“Ask a Priest: If the Bible Supports Slavery, Shouldn’t We?”

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Q: The Bible in both the New and Old testaments upholds slavery and indentured servitude. There must be good reason for this. Should I be advocating for slavery and the traditions upheld in the Bible and historical societies? – R.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Slavery is one of those issues in the New Testament that modern people find hard to accept.

Slavery was a staple of just about every culture in the ancient world, and Christians, being so few, weren’t in a position to overthrow such an institution. To try to do so would have invited the full wrath of the Roman Empire (and others). Part of the principle at work was this: A moral evil can be tolerated if the alternative is to invite an even greater evil.

A similar case closer to our time is Prohibition (1920-1933). It aimed to stamp out alcoholism, which was a good goal. But it helped lead to the rise of organized crime, which provided a black market for alcohol. After Prohibition ended, organized crime lived on, moving into drug trafficking and other illegal activities. Perhaps the better alternative would have been to try to eliminate alcoholism through social programs and better education and better working conditions.

The upshot is that this is why the Bible needs to be read in the light of Tradition. Jesus himself did not defy the Roman authorities; but that doesn’t mean he approved of oppressive regimes occupying foreign lands. He simply focused on something deeper: individual repentance, the need for prayer and good works, etc.

For the record, the Church is firmly against slavery. The Catechism teaches that slavery and all forms of racism and systematic oppression are sins.

No. 2414 says, “The seventh commandment forbids acts or enterprises that for any reason — selfish or ideological, commercial, or totalitarian — lead to the enslavement of human beings, to their being bought, sold and exchanged like merchandise, in disregard for their personal dignity. It is a sin against the dignity of persons and their fundamental rights to reduce them by violence to their productive value or to a source of profit. St. Paul directed a Christian master to treat his Christian slave ‘no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother, … both in the flesh and in the Lord.'”

An in-depth text that could help is the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church

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