Question of the Week: How do you respond to someone who doesn’t want to become a Christian because of the African Slave Trade?
This question gives a specific example of why someone would not believe in Jesus’ claim to be God and rising from the dead to prove that claim is true. If you’re paying attention the issue brought up, you’d notice that this issue has nothing to do with what it means to be a Christian. If we were to deconstruct this question to its core, it would essentially sound like this. I am not a Christian because Christians haven’t solved every moral, social, or historical problem with humanity. In order to properly respond to this kind of objection, we need to know what’s really being asked. Once the question has been properly evaluated, we can come to proper conclusions about the one asking the question.
To address this, we’ll clarify the origins of slavery, the concepts of slavery included in the Bible, and the origins of the abolitionist movement. Historically, we know that slavery was a constant before, during, and after the writing of the Bible. It wasn’t introduced by Christianity or Judaism due to the fact that the foundations of both religions mentioned that the majority of early Christians in Rome were slaves, and the Jews who were liberated from Egypt were all slaves. You can’t invent a concept that existed before, during, and after the lifetimes of the first participants of a religious system. Examples of this can be found in Exodus 1:8-14 and Philemon 1:15-16. We can’t level the blame of slavery’s origins on Christianity, therefore they do not bear the responsibility of ending a system they themselves were subjected to.
When it comes to how the Bible addresses the concept of slavery, the Old and New Testament both give a perspective on this system that redefined how those who call themselves Christians and Jews would understand the concept of slavery. Regarding the Old Testament, it is telling how the first issue the Law of Moses addresses following the Ten Commandments is what slavery would be in Israel.
“Now these are the judgments which you shall set before them: If you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall serve six years; and in the seventh he shall go out free and pay nothing. If he comes in by himself, he shall go out by himself; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master has given him a wife, and she has borne him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out by himself. But if the servant plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to the judges. He shall also bring him to the door, or to the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him forever. “And if a man sells his daughter to be a female slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt deceitfully with her. And if he has betrothed her to his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters. If he takes another wife, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights. And if he does not do these three for her, then she shall go out free, without paying money.
Exodus 21:1-11 (NKJV)
The following conditions unique to Israel were clarified to be how slavery was understood.
1. A slave would serve for a maximum of six years, and on the seventh they would be freed.
2. A slave would be allowed to marry into their master’s family.
3. A slave would only serve for the rest of their lives if they publicly requested this from the nation’s leadership.
4. A female slave would be treated the same way as a wife or they would be set free.
Those hostile to Christianity would make the claim that later passages allow for the abuse and dehumanization of these slaves, doesn’t specify how Israel came across these slaves, and only involves the preservation of rights of their fellow Jews in slavery. Foreigners were fair game to be treated like farm equipment. The problem is that these claims only hold water if you stop reading this chapter in Exodus and take their word for it. Those who make these claims are either uninformed about the passages they are critiquing or are deliberately lying in order to inspire emotional disposition against Christians and Jews. Neither of these potential scenarios give them credibility.
Kidnapping was an acceptable means of acquiring slaves?
He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death.
Slaves can be abused without consequence?
“And if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished. Notwithstanding, if he remains alive a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his property.
Exodus 21:20-21 (NKJV)
“If a man strikes the eye of his male or female servant, and destroys it, he shall let him go free for the sake of his eye. And if he knocks out the tooth of his male or female servant, he shall let him go free for the sake of his tooth.
Exodus 21:26-27 (NKJV)
Foreigners were not given the same rights as Hebrews?
You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Exodus 22:21 (NKJV)
Any abuse that a slave endured, though being considered property, would set them free if any cosmetic damage took place. Any slave that died under their master’s hand would result in the same punishment that killing a free man would experience. Kidnapping was a capital offense and foreigners were given the same rights as Jewish slaves. Obviously being a slave wasn’t supposed to be a good time or they’d charge admission. The sole condition mentioned that would put someone into slavery biblically was incurring debt. It is in light of all these specifications that the rights of slaves in Israel were clarified. None of which give us the picture we see in the Trans-Atlantic or Trans-Saharan Slave Trades.
Moving on to the New Testament, we need to note that unlike the Old Testament, the early Christians had no political influence or power concerning the laws they lived under. Rome was ruled by pagan law under pagan rulers. Their definitions of slavery gave slave owners the right to kill slaves without consequence, torture slaves for their own amusement, and treat them however they wished. There were such things as good slave masters, as well as the option of releasing slaves if their master chose to do so. When it came to a Christian’s ability to redefine slavery, it could only take place on an individual basis. That is why Paul the Apostle’s exhortations to slave masters in general and by name do so appealing to them ethically. Not politically. The two most prominent examples were in Ephesians and Philemon. In Ephesians, Paul clarifies the Christian perspective slaves and slave masters should both have in light of their relationship with the God of Israel.
Bondservants, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ; not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, with goodwill doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. And you, masters, do the same things to them, giving up threatening, knowing that your own Master also is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.
Ephesians 6:5-9 (NKJV)
Slaves were to remember that whoever they served in an earthly sense, they should do so sincerely and setting an example of integrity in their work, considering Jesus their master. Likewise, Slave Masters were to treat their slaves like they would want to be treated in light of the fact that they also have a master who treats them well. This perspective redefined what it meant to be a slave on an individual basis. Likewise, Paul also addresses a slave owner by the name of Philemon by not only reiterating this point, but does so with a direct example of what this looked like in action.
I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me. I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel. But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary. For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
Philemon 1:10-16 (NKJV)
Paul appeals to Philemon on behalf of his slave Onesimus, who committed crimes that other slave owners would be completely justified culturally in putting him to death for. Instead, Paul points out the fact that Onesimus should no longer be considered his slave, but his brother in the Lord. It was this new perspective on human relationships that bring us to the final issue relevant to this topic.
The Abolition of Slavery was a movement founded by William Wilberforce who himself was a Christian. Living in light of his affirmation of Jesus’ claims to be God and His resurrection from the dead, He began to take His words seriously enough to live in light of them and speak about them in a cultural setting where he could influence the political and economic reasons the Slave Trade existed in Europe. The very foundations of what many secularists and skeptics take for granted in accusing Christianity of opposing were actually the inspiration for them in the first place.
The real issue at heart here is what’s called a red-herring fallacy. Their problem with Christianity has nothing to do with Christianity. If they actually cared about the history of slavery and its abolition, they would want to become Christians all the more since the foundations of that movement and the ideas that inspired it exclusively came from the Jewish and Christian scriptures. The problem with answering a person who doesn’t actually care about what they’re asking about is that it won’t matter how you answer. Another issue will be brought up until they can justify dismissing you to themselves. The only response to someone who isn’t listening is not to talk to them. Give them specific and informed answers to the issues they bring up. But the moment a pattern arises, address them directly about whether or not they would actually give their lives to Jesus if they heard an answer to this objection. Even if their answer is dishonest and manipulative, you spare yourself the frustration of wasted time and effort by getting to the real issue. There is no shame in leaving a conversation that never actually began in the first place.
A Reason For Hope is a ministry of Calvary Christian Fellowship of Tucson
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