I wrote this piece for the weekly bulletin at a Melbourne church that generously supports and prays for me in the work I do with the Christian Union at La Trobe University.
“The Bible also says that slavery is a natural condition.”
This is how our former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, responded to a question on Q&A just before the recent election.
Watch it in context here:
As you can see, Mr Rudd’s response was greeted with rapturous applause.
He went on to offer this justification: “Because St Paul said in the New Testament, ‘slaves be obedient to your masters’. And, therefore, we should have all fought for the Confederacy in the US war. I mean, for goodness sake, the human condition and social conditions change…”
Since then, his response has come in for serious (and much-deserved) questioning.
So was Mr Rudd right?
Was Mr Rudd right to equate the slavery spoken of in the Bible with slavery in pre-Civil War America?
Historians will tell you, the answer is ‘No’.
There were major differences. For example, slaves in the Roman Empire enjoyed many freedoms mostly because they weren’t obviously identified on the basis of their skin colour.
Was Mr Rudd on shaky ground when he took one of the specific biblical instructions to slaves and turned it into a general endorsement of the condition of slavery?
The Bible speaks in some detail about what to do when someone is murdered. But it is not endorsing murder when it does so. It is attempting to retrieve some good from a tragic situation and avert a miscarriage of justice or full-scale blood feud.
Much the same could be said of slavery.
Did Mr Rudd get his ancient sources scrambled?
It’s possible. The Greek philosopher Aristotle explicitly calls it a natural condition.
But the Bible does actually say that slavery — of a certain kind — is a natural condition.
In fact, Jesus himself says it: “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8.34)!
According to Jesus, slavery — spiritual slavery — is the ‘natural condition’ of anyone who sins.
It wasn’t what God intended. It wasn’t how we were made. But it’s where we all find ourselves anyway.
Any yet it is precisely this ‘natural condition’ that Jesus came to free us from.
But Jesus goes on: “The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there for ever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8.35-36)
Gloriously, Jesus came to free us from our spiritual slavery so we could become God’s children!
And it’s this message of liberation and adoption that shapes what St Paul says about economic slavery.
For example, speaking to Philemon about his runaway slave Onesimus (who’d become a Christian), Paul says: “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother” (Philemon 15-16).
Ultimately, this basic biblical message of liberation and adoption in Jesus calls the entire institution of slavery into question. (And it was this, not a revisionist impulse to set aside the teaching of Scripture, that propelled the likes of Wilberforce to overthrow institutional slavery when they had opportunity.)