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What the Bible says about slavery

In the midst of the tense national discussion about removing public statues of historical American figures vis-a-vis slavery, you might have received questions about the Bible regarding slavery. If not, there’s a good chance that those questions are coming. In fact, I would guess that the focus of the movement will turn its attention ultimately to remove the Bible from the public square. This is something that has been in the works for years from secularists and atheists for other reasons, as you know. You also know that many people think that the Bible does not condemn slavery and thus tacitly approves of it. The article below from catholic.com addresses this and other key points to know about the Bible with regards to slavery. I hope this helps us understand the Word of God better, and to teach others the truth. Please be at peace “in receiving the Word of God …not as the word of men, but as it truly is, the word of God” (1 Thes 2:13).

May you know the peace of Christ,

Fr Greg

Many opponents of Christianity say the Bible condones slavery. Others say the fact that none of the inspired writers (indeed, not even Christ himself in the Gospel accounts) condemn slavery outright shows an implicit acceptance of it. But the fact is, the Bible promotes an ethic of equality and mercy to the downtrodden, including those who were enslaved in the ancient world.

A “slave religion”

In his letters to Christian communities, St. Paul described himself as a slave who belonged to Christ (see Romans 1:1, Philippians 1:1), exhorted his listeners not to be slaves to sin (see Romans 6:15-23), and encouraged them to be slaves to one another

(see Galatians 5:13). Paul even said that Christ took on the nature of a slave and became poor for our sake (see 2 Corinthians 8:9, Philippians 2:7).

His audience knew what it meant to be a slave—not surprising, since Christianity’s compassion for the lowly earned it a reputation as a “slave religion.” The second-century pagan critic Celsus once described converts to the Church as “foolish and low individuals” like “slaves, and women, and children” (Origen, Against Celsus, 3.59).

However, this language of Paul’s does not mean he endorsed slavery or that he thought it should be a part of God’s kingdom. To understand why this is the case, let’s look at the specific exhortations Paul gives to slaves, starting with one passage critics of the Bible often cite:

Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ; not in the way of eye-service, as men-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that whatever good any one does, he will receive the same again from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free (Eph. 6:5-8).

Many critics of the Bible say these words are indefensible. And yet what advice should Paul have given Christian slaves in the Roman Empire? To rebel against their masters? A hundred years before, a slave named Spartacus had led a rebellion in southern France that scored a few victories but was defeated by the Roman general Marcus Crassus. Spartacus died in battle, and 6,000 of his comrades were crucified along the Appian Way. A similar fate would have awaited any Christian slave uprising.

Maybe instead of encouraging outright rebellion Paul could have said that slavery was wrong and encouraged slaves to simply revile their masters. But even that advice would have risked the persecution of the whole Church had the Roman authorities become aware of it.

Paul was more concerned about people being enslaved to sin than their being enslaved to other people (though, as we will see, Paul was also concerned about human slavery). This attitude parallels Jesus’ warning that sinners become “slaves to sin” (John 8:34), as well as his exhortation to fear the one who can kill the body and the soul in hell and not just the one who can kill the body (see Matthew 10:28).

Paul’s advice to slaves

Paul’s advice to Christian slaves was to endure their unjust condition by persevering in holiness. For example, Paul told Titus, “Bid slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, nor to pilfer, but to show entire and true fidelity, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:9-10).

A slave may not have had control over whether he would be enslaved in this life, but he could control whether he would be enslaved to Satan in the next. St. Peter also taught this when he told slaves, “Be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to the kind and gentle but also to the overbearing. For one is approved if, mindful of God, he endures pain while suffering unjustly” (1 Pet. 2:18-19).

Peter and the other apostles knew that slavery was wrong, but they also knew that it was better to conquer evil with good (see Romans 12:21) than to commit evil in order to achieve good. That’s why Peter asks what good it does for a slave to commit evil against his master and then be beaten in return. At least, when a slave is beaten for no good reason and does not respond with evil (in imitation of Christ, who endured similar abuses without retaliation), he will stand blameless before God (see 1 Peter 2:20).

Loyalty to a master was also a common way for slaves in the Roman Empire to earn their freedom. After serving a master faithfully, a slave would be released as a libertus who served his master in a new capacity as a freeman (we will see what that entailed shortly). Paul may even have exhorted slaves to acquire their freedom in this way:

Every one should remain in the state in which he was called. Were you a slave when called? Never mind. But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity. For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. So, brethren, in whatever state each was called, there let him remain with God (1 Cor. 7:20-24).

This passage shows that Paul didn’t think slavery was a good thing. In fact, he implicitly argued that men could not own other men because God owns all humans by virtue of having redeemed them on the cross (see 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, 7:23). Being enslaved to men was an unjust part of this life that had no place in the kingdom of God.

In that kingdom, everyone, regardless of socioeconomic background, is a slave of Christ, our true Lord and Master. That’s why Paul says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

This was a revolutionary idea, given that Roman intellectuals, while lamenting some aspects of slavery, generally held slaves to be of lesser worth than free men. One example of this is the philosopher Seneca who, although he discouraged merciless corporal punishment, compared slaves to valuable property like jewels one must constantly worry about.

According to Joshel, “Seneca sees slaves as inferiors who can never rise above the level of humble friends” (Slavery in the Roman World, 127). In contrast, slaves in the early Church were not stigmatized. In fact, some—like Pius I (A.D. 140-155) and Callixtus I (218-223)—even held the office of pope.

So, however one considers the deeply troubling history of slavery in the U.S., even of slaveholders who deemed themselves Christians, one cannot appeal to Christianity to justify this ancient and immoral practice.

 

Spiritual But Not Religious

Young man / baptism
Are you a prophet?
    Christ 1st
    Speak the truth of God
    To your family
Family evangelization
“I’m spiritual but not religious”
     Not Christian
     Not from Christ
     Can’t get the Eucharist

Freedom to Pursue God’s Plan

As we commemorate our nation’s independence this Tuesday, two thoughts come to my mind. The first is a reminder of my recent trip to Ghana which is celebrating their 60th year of independence from Great Britain in 1957. They have done so much to be a developed and stable country in such a short amount of time! The second thought is about the spiritual and moral state of the USA. I was going to lay out some of my own reflections, but found similar (and much more profound) thoughts from Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia. The following are excerpts from an interview he did in March 2017 with cruxnow.com.

We know that our country is not perfect, but the main thing that we honor and celebrate on July 4th is the freedom as individuals and as a nation to pursue perfection, to be who we really want to be, and who God wants us to be. On Tuesday, thank God for our freedom, and pray for all Americans!

May you know the peace of Christ,

Fr Greg

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Lots of bishops publish books, but often they’re pretty churchy. (Your new) book is really an exercise in cultural criticism.

“I’m very pleased, of course, by other things and cultural developments…we certainly live in a world where people can be healthier and happier than in the past. One thing in my mind is that I have many friends who have children with disabilities, and it’s obvious over the course of these last many decades that our country, our society’s care for people with disabilities has gotten much better. People are much more included in the life of our communities.

But at the same time, it’s a culture that kills people with disabilities in the womb in ways that never happened before. Very few children today who were born with Down Syndrome because people can detect that early on and children are aborted.

So the same society, with the same kind of technology, can use it in ways that serve us more radically generously or ways that are more radically selfish and sad. So that’s the kind of confusion that I write about in the book…

In terms of Church practice the numbers of people attending Christian services on Sunday whether they’re Protestants or Catholics is much less than it was in the past. The Gospel principles in terms of family life are not as embraced as they were in the past. I think that we live in a much more diverse society in the United States than before in terms of people accessing other forms of religious faith. It used to be that we defined our country as a Judeo-Christian country in terms of our heritage, but there’s a resistance to even talk that way among some of the elites of today…”

You write that the election of Barack Obama in 2008 was a watershed moment for America, the advent of a new way of conceiving American society no longer based on a shared set of values rooted in Biblical faith.

“… (Leading our country to a different direction vis-a-vis legalized gay marriage, imposing contraceptive practice on insurance programs, and the focus on transgenderism) demonstrate a watershed that is going in the direction that is contrary to traditional Christian moral principles…”

You’ve been sharply critical of some early moves by the Trump administration, for example on refugees and immigrants.

“I certainly will continue to do that…”

If we live in a culture that’s in some ways post-Christian, what’s the Church supposed to do?

“Well, first of all we need to be aware of what’s going on in the world around us. Many people of my generation are somewhat anxious about what’s going on, but they haven’t really analyzed in a serious way how we got from where we were to where we are today, and in the book I try to point out some of the factors that were active in our culture that led to where we are today. We have to be aware of it, but then we also have to have hope that we can live in this culture in a way that we can be full-throated, committed Christians and pass that on to our children…”

How?

“The answer is, you have to be personally converted into the faith. You can’t pass it on if you don’t have it. Parents are going to be more important in the life, the faith life of their children than they have been in the past, because in the past the culture supported that faith life. The schools basically supported that faith life. The Christian communities were strong. People would go to church and that would support that faith life.

It’s really going to be the family that’s going to be the primary tool that God will use to evangelize, beginning with their children of course. But then families associating

together in smaller groups, support groups of one another will be very important in the future as well. As parishes are supposed to be, but they’re institutions now rather than support groups.”