Dear Fr. Kerper
Why didn’t Jesus condemn slavery?
Dear Father Kerper: As I listen to the debate about the Confederacy and the fact that prominent Founding Fathers supported slavery and owned slaves, I began to wonder why Jesus never said anything about slavery. Wouldn’t his clear condemnation have prevented much human suffering? Why did he remain silent? Did his silence signal that slavery was morally acceptable?
Thanks for your great set of intertwined questions about slavery. To understand the disturbing silence of Jesus and the shocking persistence of slavery into the 19th century, we must consider two things: history and the Lord’s method of proclaiming moral truth.
As to history, consider three crucial facts.
First, please remember that Jesus of Nazareth, the one whom we acknowledge as Messiah and Son of God, was virtually unknown in the world beyond his own homeland, a backwater of the Roman Empire. His public ministry lasted just three years, a mere blip on the historical record. Even if Jesus had spoken against slavery, His words would never have received a hearing.
Second, slavery had become an indispensable and largely unchallenged element of much of the ancient world, including the many lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Scholars estimate that slaves made up 25 to 40 percent of the population. The vast majority of these slaves worked in agriculture, the major economic engine; others labored in mines, quarries, seafaring, household service, and public works. Their sudden liberation would have caused economic chaos. Given the rigid structure of ancient economies, which had few wage earners, and the philosophical arguments that defended slavery as “natural,” we can easily understand why slavery persisted. To most people, no alternative seemed possible.
Third, the moral, philosophical and economic reconsideration of slavery began only in the 17th century, long after the time of Christ. In the 18th century, that rethinking of slavery finally gave birth to an organized movement that demanded the complete banning of slavery.
Even as the abolition movement slowly grew, slavery still managed to infect the British colonies which eventually became the United States, a country founded in the name of human freedom. How amazing to remember that as recently as 250 years ago, people still could not agree about the morality of owning other people.
Now let’s look carefully at the core of the Lord’s message and His manner of teaching. Here we’ll see why his silence about slavery is neither tacit approval nor cold-hearted apathy.
Jesus came to proclaim the arrival of the Kingdom of God, which does not depend primarily on changing social systems. Rather, people enter, promote and advance the Kingdom of God through personal conversion. This requires a radical change in their vision of reality and, even more important, in their behavior toward other people. As such, Jesus said very little about political issues such as Roman imperialism, warfare, revolution, or slavery. Rather he believed that personal conversion would deeply change people, thereby gradually eroding evil in society.
We see the Lord’s strategy by reading Paul’s letter to Philemon, written around 60 AD when slavery was rampant.
Here’s what happened. A slave named Onesimus had escaped from his owner, a Christian named Philemon. Under the law, Onesimus was a fugitive and Philemon had a legal right to recover his “property.”
St. Paul, as a bona fide apostle of Christ, could have solemnly commanded Philemon to release Onesimus, a baptized Christian. Instead, St. Paul gently reminded Philemon that Onesimus had become his spiritual equal by virtue of his baptism. In effect, St. Paul gambled that Philemon would see everything in the light of Christ, recognize the incompatibility of slavery with Christian faith, and act accordingly.
Did St. Paul’s strategy work? We don’t know. Sacred Scripture says nothing, though various non-biblical traditions indicate that Philemon freed his slave.
As the Christian faith spread throughout Europe, Christ’s message of human dignity, equality, and compassion gradually eroded the foundations of slavery. At the same time, the economy gradually changed, especially through labor-saving advances in agriculture, which made slavery obsolete. By the 9th century, when the “semi-free” feudal system emerged, slavery had mostly disappeared.
Sadly, following the discovery of America toward the end of the 15th century, a new racially and market-based form of slavery emerged. In antiquity, slavery depended mostly on wars. Losers became slaves. Winners got lots of free labor. By contrast, the “new slavery” operated as a profitable business. Even worse, people were enslaved simply because they were Africans or native people of the Americas.
Whereas the ancient Church said little about slavery inherited from the Roman Empire, the Church of the 16th century denounced it. For example, Pope Paul III condemned the slave trade in 1537 and Pope St. Pius V spoke out in 1567.
Why this change? Because Catholics, notably Spaniards and Portuguese, went far beyond mere toleration of slavery to active participation. Hence, the Church, through the papal teaching office, called these self-professed Catholics to moral standards that far surpassed those of ancient non-Christians.
Did papal prohibitions and decrees of excommunication change the minds of Catholic slave traders? All we know for sure is that the race-based slave trade continued for a long time. Slavery ended in the British Empire in 1833 and in the United States in 1865.
The long process that finally led to the Church’s rejection of slavery as a grave moral evil demonstrates the stubborn survival of sinful behavior, the conflicted morality of Christians, the limited force of Church condemnations, and – most of all – the immense power of personal conversion and faithful witness turned against evil practices defended by the law.
Father Michael Kerper is the pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Nashua.