What Dan Savage Doesn't Know about the Bible and Slavery

During an April 13 keynote speech delivered to thousands of people attending a high school journalism conference in Seattle, "anti-bullying advocate" Dan Savage launched an expletive-filled tirade against Bible, stating that people should "learn to ignore the bulls--t in the Bible" about homosexuality because "we have learned to ignore the bulls--t in the Bible about shellfish, about slavery, about dinner, about farming, about menstruation, about virginity, about masturbation."

Continuing, Savage asserted that the "Bible is a radically pro-slavery document" and:

  • "Slave owners waved Bibles over their heads during the Civil War and justified it."
  • "The shortest book in the New Testament is a letter from Paul to a Christian slave owner about owning his Christian slave. And Paul doesn't say, 'Christians don't own people.' Paul talks about how Christians own people."
  • "... the Bible got the easiest moral question that humanity has ever faced wrong: slavery. What are the odds that the Bible got something as complicated as human sexuality wrong? One hundred percent."

Most of Savage's claims pertaining to the Bible are common atheistic talking points that have been addressed before and will likely be rehashed in light of his remarks.  Since I have written extensively about the issue of slavery in my book, Rational Conclusions, I have here adapted several passages from it that are applicable to this matter.

First and most succinctly, Savage's historical revisionism is at odds with primary sources that enlighten the events of the past, such as these words penned by former slave Booker T. Washington in his celebrated book, Up From Slavery:

If no other consideration had convinced me of the value of a Christian life, the Christlike work which the Church of all denominations in America has done during the last thirty-five years for the elevation of the black man would have made me a Christian.

In concert with this, when one studies abolition movements, we find that most of the leading figures who made immense personal sacrifices for this cause were dedicated Christians acting in accordance with Biblical principles.  These include William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, John Newton, James Ramsay, James Stephen, Elizabeth Heyrick, and many other Christians, whose selfless deeds are chronicled in academic texts like Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves.

What are these biblical principles?  The following passages in the book of Matthew and the epistle to the Romans should make the matter of slavery a very simple matter:

[Jesus said] in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

[Paul said] Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

How could anyone possibly reconcile the practice of slavery with these words?  Yet the historical record is clear in that a number of "Christians" attempted to do so.  In an 1856 book entitled Scriptural and Statistical Views in Favor of Slavery, a clergyman by the name of Thornton Stringfellow insisted that the words of Jesus quoted above are compatible with slavery because much the same thought appears in the Old Testament Book of Leviticus, yet that book supports slavery.

As we will see momentarily, Stringfellow's claim is deceptive on several accounts.  For now, however, the most basic principle for accurately interpreting the Bible (or anything else, for that matter) is to be truthful with ourselves.  Exploiting technical loopholes to avoid the obvious is a hallmark of intellectual dishonesty.  There is simply no rational way to square the Bible passages above with abducting innocent people and forcing them to work under threat of corporal punishment.  With this, we could consider the issue of slavery settled, but we're going pursue it further because much can be learned from it.

Another principle for accurately interpreting the Bible is to consider all the pertinent passages on a given topic.  Some parts of the Bible are open to varying interpretations if taken in isolation, but when we bring together all of the relevant material to arrive at a complete picture, the point is almost always clear, particularly when it comes to ethical matters.  For instance, it is true the Old Testament sanctions "slavery," but vast differences exist between this and the form of slavery with which we are familiar.

The first distinction is that people sold themselves (not others) into servitude.  In the Old Testament, the type of "slavery" sanctioned is not forcible.  It is something a person voluntarily enters into in exchange for money or a service.  This is amply proven by the following passages in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy:

Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death.

If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand him over to his master. Let him live among you wherever he likes and in whatever town he chooses. Do not oppress him.

An exception to this is in cases of criminal conduct.  A person caught stealing was required to make restitution to the victim, and if he could not, he was sold and the money given to the victim, as detailed in Exodus: "A thief must certainly make restitution, but if he has nothing, he must be sold to pay for his theft."  This certainly has similarities with our modern penal codes, in which criminals are sometimes sentenced to "imprisonment with hard labor."

It is also critical to consider the setting and historical context of each biblical book.  Simply quoting from the Bible can be misleading if we don't understand who is speaking, who is being spoken to, and the surrounding circumstances.

For example, the New Testament is set in the Roman Empire at a time when slavery was widespread and cruelty to slaves was at or near its peak.  As explained in the book Slavery in the Roman Empire, masters sometimes killed their slaves or hacked their limbs off simply to entertain guests.

During this time, the apostle Paul sent to churches and individuals various letters that became a significant part of the New Testament.  In these letters, Paul makes several references to slavery, such as one in the book of Ephesians, in which Paul tells slaves to be obedient to their masters.

At first glance, one might think this passage is supportive of slavery.  However, the same passage also instructs masters not to threaten their slaves and to treat them "in the same way" slaves are to treat their masters.  How could the institution of slavery exist under such guidelines?  The answer is that it can't.  So why doesn't Paul directly tell masters to set their slaves free?

This is where historical context becomes important.  The Roman historian Suetonius recorded that in the era when Jesus was born, the emperor Augustus enacted "many obstacles to either the partial or complete emancipation of slaves."  Thus, instead of calling for the release of slaves that would have resulted in a fruitless conflict with the Roman Empire, Paul undercut the institution of slavery by advancing values that are irreconcilable with it.

Some have tried to put a different slant on Paul's words by creatively interpreting them from the viewpoint that slavery was a benefit to the slaves, but we know Paul didn't think this way because in the first letter to Timothy, Paul included "slave traders" in a list of "ungodly and sinful" people.  Furthermore, he wrote the following in his first letter to the Corinthians: "Were you a slave when you were called? Don't let it trouble you -- although if you can gain your freedom, do so."

Further insight is found in the book of the Bible that Savage references, which is called Philemon.  It is so named because it was written by Paul to a Christian named Philemon, whose slave ran away, met Paul, and became a Christian.  Paul sent this slave (named Onesimus) back to Philemon with a letter stating:

I am sending him -- who is my very heart -- back to you. ... Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good -- no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. ... Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.

Here, Paul, in compliance with Roman law, sent a slave back to his master but told the master to welcome this person as he would welcome Paul himself: "no longer as a slave," but as a "dear brother."  Then he boldly enjoined the master to do "even more than I ask."  These were obviously instructions to set Onesimus free, or at the very least treat him as such if there were legal impediments to actually freeing him.

Also note how Paul used the term "brother."  This carries profound implications that ring throughout his writings, such as the letter to the Galatians, which states, "You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. ... There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

A minister named Charles Elliot eloquently articulated the same point in a book published two years before the start of the U.S. Civil War:

To apply the terms brethren and sisters to slaves, initiates a new element into the subject unknown to all slave laws, and all slavery principles. In the West Indies the pro-slavery men ... ridiculed the idea of brothers and sisters among the missionary Churches. They asked, "Can you make your negroes Christians, and use the words dear brother or sister, to those you hold in bondage? They would conceive themselves, by possibility, put on a level with yourselves, and the chains of slavery would be broken."

He also provided a poignant summary of the New Testament's response to the Roman slave system:

To have preached the emancipation of slaves, by the apostles, would have been the same as to attempt an overthrow of the Roman Government. And this civil emancipation would not strike at the root of the evil. Our Lord and his apostles, therefore, went to the source of the evil, by preaching the Gospel to both slaves and masters; so that, in carrying out the moral principles of our holy religion, and a moral practice under it, the great moral evils of the world were undermined.

Contra Savage's assertions, the Bible is a radically anti-slavery document, and this is proven not only by the words in it, but by the actions of the people who faithfully applied and still continue to apply the principles that it espouses.

James D. Agresti is the president of Just Facts, a nonprofit institute dedicated to researching and publishing verifiable facts about public policy.  He is the also the author of Rational Conclusions, a highly researched book evidencing factual support for the Bible across a broad array of academic disciplines.