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Tracing Christianity’s Impact on Slavery through the Centuries

Freedom

Early in 1972, Paul Raffaele was wandering along a street in Canton, China, when he noticed a silent crowd surrounding an open truck. On it stood four men, heads bowed. Each had a board strapped to his back bearing his name—crossed out. Condemned to death, paraded round the streets as a warning to others before their execution, the men were victims of a tyrannical regime that attempted to control the actions and thoughts of a billion people. Dissent under that regime could lead to imprisonment, torture, or execution.1

If we live in the West, we often take freedom for granted. But the idea that every human is of equal dignity and should be afforded liberty has not been obvious to most cultures. Greco-Roman society had no concept that every human life has intrinsic value and dignity.2 Human life was cheap.3 The Roman Empire was made up of around seventy million people. Ten million of those were slaves. In fact, most societies throughout history have been built on slavery.4 In some Islamic countries today, slavery still exists.5 Today there are believed to be more slaves in the world than ever before: an estimated 27.6 million are victims of sex trafficking and forced labor.6 Why has this been the norm?

Freedom Attacked in a Godless World

Pagan polytheists saw humanity and its destiny as in the hands of a capricious pantheon. The theory of evolution and the resulting naturalistic worldview sees humans as a product of chance in an impersonal universe. If we are just fated by the gods or the chance products of nature, there is no intrinsic value or dignity to every human life. When the true God and what his word says about human dignity are denied, oppressive rulers have no accountability to hold them in check.7 All too often the state becomes God. For Karl Marx (1818–1883), for example, enslavement, torture, and killing could all be justified if they advanced the revolution.8 The author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008) endured eight years in a Soviet labor camp. One night, he overheard the pitiful cries of a teenage girl. She’d dared to make one comment about freedom. She had to be punished so she would never think such dangerous things again.

Is Christianity Good for the World?

Sharon James

Is Christianity Good for the World? shows that through history and across the globe, true followers of Christ have challenged injustice and abuse, and provided care for the needy—living out their conviction that every person is created in God’s image.

She . . . has already been standing in the wind for hours, her arms straight down, her head drooping, weeping, then growing numb and still. And then again she begs piteously: “Citizen Chief! Please forgive me! I won’t do it again.”

The wind carries her moan to me, just as if she were moaning next to my ear.9

As Solzhenitsyn heard her cries, he vowed, “The whole world will read about you, girl!” Later, reflecting on the ideology that inflicted limitless suffering and killed around 148 million people,10 he simply commented, “Men have forgotten God.”11

Freedom: The Christian Foundation

The idea of human rights is founded on the biblical view that all people are created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26–27).12 This is what gives every individual equal dignity. When we see a fellow human being, we see someone who represents God himself; someone “crowned . . . with glory and honor” (Ps. 8:5). When we neglect or despise a fellow human being, we insult God. The sage says,

Whoever oppresses the poor man insults his Maker,
but he who is generous to the needy honors him. (Prov. 14:31)

Supremely, Christians affirm the dignity of all human life because God himself, in Christ, became flesh, from the moment of conception. Christians also believe that every human life, from conception to natural death, should be protected,13 because God, the giver of life, will judge the shedding of innocent blood (Gen. 9:6; Prov. 14:31). Every human is given a conscience (Rom. 2:15). God’s moral law applies to ruler and ruled alike: all will give account to him (Rom. 13:1–4).

These biblical truths have been the foundation for the “rule of law” and our regard for human dignity and freedom. They’ve also inspired resistance to tyranny.14 They form the only sure defense against the overweening, totalitarian claims of an all-powerful state.

Christian Opposition to Slavery in History

The conviction that every human is made in God’s image stood in stark contradiction to the culture of the ancient world.15 The apostolic witness that in Christ we are all one, whether slave or free (Gal. 3:28) was revolutionary. For free people and slaves to share the Lord’s Supper as fellow church members was scandalous. No other associations or pagan cults allowed slave and free to participate on an equal footing.

Chrysostom (ca. 347–407), who served as archbishop of Constantinople, was famous for his fearless denunciation of political leaders who abused their power. Nicknamed “Golden-Mouthed” because of his eloquent preaching, he told the wealthy to buy slaves, teach them a trade, and then set them free, saying that when Christ came he annulled slavery.16

Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 335–ca. 395) was another early church theologian who castigated abusive rulers. He wrote the first comprehensive critique of slavery, attacking it for its violation of the free nature of human beings made in God’s image.17

It took time to root out slavery in the Western world, but Christian teaching and practice paved the way for arguing that as part of the body of Christ, slaves should be freed. By the eleventh century, slavery in Christendom had effectively ended.

The idea of human rights is founded on the biblical view that all people are created in God’s image. This is what gives every individual equal dignity.

The transatlantic slave trade brought back the horror on a more terrible scale. Christian campaigners worked tirelessly for its abolition, supported by vast numbers of evangelical Christians at a grassroots level. The British abolished the slave trade in 1807, and slavery itself in 1833. Shockingly, slavery continued in America for a further thirty years, and while some who claimed Christ supported it, many Christians, including many ex-slaves, resisted and sacrificially organized the Underground Railroad to facilitate slaves’ escape. These abolitionists were willing to die for their conviction that we all descended from the same first parents, we are all made in God’s image, we all have equal value, and we all bear a real responsibility to defend the freedom of our fellow human beings.

Christians Lead Opposition to Slavery Today

Little Bindya was born in the red-light district of the economic hub of India, Mumbai, where countless women are entrapped in prostitution. Bindya’s mother died of HIV, and Bindya was rescued by a Christian rehabilitation center that helps women and girls leave prostitution and break the cycle of sex slavery and trafficking. By the age of fifteen, Bindya was top of her class at school, with hope of a meaningful future far from the red-light district.18

Her life has been transformed for the better by the Christian gospel.

Bindya’s story is just one example of how Christians today lead the way in opposing slavery and human trafficking worldwide. The International Justice Mission is one Christian network fighting abuse, but there are many others. Countless Christians devote their lives to rescuing and rehabilitating the victims of this appalling trade. Others support these endeavors with finances and prayer.

A Higher Throne

Christians insist that Jesus is Lord (Rom. 10:9; 1 Cor. 12:3). We should “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Mark 12:17), but ultimate obedience belongs to God, who stands above all earthly powers (Matt. 10:26–28).

Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), a Lutheran pastor in Germany, was imprisoned between 1938 and 1945 for his opposition to the Nazi regime. On one occasion, when interrogated by Hitler himself, Niemöller responded, “You can imprison me and you can torture me and you can kill me, but . . . one day you will give an account to one who is the King of kings and the Lord of lords.”19 Justice may not always be done in this life. But there will be a judgment, and justice will be done.

Think back to those condemned men paraded round the streets of Canton. They were just four among countless victims with no hope of a fair trial. But the King above all kings hears the cries of all the oppressed. He will hold all persecutors to account. And today, worldwide, Christians continue to insist that every human being has dignity because each one is created in God’s image. That’s the only solid basis for believing in justice and freedom for all.

Notes:

  1. Paul Raffaele, “The Masses Might Even Stone You,” Critic, June 1, 2021, https://thecritic.co.uk/.
  2. Gary D. Ferngren, Medicine and Healthcare in Early Christianity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), 95–96.
  3. Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 291.
  4. Sheldon. M. Stern, “The Atlantic Slave Trade: The Full Story,” Academic Questions 18, no. 3 (2005): 17, https:// eric.ed.gov/; Thomas Sowell, “The Real History of Slavery,” in Black Rednecks and White Liberals (New York: Encounter, 2005), 112–13, 156–58.
  5. Paul Raffaele, “How the World Turns a Blind Eye to African Slavery,” Critic, November 2022, https://the critic.co.uk/.
  6. Virginia Allen, “Root Cause of Human Trafficking Is ‘Individuals Who Decide to Exploit’ Vulnerable People, Expert Says,” Daily Signal, December 8, 2022, https://www.dailysignal.com/2022/12/08/root-cause-of -human-trafficking-individuals-who-decide-to-exploit -vulnerable-people-expert-says/.
  7. The principle that the ruler is not above the law was enshrined in Magna Carta in 1215. It was based on biblical foundations (1 Kings 21; Rom. 13:1).
  8. Professor Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Islam in Modern History (1957), cited by Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin, The Nine Questions People Ask about Judaism (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986), 92.
  9. Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918– 1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, trans. Thomas P. Whitney, vol. 2 (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), 147–48.
  10. R. J. Rummel, “The Killing Machine That Is Marxism,” Schwarz Report, December 15, 2004, https://www .schwarzreport.org/resources/essays/the-killing-machine -that-is-marxism.
  11. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “Men Have Forgotten God: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1983 Templeton Address,” National Review, December 11, 2018, https://www.national review.com/.
  12. Tom Holland comments, “If there is a single wellspring for the reverence they [secular humanists] display towards their own species, it is the opening chapter of the Bible.” “Humanism Is a Heresy,” UnHerd (blog), November 26, 2022, https://unherd.com/.
  13. John R. Ling, When Does Human Life Begin? Christian Thinking and Contemporary Opposition (n.p.: Christian Institute, 2017), 7; https://www.christian .org.uk/wp-content/uploads/when-does-human-life -begin.pdf.
  14. Vishal Mangalwadi, The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 334–54.
  15. Jewish culture was distinctive. There was bonded labor, but with the recognition that all humans have dignity. It is unfortunate that the Hebrew word ‘ebed (also transliterated as ‘eved), which historically meant and had always been translated as “servant,” is now often translated “slave” in modern language versions of the Bible. This gives a misleading impression of Jewish culture, as the word now carries a heavy freight of association with the horrors of plantation slavery. Peter J. Williams, “Does the Bible Condone Slavery?,” BeThinking, 2015, https://www.bethinking.org/. See also Sowell, Black Rednecks and White Liberals, 111–69.
  16. Chrysostom, “Homily 40 on First Corinthians,” https:// www.newadvent.org/.
  17. David Bentley Hart, “The ‘Whole Humanity’: Gregory of Nyssa’s Critique of Slavery in Light of His Eschatology,” Scottish Journal of Theology 54, no. 1 (2001): 51– 69; Kyle Harper, “Christianity and the Roots of Human Dignity in Late Antiquity,” in Shah and Hertzke, Christianity and Freedom, 1:133–34.
  18. Janet Weber, “Freeing the Dalits,” OM, September 23, 2018, https://www.om.org/en/news/freeing-dalits.
  19. David S. Dockery and Timothy George, The Great Tradition of Christian Thinking: A Student’s Guide, Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 76.

This article is adapted from Is Christianity Good for the World? by Sharon James.



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