One contribution to the conversation was made on the Thought for the Day segment on Radio 4’s Today programme by Rev Professor David Wilkinson who made the statement (and I may be paraphrasing as the transcript is not available yet) that in the past some people had tried to defend slavery using the bible. In the next breath he appealed to William Wilberforce’s speech to parliament specifically as a parallel to the consciousness raising effect of 12 Years a Slave, but also as a counterpoint to religious culpability for slavery.The problem I have with this is that there is absolutely no difficulty whatsoever in defending slavery with the bible and little evidence of religion being motivated to repudiate it.
So first of all what does the Bible say about slavery? It couldn’t be clearer than in Leviticus 25:44-46
44 ‘“Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. 45 You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. 46 You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.So pretty much carte blanche to enslave any foreigner you come across, direct from the deity’s mouth so to speak. Incidentally, that last bit about not ruling over your fellow Israelites is the get out of jail free card some apologists use to argue it wasn’t really slavery, just bonded labour. But what the Bible goes on to say about that refers exclusively to the Israelites, not foreign slaves: they’re yours for ever.
Influenced as he was by Methodism Wilberforce was very much on the evangelical wing of the Anglican Church and possessed a strongly humanitarian view of Christianity. In this the apologists are justified in saying his religion started the process of abolition (at least as far as Britain was concerned) of the slave trade. But what is not mentioned is that the conservative elements against whom Wilberforce was arguing were of the British Christian establishment and equally comfortable with their pro-slavery position. As well they might be…
Ephesians 6:5-8Now this is couched in Paul’s usual apocalyptic assumption that the end times were just around the corner so the slaves would soon be “free” as saved Christians. But, there is nothing in here to suggest that slavery as an institution was being condemned. Certainly none of the canonical gospels have Jesus even commenting on the practice let alone repudiating it.
New International Version (NIV)
5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.
There is no doubt that William Wilberforce is deserving of the reputation he earned over the abolition of the slave trade and whether his faith informed his humanity or vice versa, though moot, is probable irresolvable but there is nothing intrinsically Christian or Biblical to explain his zeal. One can only assume that like many Christians today he defined his religion by selectively choosing those aspects that chimed with his morality and ignored the rest.