves are not free to go. Servants can come and go as they please. How is that? Let’s count the ways. In Genesis 14 we find that Abraham (called Abram) had 318 men who were “born in his household.” But they were not called “slaves,” they were called “trained men.” How could they be born in Abraham’s home if he did not have children? They were probably the children of the servants he acquired in Egypt some years earlier. (Gen. 12:16) Abram led these men into war, which means they were armed. If they were slaves and victims of oppression they could easily gain their freedom by making quick work of Abram and his wife. But they were willing to support Abram in his efforts to go rescue Lot. Abram, meanwhile, had no problem arming and leading these men into battle. Interestingly, the Law of Moses was not around to regulate their behavior. Their loyalty to Abram was based on the way he treated them—as members of his family.
Compare that to American slavery. When the Civil War came, the South did not trust enslaved African Americans to enlist them into the Confederate army, much less to arm them. It was not until the very end, in 1865, that the Confederacy began to enlist African Americans with the promise of freedom. By then, it was too little too late. The Union, on the other hand, acted differently toward the enslaved African Americans. After hesitating at first, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 which in 1863 welcomed enslaved African Americans to escape slavery in states that were in rebellion, and join the Union army. African Americans gladly ran to the North and fought in the Civil War for the Union.
For another example of how Abraham’s treatment of his servants was much different from American slavery, look at his treatment of Eliezer of Damascus, one of his servants. Recorded in Genesis 15 is the story of Abram lamenting before God that Eliezer was in line to inherit his estate. Of course, this was not optimal since Abraham had been promised by God to be the father of many nations. What’s remarkable about this is, especially compared with American slavery, Abraham’s estate was slated to go to Eliezer—a servant. By contrast, there is no record of any enslaved African American being in line to inherit the estate of any white slave owner in the United States of America. The very notion would be considered ridiculous. The best the enslaved could hope for in the southern U.S. would be to gain their freedom.
The case of Hagar and Ishmael
Lamentably, proslavery apologists used Abraham to rationalize the sexual immorality and rape of enslaved African American women by their owners. These actions were legal since the enslaved were considered “chattels personal.” Again, Abraham did no such things. Let’s review Genesis 16. Here the Bible says that Abraham and Sarah were struggling with the fact that Sarah was barren. Sarah decided that Abraham should, “Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.” There are a couple of differences here between what we could call Abrahamic servitude and American slavery. The Hebrew word used for Hagar is shiphchah which means maidservant. The NIV translators, however, decided to use the word “slave” to describe her.
First, it was Sarah’s idea and she suggested it so “I can build a family through her.” Aside from the fact that this was in keeping with the customs of polygamy back then, Sarah simply hoped to build a family. Contrast that with American slavery when slave owners, irrespective of their wives wishes, occasionally took sexual liberties with their enslaved African American women and even encouraged their sons and overseers to do likewise.
Secondly, when Abraham and Sarah took this action, their intention was to gain a son—not a slave. What determined Ishmael’s status was not the condition of Hagar, his supposed “slave mother,” but rather Abraham, a free man and his father. Contrast that with American slavery in which the condition of the child followed that of the mother.
Thirdly, Hagar was not in fact a “slave” in the sense of the word as understood in American slavery. She was not a “chattels personal,” despite the word choice used by the translators. She could come and go as she pleased and was not subject to fugitive slave laws. In Genesis 16, when friction between Hagar and Sarah, her mistress, developed, Hagar ran away. How did Abraham and Sarah react? Did they summon the other servants in their household and get up a posse replete with hound dogs and chains to hunt Hagar? No, they simply let her go.
Now it is true that God sent his angel to go after Hagar. But far from being a bounty hunter, which the angel of the Lord was not, he spoke with her and gently persuaded her to return and submit to Sarah. There were no threats, only a promise. Hagar was inspired to return after talking with “the God who sees me.” Had this scene taken place under the auspices of American slavery, Hagar would have been hunted, chained, dragged back and beaten severely and perhaps even sold after the birth of her child.
Fourth, when the relationship between Hagar, Ishmael and Sarah became untenable, as recorded in Genesis 21, Hagar and Ishmael were simply sent away. They were not beaten and sold, as would have happened in American slavery. Again, Abraham did not do such things.
Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, has also been used as justification for American slavery and the sexual immorality therein. “Jacob, after all,” a proslavery apologist might say, “had sex with his slaves and had children with them.” On this count, they would be wrong. Jacob, Leah and Rachel, like Abraham and Sarah, were building a family, and if they encouraged Jacob to sleep with Zilpah and Bilhah, their servants, it was to gain sons, not slaves for market. By the way, the NIV translators chose to refer to Hagar as a “slave,” while using “servants” to describe Zilpah and Bilhah; though they were all in the same circumstances. In fact, the same Hebrew word shiphchah is used in the Hebrew to describe Hagar, Bilhah and Zilpah. (Gen. 30)
By the way, if they lived under American slavery, where the condition of the child follows the mother, six of the boys born to Jacob would have been free, and six would have been deemed as slaves available for market—instead of the seeds of the twelve tribes of a holy nation. And Jacob would probably not have had a problem with Ruben sleeping with Bilhah. (Gen. 35) After all, she would have been considered a slave, and a “chattels personal.” Under American slavery, Jacob may have even encouraged Ruben so they could grow their slave population available for market.
“God meant slavery for good!”
Proslavery apologists loved to point to what Joseph said to his brothers when they begged forgiveness for selling him into slavery: “You meant if for evil, but God meant it for good.” As the logic goes, “Hey, so a few Africans got sold into slavery. Of course, it was wrong, but at least God meant it for good! So, at the end of the day, we simply did God’s will!” Meanwhile, the domestic slave trade continued uninterrupted. It’s the same logic that Paul attacked when he said, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!” (Romans 6:1-2)
If what Joseph’s brother’s actions were excusable based on God’s plan, why did they beg forgiveness? They were overcome with guilt and grief, even after they knew that things worked out for Joseph’s good. (Gen. 50:15-18) But see, Joseph’s experience with the much milder Egyptian slavery was clearly unlike the experience of enslaved African Americans, who had no chance of rising to the level that Joseph did in Egypt. God, it seems, meant for Joseph to go to Egypt and become governor. And Joseph, who believed it worked for his good was willing to forgive. But the brothers did not presume their innocence when their hearts condemned them. They asked for forgiveness for their sin, even though their sin led to good, and they allowed Joseph the room to be gracious—which he rightfully was.
Egyptian slavery versus American slavery
One comparison that proslavery apologists dared not make was American slavery with Egyptian slavery. Enslaved African Americans and abolitionists, however, did make the comparison and it gave them hope that American slavery, like Egyptian slavery, would be abolished. The comparison, however, is worth making. First, with Egyptian slavery there is evidence that racism against the Israelites existed in Egypt as early as in the time of Joseph. In Genesis 43:32 we find that the Egyptians considered it “detestable” to eat with Hebrews. Ring any bells? This was a foreshadowing of things to come. But while Joseph was alive he could protect his brethren from Egyptian harm.
Later, however, recorded in Exodus, after Joseph was dead, a later Pharaoh, to whom Joseph meant nothing, emerged and in fear convinced the Egyptians that they should enslave the Israelites. He placed overseers and taskmasters over them and even gave them quotas of daily work they were to perform. The Bible says that “they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor…” (Exodus 1) Later, Pharaoh increased the intensity of their labor with quotas in Exodus 5:14 and beat them if they did not meet them. In one sense, Egyptian slavery seems to take a harsher turn than American slavery when Pharaoh decided on exterminating the male Hebrews. But this is no different from the international slave trade in which Africans were thrown overboard. In both Egyptian and American slavery, we see forced labor with quotas that if not met resulted in beatings.
Both forms of forced labor systems also involved the inability to come and go as one pleased. This is the very essence of forced labor. Pharaoh was intransigent in his insistence to not yield to Moses’s repeated entreaties to “Let my people go!” Also, another similarity is that freedom did not come until a massive catastrophe of death occurred. In the Egyptian case, we see not only 10 plagues, but the final one in which God killed the firstborn of all of Egypt. Then and only then did Pharaoh release the Israelites from bondage. In American slavery, four million enslaved African Americans did not officially go free until after the Civil War which claimed more than 600,000 lives. If the same percentage of the general population died today (2%), that would be roughly 6 million men.
That’s where the similarities end. In some cases, Egyptian slavery was not as inhuman as that of its American counterpart. Unlike American slavery, the Israelites were not subject to any sort of international or domestic slave trade. They lived in their own homes and in their own communities, indeed their own region (Goshen). Their women were not subject to the sexual whims of masters or overseers, nor were their families molested for the sake of the domestic trade. They owned property, livestock, cattle and practiced their religious customs freely. Thus, they performed the first Passover. The Egyptians even gave to them freely from what they owned when freedom was opportune.
“Your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hopes”
In yet another debate with Jesus, the Jewish leaders tried to invoke another key leader from their history, this time Moses. (John 5:45) Jesus, however, dropped this zinger on them: “But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set.” Ouch! Likewise, proslavery apologists loved to invoke the Law of Moses as a key authority for American slavery.
First a note on the Hebrew meaning of the words referring to a male “servant” and “slave.” Did you know that the Hebrew word for both mostly used in the Bible is “Ebed”? Bible translators, for whatever reason, have decided when to use the word “servant” and “slave” depending on the context and the meaning they wanted to convey to the reader. Despite all this, the Hebrew language has no word that denotes what we know as American slavery. Why? Because American slavery is an American invention.
The scriptures of choice for proslavery apologists are as follow:
Based on this scripture, the Israelites were told: “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. 45 You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property.”
The Israelites were also told that not only would these servants become their “property,” they could also “bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.”
No doubt, someone will read this and say, “Aha! See, right there, God allowed Israelites to own human beings as property! So, there goes your theory, Richard!” Granted. I’ll do you one better, God even allowed the Israelites to punish their “slaves” or “servants” without personal liability if they survived because the “slave” or “servant” was considered “property.” (Ex. 21:21)
But here is where the line on servitude is drawn in the Bible. If American slavery had remained within the confines of this line, there would be no argument to make against it. American slavery, however, did not remain within the legal boundaries of the Mosaic Law. Instead, it legally and notoriously trespassed the Law of Moses, as we will see in the next part of this series. American slavery violated so much of the Mosaic Law that it rose to the level of a national crime—and Moses would be its chief prosecuting attorney.
The next part of this series will drill down on the rights that Israelite servants or slaves enjoyed that stood in stark contrast to the system of American slavery. Had those rights been embedded in the system of American slavery, the institution would have collapsed by its own weight—without a Civil War.
Americans slavery and the Bible—Part 4
In the last part of this series we looked at Israelite servitude from Genesis and the Mosaic Law. In this installment, we pick it back up where we left off in the Mosaic law with a discussion about the rights that Israelite servants or slaves had which stood in contrast to the oppression of enslaved African Americans under American slavery.
Even if the Israelites had permission to purchase a foreigner as “property,” their owners could not do as they pleased with that person. While the law allowed for the bequeathing of servants or slaves to children, it forbade selling them like in American slavery. It also did not consign the children of foreigners to perpetual slavery. Foreigners were invited to join the nation of Israel as converts, and were permitted to participate in the festivals and Holy Sabbaths, while enjoying equal protection under the law. In this installment, we look at the rights of servants under the Law of Moses, the problems that forced labor caused for the Israelites and God’s view of oppression as seen in the book of Job, the Psalms and Proverbs.
Property: “Treasured Possessions” or “Chattels Personal”?
Were servants or slaves really property in the sense that we understand it in the context of American slavery, that is “chattels personal”? It is true that foreign servants or slaves were called “property,” but that did not equate to the debased level of personal chattel as in American slavery. It was only a reference to the fact that the owner used money or gold to purchase them. In fact, the word “property” has been translated “treasure,” “possession” or “gold.” This is akin to the Israelites being called God’s “treasured possession.” (Exodus 19:5, Deut. 7:6). Just because they were called “property” did not mean that the owner could treat them as an animal or mistreat them without consequences. For example, in the case of the master punishing his servant or slave, if that servant or slave died, the master was held accountable for murder, unlike in American slavery. (Ex. 21:21)
Foreigners were to be treated well
“Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.”
“For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”
As it says in Exodus 22:21, the Israelites were commanded not to “oppress” foreigners. If we remember, the Israelites were being oppressed in Egypt when they were subjected to forced labor (Ex. 1:11-12; 3:9). The Israelites, therefore, understood what God meant when he used the word “oppressed” regarding their treatment of their servants or slaves. Not oppressing a servant or slave also had other implications. Let’s read the scriptures so we understand the level of freedom that God gave to so called “slaves.”
“Slave Codes” Forbidden
Unlike American slavery, God absolutely forbade separate laws or “slave codes” that only applied to foreigners. The same laws applied both to the Israelites and to foreigners as we see in Leviticus 18:26; 19:34 and Deuteronomy 31:12.
Leviticus 19:34 stands out and should be juxtaposed to American slavery:
“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. 34 The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”
In other words, there should be no disparate treatment of foreigners or separate laws applied to them as was the case with American slavery. Compare this with millions of enslaved African Americans who were denied citizenship rights because of the color of their skin despite being born in this nation.
Fugitive Slave Laws Forbidden—Deuteronomy 23:15-16
“If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. 16 Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them.”
As you can see, the slave could decide where to stay and must not be handed over to their master. To hand them over would be oppression. Hence the command, “Do not oppress them.” So, even if they were called “property,” the “slave” or “servant” according to the Law of Moses had much more rights than the enslaved African Americans who had no such protections from American fugitive slave laws.
And here’s another thing, Israelites were commanded not to “glean to the edges” of their farmlands, but to leave food on the edges of their farms “for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the Lord your God.’” (Lev. 23:21-23) The idea being, if a foreigner felt like he was being mistreated by his master, he had the right to leave and expect the protection of the Mosaic Law and even expect that some law-abiding Israelite citizen would provide him with food on the edge of his property, without turning him in. You see that happening under American slavery?
Look at this from another way, let’s say you were a property owner and you encountered a runaway servant or slave. In obedience to Deut. 23:15-16 you could not turn him over to his master and had to allow him to stay wherever he wanted. If you found yourself in similar circumstances under American slavery in 1850 and chose to obey Deut. 23:15-16, you would be subject to a fine of $1,000 ($30,000 in today’s money) and 6 months jail time. Abolitionists throughout the North defied fugitive slave laws as a matter of conscience and they quoted this scripture as their authority.
Slave Trading Forbidden
On the disparate treatment of an Israelite and a foreigner, Israelites were forbidden from kidnapping and selling someone into slavery:
“If someone is caught kidnapping a fellow Israelite and treating or selling them as a slave, the kidnapper must die. You must purge the evil from among you.”
For those who might argue that this command only pertained to Israelites, see Lev. 19:38 above. The Mosaic Law was to be equally administered to both Israelite and foreigner. If God forbade the turning over of a runaway slave to his master and commanded that the fugitive be allowed to stay where he wanted, do you think he was fine with taking that fugitive against his will and selling him off? Peaking ahead, this is probably why Paul said that the Law was for, among other folks, those who murder their parents and slave traders. (Please see 1 Timothy 8-9 for the complete list).
Of course, American slavery depended on the raiding and kidnapping of human beings in Africa to be sold into the American slave market; and the domestic trade, which forcibly took enslaved African Americans against their will to be sold.
The only people who could be sold were those who must make restitution for stealing.
“Anyone who steals must certainly make restitution, but if they have nothing, they must be sold to pay for their theft.
Anyone sold in the nation of Israel was sold for restitution for stealing or to pay off large debt. Hence, there is no record of any approved systematic slave trade or slave market in Israel. This was unlike American slavery in which enslaved Africans could be, and often were, sold into the domestic slave trade. This practice, along with the fugitive slave law, was a violation of the Mosaic Law.
So, to recap, an Israelite could purchase someone to make them their servant or slave and make them “property.” But, they could not sell them unless for restitution for stealing. If their “property” ran away, they could not by law compel anyone in the nation of Israel to return them. In fact, Israelites were commanded to leave food on the edges of their property for foreigners who probably had run away from their masters. So…were the Israelite “slaves” really “property” in the sense of how we understand property in American slavery? Clearly not. If American slavery did not have fugitive slave laws, the domestic slave trade, and insulting slave codes, it would have collapsed by its own weight. There are more reasons why the Law of Moses was incompatible with and hostile to American slavery.
Protection against bodily harm
26 “An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye. 27 And an owner who knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave must let the slave go free to compensate for the tooth.”
Servants under the Mosaic Law had protections against harm to their persons. If they received a severe injury caused by their master, they were to be set free in compensation for such an injury. Unlike American slavery where a slave could be brutalized in a host of ways (i.e. maimed, shot, branded or mutilated) with no recourse, the Mosaic Law did not tolerate such treatment of servants or slaves.
Moses’s closing argument
Besides all of Moses’s arguments against American slavery listed above, the Mosaic Law convicted the institution of violating several of the moral laws in the Pentateuch. And the Law of Moses especially protected the persons of enslaved women who were objectified within the institution. Here are some examples:
- “You shall not commit adultery.” (Exodus 20:14)
The slave owners, who were often themselves married, often took sexual liberties with their enslaved women, thus they committed adultery against their own wives. If the enslaved woman was married, it was adultery against her husband.
- “‘If a man sleeps with a female slave who is promised to another man but who has not been ransomed or given her freedom, there must be due punishment. Yet they are not to be put to death, because she had not been freed.” (Leviticus 19:20)
Because American slavery did not recognize the marriages of enslaved African Americans, it was legal for an owner to take liberties with an enslaved woman who had before God committed herself to another man. The Law of Moses demanded punishment in such situations. Someone might try to justify sex with an enslaved woman who was not married. That would, of course, be fornication.
- “Cursed is anyone who sleeps with his sister, the daughter of his father or the daughter of his mother.” (Deut. 27:22)
This seems like an odd application of scripture. It’s not. As slave owners took sexual liberties with their enslaved African American women, their sons did likewise, often with the children of the unions between their own fathers and the enslaved women. Since their indiscretions were committed with their father’s children—these were their siblings with which they committed these acts of sexual immorality and incest. Such was the depravity of American slavery—a God-forsaken system.
All these violations against the Law of Moses were legal under the laws of American slavery and the principles of chattel slavery.
David, Solomon, Rehoboam and Forced Labor
As previously mentioned, Noah’s prediction regarding Canaan came to pass in the time of Joshua and David when they conquered the Canaanites and subjugated them to forced labor. But forced labor was not meant to last indefinitely because it was incompatible with the Mosaic Law. It was a war measure as a part of their conquest of the Canaanites that specifically was given to the Israelites as they emerged out of Egypt. (See Deuteronomy 20) Under Joshua and during the time of the Judges as well as during the reigns of David, Solomon and Rehoboarm, the Israelite nation did just that, they conquered the Canaanites and subjected them to forced labor. (Joshua 16:10; 17:13; Judges 1:28-35). No such prophecies or instructions were given to the people of Japheth (Europeans) to enslave the Africans.
As to David and Solomon, David took full advantage forced labor of the Canaanites and passed it on to Solomon. David even had a minister of forced labor in his cabinet by the name of Adoniram who served under him, Solomon, and Rehoboam, but this proved to be problematic, as we will see. (2 Sam. 20:24; 1 Kings 4:6; 5:14; 9:15; 1 Kings 12:18) Under Solomon, Adoniram supervised the building of the Temple, Solomon’s palace, the terraces, the wall of Jerusalem and several other cities (1 Kings 9:15). But Adoniram became a hated individual and his harsh labor practices led to the split of the Israelite kingdom.
In the time of Rehoboam, the Israelites petitioned Rehoboam for redress and asked him to ease up on the forced labor. (1 Kings 12) Of course, he arrogantly refused. He sent out Adoniram, his minister of forced labor, to try and calm the Israelites and guess what happened to Adoniram: he was stoned to death. An enraged Rehoboam went to muster the army to go attack the rebellious Israelites who had stoned Adoniram. God sent his prophet with this word for Rehoboam: “This is what the Lord says: Do not go up to fight against your brothers, the Israelites. Go home, every one of you, for this is my doing.’” (1 Kings 13:24)
And so we see that God himself intervened and put a stop to the whole forced labor thing. The Israelites and Judah remained separate kingdoms after this. By the way, Adoniram was the first and last minister of forced labor. His position was never filled again. Forced labor was incompatible with the overall law of God and was never meant to be a permanent staple of the Hebrew nation. Despite this relatively brief period of organized forced labor there is no record that either of these kings were involved in the slave trade or fugitive slave laws, unlike…you guessed it, American slavery which combined forced labor with slave codes, the slave trade, and fugitive slave laws.
Job would have opposed American slavery
Job, a wealthy man, understood that God would confront him and call him to account if he did not do right by his servants.
“If I have denied justice to any of my servants, whether male or female, when they had a grievance against me, 14 what will I do when God confronts me? What will I answer when called to account? 15 Did not he who made me in the womb make them? Did not the same one form us both within our mothers?”
The Psalms confirms God’s love for the oppressed
The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.
You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed, so that mere earthly mortals will never again strike terror.
Teach me your way, Lord; lead me in a straight path because of my oppressors.
I say to God my Rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?”
You are God my stronghold. Why have you rejected me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?
Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression?
May he defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; may he crush the oppressor.
He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight.
[The arrogant and wicked] scoff, and speak with malice; with arrogance they threaten oppression.
Do not let the oppressed retreat in disgrace; may the poor and needy praise your name.
They did not remember his power— the day he redeemed them from the oppressor,
Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
The enemy will not get the better of him; the wicked will not oppress him.
They crush your people, Lord; they oppress your inheritance.
The Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed.
I have done what is righteous and just; do not leave me to my oppressors.
Ensure your servant’s well-being; do not let the arrogant oppress me.
Redeem me from human oppression, that I may obey your precepts.
He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free,
Proverbs opposes oppression
He mocks proud mockers but shows favor to the humble and oppressed.
Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.
Better to be lowly in spirit along with the oppressed than to share plunder with the proud.
One who oppresses the poor to increase his wealth and one who gives gifts to the rich—both come to poverty.
A ruler who oppresses the poor is like a driving rain that leaves no crops.
The poor and the oppressor have this in common: The Lord gives sight to the eyes of both.
It is not for kings, Lemuel—it is not for kings to drink wine, not for rulers to crave beer, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed, and deprive all the oppressed of their rights.
Now we have seen what the Mosaic Law, Job, the Psalms and the Proverbs had to say about oppression. In part 5 we will look at what the Prophets had to say about oppression.
American slavery and the Bible—Part 5
We have seen in the Law of Moses, the books of Job, Psalms and Proverbs that God opposed oppression. Now we look at God’s opposition to oppression as expressed in Proverbs.
The Prophets against oppression
Abraham, Moses, Job, the Psalms and Proverbs opposed oppression. The Prophets were no different. The Prophets continually reminded the nations of Judah and Israel of their responsibility to “do justly and love mercy,” which like most human beings, they had a problem doing. The Prophets, however, continually called the two nations and other foreign nations to repent of their sin of oppression and warned them of the consequences of such oppression. American abolitionists seized on these warnings and issued them to slave owners in the United States.
Isaiah would have opposed American slavery
Isaiah condemned the practice of creating laws that were unjust and allowed for the disparate and “oppressive” treatment of poor people, namely widows and the fatherless. These were precisely the people that were victimized by American slavery. In fact, the system of American slavery routinely produced poor, widowed and fatherless human beings because of the grind of the slave trade and fugitive slave laws. The slave trade, which was embedded in the institution, caused the separation of marriages and families.
More from Isaiah:
Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.
Youths oppress my people, women rule over them. My people, your guides lead you astray; they turn you from the path.
For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor.
Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.
Nations will take them and bring them to their own place. And Israel will take possession of the nations and make them male and female servants in the Lord’s land. They will make captives of their captors and rule over their oppressors.
[Y]ou will take up this taunt against the king of Babylon: How the oppressor has come to an end! How his fury has ended!
Let the Moabite fugitives stay with you; be their shelter from the destroyer.” The oppressor will come to an end, and destruction will cease; the aggressor will vanish from the land.
It will be a sign and witness to the Lord Almighty in the land of Egypt. When they cry out to the Lord because of their oppressors, he will send them a savior and defender, and he will rescue them.
Therefore this is what the Holy One of Israel says: “Because you have rejected this message, relied on oppression and depended on deceit, this sin will become for you like a high wall, cracked and bulging, that collapses suddenly, in an instant.
I will make your oppressors eat their own flesh; they will be drunk on their own blood, as with wine. Then all mankind will know that I, the Lord, am your Savior, your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.”
He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished.
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.
For our offenses are many in your sight, and our sins testify against us. Our offenses are ever with us, and we acknowledge our iniquities: rebellion and treachery against the Lord, turning our backs on our God, inciting revolt and oppression, uttering lies our hearts have conceived.
The children of your oppressors will come bowing before you; all who despise you will bow down at your feet and will call you the City of the Lord, Zion of the Holy One of Israel.
Jeremiah would have opposed the oppression of American slavery
“Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his countrymen work for nothing, not paying them for their labor.” (Jer. 22:13)
Fundamental to American slavery was the unpaid toil that was extracted from enslaved African Americans and the great wealth it brought to wealthy Americans. Jeremiah would have called this “unrighteousness” and “injustice.” Someone would read this and say, “Ah, this is referring to fellow countrymen and enslaved African Americans were not countrymen, they were not citizens; therefore, this scripture does not apply.”
But this is precisely the point. Enslaved African Americans were prevented from becoming citizens for that very reason. If you recall, Justice Taney said as much in his majority opinion in the 1857 Dred Scott case when he wrote that the “Black man has no rights that the white man is bound to respect.”
More from Jeremiah:
This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Cut down the trees and build siege ramps against Jerusalem. This city must be punished; it is filled with oppression.
If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, 6 if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. 8 But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.
This is what the Lord says to you, house of David: “‘Administer justice every morning; rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed, or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done— burn with no one to quench it.
This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.
“But your eyes and your heart are set only on dishonest gain, on shedding innocent blood and on oppression and extortion.”
Like a lion he will leave his lair, and their land will become desolate because of the sword of the oppressor and because of the Lord’s fierce anger.
Their children will be as in days of old, and their community will be established before me; I will punish all who oppress them.
They will stumble repeatedly; they will fall over each other. They will say, ‘Get up, let us go back to our own people and our native lands, away from the sword of the oppressor.’
Cut off from Babylon the sower, and the reaper with his sickle at harvest. Because of the sword of the oppressor let everyone return to their own people, let everyone flee to their own land.
This is what the Lord Almighty says: “The people of Israel are oppressed, and the people of Judah as well. All their captors hold them fast, refusing to let them go.
Ezekiel would have opposed the oppression of American slavery
“The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the alien, denying them justice. I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none. So I will pour out my wrath on them and consume them with my fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign LORD.” (Ezekiel 22:29-31)
This passage by Ezekiel challenges American slavery to the core. Saying nothing about extorting and robbing the rights of the enslaved, it condemns the oppression of the enslaved blacks who were dirt poor. Because they were not considered citizens, they officially were “aliens” in American society. And yes, they were, by their status, denied justice.
More from Ezekiel:
[The righteous man] does not oppress anyone, but returns what he took in pledge for a loan. He does not commit robbery but gives his food to the hungry and provides clothing for the naked.
[The wicked man] oppresses the poor and needy. He commits robbery. He does not return what he took in pledge. He looks to the idols. He does detestable things.
In you they have treated father and mother with contempt; in you they have oppressed the foreigner and mistreated the fatherless and the widow.
The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the foreigner, denying them justice.
This land will be his possession in Israel. And my princes will no longer oppress my people but will allow the people of Israel to possess the land according to their tribes.
“‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: You have gone far enough, princes of Israel! Give up your violence and oppression and do what is just and right. Stop dispossessing my people, declares the Sovereign Lord.
Daniel would have opposed the oppression of American slavery
Daniel, being a close advisor to King Nebuchadnezzar, counseled the king on how to repent of his sins:
Therefore, Your Majesty, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue.”
Daniel prophesied that a future king would arise who would blasphemer and an oppressor:
He will speak against the Most High and oppress his holy people and try to change the set times and the laws. The holy people will be delivered into his hands for a time, times and half a time.
Amos would have opposed the oppression of American slavery
First, the prophets warned against the slave trade. Amos warned Gaza:
“This is what the Lord says: ’For three sins of Gaza, even for four I will not relent. Because she took captive whole communities and sold them to Edom, 7 I will send fire on the walls of Gaza that will consume her fortresses. 8 I will destroy the king of Ashdod and the one who holds the scepter in Ashkelon. I will turn my hand against Ekron, till the last of the Philistines are dead,’ says the Sovereign Lord.” (Amos 1:6-8)
So, we see here that God was upset because a nation was involved in human trafficking. And he issued his warning through Amos. But this was not the only nation that God warned through Amos. There’s more:
“This is what the Lord says: ‘For three sins of Edom, even for four, I will not relent. Because he pursued his brother with a sword and slaughtered the women of the land…’” (Amos 1:11)
Not only did Edom purchase humans from the Gaza human traffickers, Edom also “pursued” those humans “with a sword…” This is very similar to what often happened with American slavery, after human beings were captured and sold, if they ran they were pursued.
Amos had more:
“This is what the Lord says: ‘For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not relent. They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. 7 They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed. Father and son use the same girl and so profane my holy name.” (Amos 2:6-7)
In American slavery, the “innocent” were routinely sold. They were not sold because they were guilty of a crime other than being born black. They were poor and their heads were “trampled” routinely and they were denied justice—just as Amos complained about. And, of course, in a sexually immoral system protected by legal corruption, there were no American laws against a man and his son sleeping with their enslaved African American woman. She was, after all, considered “personal chattel.” In other words, the issues condemned in these passages of scripture were perfectly legal in American slavery.
More from Amos:
Hear this word, you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria, you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy and say to your husbands, “Bring us some drinks!”
For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins. There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.
Zephaniah would have opposed the oppression of American slavery
[Jerusalem] Woe to the city of oppressors, rebellious and defiled!
At that time I will deal with all who oppressed you. I will rescue the lame; I will gather the exiles. I will give them praise and honor in every land where they have suffered shame.
Zechariah would have opposed the oppression of American slavery
Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’
But I will encamp at my temple to guard it against marauding forces. Never again will an oppressor overrun my people, for now I am keeping watch.
The idols speak deceitfully, diviners see visions that lie; they tell dreams that are false, they give comfort in vain. Therefore the people wander like sheep oppressed for lack of a shepherd.
So I shepherded the flock marked for slaughter, particularly the oppressed of the flock. Then I took two staffs and called one Favor and the other Union, and I shepherded the flock.
It was revoked on that day, and so the oppressed of the flock who were watching me knew it was the word of the Lord.
Malachi would have opposed the oppression of American slavery
“So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the Lord Almighty.
American slavery, therefore, was obnoxious to the Law and the Prophets and the whole of the Old Testament. In the 6th segment, we look at American slavery compared to the New Testament.
American slavery and the Bible—Part 6
Up to now we have examined the 200 year of American slavery and have compared it with the Old Testament. American slavery was incompatible with the Old Testament—that is, the Patriarchs, the Law and the Prophets. If American slavery was incompatible with the Old Testament, a dispensation that fell short of the true freedom that Jesus Christ brought under his dispensation in the New Testament; what were the chances that it would be compatible with the New Testament? In this installment of this series we will look at American slavery in the light of the New Testament.
God sent his One and Only Son to live among the oppressed
Would Jesus support a system that oppresses poor people as American slavery did? It must be remembered that only rich people could afford slaves. American slavery depended on racism and hatred to keep the system intact. The question is, would Jesus be in league with the rich to oppress the poor, especially on the basis of their race? To get to the bottom of what Jesus would do we need to search the gospels.
The New Testament is the revelation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As the story goes, the one and only Son of God came into the world to save it from sin by the sacrifice of his life and by his resurrection. Before we dive into his life, let’s reflect for a moment on a particular prophesy on his coming. In Isaiah 53:3-8 we find that the Christ or Messiah would be oppressed and a man familiar with suffering. Let’s look at the scripture:
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
4 Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away
When one reads this passage, it becomes apparent that God had in mind to send his Son Jesus into the world knowing that he would be afflicted, despised, rejected, oppressed, would suffer, and be punished. This had to be daunting for Christ to think about in preparation for his entry into the world. Of course, later in the chapter the expectation was that he would “see the light of life and be satisfied,” meaning he would be resurrected from the dead. (Is. 53:11)
God could have sent Jesus to occupy any position in our world that he cared to. Reflecting on this passage, however, it becomes apparent that God had in mind to send his Son to be among the oppressed. In fact, in verse 10 it says that “it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer.”
Jesus entered the world among the poor
Jesus’ early life shows that he was born among the poor. He was born in a barn and placed in a manger, which is a feeding trough for barnyard animals. When presented at the temple, his family gave the sacrifice that was designated for the poor (two pigeons). His earthly parents were not influential people. His earthly father, Joseph, was a carpenter. Jesus did not receive a formal education. When he set out into his ministry he had no place to lay his head—meaning he was practically homeless. (Lev. 5:7; Lu. 2:24; Lu. 2:7; Mt.13:55; Mt. 8:20)
Jesus did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them
As we have observed, the Law and the Prophets forbade oppression. We have also noted that American slavery was built on oppression. Jesus did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. (Mt. 5:17) So, it is safe to say that Jesus would have held the same opinions about the oppression of the poor that the Law and the Prophets had. In no way would Jesus teach anything that would give anyone the right to oppress another human being. Instead, Jesus’ teaching would build on the Law and the Prophets when it came to loving others. In fact, the Golden Rule, to do to others as you would them do to you, is a summary of the Law and the Prophets (Mt. 7:12).
Jesus’ message resonated with the poor and warned the rich
Jesus’s speech toward the poor was very gracious. One of the first things Jesus said when he began his ministry was that he had come to “release the oppressed.” (Luke 4:18) He’d come to “preach good news to the poor.” (Mt. 11:5) In one of his first extended sermon Jesus declared, “Blessed are the poor.” (Lu. 6:20) He urged his followers to “sell your possessions and give to the poor” before they followed him. (Mt. 19:21)
On the other hand, Jesus challenged rich people. He challenged them by crying out, “Woe to you who are rich and are well fed, for you have received your comfort.” (Lu. 6:24) He challenged them to be kind to the poor and give to them. When one rich sharp guy went away sad because such a command was too difficult, Jesus lamented, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven!” (Lu. 18:24) A camel would have an easier time entering the eye of a needle than a rich man could enter the kingdom of heaven. Why would it be hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God? Simple. If the rich were not willing to part with their wealth or property, in order to please God, they would be hard pressed to enter the kingdom of God.
Remember the point we made about the perils of owning slaves in the Old Testament? A rich person who owned human beings and did not treat them justly, could not compel them to stay with him unless fugitive slave laws were in effect—laws which were forbidden by the Mosaic Law. It should be no surprise, therefore, that by the time Jesus appeared in Judea, he did not have to confront anything resembling American slavery among the Jews. The Law of Moses saw to that.
In this way, it is impressive that Abraham would have had hundreds of servants who remained loyal to him without any type of fugitive slave laws or coerced slave trade. Jesus, therefore, did not have a problem with rich people. He just expected them to be like Abraham and care about people. It is telling that Abraham, a very wealthy man, was the one confronting the rich man in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. (Lu. 16:19) By the way, if Jesus said that a rich man was in hell just because he refused to share his food with a poor person, what would he say about a rich man who oppressed people?
Jesus spent his time mostly ministering to the poor
This is perhaps the most obvious feature of Jesus’ ministry. As he told his cousin John the Baptist to reassure him, “The blind see, the lame walk, and the gospel is preached to the poor.” (Mt. 11:5) His parables displayed his love for the poor. There is the Prodigal Son who is down and out and comes to his senses and repents. (Lu. 15:11) There is the Good Samaritan who helps a poor beaten traveler and soothes his wounds. (Lu. 10:25-37) There is the parable of the persistent widow. (Lu. 18:1) There is the above mentioned Rich Man and Lazarus, in which Lazarus, a beggar, ends up in heaven while the rich man ends up in hell. (Lu. 16:19) Even the rich who repented talked of giving to the poor as a part of repenting like Zacchaeus, who promised to give up to half of his possessions to the poor. (Lu. 19:1-11) It is obvious from all this, that Jesus would not have tolerated any form of oppression among those who chose to follow him.
Jesus was a harsh critic of oppression
Jesus most stinging rebukes were leveled at the Pharisees and it was for oppression. In his woes to the Pharisees, he denounced them for “tying heavy burdens on people and not lifting a finger to help them.” He excoriated the Pharisees for exploiting widows by “robbing their homes.” He harangued them for giving a tenth of their income while failing to practice “mercy and justice.” All these wrongs were hallmarks of American slavery. Slave owners obviously tied heavy loads on enslaved African Americans, especially on the plantation. Enslaved women were turned into widows when their husbands were sold off, and their homes were robbed of their children when they too were sold into the domestic market. American slavery was bereft of mercy and justice on every level. Yes, Jesus would have had a problem with American slavery. (Mt. 23; Mk. 12; Lu. 11)
Some of Jesus’ most searing parables were aimed at unmerciful tyrants. Who can forget the parable of the unmerciful servant? The master forgave the debt of his servant (by the way, if there was slavery in Jesus’ day, it was due to debt) only to have that servant to harshly refuse to cancel the debt of a fellow servant. The master, angry at his unmerciful servant, revisits the debt of the unmerciful servant and throws him into jail. Someone might say that Jesus was only talking about servants and that this did not apply to masters. Jesus, however, called all his followers servants with only one master—the Christ. (Mt. 21:18ff)
On that note, there was another parable in which Jesus warned that the faithful manager of his servants was the one who Jesus found feeding his fellow servants when he returns. If the servant was wicked and Jesus found him beating his fellow servants, Jesus would cut him up and throw him into the place in hell reserved for hypocrites and the wicked. Again, in this very serious warning, Jesus establishes that he will hold people accountable for how they treat others. (Mt. 24:45-51)
If one were to apply this scripture to American slavery, let’s suppose that a Christian slave in Virginia ran away from his master, which according to Deut. 23:15-16 he had the right to do. In such a scenario a Christian slave owner was faced with a decision: do I let the slave run (who is my brother in Christ) and lose my investment; or do I avail myself of the fugitive slave law to go after my slave with dogs, whips and chains? What should the Christian slave owner do? Especially in the light of Abraham’s example and what Christ said: “Whatever you do to the least of these brothers of mine, you do to me.” Is it safe to assume that Christ would expect the Christian slave holder to either let the slave go free or go after the slave in a spirit of love and reconciliation? Would Jesus tolerate any form of mutilation or sale of the runaway slave (whom he regards as his brother) upon their return?
A verse of scripture that has been taken out of context and misused by slave owners to threaten their slaves was the one about those servants who did not do their master’s will, would be beaten with many blows. This is portrayed in the movie “12 Years a Slave.” What masters foolishly did not realize is that Jesus meant that this is what God would do to those who refused to obey his command to love others. In other words, by using the Bible to threaten and carry out their harsh whippings of their slaves, slave owners were in fact becoming obnoxious to Jesus who said, he is Lord of both the master and the slave and he expected masters to care for the slave. (Lu. 12:47-51)
Jesus meanwhile taught everyone patient suffering
It is telling that Jesus’ teaching also encouraged his disciples to patiently bear suffering. He said, “If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two.” (Mt. 5:41) To those who were assaulted he said, “If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him them other cheek.” (Mt. 5:39) He encouraged his disciples to “love those who hate you and pray for those who persecute use you.” (Mt. 5:44) The disciple who found himself oppressed would find practical, though difficult, instruction in Jesus’s teaching. Of course, the enslaved disciple could see in Christ a perfect example of patient suffering in suffering. The enslaved would also find an advocate in Christ, while the master would see in Christ someone who held him accountable for how he treated his oppressed brothers and sisters.
By the way, because Jesus commands that the disciple turn the other cheek when struck, does that mean that Jesus condones violence? Because he commanded disciples to go two miles with those who forced them to go one, does he condone exploitation? And lastly, because he commands that we pray for those who persecute us, does that mean that he won’t deal with those who persecute his children?
Jesus established marriage as sacred and would have opposed sexual exploitation
As has been noted, in American slavery, slave owners often took sexual liberties with their enslaved females and did as they wished with those slaves who were married. Jesus declared that marriage was sacred and that no man had power over the sacred bond. As such, Jesus declared, “What God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Mt. 19:6)
Now, since in American slavery the young female slave was at the mercy of her owner, she was bound according to American law to do as he pleased. What should she do when her owner makes advances on her? Even worse, what if the owner threatened to beat her if she did not comply and she could not go to the authorities to protect herself? What could she do? There is no record that Jesus confronted such a situation perhaps because something like this would have been unheard of among Jews. But it is clear that Jesus would have sharply rebuked any situation like this and commanded that the woman be freed.
Jesus: No friend of oppressors
As we can see, Jesus would not tolerate the oppression of “one of the least of these brothers of mine.” (Mt. 25:40) He once said that it would be better for a “millstone be tied around the neck of someone and be thrown into the depths” then to cause “one of these little ones that believe in me to sin.” (Mt. 18:6) While he urged his disciples who found themselves oppressed to “turn the other cheek” he promised he himself would judge those who offended “the least of these that believe in me.” And again, Jesus would reiterate everything that the Law and the Prophets said about oppression and would affirm the lifestyle of the Patriarchs in that regard. Since American slavery more than offended Christ, it is safe to say he would not be in league with any part of its oppressive system.
The Golden Rule
Last, but certainly not least, the Golden Rule is the closing argument on what Jesus would say about any form of system known to man.
“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Mt. 7:12)
Ultimately, it comes down to this question about American slavery: would whites trade places with blacks and willingly go through American slavery and the slave trade, slave codes, fugitive slave laws and racism that went with it? That right there should answer any questions about whether the Law and the Prophets, God or Jesus approved of such a system.
We’ve seen how the Patriarchs, the Law, the Prophets, and Jesus felt about oppression. What about the Apostles? Would they break ranks and help with the building of a system that oppresses the poor? That is what we’ll look at in the next article.
American slavery and the Bible—Part 7
We’ve seen how the Patriarchs, the Law, the Prophets, and Jesus felt about oppression. What about the Apostles? Would they break ranks and help with the building of a system that oppressed the poor? Paul said that the New Testament was built on the foundation of the Prophets and the Apostles. (Eph. 2:20) So it seems there would be no disagreement between the Apostles and the Prophets. Yet, it is the teaching of the Apostles that has given many the impression that the Apostles, by their teachings, supported the oppressive system of American slavery. But, we should also remember that at first glance it also seemed that the Patriarchs and the Law was consistent with American slavery—that is, until we looked more closely to find that this was not the case. In the same way, we will see that the Apostles did not approve of the oppression of people.
We’ve noted that Jesus did not have to deal with the level of oppression contained in American slavery in his time. Because the Law of Moses and the Prophets prohibited such oppression, any system as American slavery would not have survived in Jerusalem and Judea. Jesus did address oppression, but not at the level that we would see in this nation. The Apostles, however, because they ventured into the Gentile world of the Romans would encounter a system servitude that was harsher. This required a recalculation of how to approach a system that was already in force when Christianity began. Yet, even Roman servitude did not reach the level of oppression that American slavery did. The Apostles re-established the standard of acceptable servitude that had long been laid down in the Law and the Prophets.
Roman servitude vs. American slavery
In the first century, when Christianity began, the disciples were in a Roman world. Rome was an occupying presence in Judea and the Jews were under Roman rule. And the Romans, unlike the Jews, did have slavery. Yet, the Bible itself provides clues about the system that the Romans employed. First, the Romans did not decide to set up a system of servitude that was based on race. Though they could have, they did not subject the Jews to the type of servitude that existed in the U.S. They offered citizenship to the Jews. The Apostle Paul, a Jew, was a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37-38; 22:22-29; 23:27) As a Roman citizen Paul enjoyed certain civil liberties and rights which included the right to due process before any punishment for a crime. This was not available to African Americans in this nation for 200 years.
Roman slaves, unlike in American slavery, could hope to become citizens and even be given significant responsibility. The Roman treasurer was Caesar’s slave and was later emancipated after performing well in his responsibility. Roman slaves had access to education and were also were entrusted with the education of others. There is no instance in which an African American was able to participate in any public office, much less vote or testify in court in the 200 years before the Civil War.
Among the ways that people became slaves in the Roman Empire became so either through debt, conquest or even perhaps being found as an abandoned baby by a wealthy family. There was a slave trade and there were fugitive slave laws. All these were features, however, of a pagan government. Rome, after all, did not claim to be a “Christian” nation until Constantine did so in the 4th Century AD. When Paul took the gospel to a Gentile world ruled by the Romans, he entered a world that was not based on Judeo-Christian principles. It was a pagan world. And as the gospel spread among the Gentiles, slaves and slave owners were converted. As they converted, no doubt they reached out to Paul for instruction on how to behave as Christians. While Paul did not command them to break up their slave/master relationships, he regulated them.
The Apostle Paul would have opposed racist and one-sided American slavery
Paul would have no use for racial profiling and slave codes. How do we know this? Upon beginning his ministry with the Gentiles, he vehemently opposed any attempts by the Jews to impose a system that enslaved the Gentiles simply because they were members of a different race. He defended the Gentiles and fiercely fought for their equal rights before God through Christ. He debated the Jews and he took his case to Jerusalem to argue on their behalf. When he observed that the Apostle Peter was acting in a racist way, he confronted him for “trying to force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs.” And he did so in front of other Jews who had “joined in his hypocrisy.” American slavery was deeply hypocritical because it enforced unfair disparate systems that were based on race. (Acts 15, Gal. 2:11-14)
Based on how he defended the Gentiles from Jewish racism, it is safe to say that he would have defended black people from racism. Favoritism went against what Paul, an expert in the Law and the Prophets, believed. Paul made it clear that before God there was neither “Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” (Colossians 3:11) In other words, before God there is neither, white or black, slave or free. The system of servitude that Paul encountered among the Gentiles was not based on a racist philosophy. If it were, Paul would have had something to say about it based on his reaction to the Jews trying to force the Gentiles into their system.
When Paul addressed slavery in the first century it was a matter of dealing only with the basic relationships within a common labor system. There was not the racial baggage embedded in American slavery. And he dealt with it impartially. Paul, therefore, provided instructions for both the slave and the master that were from God himself and held both parties equally accountable. None of Paul’s instructions contradicted the Law and the Prophets. They delineated the responsibilities of both the slave and the master. Neither was above the authority of God or Christ. While the slave was instructed to obey his master, the master had responsibilities toward the slave and was given no more authority over the slave that went beyond what God or Christ allowed.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.
9 And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. 25 Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism.
Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.
The Responsibility of Slaves
The Greek word for slave here is Doulos which has been translated inconsistently by the NIV translators into English as both “slave” and “servant.” For example, while doulos is translated here as “slaves” in Philippians 2, Jesus is said to have become a doulos, but in this instance doulos is translated as “servant.” In that regard, doulos is much like ebed and shiphchah in the Old Testament. These words have been translated inconsistently throughout the Bible and created much confusion in the process.
Paul first addressed slaves and instructed them to “obey your masters in everything.” Although we have already established that Paul would not be party to a labor system based on racism, Paul here is simply calling it as he sees it. It would be no different from the counsel he would give a disciple who was an employee to be an excellent employee. It goes without saying that when Paul commanded slaves to “obey your masters in everything” he did not mean that they should so far as to be involved in anything that would violate God’s laws, as was common in American slavery.
The Responsibilities of Masters
Paul was not like American proslavery apologists, who only addressed slaves and their responsibility to submit to their masters. Proslavery apologists ignored the responsibility of masters and gave slave owners tacit approval to do as they pleased with slaves. Paul was clear that masters had a responsibility to their slaves. Masters were commanded to “treat” their slaves “in the same way,” as slaves were to treat their masters, and “not to threaten them,” but to “provide your slaves with what is right and fair.” Masters were warned that they also had a master in heaven who was watching to ensure that his brothers and sisters were treated as he would be treated.
American slavery violated these scriptures in at least two ways:
- American slavery constantly threatened enslaved African Americans. Enslaved African Americans constantly lived under the threat of violence, under the threat of losing their loved ones. Spouses were threatened with the loss of their spouses and parents with the loss of their children and children with the loss of the parents. Enslaved women lived under the threat of sexual harassment and sexual violence. The enslaved did not enjoy safety or equal protection under the law.
- American slavery did not provide enslaved African Americans with what was “right and fair.” What was “right and fair” in a nation that was based on the premise that “all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with the unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” except if you are black? What was “right and fair” in a nation with a Bill of Rights that only applied to one set of people and denied to another, solely based on race? Was it “right and fair” that the enslaved African Americans were denied equal access to education and property, equal protection under the law for themselves, their marriages and their families? Was it “right and fair” that an enslaved African American could not rise to the level in American society that a Roman slave could rise in Roman society or Joseph in Egypt?
Paul understood that in the society he lived in, slaves could, by being obedient, rise to great levels of responsibility that included education, status and expect their families to be protected. The inherent inequality of the American system of servitude did not provide this type of guarantee to the enslaved. American slavery was inherently unjust, as Justice Roger B. Taney would attest.
The Apostle Paul encouraged slaves to seek their freedom
Think of the times Paul bristled at the notion of becoming the slave of men while asserting his freedom to serve. He would do so by his own volition, but he resisted anyone making him one. “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave…” (1 Corinthians 9:19) He also admonished the Galatians because he believed they were allowing themselves to be enslaved by the Judaizers. (Gal. 5:1) Although Paul urged slaves to obey their masters and to be content in their circumstances, he also encouraged them to avail themselves of freedom if the opportunity presented itself.
1 Corinthians 7:21-23
Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. 22 For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings. 24 Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.
Anyone who thinks that the Apostle Paul endorsed human bondage has not read this passage. This scripture would have made Paul a public enemy in the South. His instructions to slaves was based on the reality of the world they lived in and to help the slave come to terms with his circumstances. A man as educated in the Law and the Prophets understood the value of freedom and one can see from his encouragement to slaves that they “not become the slaves of human beings,” that Paul understood that freedom was optimal. Paul would not have allowed himself to be used as a tool to subjugate enslaved African Americans.
Paul opposed human trafficking
If this is how Paul felt about freedom, he obviously would have had a problem with slave trading. In fact, Paul equated slave traders with those who murdered their parents. (1 Timothy 1:10) Knowing how he felt about human trafficking, he would have condemned a system that legally included the practice in the name of God. It would be one thing for the pagans to act this way, but for a people to institute such a system in the name of God would be damnable for Paul. Remember, Paul was thoroughly trained in the Law and the Prophets which forbade human trafficking.
Paul opposed harsh treatment of fugitive slaves
As we discussed, fugitive slaves in American slavery were hunted, shot at, captured, perhaps killed, chained and severely whipped and mutilated upon return. Would Paul be a party to that? Let’s look at such a scenario in the book of Philemon. Onesimus, Philemon’s slave, ran from his master. While away he became Paul’s close friend. Paul sought to make the peace between Philemon and Onesimus.
Paul wrote to Philemon in a very humble spirit, yet it is evident that he was writing him with a certain level of authority and forthrightness on behalf of Onesimus and expected Philemon to obey him. Look at these scriptures:
“Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love.” (v. 8)
“Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.” (v. 21)
What was Paul being so insistent about? Onesimus had run away from Philemon. Roman law was on Philemon’s side and he could do with Onesimus whatever he wished in so far as punishment for running away. Paul understood this, but he also understood the Law and the Prophets, and strictures against oppression. And he understood that Philemon and Onesimus were disciples and needed to be taught accordingly.
Notice also, that this letter is written and addressed primarily to Philemon. Onesimus is not addressed. He is referred to by Paul as “my son” and “my very heart.” (vv. 10, 12) Notice also what Paul does not say about Onesimus. He does not refer to him as property, nor does he tell Philemon that he’s delivering to him Onesimus for Philemon “to do with him as he pleases” or “to be taught a lesson” as would have been done in American slavery.
Paul simply says to Philemon:
“I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you… no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.” (12-16)
Paul went on to urge Philemon to, “So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.” In other words, Paul expected Onesimus to be treated as Philemon would treat Paul. This is what Jesus would say, “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.”
Since slavery was more debt based in Paul’s day than was American slavery, which was based on racism, Paul said this to Philemon:
“If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self.” Again, this is exactly what Jesus would say, “Granted, you might be that slave’s master; but I am your master, so govern yourself accordingly.”
Paul even held Philemon accountable. He asked Philemon to “prepare the guest room” for him “because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.” (v. 22) No doubt, Paul was going to follow up upon his visit to make sure that Philemon did the right thing by Onesimus. What if Philemon decided to ignore Paul and punish Onesimus, as they did in American slavery? How do you think the Apostle Paul would deal with that?
There is no indication in this letter that Onesimus was coming contrary to his will, or in chains, or that Paul would send him into a situation that he was not confident that his instructions of loving treatment would be followed. In fact, Philemon, to his credit, did not apparently go after Onesimus. Yet, Paul was not going to tolerate any harsh or oppressive treatment of Onesimus by Philemon.
That right there should answer the question of whether Paul would be tolerant of ungodly and harsh treatment of a slave or would approve of a law that allowed for tyrannical treatment of an enslaved human being.
The Apostle James would have opposed the oppression of American slavery
The Apostle James was very pointed in his criticism of injustice when he addressed rich oppressors in his epistle. His words tinge with the language of the Law and the Prophets:
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. 2 Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3 Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. 4 Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. 5 You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.
James’ strong rebuke is indicative that he would have little use for American slavery when he says, “the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.” Enslaved African Americans who harvested the cotton, tobacco, sugar canes and rice of the fields, cried day and night for God’s deliverance. Ask yourself, did God hear them? Notice also that James blamed the same people that refused to pay the harvesters with condemning and murdering “the innocent one.” Again, as Jesus said, “whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me.”
The Apostle Peter would have called harsh American slavery “pagan”
The Apostle Peter urged disciples to obey even “harsh” masters and to do so because they were conscious of Christ. To those who would think that Peter was endorsing slavery because he urged slaves to obey even their harsh masters, should take another look at that passage. Consider that Peter is addressing disciples who lived among “pagans.” (1 Peter 2:12) The implication here is that it was the pagans who treated their slaves harshly. So, is the Apostle Peter endorsing the harsh management style of pagans? Of course not. Peter is only urging disciples to think of Christ’s example to help them endure the unjust suffering in the hands of pagan masters. (v. 21)
Peter was no more endorsing the harsh treatment by pagans than Jesus was endorsing violence when he commanded turning the other cheek. Do you think that God was endorsing crucifixions when he directed Jesus to submit to the crucifixion? Consider that when Peter explained to the Jews that Jesus was crucified for sin by God’s design, he simultaneously convicted the Jews of their complicity in that crucifixion. Did the Jews say in response, “Oh well, we’re off the hook. We simply helped God carry out his plan to crucify his Son for the sins of the world”? No! They were cut to the heart and asked what they should do to make things right. (Acts 2:36-37)
The Apostle John saw a vision of future divine retribution for human trafficking
In Revelation, John records the destruction of Babylon. “Babylon” is a metaphor for a nation that is in rebellion against God because Babylon had already been destroyed centuries before the time of John. Here John wrote a warning for God’s people to “come out from her” lest they “share in her sins” and “crimes” that had come up to God. (Rev. 18:4-5) It is instructive to note that among the issues going on in “Babylon” according to John was human trafficking. (v.13) Revelation 18 draws a clear line between wealth, luxury, human trafficking and God’s wrath. It is quite possible that John was persecuted and banished to the Island of Patmos because he preached against, among other things, human trafficking, as Paul had. (1 Tim. 1:10) Babylon, therefore, is a warning to any nation that chooses to use human trafficking as a way to build its wealth.
American slavery, by virtue of its laws and slave codes, had more in common with paganism than Christianity or the Law and the Prophets. A nation that was supposed to be established according to Judeo-Christian principles, became wealthy off a system that was mean-spirited, harsh, and destructive to a people simply based on the color of their skin. Through American slavery, millions were subjected to the slave trade, fugitive slave laws, disparate laws and the destruction of their families. It is safe to say that the system had no basis in scripture from Genesis to Revelation and did not have God’s approval. It was rightfully opposed and abolished at a heavy price.
The time has come for American slavery to be examined in the light of the Scriptures. It violated both the spirit and the letter of the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Gospel. It was a sin against God and millions of oppressed African Americans.
The time has also come for Christians and churches throughout the land to take a stand and formally renounce this grievous sin in the strongest of terms. American slavery violated scripture. And to equate this heinous system, that damaged millions of people, with the teachings of Christ is a gross error. Proclamations must be issued in the nation’s churches as soon as possible for many believe that this diabolical system was based on the Holy Bible. It was not.
Unfortunately, today we are dealing with the legacy of a system that was racist. Racism legally endured for another 100 years, but it was outlawed in 1964 with the Civil Rights Act. Still, it lurks in the hearts of men and women whose hearts remain unenlightened. It should not surprise us when we see racism just as it should not surprise us when we see hatred, discord, division, factions, injustice, etc. That’s the way of the world.
We should instead strive to build and maintain loving relationships with people of all races. There should be people of different races in our lives that when we think of them, and share about them, we choke up because we love them so much. Such is the love that God expects of his people who profess to belong to Christ. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact me at the email below. I would love to hear from you.