One of the more fashionable responses to any Christian’s objection to the legalization of “gay marriage”, or for that matter, any objection to anything blatantly immoral in modern society, is to immediately announce that since the Bible (allegedly) endorses slavery, anything it has to say on any moral issue is completely irrelevant.
I suppose the argument goes something like this for most people in their heads: “so your Bible says that (insert the sin you want to justify here) is immoral, eh? Well let me tell YOU something:
The Bible says slavery is moral. (Premise 1)
Slavery, as we all (allegedly) know is immoral. (Premise 2)
Therefore the Bible endorses something that is immoral. (Premise 3)
Therefore, the Bible is not a legitimate source of moral arguments. (Conclusion)”
Have I got that right? I think I do. So let’s deconstruct these premises and demonstrate why this ever-so popular argument is really just another lazy, uncritical, decontextualized, factually-deficient and hypocritical canard.
In the first place, we ought to concede what we can. I initially used the word “allegedly” above because I don’t believe for a moment that most of the people who throw this accusation around have actually studied Scripture or the historical context in which these statements on slavery appear. I don’t think they really know what Scripture has to say about slavery. That being said, yes, we must grant that slavery is not condemned in Scripture; it is recognized as a legitimate social institution for which rules must be developed and applied.
But if that is all one knows or says about the topic of slavery in Scripture, then one knows very little indeed. Some may think that this is all they need to know; in their righteous crusade, things like context mean nothing. With all the zeal of the iconoclasts, whom they would ironically identify as enemy religious fanatics, they rush in with rhetorical sledgehammers swinging wildly at any textual object that displeases them, hoping to use the fragments to gut and impale their helpless opponents.
We have granted the first premise then. What about the second premise? This is where I have a hearty chuckle. Most of the time we are dealing with militant, sometimes even radical atheists or at least anti-Christians who have absolutely no rational justification for their own conceptions of what is right and wrong. These people are almost entirely products of the society that produced them, unconscious idea-sponges who in spite of their pretensions to the contrary have never had a critical or original thought in their lives. So how exactly do they “know” that slavery is wrong? When exactly was this hypothesis tested and verified by the scientific method? Where are the research papers and double-blind studies that establish the truth of this moral proposition?
Watch what will happen, sarcasm aside, if you stop someone mid-argument and ask them “why is slavery wrong, exactly?” They may look at you as if you just confessed to being a mass serial murderer. When it comes to their cherished beliefs about how things are and ought to be, not a shred of evidence is required. Why its just obvious, you see, that slavery is immoral, and anyone who doesn’t agree is just evil. And yet if man is simply an animal, I see no reason why he can’t be yoked like any ox in the fields. Point of irony: the slave of the ancient civilized world (and certainly the “Judeo-Christian” world) had a higher ontological status than the (allegedly) free man of modern Western societies, who is nothing but an evolutionary hiccup in a meaningless universe.
But what shall we do with this premise, in the end? Is slavery immoral? It must first be said that there are different kinds of slavery, as I already alluded to. In different times and places, slavery has taken on different forms. The type of slavery we most often think of and most readily condemn is called chattel slavery. This is the kind of slavery through which blacks were taken from Africa, packed into ships, and forced to work on plantations in the New World. A fair number of white Europeans, Asians, and indigenous peoples were also slaves or at least indentured servants. Black slaves were the worst off because of the spread of racist ideology.
This kind of racist/chattel slavery has been explicitly condemned by the Church since it was first practiced in the middle of the 15th century. A series of Papal bulls forbade the expropriation and enslavement of indigenous peoples, and threatened with excommunication those who participated in them. Everyone from individuals to entire nations felt at liberty to defy these Papal pronouncements, but they were made. Had such things been clearly and universally sanctioned by Scripture, the Church would likely not have excommunicated those who innocently partook in them. But there was clearly something about chattel slavery that was in clear opposition not only with Scripture but with Tradition, with the natural law, and with common decency, hence the Church’s firm and repeated condemnation of it.
Does this mean all kinds of slavery are on the same moral level? Not at all. The Church permitted and even endorsed the “ancient” kind of slavery, whereby prisoners of war were made slaves. These kinds of slaves were not treated as sub-human nothings, even if they were at the bottom of the social ladder. According to one source,
Although the masters had absolute rights over their slaves, they generally showed them respect, very unlike the South in the days of Lincoln. They often treated them with human dignity and, although they could beat them, such does not seem to be as regular a practice as it was in America. Slaves could marry, accumulate wealth, purchase their own freedom, run a business, etc. Cicero noted that a slave could usually be set free within seven years; in any case, under Roman law a slave would normally be set free by age 30.
Not exactly the typical picture of slavery we have today, is it? The context is also important; in one Papal bull endorsing this kind of slavery, the context of unending war with Islamic pirates, who captured and enslaved thousands of innocent Christians year after year, is ever-present. The taking of Saracen prisoners of war as slaves was more of a retaliatory war effort than an official social institution. I simply will not condemn it as inherently evil, even if I wouldn’t endorse it today for a thousand different reasons.
Beyond the use of POWs as slaves, many became slaves through debt, through inheritance, through conviction of a crime, or sometimes through outright kidnapping. Some of these types of slavery are indeed permitted under the Old Law. However it really would be a stretch to say that it “endorses” slavery as some sort of universal and timeless good. It appears, in my admittedly layman’s view, to be on the level of dietary restrictions, or allowances for polygamy. They were once commanded or allowed by God, but with the advent of the New Covenant and the New Israel, they became moot. What about the New Testament though? Doesn’t St. Paul say that slaves should obey their masters?
I think it would be the height of naivety and the worst example of the very sort of ethnocentrism that these types are wont to condemn to insist that Scripture, in order to be legitimate, must unconditionally condemn as evil all that they condemn as evil. The fact of the matter is that slavery was at that point in time the way of the entire world. The idea that it is absolutely and unconditionally evil in every possible manifestation did not exist, nor does it exist in many places in the world today.
Christianity introduces the concept, however, that slaves and their masters are equals before God. Rather than partaking in violent iconoclasm and revolutionary destruction, Christianity seeks to humanize every situation men may find themselves in. If slaves and masters must exist, and at that time there was simply no way that they weren’t going to exist, then masters must treat their slaves with a certain dignity and respect. This was the greatest good that could have been accomplished without engaging in the vast moral evils that accompany violent revolutions and upheavals. If we may not do evil, even if good will come of it, then we must learn not only to accept certain evils but to counter them with good. The more relevant message of St. Paul is therefore this:
“Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil by good.” — Romans 12:21
Considered once again in the context of debates with people who have nothing but their own subjective cultural preferences and emotions to justify their moral positions, the New Testament treatment of slavery becomes quite sensible – not to mention charitable and oriented towards what is truly good for everyone.
In the end, however, as Catholics we ought not be using the argument that things are immoral simply because “because the Bible tells me so”, at least not with avowed, hostile secularists who are more interested in tripping you up than actually promoting justice or anything of the sort. We can wade into secular territory and beat them at their own game, because what they put forward as good or acceptable is, regardless of any religious argument, socially destructive and often destructive to the individual as well. That’s why they’re immoral and prohibited by God in the first place.