Biblical silence about slavery leaves lasting questions today

Why was the evil not condemned by Jesus?

Merdies Hayes Editor | 4/19/2019, midnight
The little girl was guilty of nothing more than hunger. When she was..

Slavery was brutal, and Jesus knew that full well. Because he never condemned the practice, people might hope that he thought of it in relatively benign forms that are sometimes found in the Old Testament. Not exactly. When Jesus spoke about the relationship between slaves and masters, he relied on the fact that violence and abuse against captives were the order of the day.

A typical example of this might found in Luke 12:47-48: “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows.”

When Jesus conducted his ministry, it was widely believed that such outcomes would be the result of certain methods to, in other words, “scare people” into submission to God. Like the slave or servant, we would be physically harmed if we’re not good enough. There are several parables like this in the Gospels. Matthew 18:23-35 says we will be “jailed and tortured.” Matthew 25:14-30 says we will be “cast into the other darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The Book of Matthew goes even further in chapter 24, verses 45-51 in that the disobedient servant/slave will be “cut in pieces.” These excerpts from Scripture may indicate how Jesus pictured masters treating their slaves.

Following the ‘Golden Rule’

When Jesus gave the Golden Rule (“love your neighbor as yourself”) or (do to others what you would have them do to you”), most people naturally believe he implied that slavery was wrong. In other words, if we should treat others as we want them to treat us, that means that we shouldn’t enslave them. While this is obvious in the 21st Century—and had even become clear to abolitionists in the 19th Century—this ideal was not obvious to large swaths of those who would abide by America being “founded as a Christian nation.”

Jesus did not invent the Golden Rule. Rather, he was quoting from verse 18 of the passage in Leviticus 19:11-18 where the same principle, “love your neighbor as yourself” effectively sums up the other commands in that passage. This is much like how Jesus said that the Golden Rule sums up the “law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12 and Matthew 22:36-40). At that time, Jesus’ audience would have known that he was quoting from Leviticus, one of the Five Books of Moses (the Torah), which commanded Israel to “invade and enslave distant cities,” and, in particular, Exodus which said that slaves are merely property and may be severely beaten “for just shy of two days” when their behavior would merit such a response.

In the minds of Jesus’ audience, it would have been far from obvious that the Golden Rule outlawed slavery because the two concepts had coexisted in the Scriptures—presumably without contradiction—for centuries. At a minimum, modern civilization could say that if Jesus meant the Golden Rule as a command to abolish slavery, then millions of slaves in the next 2,000 years would have wished he had made his intent far more obvious.