As anyone who’s successfully completed any level of education knows, any decent curriculum will unfold gradually with the most basic lessons at the beginning and the most difficult at the end.
So, take a typical math curriculum for example. The first level of instruction will include lessons about counting to a certain number, counting by two’s and three’s, and maybe a little addition and subtraction.
But higher levels of instruction will cover concepts like algebra, problem solving, trigonometry, and functions. And in between those two levels are a series of progressive lessons that help prepare a student for the higher levels. The curriculum is designed to progressively reveal knowledge to the student.
Now what would you make of someone who looks at a curriculum like that and criticizes it by only ever looking at the fist level and says, “All their doing is counting and a little addition? They aren’t even doing long division? How is this a good math curriculum?”
And then they selectively quote from the primary lessons in order to convince other people that this is a bad curriculum. They point out how rudimentary and inferior this is because it doesn’t cover the topics and knowledge that many of us who are already educated take for granted.
Wouldn’t you think that was dishonest? Wouldn’t you think that was a slanderous and fallacious way of describing that curriculum? Well, something like that goes on when the Bible and the Church are discussed by critics all the time, especially on the topic of slavery.
You could describe the Bible as a kind of spiritual and ethical curriculum. It depicts the gradual and progressive unfolding of knowledge and experience for those who were being formed by God in history so that they could come to a full knowledge of what is good and true.
So you might identify one of the first lessons with the story of God’s liberation of the Jewish people from Egypt through Moses as his prophet. And in those stories, he gives them the 10 commandments and the Mosaic law.
But these are just the first lessons. God goes on to continue to reveal what is true and good throughout the history of these people until he reveals himself fully through the person and teachings of Jesus. Jesus is the calculus in this mathematical curriculum.
But what I see a lot of anti-Christian and atheistic critics doing these days, is quoting from the first lessons, going back to Moses and the law and saying, look at how evil the Bible is for not fixing all the objectionable things in his time.
You have to remember, the Bible is telling us about a people who had to be told that killing and stealing was wrong. God is starting at the rudest level of ethical understanding to help humanity know how to begin. So he starts with a legal system that introduces people to the concept and practice of justice. This is the 1+1 and counting by two’s lesson in ethics.
So on the topic of slavery, critics will quote passages from this first ethical lesson while ignoring everything that came after it, up to and including all the teachings and actions of the Church.
But the first thing I’d want to point out is that no other ethical curriculum in the world condemned slavery either. Every nation and civilization up until the middle ages had slavery. The Persians had it, the Chinese had it, the Egyptians had it, the Greeks and Romans had it, the indigenous people of the Americas had it, Africans had it, and the Islamic world… you better believe they had it. Mohammed personally owned and sold slaves.
So what we have are people taking cheap shots at Christianity for not abolishing slavery in the very fist ethical lesson of its curriculum and calling it inferior, even though no other ethical framework accounted for it either.
Again, using the math analogy, that’s like criticizing the first math lesson in a curriculum for not having long division and denouncing it as an inferior curriculum as a result, when no other math curriculum ever even gets to long division.
So the question then becomes, if long division is analogous to remedying the evils of slavery, does Christianity ever do it or can atheists continue to lay this charge at the feet of the Church?
Well, I would argue that Christianity does something far better than outlawing slavery. Outlawing something is the authoritarian approach to fixing something. It usually means identifying something you disapprove of, doing nothing to understand the implications of abolishing it, and just passing a law against it.
In the case of slavery, you have to understand that in the ancient world especially, slavery was very different from more modern versions and it was part of the fabric of stability for those peoples and it was, often, a lesser of alternative evils.
In the ancient world, things could get very desperate, very quickly for a lot of people and slavery was often a better alternative to you and your family starving to death.
People would sell themselves or family members into slavery because they knew that they couldn’t provide for themselves and this would at least give them the means to survive.
Now, I’m not defending that, but in many cases, there weren’t any alternatives. For someone to show up and simply outlaw slavery in that kind of context, it would mean that many of those people who chose slavery over starvation, would now be facing starvation again. That’s not a great solution.
So the Bible, and Jesus, never do that. They never call for the abolition of slavery as an absolute rule. They do something far better, they establish moral principles that we are all called to follow which eventually leads to the abolition of slavery all on its own.
Jesus tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves and that however we treat the least among us is how we treat him. And then those he leaves in charge tell us that in God’s eyes, there is no difference between a slave and a free person since we are all equal in Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
So it’s no wonder that as soon as the Roman Empire started to convert to Christianity, huge strides were made in improving the livelihood of its lowest subjects including slaves until you get into the middle ages in which Christianity and the Catholic Church are the moral conscience of European society, and slavery becomes more marginalized than ever before in history – to the point of being practically non-existent.
And if there’s any doubt about the Church’s stance, all you have to do is refer to her teachings. For example, when word reached Pope Eugene the IV that natives of the canary islands had been abducted and forced into slavery by Spanish colonialists, he issued a document called Sicut dudum which threatened excommunication against the perpetrators unless they returned those who were abducted to their freedom, land, and property.
And his successors, Pius II and Sixtus IV renewed those same moral exhortations with papal bulls of their own.
And when the Spanish and Portuguese started to settle the Americas, the abduction and importation of African slaves became part of that equation, and while European natural scientists were debating whether Africans and Native Americans were even human, Pope Paul III, issued a papal bull called Sublimis Deus which decrees that indigenous people found throughout the world are true men forbidding anyone from depriving them of their liberty or possessions by pain of excommunication.
Pope Urban VIII renewed that teaching in his bull Commissum nobis condemning those who reduce others to slavery to excommunication.
And it wasn’t until the early modern period, after the Protestant Reformation which severely marginalized the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, that slavery starts to reappear in Europe and the rest of the world.
Now, the Church’s record isn’t spotless when it comes to the implementation of the principles taught by Jesus or past popes, but there is still no doubt that her influence and those teachings contributed more to the abolition of slavery than anything else.
In instances in which Catholics were guilty of violating those teachings, we don’t have examples of Catholics being true to their Catholicism, we have Catholics who fail to be true to their Catholicism, instead preferring the fashionable morals of the contemporary society they find themselves in.
So, the lesson to take from those instances isn’t to blame the Church – the Church is clear in her condemnations of unjust treatment towards others. The lesson to learn is to watch out for Catholics who would rather fit in to fashionable currents of their day, then follow Jesus and his Church.
And it’s a lesson that is relevant to our current context, because we have plenty of clergy, bishops, and high profile Catholics who love to distort Catholic teaching so that they might fit in better with the waning fashions of thought of contemporary society. History will remember them just as harshly.
So the reality is, in a world in which everyone practiced slavery, Christendom was the first major civilization to marginalize and virtually end the practice. And internet atheists think that somehow the Church has some unresolved penance on the question of slavery.
Meanwhile, as recently as the 20th century, atheistic states like the USSR had to erect walls with machine guns to prevent their citizens from escaping their slave state and this very second, there are people in concentration camps in atheist China simply for believing in God.