On the ABC’s Q&A program this week the Prime Minister suggested that the Bible sees slavery as a natural condition. The context was a question about his endorsement of same sex marriage, and his answer suggested that parts of the bible reflect now unsustainable views of human beings which we should reject while maintaining the central ethic of the bible which is love. The issue could just as easily be biblical teaching on gender, wealth, war, poverty. So without getting into the specifics of same sex marriage, was the PM right?
Well, yes and no. Let’s consider what the bible does say about slavery.
First, the Bible opens with a ringing declaration of human equality.
Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ Genesis 1:26-28
It is noteworthy that where many ancient Near Eastern societies saw the king as the image of God, Genesis democratises the concept. We are all created in God’s image, with the consequence that here is no natural right for one to rule over the other. Rather, we collectively rule over the earth.
Second, the Old Testament celebrates the liberation of Israel from slavery in Egypt, but rather than concluding that Israelites must not oppress others as the Egyptians did them, the general conclusion is they must not oppress their fellow Israelite. With foreigners the values were more complex. The nations who possessed the land before Israel were to be wiped out. Foreigners beyond these nations who came to live among the Israelites must be treated with respect – they too must share in a weekly day of rest, for example – but they may still be kept as slaves.
If any who are dependent on you become so impoverished that they sell themselves to you, you shall not make them serve as slaves. They shall remain with you as hired or bound labourers. They shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee. Then they and their children with them shall be free from your authority; they shall go back to their own family and return to their ancestral property. For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves are sold. You shall not rule over them with harshness, but shall fear your God. As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also acquire them from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property. These you may treat as slaves, but as for your fellow Israelites, no one shall rule over the other with harshness. Leviticus 25:39-44
Third, the New Testament does not prohibit the keeping of slaves. The New Testament letters, for example, instruct masters and slaves on how they are to behave toward each other. They do not see slavery as a grave human rights violation that must be stamped out. They do not demand slave owners free their slaves, but treat them with love.
Fourth, the apostle Paul sees social status as dissolved in Christ.
Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever. For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters. In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God. 1 Corinthians 7:20-24
Interestingly Paul does not see the relativising of social status in Christ as demanding masters free their slaves, but as making it possible for a slave to live with a sense of dignity while remaining a slave.
So what do we do with this?
First, it is wrong to claim that the Bible sees slavery as a ‘natural condition’. This certainly was the view of some. Aristotle, for example, taught that some are by nature slaves
[I]t is clear that there are certain people who are free and certain who are slaves by nature, and it is both to their advantage, and just, for them to be slaves. Politics 1.15
For Aristotle, some people are endowed by nature with the capacity to rule and some with the capacity to be ruled. We find no statements of this kind in the Bible. Rather, the creation stories, with their declaration that all human beings are created in God’s image and the gospel with its declaration that all are one in Christ, demand a radical revisioning of all status distinctions as secondary and somewhat arbitrary.
Second, this vision for humankind was realised very imperfectly at different points of Biblical history. The situation is similar to that of the American Declaration of Independence. When the Declaration said, “We hold these truths self evident, that God created all men equal” the framers did not consider women and African Americans to be included. It took some time to realise this. Similarly, the Biblical authors of various periods seem not to have fully realised the implications of the gospel for slavery. And so God brought them as far as their blinkered understanding would allow.
When we do ethics then the question is not what this text or that says, but what is the broad direction in which the Scriptures move, what is the destination to which they point, and how do we move closer to it?