It’s very easy for Christians to point the finger at slavery and say “what a horrible practice that was.” It’s easy to say because it’s one of the few things Christians can still say to the approving murmurs of pagan America.
It’s much less popular to point out that the Old Testament Law gives some uncomfortable regulations for slavery, even dubbing slaves the “property” of owners (Ex 21.21). Modern preachers generally get around this by arguing that regulating slavery does not mean condoning it, or something along those lines. “The Biblical vision was always for the abolition of slavery,” we’re told. Um, yes and no.
Our association of slavery with the horrors of the 19th century and before is what makes us have to downplay the OT laws about slavery. The last thing we want is to be branded “racist” by tackling the subject more honestly.
May I humbly suggest that slavery continues to this day? It’s very simple. It’s called debt.
“The rich ruleth over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender.” Proverbs 22.7.
If you don’t pay your credit card off, they can take you to court. If you don’t pay off your mortgage, the bank can take your house. Slavery is simply the fact of having to satisfy the demands of someone who has a legal claim on you or your property. That’s why there’s so much paperwork involved in closing on a loan. You’re giving permission to lots of people to own you.
Starting with this basic definition, the OT commands make sense. Slavery can run amok and turn into the horror of Mississippi c. 1850. Or it can be as common place, and relatively innocent, as a young couple becoming “indentured” to the bank for the sake of owning their first home. But because it is common throughout history, it would only be merciful for God to define its parameters so it doesn’t turn into a ruthless horror.
I would even suggest that slavery, as I am choosing to define it, is a merciful option in some cases. Picture the seething mass of unemployed welfare recipients sitting in their decaying homes slowly sinking into deeper and deeper depression. What would be better — the government based feudalism that keeps them from starving — or for a private benefactor to intervene? “I will pay off your debts and give you food and lodging. But you must sign a contract to come clean my house for the next seven years.” That would be slavery, by my definition, and a much more merciful thing than most poor people are forced to endure.
Of course slavery can be abused and lead to the horrors of mutilated slaves, raped and tortured slave girls, and children torn from their parents and parceled out on the market. How much more horrible when those abuses are based on skin color. But before we use these abuses to start explaining away the OT treatment of slavery, reinterpreting Paul’s admonition for slaves to obey their masters as only “relevant to his own time,” and making ourselves look pious by praising movies like “Amistad,” let’s start with a recognition of what slavery is at its root, and the fact that even today it is incredibly common, in both white and black man’s America.