Church and slavery: struggling or…?

How blaming slavery means supporting it for the Church

Feuerbach, one of the main German philosophers of all time, once said that the core of development of mankind is dialogue, communication among men. Confrontation regarding certain topics is definitely what can assure a positive development of human cultural and ethical identity.

One of the most discussed topics of all time is certainly religion.

In recent times, I found myself challenged in a very pleasant confrontation concerning the actual coherence of the Church, mainly focusing on what concerns the administration of material properties and the conciliation of spiritual power with the objective and concrete needs, especially the economic ones.

We’ve seen that, throughout history, the behaviour adopted by the Church has never been completely stable and coherent since it had to undergo strict rules that were imposed by historical events.

Moreover, we’ve also seen how often preaching can become indoctrination, as the Church’s work often exceeds the main philosophical values that represent the actual basis of our modern cultural identity.

At the end of February I have published an article named “Fools on Parade,” which received a well argued reply, that would invite me to keep up the confrontation by sustaining my ideas again. I then decided to publish another story, called “ again on Parade at the Vatican,” which was immediately replied to. I have found an email reply in my inbox just a very few hours after my response was published.

I have found the objections again very well argued and extremely pleasant to read:

“There is no doubt that the Church sticks its holy nose into the sphere of men as in politics. One has to ask however how one can condemn this on one hand and condemn the reverse on the other. The seeming non action by Pope Pius in relation to the horrors of Nazi Germany is in stark contrast to the hundreds of individual actions by many catholic clergy throughout Europe during those dark days. The death in the camps of hundreds of priests and nuns who did their best to help those oppressed people, Jews, Gays, Communists and the many others who suffered at the hands of the politically right wing dictatorships in Italy, Germany and Spain throughout the middle period of the last century is telling.

I note the point of slavery and the churches attitude to it in the past. I note equally that Mr. De Arcangelis is a classical scholar whose specialty is Greek and Latin, and would ask him if the glories of Ancient Greece and Rome could have been achieved without slavery. The breading ground of Europe’s and eventually the world’s democracies, Greece, was stoutly Slavery oriented and indeed the USA abolished Slavery only relatively recently. My own personal experiences in the US over many years suggest that the racist mind set still exists in many minds despite the accession of a ‘man of colour’ to the position of US president”

Slavery. Christianity and the Church were often criticized due to their passive behaviour towards this boiling problem and their complicity with the slavery system. It is an historical question which is asked by the historian to the theologian.

We should wonder why it was necessary to wait until 1839 and an “in supremo” letter by the pope Gregory XVI in order to finally see that the Church condemning the black slave’s trade and the thought structures which had sustained physical slavery institutions for years and years.

In ancient times, slavery was never considered as something unbearably evil, which had to be exorcised out of any civil society. The existence of this phenomenon was a pure and simple fact. The whole of Sumerian and Acadian literature doesn’t show any trace of protest against it.

If Moses saves his people which were forced into slavery and Jeremy violently blames those who turn their brothers into slaves, it is also true that the Old Testament doesn’t carry any protest against this plague. During the last centuries of the Roman Empire, slavery was in a regression phase, although it was still existing in several sectors of society. It wasn’t even discussed by the Church, the most powerful ideological authority at the time, that would simply recommend a suitable treatment towards slaves, seldom suggesting to set them free, in order to please the Lord and justifying this act with the slaves’ will for redemption.

In fact, the Church believed that a slave, since he was given a soul by God, was equal to any free man when judged by the supreme heavenly authority, although this wouldn’t involve the subversion of the current social order. History shows that the Church was actually born in a social environment where slavery appeared to be coherent with the natural and divine scheme of things.

The acceptance of slavery was so deeply rooted, not only in free men’s conscience, but also in the conscience of those who had to undergo it, that it wasn’t impossible to distinguish the idea of wellness from the possibility to have slaves.

Even if the Church would blindly accept slavery as a necessary institution triggered by original sin, it soon demonstrated some certain interest towards this phenomenon and stated that the owner should treat his slaves as brothers in Christ. This doesn’t show any will to ban slavery at all. The fact that Christians would accept this institution until the XVIII century without any real kind of protest proves a high grade of tolerance towards slavery itself, even if men were equal in the eyes of God and this reality would stay a contradiction. Christianity managed to give a solution to the contrast between allowance and prohibition, managed to explain it rationally and to raise power and, at the same time, abolition ideals.

Slavery was considered as a punishment, a direct consequence of sin or a spiritual lack that would prevent people from behaving according to virtue schemes. Slaves were children of Canaan, a man without reason or a sinner that would despite the truth. Stoics and Christians would aim all their efforts to acknowledge the distinction between real and apparent slaves. It was said that a slave could actually be freer than his owner and that he couldn’t sustain his activities without the contribution of slaves, becoming, actually, the real slave himself (this is also what Hegel theorized).

During the middle age, the Church started questioning slavery but all the critics were a direct consequence of practical needs: for example, the Lutheran revolution seriously menaced the integrity of the Christianity and the pope then decided to set many black slaves from Guinea free.

By catching, buying or setting slaves free, the Church hoped to hit and damage atheism in general.

Many theologians and priests, as well as philosophers and jurists declared black slave’s trade fully legal.

For more than 2000 years, men considered sin as a form of slavery. Finally, they consider slavery as a sin.

The Church would allow this subversion but has also been allowing the strengthening of the slavery institution for centuries, by justifying the practical and material interests by means of theologically mystic-ish explanation. Another example of incoherence then.