Was Slavery in Christian Society the Same as it still is in Islam?

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Martyrdom of Saints Felicity and Perpetua.  Felicity was a slave in her third trimester of pregnancy. Perpetua was a Roman noblewoman who was still nursing her child. (Image – www.denvercatholic.org)

In response to certain critiques on social media on my post The Ongoing Slavery in the Islamic World in that Christians equally approved the practice of slavery, I offer some clarifications. This issue is not uncontested in sacred scripture, the New Testament in particular, which not only acknowledged the institution of slavery but instructed slaves to be obedient to their masters “just as [they] would obey Christ” (Ephesians 6:5). 

There cannot be any denying that the early Christian church accepted the reality of the Roman institution of slavery as a tolerable wrong, as can be concluded by Saint Paul’s counseling slaves to obey their masters rather than rebel. Two things, however, must be stated: The first is that slaves in both Old and New Testaments were not considered property, as with Islam, for they were neither forced into inhumane living conditions nor were they meant to be used for sexual gratification. Just as it was for Aristotle, slavery according to the sharia is not only legitimate but natural to some people, specifically non-Muslims who are kidnapped or captured in raids. 

Second, there was a moral objective in that despite its juridical legitimacy, those who were enslaved were to be seen as equals in the eyes of God: “There is no Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free… for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). From this principle, aside from the fact that slaves could be part of Christ’s evangelization, St. Paul does not draw any political conclusions. It was not his desire, as it was not in his power, to ensure Christian equality either by force or by revolt. Christianity accepts society as it is, though it does not concur with injustice, which is why it called for its transformation through individual souls. 

The mere fact that there was a tolerance of slavery on the part of early church did not mean that it advocated its practice. In fact, the preaching of many church fathers against slavery was part of the Christian teaching that influenced civil legislation down through the centuries of Christendom to abrogate it. St. Augustine described slavery as being against God’s intention and resulting from sin. By the early 4th century, the manumission in the church, a form of emancipation, was added in the roman law. Slaves could be freed by a ritual in a church, performed by a christian bishop or priest. It is not known if baptism was required before this ritual. Subsequent laws, as the Novella 142 of Justinian, gave to the bishops the power to free slaves. 

Although representatives of the Catholic church have at times publicly stated that servitude (and not slavery) — the Latin documents use servus = servant and not schiavus = slave; the servus (serf) in the Middle Ages enjoyed all his personal rights except the right to leave the land he cultivated and the right to freely dispose of his property — is a just punishment, it was in reaction to those who were caught aiding the Saracens’ slaughter of Christians. That being said, just like the early abolition movement in America began to take form, Roman Catholic statements also became increasingly vehement against slavery during this era. In 1741 Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758) condemned of slavery generally; in 1815 Pope Pius VII (1800-1823) demanded of the Congress of Vienna the suppression of the slave trade; in the proclamation of the canonization of Peter Claver, one of the most illustrious adversaries of slavery, Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) branded the summum nefas (supreme villainy) of the slave traders.

How Christian slavers used the Bible to advocate slavery is one thing. The advocacy of slavery in Islam is a completely different issue, for it has always been an essential part of Islamic law and tradition, despite the fact that Islamic states showed signs of adaptability to Western civilization in outlawing it.