In October, the Catholic bishops of Africa did an amazing thing. They asked forgiveness for the role played by Africans in the slave trade, both old and new, past and present. With over 150 cardinals and bishops in attendance, the conference acknowledged that slavery was made possible through the complicity of Africans. Note carefully, the bishops apologized in the name of all Africa, not just in the name of Catholic Africans. There’s a reason for this.
Secular commentators like to bash Christianity in general, and the Catholic Church in particular, for being soft on slavery. As Rodney Stark’s For the Glory of God readily demonstrates, they can get away with this only by studiously ignoring the historical facts.
Paul’s Letter to Philemon shows that Catholics have never been very thrilled with the slavery. Paul admits he could order Philemon to release the slave Onesimus, but he instead gives Philemon a chance to exercise Christian charity and release the slave himself, an act he should have undertaken even without Onesimus’ baptism. Given how tightly slavery was woven into the seam of Roman culture and politics, Paul’s approach to dismantling the institution was arguably the only way to detoxify the Empire of slavery’s influence. Following Paul’s example, the Church has always affirmed the slave’s right to be baptized, and has likewise always used baptism as one rationale to remove the baptized from bondage.
Popes and bishops followed Paul’s example through the millenia, constantly chipping away at slavery’s basic core. As slavery declined within the Empire due to rising Christian influence, Christian missionaries focused attention on the pagan north, where slavery was endemic. Indeed, the word “slave” comes from “Slav” precisely because so many Slavs were forcibly enslaved. By the ninth century, Catholic saints were attacking the Viking slave trade. Saint Anselm forbad the enslavement of Christians, and the bishops of tenth-century Venice did public penance for Venetian involvement in the enslavement of Muslims.
Outside of Christian Europe, things were considerably different. Islam’s sword destroyed Christian influence throughout the entirety of the North African coast. As a result, every Moslem territory had slave armies by the mid-800s. Christian boys were forcibly taken from their homes, forcibly converted to and raised in Islam, and then used as the military arm to defend against or conquer other Christians. Thus, even as Christianity dismantled the slave trade in northern Europe, Islam – a word that means “submit” – was re-establishing slavery throughout the southern Mediterranean. There was a reason for this, too.
You see, back, in the early 600’s, Mohammed’s supernatural visitor told him that the Old Testament Scriptures maintained by the Jews and Christians were corrupt. Errors had supposedly crept in, errors which Mohammed’s vision allegedly corrected. One of these errors concerned Abraham, Sarah and Hagar. According to Mohammed, Abraham did indeed have two sons: Ishmael by the slave girl, Isaac by the free woman. But according to Mohammed, Isaac was not the son of the promise. Instead, Ishmael, the son of the slave girl, received the promise of covenant from God. But this covenant isn’t what you think.
All the Jews are descendants of Judah, great-great-grandson of the free woman, while all the Arabs are descended from Ishmael, the son of the slave: on this, Arabs and Jews are in agreement. There is one, radical difference. According to Muslim theology, human beings are to God as a slave is to his Master. God is not Father. He is loving, He is generous, He is bountiful, but He is loving, generous and bountiful as a slave master is to a faithful slave.
The physical and spiritual descendants of the freed man, Isaac, see their relationship to God primarily in terms of family: God is Father, we are His Chosen People, His Family, His sons and daughters. The Psalms, the Prophets and certainly the New Testament are filled with this imagery. In contrast, the descendants of the slave’s son, Ishmael, see their relationship to God primarily in terms of enslavement. The Koran, the Moslem Scriptures, and the Hadith, the story of Mohammed’s life, is filled with slave imagery. These two different images explain all subsequent history.
By the twelfth century, when slavery was essentially unknown in Christian Europe, but well-known through contact with Muslims, Aquinas had declared slavery contrary to justice. However, the discovery of the New World brought the problem back to the forefront for Christianity. Christian conquerers argued that American natives were sub-human savages, incapable of rational thought, and therefore objects of slavery. Rome responded by threatening excommunication on everyone engaged in the slave trade, and sending missionaries to baptize the natives. She wanted to drive home the point: these men and women were not to be enslaved.
However, like today’s abortionists, the “Christian” slavers refused to accept Rome’s commands, and Rome had no troops to enforce her ruling. At the beginning, most of the slavers were Spanish. This should not be a surprise. The Moslems had crossed into and taken over Spain in 611 A.D., the last vestiges of Moslem military presence was only removed in 1492. Indeed, Columbus’ expedition to the New World was funded by the Spanish monarchy as part of their celebration in having finally taken back the Spanish peninsula. But nearly nine hundred years of Moslem occupation had left its mark on the Spanish. They were open to slavery.
The grandson to Isabella and Ferdinand, the Spanish King, Charles V, not only had enormous holdings in the New World, he also owned most of Italy; he had even sacked Rome itself. The Spanish treasury depended on slave labor. So, while pope after pope regularly published decrees against slavery, it didn’t do much good. Anyone who promulgated a papal decree in Spanish territory without the king’s consent, whether in the Old World or the New, was subject to the death penalty. Like Ted Kennedy and Tom Daschle, Charles V was the product of a particular culture.
Though the Protestant Reformation never entered Spain, Spain had her own rebellion, a rebellion that spread wherever Catholic influence was low. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, the Catholic Church was the only major Christian denomination speaking out against slavery. The British and Dutch had no qualms about it, nor did their Protestant churches make any protests against the practice.
The Church did what she could. Papal influence managed to moderate the Code Noir and Cadigo Negro Espanol, the slave regulations of Spain and Portugal, providing slaves special protections in Brazilian and Spanish territories that were not found in areas under British rule. The Jesuits managed to carve out a Catholic republic for native peoples in South America that lasted for one hundred and fifty years. These native communities, called reducciones, had schools, paved roads, arts, literature, industry and a form of representative government.
The existence of these communities, which were so prosperous that they rivalled the best Spanish and Portuguese communities in the New World, became a thorn in the Spanish side. The Spanish and Portuguese sent armies in to conquer them. The natives, well-taught by the Jesuits in military tactics, defeated both armies. As a direct result, the crowns expelled all Jesuits from Spanish and Portuguese territory in 1758. They eventually conquered and enslaved the inhabitants. Still, Rome continued to speak out against the evil. She had condemned slavery in 873, 1435, 1454, 1537 and 1686. She issued further condemnations in 1839, 1888 and 1889. Slowly, Catholic and Protestant nations prohibited the practice, with the United States lingering longest.
For Muslim countries, life went differently. Muslim slave armies continued to operate in an official capacity as late as 1863, when they were used in Mexico to support the French. Ethiopia and Liberia did not abolish slavery until 1930; Saudi Arabia did not officially abolish slavery until 1962. To this day, the Moslem slave army still operates. Right now, in Sudan, Christian boys and girls are kidnapped as their fathers are killed and their mothers raped to death in front of them. They are enslaved, forcibly converted to Islam, and then made to fight as shock troops in support of Muslim soldiers raiding other Christian communities.
Islamic theology is built on slavery. All followers of Mohammed consciously emulate his life. Mohammed bought, kept, sold and had sex with his slaves. Indeed, he had sex with girls as young as nine. That’s why the age of consent in Islamic countries is nine; that’s why the young girls enslaved in Christian Sudan are raped with Allah’s blessing, that’s why their Christian brothers fight and die procuring more slaves for their Moslem masters, that’s why clandestine slave markets are still found in Moslem countries.
Christ took the sins of the world unto Himself. He died for Jew and Gentile, Christian and Muslim. The slave trade involved both sinful Christians and righteous Muslims. That’s why the Catholic bishops of Africa apologized for slavery in the name of all Africans. Christianity is not about being like Mohammed, it is about being like Christ. That's what sets us free.
There’s really only one thing that can’t be explained.
Why do we sit idle?