There has been a fascinating and cordial discussion online recently between the Christian Tom Gilson and the atheist Bob Seidensticker about slavery and the ethical goodness of Jesus. I thought it deserving of some comment which may be of interest to those who have been following it.
I’m following the headings in Bob Seidensticker’s posts, and my comments are underneath each heading. If that seems confusing to follow, you can match it to his numbered posts here. Bob Seidensticker’s numbered headings each refer to particular comments that Tom Gilson made. My comments mainly cover Seidensticker’s responses to Gilson. The background is that Gilson has written a book on the ethical goodness of Jesus, and Seidensticker challenges it with the subject of his attitude to slavery. Where Seidensticker veers away from the subject of Jesus’ ethical goodness, I am passing over it to stay on topic. Seidensticker links to prior blogs written by Gilson.
1. Jesus came “to set the captives free”
Bob Seidensticker deserves an answer for “Where’s the rejection of slavery? “Captives” suggests people taken captive during battle, and “prisoners” suggests criminals in prison.”
Luke 4:17-21 is the passage in question. The fact is that this was invoking the Jubilee, which does actually call for the release of Hebrew slaves (Deut 15:1-18, where they are better characterised as “indentured servants” really).
It’s worth adding that Jesus here is also invoking the Golden Age vision of Isaiah 10, 11, 61, 65, in which lions become vegetarians and wolves and lambs sleep side by side, a time without oppression. Golden Age visions of Jesus’ era typically extended to imagining a world without slavery, and it would be strange to exempt Jesus from that. Seidensticker more or less concedes that: “Jesus didn’t end slavery because, in his mind, the end of this Age was at hand. Slavery would end at the same time.” Slavery would end: that is what Jesus would expect. That’s only half the story though. The Jubilee was for this world. Invoking the Jubilee was a signal to get on with living out the principles of the Jubilee. Living under Roman colonial rule, what could be achieved was limited, but Jesus did believe that his community of followers could model the age to come. (More on that later.)
However, referring to Luke 4, Seidensticker claims that “If overturning slavery was what Jesus meant, he would’ve stated that plainly.” This is open to challenge on at least two grounds. Firstly, this reductionist idea that only things stated plainly are said at all is an illusory understanding of human language. Jesus’ language is carefully coded in the way you expect of conquered peoples living under oppressive foreign colonial rule: the coded invoking of the Jubilee for was those who had ears to hear, not a message to the Romans.
This brings me to my second point. Seidensticker’s demand for a call to be issued by a subject people in occupied territory under ruthless Pontius Pilate for “a society-wide, perpetual rejection of the institution of slavery” may be described as historically naïve. Commentators need greater awareness of the perils of resisting Rome generally, and Pilate particularly (see Luke 13:1-3 and the stories in Josephus’ Antiquities about Pilate). That could sound like a slave revolt in the making and could have bloody consequences: imagine a pogrom of the Jews. The Romans crucified thousands to deter slave revolts. Goodness, even just claiming to be King of the Jews got Jesus executed by the Romans. His words in Luke 19:41-44 are not those of someone who wanted to throw Jews under the bus by openly publishing a manifesto for the end of Roman slavery. (Some examples of Roman ruthlessness towards slaves here: https://georgykantorblog.wordpress.com/2020/06/03/empire-slavery-violence-and-roman-politics/ .)
Seidensticker’s talk of calling for “a society-wide, perpetual rejection" of slavery, if naive, at least avoids the trap of thinking Paul could have called for the imminent release of all slaves. i.e. Would we be talking about a legal or illegal release? That historical error is common: because to release all slaves would be illegal under Roman law. Firstly, they had laws limiting how many slaves could be released; second they had laws that made it illegal to release slaves who were under the age of 30 (with only very specific exceptions). So there was no legal release of all slaves on the table. Which meant advocating release of all slaves would be advocating an illegal release, which would effectively be a declaration of war against the system. Cue Roman crackdown with lethal force. Should Jesus or Paul incite law-breaking and risk this? Hence, Seidensticker would be right if he is thinking that calling for a society-wide rejection of slavery is what is left - i.e. naively calling for a culture change in the empire. But we wouldn't wish the brutal consequences of such talk on anyone.
Meanwhile, in the context of his debate with Gilson, we should set aside his switches away from the subject of Jesus’ character such as “As for Jesus’s goal… There’s a lot of godly violence in the Old Testament.”
2. Jesus’s resurrection means we’re reconciled with God
Seidensticker here makes a switch away from the subject of Jesus, and I would set it aside except that it leads to Gilson’s next point that Seidensticker responds to. This is the switch: “As far as we read in the Bible, slavery wasn’t a moral problem to wrestle with… The Bible message is that slavery is only bad when it’s done to you.” There is an important contradiction in those two points. If it is bad when it is done to you, then it is bad, plain and simple (and the rabbis were adept at spotting such things). So, Gilson is correct to mention the Golden Rule. In that vein, I could say much about how the Israelites are repeatedly told in the Old Testament that they should know not to oppress foreigners because they themselves had been oppressed in Egypt. But that would be developing my conversation, not responding to their own. So…
3. “[Jesus] taught the Golden Rule, which necessarily leads to the end of slavery”
Seidensticker argues that
“the Golden Rule [was] applicable to just Jews. And the “others” in “do to others” was also likely interpreted to mean only fellow Jews.”
This is not convincing. As said, the Jews were told to remember not to oppress foreigners because they had been oppressed themselves in Egypt.
Seidensticker is not on his strongest ground here. He writes that the Golden Rule
“doesn’t “necessarily [lead] to the end of slavery.” This claim is ridiculous since slavery obviously didn’t end in Jesus’s time or in the time of his disciples. It continues today…”
As a side note, he seems unaware that in Jesus’ day there were actually Jewish groups who eschewed slavery in their communities as part of their vision for an ideal world. But to answer this point, just because multiple cultures practice slavery, it doesn’t erase the history of Christians abolishing slavery in particular times and places.
4. “[Jesus] condemned greed and self-centeredness, the root of the enslaving spirit”
Seidensticker comments: “Greed and self-centeredness? Now we’re really getting far afield.” Actually, Gilson does open up an important line of discussion here. There are three fundamental reasons why people do wrong when they desire them in dysfunctional ways: money, power, sex. Slavery is powered by these drives and cannot be stopped unless a culture recognises that greed and self-centredness are actually bad. Slavery is on the rise today, a day in which greed and self-centredness – lust for money, power, and sex – are celebrated at the heart of declining western culture. Just watch the methods of advertising on TV. But condemning greed is only a building block towards the western condemnation of slavery. Here is another building block:
5. “[Jesus] taught love for all, even enemies, which must lead to the realization that all persons have equal worth”
In answer, Seidensticker makes another switch from the subject of Jesus: “Oh, please. There’s the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Actually, the 1948 declaration was possible only because people had that insight long before. Since Seidensticker has switched from Jesus to later history, I will be cheeky and do the same and refer to the fact that this insight was explored in the anti-slavery writing of 4th century Christian author Gregory of Nyssa and of course in the writings of the abolitionists. 1948 was somewhat late to the party but very necessary and certainly merits the mention.
Seidensticker then switches away from the subject of Jesus again to the Old Testament, so we can move on.
6. “[Jesus] taught sexual morality” “[This] undercut one of the most unpleasant aspects of slavery as it was practiced then.”
Seidensticker again switches from the subject of Jesus to the Old Testament, so we can move on. But it is indeed worth recognising Jesus’ denunciation of lust in Matthew 5 and Paul’s explicit ban on sex outside of monogamous marriage in 1 Corinthians 7. This does outlaw sex with slaves.
7. Jesus’s overall anti-slavery message was clear
Seidensticker misses a good deal here. He writes, switching from Jesus to Paul:
“The indifference we find in Jesus we also see in Paul:
Were you a slave when you were called [to be a Christian]? Don’t let it trouble you. . . . Each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them (1 Corinthians 7:21–4).”
His elision above is unworthy. This is what he has removed with his elision: “if you can gain your freedom, do.” This is not what indifference looks like.
As for Philemon, Seidensticker comments: “that was just a letter with an appeal for clemency for one runaway slave that happened to be a friend of Paul’s. It was no attack on the institution.” It’s rather more than that. Paul asks a slave-owner to treat a runaway slave who has wronged him as his honoured guest, as Paul, himself, as a brother. This is resistance to slavery-culture.
Seidensticker keeps away from the words of Jesus – perhaps because he can’t actually find any comments from Jesus on the institution of slavery - citing multiple New Testament epistles instead. Therefore, I’m not going to do more than take one of them: “Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate but also to those who are harsh” (1 Peter 2:18). Actually, the Greek doesn’t say “those who are harsh” but those who are “crooked” (σκολιοῖς). And if we don’t stop there, 1 Peter 2:18-24 proves to be deeply sympathetic to slaves. It voices what slaves often knew: that their masters often abused them when they had done nothing wrong. And on that basis, it says to slaves that they are like Christ when he was wrongly abused, and Peter promises to slaves healing by Christ’s wounds. 1 Peter thus says that Jesus and slaves are identified with each other in their suffering. Again, this is not what indifference looks like.
8. Bible slavery was nothing like American slavery
Here, I would like to offer a corrective to points made by both Gilson and Seidensticker. Seidensticker sort of gives the nod to something Gilson says: “If slavery improved in first-century Judea as compared to Old Testament times, I would like to see evidence that it was due to Judaism.”
Actually, it's the other way round. Greco-Roman slavery of Jesus’ day was much worse for slaves than under the Old Testament Jewish law. In Jesus’ day in Palestine, the Jews were living under the Romans' slavery laws, and it is difficult to tell to what degree Moses’ laws existed side by side with Roman law. (Josephus gives us some clues.) The Romans industrialised chattel slavery, and theirs was probably the worst in human history up to that point. (Antebellum American slavery was worse still by far.) A comparison to illustrate the point: in antebellum history, two groups who worked on plantations were Irish and Africans. And the Irish were effectively indentured servants; whereas the Africans were chattel slaves. In Bible times, the Jews under the law of Moses were like the indentured servants; whereas slaves under Roman law - in Jesus’ day - were chattel slaves. Among Roman chattel slaves the most unfortunate worked in the mines and their lives were utter hell. (But unlike the enslaved Africans, some Roman chattel slaves in the cities fared somewhat better.) So, Moses’ law for Jewish “slaves” – like the indentured Irish on the plantations. Roman law for their slaves in the mines – like the enslaved Africans on the plantations.
Seidensticker tends to point to the laws about foreign slaves in Moses’ laws which fall in-between the two. This is getting very lengthy, so I would just refer to the scholarly discussion of foreign slaves in ancient Israel in the article “Orthodox Approaches to Biblical Slavery” by Gamliel Shmalo, published in The Torah U-Madda Journal, Vol. 16 (2012-13), pp. 1-20.
At a tangent, Seidensticker says “apologists will point to The Fall® and say that society’s problems are all mankind’s fault.” Surely an atheist precisely believes slavery is the fault of human beings. And in fact, prior to apologists, this argument about the Fall was used by abolitionists. It’s actually a very important argument that I’ve referred to elsewhere.
9. You underestimate how entrenched slavery was
This is an important statement by Gilson about historical background, but Seidensticker switches to theology: “Remind me sometime to explain what “omnipotent” means.” So we can move on and get back to Jesus.
10. Jesus did end slavery, just not right away
Gilson says that Jesus’ revolution of values led in the direction of changing society. Seidensticker: “it’s just handwaving to imagine it having changed the world.” This article is long enough, so I’ll signpost to Tom Holland’s recent bestseller which covers the good, the bad and the ugly in Christian history: Dominion.
In the end on slavery, Seidensticker claims something that he has not demonstrated: “The simplest explanation is that Jesus didn’t care”; but he does very fairly acknowledge that Jesus did have compassion for the disadvantaged. Seidensticker simply exempts slavery from Jesus’ compassion. This is nor persuasive. Let me offer some examples.
· Jesus was accused of having the lowest of the low for dinner pals, probably including prostitutes who were almost certainly slaves (Mark 2:15-17). You have to assume that he listened to their point of view on life. His parables often reveal horrific treatment of slaves, possibly reflecting their experiences.
· Jesus says that anyone who wants to be first among his disciples must be as a slave (Mark 10:44). This more or less forbids the disciples from being slave-masters.
· Corresponding to that, John 13:12–17 has the ground-breaking story of Jesus at meal-time choosing to do a slave’s job, bending down to wash the disciples’ filthy feet. And then telling them that he was modelling the way they were to be to each other. If they were to do that kind of thing, their Christian community wouldn’t “need” slaves. It would be their own job from now on. It really suggests that Jesus was setting up for his followers to be a non-slavery community like the Essenes, and that John’s Gospel was originally received in the church in that spirit.
Let’s see how Paul builds on Jesus’ ethics, by way of making some closing observations of my own.
· “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28)
o In other words, in the ideal world to come, there will be no slaves under human masters, and this is already the case spiritually with freedom “in Christ.” Notice that Paul doesn't say that "slave and master" are all one in Christ. He says "slave" and "free." It would send out a problematic message to say that "slave and master" are all one in Christ.
· It's the existence of masters that Paul sees as the moral problem. Relating to the Golden Rule, Paul writes: “do not use your freedom for self-indulgence… through love become slaves to one another… love your neighbour as yourself” (Gal 5:13-14).
o Here, Paul interprets “loving your neighbour as yourself” as each being one another’s “slaves” in mutual kindness. Thus, in describing his ideal picture of a Christian community, Paul eliminates "masters" from the equation, spiritually to begin with. (This shows the relevance of the Golden Rule to Paul.) This is quite a slap in the face to slave-masters. Only by taking the role of fellow slaves do they have a part in this.
o It means that the way Paul looked at the world, he knew there was a moral problem with the institution of slavery itself. It’s “masters” that Paul removes from this spiritual equation, meaning that the fundamental moral problem with the institution is people being “masters” over other people. If you are loving your neighbour how you love yourself, then you can't be your neighbour’s slave-master, because you wouldn't like it the other way round. Being the master is disqualified as a form of loving your neighbour in Paul's argument. This is resistance to slavery-culture and its fundamental inequality.
Seidensticker argues that Jesus and Paul chose to change nothing in society because the end was nigh. On the contrary, they were very much for the church modelling the values of the world to come where possible, and this is what we see in the above sample.
If Tom Gilson and Bob Seidensticker wish to comment on anything I have written, that would be more than welcome, and I am grateful to them for having such a stimulating discussion.