Christians in slavery

January 14, 2015
A tower in Corsica that was part of defenses built between 1530 and 1620 to protect from  pirates, who frequently attacked to capture Christian slaves. Photo by Tanos under a Creative Commons license.

Churches in Africa and Asia often find themselves having to think seriously about issues that in the West are long forgotten. One issue these churches may have to confront is one of the oldest dilemmas for Chris­tians—slavery.

Plenty of modern scholars have addressed the theological dimensions of human bondage, tracing the bitter conflicts between Christian slaveholders and Christian abolitionists. Far less noticed are the many situations throughout history in which Christians were themselves enslaved by nonbelievers and had to formulate ways of retaining their faith.

That issue surfaces repeatedly in the New Testament, but it did not simply go away when the Roman Empire accepted Christianity. In fact, it remained a matter for im­passioned debate until quite modern times.

Today slavery is once more on the political agenda as the result of the depredations of terror groups like the Islamic State, which proudly boasts of enslaving captives in Iraq. Their statements also note the taking of Christian slaves by like-minded groups in Nigeria and the Philip­pines. In coming years we are likely to see many episodes such as the recent mass kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls. These may become so commonplace that they will cease to shock the global conscience.

One response is to consider intervention and rescue, or crushing the perpetrators. But let us assume that such actions are not immediately effective and that Christian populations find themselves in long-term captivity. How can churches understand these actions, and how can ordinary believers respond?

Such questions form the subject of a remarkably long literature created in urgent response to desperate practical needs. The famous writings of Ireland’s St. Patrick, for example, focused heavily on the situation of Christian slaves, above all that of abducted women subjected to sexual exploitation. He praised their astonishing resilience and their ability to maintain their faith.

Commonly, the slavemasters of Christians have been Islamic rather than pagan. From the 14th century on­ward, Turkish Muslims ex­panded their power over the rapidly shrinking Byzan­tine Empire, conquering heavily Christian territories in Ana­tolia and southeastern Europe. Islamic holy warriors carried out raids deep into infidel territories, making Christians dread these ghazi raids or razzias.

Between 1500 and 1800, Christian Europe was multiply assailed by raiders and slave traders as North Afri­can pirate fleets ranged as far as Iceland and Ireland. Many thousands of Christians, in­cluding clergy, found themselves facing lifelong servitude in Muslim societies or decades of hunger, toil, and torment. (Of course, Chris­tians in these years also held many Muslim slaves.)

How should Christians respond to enslavement? In the 14th century Greek bishops urged captives to retain their faith at all costs. Churches also tried to succor or ransom captives.

That effort inspired Cath­olic religious orders such as the Mercedarians, who placed themselves under Our Lady of Ransom. (The order will celebrate its 800th anniversary in 2018.) Apart from collecting and channeling money to free slaves, members of the order added a special vow that they would personally give up their own freedom and even their lives if that was required to free Christ’s faithful. In one famous case in 1240, a brother named Sera­pion pledged himself as a hostage in exchange for some captives. When a ransom was not forthcoming, Algerian Muslims crucified him.

Martin Luther was also agonizingly aware of slavery. In 1520, discussing the right of a Christian community to choose and ordain clergy without episcopal approval, he imagined “a little group of pious Christian laymen taken captive and set down in a wilderness.” Surely, said Luther, those captive Chris­tians must choose clergy from among their number to carry out the sacraments and preserve their faith, even if that meant going outside traditional church institutions.

Luther’s concerns grew more urgent following the Ottoman occupation of Chris­tian Hungary and the siege of Vienna, when Islamic forces threatened to push deep into Germany. During that crisis, he addressed himself to the many Christians who had already fallen into captivity and the still larger number who might soon follow them. He urged them to obey their unbelieving masters, as St. Paul had instructed his own contemporaries. Christian slaves should not seek to escape but rather accept their miserable condition as their personal Calvary. Above all, they should resist conversion, even if that would vastly ease their suffering.

The best hope that Luther could offer slaves was the belief that Ottoman successes portended the approaching end times. As it did for African Americans in later centuries, slavery generated an apocalyptic hope.

Patrick, Luther, the Mer­cedarians—these figures de­veloped thoughtful Chris­tian responses to the nightmare of slavery. It is horrible to think that modern churches might need to rediscover their lessons.


If I Were Asked to Convert

If I were taken prisoner, enslaved, and then asked to convert, say to Islam, in order to reduce my pain, what would I do? I would seek God's approval and then convert. It would not be a conversion of the heart exactly, but neither would it be totally insincere. I would zealously join every Quran study I could, and pray publicly and privately to the Islamic God. Eventually the group conscience would get around to slavery. Is it really the will of God?

Slaves in the U. S. A. wisely converted to Christianity, in most cases very sincerely, and eventually the religion of their slavemasters helped to free them. For how can one truly consult the Holy Spirit of the One God and come out on the side of slavery?

The idea of resisting conversion at all cost is part of our Bible (in Daniel and Revelation for example). It is based in part on the idea that Confession of Faith is paramount. But it may be more in the spirit of the Suffering Servant to love your captors, embrace their Holy Book, make Communion with them, etc.

What if part of conversion were to enslave, torture, or kill others? There I would draw the line.