Amidst the controversy that still simmers over footballer Israel Folau’s fire and brimstone Instagram post, one important aspect remains relatively undiscussed. Champions of free speech Alan Jones and Mark Latham have leapt to Folau’s defence with libertarian flair but what about another long-running issue – the misinterpretation or selective interpretation of the Bible itself.
Folau lists ‘drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters’ as those destined for the fire pits of hell, but makes no mention of ‘enslavers’ – the subjugators of men, women and children who have practised their evil since the year dot.
Slavery in all its many forms has been a monstrous blight on human civilisation and continues to be so even in 2019 where workers in third world countries are paid a mere pittance for their labour. Whilst the Bible has been well-thumbed to come up with quotations that apparently denounce homosexuality and support those who see it as a sin, what does it say about slavery? Basically, bugger all!
When it comes to outright condemnation in both the Old and New Testaments – the answer is virtually nothing. When it comes to both tacit support and outright endorsement then try:
“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” (Ephesians 6:5).
And you might also consider:
“When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are. If she does not please the man who bought her, he may allow her to be bought back again. But he is not allowed to sell her to foreigners since he is the one who broke the contract with her.” (Exodus 21:7-11 NLT)
The simple historical facts are that slavery in biblical times was the accepted norm. Whether the Bible refers to them as ‘servants’, ‘bondservants’ or ‘manservants’ they were all slaves – there to do all the hard yakka, the menial tasks, provide sexual favours and play an integral part in the economy.
Whilst there is no evidence of Jesus ever campaigning against slavery, some defensive Christians will point to the fact that in the Old Testament, Israelite regulations freed slaves every seven years and ordered the death penalty for man stealing – however, not exactly what you would call abolition.
Throughout history, the enslavers have regularly pointed to the Bible’s almost total lack of opposition to slavery to support their own slave holdings. This was often the case in America prior to emancipation where preachers held the good book high as a sign of God’s support for the inhuman trade and bondage. Somewhat ironically African slaves were introduced to Christianity by their white masters as a form of placation although they were often told that heaven was reserved entirely for the Caucasian.
In fairness, there are millions of modern day Christians who don’t accept a literal interpretation of the Bible and are prepared to read between the historical lines to draw their spiritual guidance and inspiration. On the other hand there are still millions more conservative Christians who view every word as the absolute truth, particularly those who subscribe to a creationist view – like the Australian born preacher Ken Ham who runs the Creationist Museum in Kentucky, believes the world is only 6,000 years old and that dinosaurs roamed during the Old Testament (Hey, I fact checked the Bible and couldn’t find one mention of a Stegosaurus).
Perhaps the Bible could do with a bit of updating and revision and some contemporary input from some of today’s more enlightened religious scholars. I tend to think that Jesus, given his empathy for the poor and down trodden, would have viewed slavery as vile and abhorrent. Maybe the status quo at the time and those that compiled and edited the Bible chose to conceal that concern to protect their own vested interests.
Hundreds of years later slave masters in America issued a special ‘Slave Bible’ to their African captives, deliberately censored to remove any suggestion of the promotion of freedom or lack of obedience. Needless to say, history and religion go hand in hand when it comes to repeating themselves – ad nauseam!