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Christianity's Justification of the Slave Trade

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Introduction

"[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God...it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation...it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts." Jefferson Davis, President, Confederate States of America (Jefferson Davis, "Inaugural Address as Provisional President of the Confederacy," Montgomery, AL, 1861-FEB-18, Confederate States of America, Congressional Journal, 1:64-66.)

Different Versions, Different Terms

When reading the Bible, it is important to note which version you are reading. The texts are different. Most often they differ only by synonyms, but occasionally whole entire chapters and portions of chapters may be omitted from one version to the next. This phenomenon, in and of itself, is proof that the Biblical text has been altered. I find it troubling that anyone would believe something to be the word of God, and then change it. At any rate, concerning slavery, the words have been changed...perhaps intentionally, perhaps not. Though servant may be a synonym for slave in English, they do have different connotations. Furthermore, are they even synonyms in Semetic languages, such as Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic? And, is it appropriate for Bible translators to switch on and off between the two? In this age of political correctness, servant certainly seems more palatable than slave.

  • 21st Century King James Version "If thou buy a Hebrew servant..."
  • King James Version "If thou buy a Hebrew servant..."
  • Living Bible: "If you buy a Hebrew slave..."
  • Modern Language "When you buy a Hebrew slave..."
  • New International Version: "If you buy a Hebrew servant..."
  • New Living Translation: "If you buy a Hebrew slave..."
  • Revised Standard Version "When you buy a Hebrew slave..."

    The Hamitic Myth & the Racialization of Slavery

    The fact that slavery exists in the bible is not surprising. It is a practice sanctioned by nearly every human civilization up until recent years. Ancient Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Byzantines, Chinese, and Hebrews all had slavery in some shape or form. In Islam, too, slavery is permissible, within certain guidelines. But these things are different from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. For, it represented the first time that slavery was based on race. Indeed, it is even questionable whether or not the concept of "race" even existed prior to this point. In addition, the concept of plantation slavery represented a break from prior civilizations.

    With this new, cruel form of plantation slavery, based on skin color, a means to justify creating and maintaining such an institution was needed. The answer was sought in the Bible via the Hamitic Myth and in science via Social Darwinism.

    Genesis 9:25-27: "Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers. He also said, 'Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. May God extend the territory of Japheth; may Japeth live in the tents of Shem and may Canaan be his slave.' "

    The above verses serve as the foundation for the Hamitic Myth. The fabricated story goes like this: Prophet Noah (peace be upon him) was allegedly lying naked and drunk in his tent. His son, Ham, entered the tent and saw his father (peace be upon him) naked. Supposedly, Ham's two brothers, Shem and Japheth then entered the tent backwards, so as not to see their father in that state, and they covered him up. Upon waking, Prophet Noah (peace be upon him) was angry enough with his son, Ham, that he allegedly cursed his offspring. As noted in the above verse from Genesis, Ham's son Canaan and all of Canaan's descendants were to be slaves.

    Now, assured that Christian and Jewish readers may call this notion blasphemous, I am confident in calling this story a myth. And I am confident for a number of reasons. First of all, the acts attributed to Noah (peace be upon him) in this story are not befitting a prophet (may peace and blessings be on all of them). Secondly, there was no crime committed. If you accept the story as is, then Ham did nothing wrong by seeing his father that way. How was he to know, prior to entering the tent, that he would find his father in that state? And lastly, even if a crime was committed, is it just for the children and grandchildren of the criminal to be punished? Of course not. God is just and this story is simply inconsistent with His sunnan, or His manner of doing things. So, there can be no conclusion other than that this story was fabricated.

    Now, as far as the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade is concerned, the above story mentioned in Genesis has been said to pertain to Africans, that the decendants of Ham through Canaan were black. This, of course, has profound implications. It allows the European "civilizers" sent to Africa to accept their own horrific acts as Biblically sanctioned. It also calls the newly converted slave to accept his or her position with content.

    Good, Obedient Slave

    The system of race-based plantation slavery was justified by it perpetrators with the Hamitic Myth as noted above. This may have calmed some, but it certainly was not enough to make the slaves, themselves, content. Other Biblical verses, stories, and analogies were utilized. In addition, "spiritual" hymns and readings were performed which reinforced these ideas.

    It is common knowledge that African Americans were converted to Christianity during enslavement. But what is less known and less discussed are the reasons for the conversion both from the point of view of the slaveholders and the enslaved Africans. The slaveholders reasons for Christianizing the enslaved Africans began with their perception of Christianity as a way to reinforce and maintain dominance. Thus, in 1743, a white minister prepared a book of dialogue for slaveholders to teach enslaved Africans which stressed contentment and thanks for being enslaved and ended saying "I canít help knowing my duty. I am to serve God in that state in which He has placed me. I am to do what my master orders me." As the indoctrination progressed, then, slaveholders soon discovered that many of the most amenable and submissive enslaved Africans were those who were Christians.

    Secondly, the slaveholders were equally and at times more interested in uprooting Africans from their own religious heritage, in order to deprive them of cultural distinction and motivation for revolt ... Finally, slaveholders converted Africans because they and other whites believed it was their duty to bring light to "benighted and lost heathens." ... Although many Africans accepted Christianity, many others resisted it for a long time, maintinaing their commitments to ancient African religions or Islam. (Karenga p. 231)

    Slaves should, however, be converted to Christianity, it was argued, because they would then become more docile and obedient. (Ellerbe p. 91-92)

    Verses such as the one noted below from Ephesians were oft-quoted. The disobedient slave was portrayed as disobedient to his Lord, and thus worthy of punshment in this life and in the Hereafter.

    Ephesians 6:5-9: "Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men: Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free. And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him."

    Analogies were often drawn comparing slaves in the so-called New World with the Israelites enslaved under Pharoah. Ensalved Africans, and even African Americans to this day, make reference to the "promised land" and "deliverance from bondage." Songs regarding Biblical stories were often used by slaves as forms of communication while in the field.

    The "Science" of Race

    -anthropological studies addressing cranial size, etc

    Social Darwinism

    -application of the theory of survival of the fittest and evolution to apply to slavery

    Blaming Others

    In an attempt to wash Christian European hands of the atrocity of the Atlantic Slave Trade, and in an attempt to resolve internal cognitive dissonance, blaming East Indians, Arabs, and even Africans has become routine. In one sense, it helps to dissolve responsibility, while in another sense ensures that Africans and African Americans do not further examine Islam.

    ...Europeans do not escape moral indictment by blaming Arabs and Africans for participation in the trade. In terms ofthe Arabs, when the so-called Arab slave trade in East Africa was at its height in the 18th century and early 19th century, it was still tied to and controlled by Europeans (Rodney, 1974:97). For the destination of most of those captured by the Arabs "was the European-owned plantation economies of Mauritius, Reunion, and Seychelles -- as well as the Americas via the Cape of Good Hope." (Karenga p.116)

    Even a superficial glance at Islamic history would reveal a tremendous number of individuals who rose to power and prominence in the Islamic world despite having previously been enslaved. Furthermore, the brand of slavery practiced in the Arab world and by Africans was quite different than their European counterparts. It was not based on race, nor was it lifelong. There were ways out. And once freed, they were not marked by their race or by their prior status as inferior.

    Thus, one discovers that what looked like an Arab-controlled trade was in fact a European dominated trade with Europeans using Arabs as middle men. None of this is to deny Arab involvement or even the involvement of some East Indians, but rather to focus the bulk of responsibility for the ultimate and greatest demand, and the wholesale destruction and depopulation of Africa where it belongs -- squarely on the shoulders of Europeans. Moreover, granted Arabs had slaves before Europeans demanded them for their labor systems, Arab slavery was domestic and escapable. In fact, there are many examples of servants or persons enslaved by Arabs who rose to power and social and political achievement in the world of Islam. (Karenga p. 117)

    Experiencing Cognitive Dissonance

    -indoctrinated with "peace" and "love"
    -yet, utilized the Bible and da'wah as excuses for enslavement and torture

    Conclusions

    Sources

  • Anderson, Talmadge, Introduction to African American Studies, Kendall/Hunt Publishing, 1993.
  • The Bible, 21st Century King James Version.
  • The Bible, King James Version.
  • The Bible, Modern Language Version.
  • The Bible, New International Version.
  • The Bible, New Living Translation.
  • The Bible, Revised Standard Version.
  • Ellerbe, Helen, The Dark Side of Christian History, Morning Star Books, 1995.
  • Karenga, Maulana, Introduction to Black Studies, The University of Sankore Press, 1993.
  • Wood, Forrest, The Arrogance of Faith, Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.

    Relevant Links

  • Biblical Verses Condoning and Regulating Slavery

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    Edmund Gibson, 18th century Bishop of London
    The Freedom which Christianity gives, is a Freedom from the Bondage of Sin and Satan, and from the Dominion of Menís Lusts and Passions and inordinate Desires; but as to their outward Condition, whatever that was before, whether bond or free, their being baptised, and becoming Christian, makes no manner of Change in it. (Wood p. 119)
    The machinery of control was one of the most brutal and extensive in the history of slavery. Basically, it involved five mechanisms of control: 1) laws; 2) coercive bodies; 3) the church; 40 politically divisive strategies; and 5) plantation punishments. (Karenga p.125)
    It is interesting to note that Europeís intensification of African slavery occurred concurrently and before the decline of one of Africaís greatest academic and intellectual civilizations - the empire of Songhay and its University of Sankore at Timbuktu. (Anderson p. 62)
    The Protestant and Catholic clergy of Europe sanctioned and even encouraged the enslavement of Blacks on the grounds that the African heathens needed to be brought under the influence of Christendom and civilized. (Anderson p. 60)
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