What’s wrong with Slavery?
It’s a question that isn’t asked very often, with significant consequences both for modern-day activism (where the question “what is a slave?” is vitally important to answer with clarity), and for biblical interpretation (where a fusion of colossal anachronism mingled with chronological snobbery can lead us to paint Paul, Moses and company as retrograde bumpkins whom we have now, happily, progressed beyond). It is all too easy to assume, unthinkingly, that slavery is monolithic, and therefore that what is wrong with one form of slavery is necessarily wrong with all forms (or that someone who can learn to live with one type has no problem with any type). But “slavery” is such a polyvalent concept that this (understandable) assumption is extremely unhelpful.
What is slavery? Let me sketch a spectrum of possible understandings of that word (both in English, and in the case of the Greek word doulos, which is usually translated “slave”, “bondservant” or “servant”).
(1) Surely its most disgusting and macabre referent today is the practice of kidnapping young girls, trafficking them, imprisoning them in brothels, and forcing them to have sex to make money for their owners. My wife and I have been, and continue to be, personally involved with the fight against this vile trade in rape for profit.
(2) Many today, unaware of, or unwilling to believe in, such horrendous behaviour, interpret slavery through the (not much less upsetting) lens of the West African slave trade, in which people with guns kidnapped an entire civilisation, chained them in ships in which many of them died, took them to plantations in the New World, and forced them to work for no wages for multiple generations.
(3) Then there is bonded slavery, both ancient and modern, in which people who cannot pay debts sell themselves or their family members into slavery, either permanently as a means of settling the debt, or on the understanding that it is a temporary measure (although they usually find that the debts escalate faster than they can pay them, and they end up in permanent bondage to their creditor). This form of bonded slavery is still common today, although usually illegal, in South Asia and elsewhere. Again, I am personally engaged in the fight against this sort of slavery, as I’m sure many of us are.
(4) The twentieth century (among others) saw a lot of slavery in the form of forced labour camps, like the Gulag, to which prisoners would be sent as punishment for various crimes. Slavery in this case formed a major part of the (inappropriately named) criminal justice system.
(5) Somewhat similarly, in many societies through history, taking slaves has been the equivalent of taking prisoners of war: instead of killing defeated armies or imprisoning them, the conquering nation has taken them into permanent, usually unpaid, forced labour. Sometimes those taken captive in war would have been forced to work collectively - as soldiers, construction workers, gladiators, or whatever - and sometimes domestically. Particularly in the latter case, such individuals could carry significant levels of domestic responsibility, and possibly gain emancipation.
(6) If slavery is understood as working for a lord or master who owns the property, receiving no wages, having no option of owning property themselves, and only being reimbursed by being allocated food, water and shelter (as it often was in the ancient world, including in the Bible), then the word “slavery” would also aptly characterise the situation of many of the world’s inhabitants until a few generations ago: serfs in a feudal system, who had no option but to work for their feudal lord in the hope of being allowed to continue farming, and/or permanent domestic servants who were unwaged but whose maintenance was the responsibility of their master.
(7) Finally, at least for the purposes of this brief survey, there are those in ancient (and perhaps modern?) societies who have entered into voluntary slavery, which sounds oxymoronic, but nonetheless has clearly taken place at times, and appears to amount to permanent live-in employment (e.g. Ex 21:5-6).
So what’s wrong with slavery? Well, obviously, it depends how that word is being used. My guess is that most of us, on reading those categories, find that the types of slavery become generally less odious to us as we go down the list. Few would maintain that there are no differences between the experiences of the daughter in Taken, the slaves in Amistad and the servants in Gosford Park, for example, nor that the same things were wrong with all three. And it is not obviously problematic or inconsistent to campaign against all forms of slavery in (say) categories (1) and (2), while being quite content to allow societies which practice forms (6) and (7) to continue doing so if they choose to. Wilberforce did. So do many of us.
All of this is hugely relevant for the thorny question of how we understand Paul’s teaching on slaves and masters (Eph 6:5-9; Col 3:22-4:1; Phm 8-22). It is all too easy, as many of Christianity’s most vocal critics reveal almost daily, to implicitly conflate these categories, and assume that since Paul told people how they should behave as slaves and masters, he was thereby sanctioning and even approving of all seven of them. But Paul’s understanding of slavery displayed greater nuance, and a greater awareness of its different expressions, than many of his modern critics. A summary of Paul’s view of slavery would therefore include the following key ideas:
1. All human beings are made in the image of God (Gen 1:26-28), so anything that treats people as sub-human is utterly unthinkable.
2. In Christ, slaves are equally children of God, and just as Spirit-filled, as free people (Gen 1:26-28; Gal 3:28; 1 Cor 12:13; Col 3:11); that is, free people have no more value, access or relationship to God than slaves.
3. Enslaving people is evil, as it breaks the eighth commandment not to steal, and the law was laid down to stop precisely this sort of behaviour in human beings (1 Tim 1:10).
4. Any behaviour which involves sex outside marriage is ungodly, and prostitution, let alone the forced prostitution of children, is appalling (1 Cor 6:9-20; Gal 5:19-21; cf. Jdg 19 etc).
5. If slaves are presented with an opportunity to gain their freedom, they should take it (1 Cor 7:21).
6. If they are not, then running away is not the answer (probably because this was illegal and would get them killed); instead, they should work diligently and honestly for their masters as if working for Jesus, remembering that they are ultimately slaves of Christ anyway (Eph 6:5-8).
7. If a slave master becomes a believer, then manumitting his slave(s) is not compulsory (although see #8), but crucially, he is to look to serve his slaves, stop threatening them with punishment, and treat them justly and fairly because they also have a Master in heaven (Eph 6:9; Col 4:1). As such, amongst Christians, the institution of slavery is so thoroughly subverted as to be unrecognisable as ‘slavery’, and in many ways indistinguishable from long-term employment.
8. In the one concrete example we know about, a master (Philemon) is urged to manumit his slave (Onesimus), with Paul himself guaranteeing to make up for any financial disadvantage this causes (Phm 8-22).
When these eight ideas are held up against the seven types of slavery we have considered here, it should be obvious that Paul would have found an awful lot to be wrong with (say) sex slavery, or the West African slave trade – as would Moses, and the prophets, and Jesus himself – even if he wouldn’t have found much that was objectionable in the treatment of servants depicted in Downton Abbey. In a world where the word doulos, like the word ‘slave’, could in some contexts refer to either practice and almost anything in between, it is worth bearing this in mind.
It’s also worth remembering, as we have previously argued, the disturbing fact that were it not for Paul and the rest of the early Christians, we would probably find nothing wrong with slavery at all.