Although slavery ranks with Hitler as a handy illustration of evil, for most of human history it simply was a fact of human life, not becoming a consuming moral issue until the 19th century and then only within Western culture.
Scripture reflects an earlier, more moderate view of slavery, thereby opening up an angle of attack on just about everything Scripture has to say, the logic proceeding along the lines of “scripture’s culturally conditioned stance on ‘X’ must be rejected the same way its opinions on slavery have been discarded.”
A case in point would be the conflation of slavery with gender (sexism and “homophobia”)– a conflation that often puts conservative Christians in a dilemma. Do they defend the Bible’s attitude toward slavery or acquiesce to the idea that biblical writers accommodated unjust social structures to such a degree that all of Scripture must now be reevaluated in terms of more enlightened values?
One thing is sure. Present-day sentiments on slavery contrast sharply with ancient attitudes. People today overwhelmingly view slavery as the grossest of evils. Ancient peoples did not.
Some apologists try to bridge the cultural distance by saying Scripture merely accommodates ancient practices. But in saying that, they in essence accommodate themselves to present-day attitudes by saying biblical writers were doing the same thing. Moreover, it doesn’t answer the question of how to determine where cultural accommodation on slavery ends and normative Christian ethics begins. Answering that question requires a much more nuanced view of slavery than popular sentiments will usually allow.
Some of those “nuances” involve a better appreciation of …
The harshness of the times:
- Much of the present-day reaction to slavery is due to a failure to put relative living conditions in perspective. A good illustration would be slavery in the U.S. The U.S. imported fewer slaves than most other Western nations yet still had a large slave population because slavery in America was mild enough to permit population growth. Shocking anecdotes about the harshness of that institution would be put in better perspective when placed alongside the horrors of the Northern factory system. In some respects, slavery might even seem better. For example, slaves were usually cared for when they became sick, injured, or old. When factory workers suffered the same situations, they were usually fired and left to their devices.
- Translate the preceding comparison to the ancient Near East. Times were tough there too– even tougher. Some people chose slavery to keep from starving. In hard times, masters were benevolent in taking on such burdens. The point here is that ancient and not-so-ancient life was often harsh– harsh for almost everyone, slave and free alike.
How the ancients dealt with social problems:
- The ancient world didn’t have the resources and techniques available today for dealing with crime and social problems. Nor did it have a centralized penal system. Incarceration was expensive so people were enslaved to earn their keep for “big” offenses and whipped and set free for lesser misdeeds. The ancient equivalent of foster care for abandoned children was slavery.
The diverse nature of ancient slavery:
- Emotional reactions to slavery usually get their force from a selective use of imagery focusing on the most undeserving examples. But in the ancient Near East, people became slaves for a wide variety of reasons– some more in keeping with present-day sensitivities than others. Slaves also held a wide variety of positions. High officials in a king’s court were often understood to be slaves. Some slaves owned property and even bought and sold other slaves. Others were attached to temples. Domestic slaves were household members. Some Christians sold themselves as slaves in order to feed the poor!
A different ethos:
- The modern ethics of self-realization, authenticity, and individualism make slavery appear much worse to the modern mind than it did to ancient people. It is more of a moral issue today (in contrast to then) because the ethic (of self) has changed. In ancient times, the slavery system lacked the moral onus it has today. Plato saw slavery as part of the natural order. As indicated above, it did not become a moral issue until the 19th century when Western culture turned against it.
- In ancient times, slavery also tended not to be a racial thing. Systematic mistreatment of a whole people was therefore less likely and harder to justify.
- The “big story” (metanarrative) that explains all of reality within culture is important. From a cynical standpoint, some could characterize today’s free enterprise system as a “slavery” system where the “slaves” not only show up every day willingly, but they also take responsibility for housing, clothing, and otherwise caring for themselves.
- The point here is that the language used to describe a situation has a huge effect on how people understand the physical realities of that situation. “Slavery” is unacceptable language today even though some of its aspects may be clearly in play. Self-inflicted, quasi-slavery may actually abound in the U.S– but few would consider it or call it such because the metanarrative doesn’t permit it.
Alternatives to slavery:
- In the ancient world, slavery was sometimes an act of mercy. Lacking resources to house prisoners, conquering armies could have simply killed all the vanquished. Slavery was a “kinder” alternative. Even so, most people in a conquered area remained free. Few were actually enslaved.