Jews, Christians and Muslims confront racism and inequality
Over three decades ago, I lived in a Jesuit house in Ghana overlooking the Atlantic and the fishing port of Moree. From that house, I could see a 1612 Dutch trading post called Fort Nassau that takes its name from the House of Orange-Nassau, the royal family of the Netherlands. Portuguese merchants traded in gold and human beings on the coast of what is now Ghana from the late 15th century, but in the 17th century, the Dutch acquired by conquest those Portuguese holdings, continuing their involvement with gold and slaves until the 18th century, when they sold their interests to the British.
All three European powers traded with coastal and inland African populations who sold them human beings, often captives in war. Approximately 18 million Africans were taken from Africa between 1500 and 1900, but only 11 million crossed the Atlantic; others were taken across the Sahara to North Africa and the Middle East or across the Indian Ocean to slave markets in southwest Asia. One conclusion scholars have reached is that Brazil and the Caribbean received the most enslaved Africans in those centuries, but by 1860 nearly four million people of African descent lived in bondage in the United States.
Slavery is a reality almost as old as humanity, but it manifests itself in different forms. Jews, Christians and Muslims have known both sides of slavery, not only subjugation as slaves but also domination over slaves. What insights can we gather from these faith traditions to equip us to face up to the continuing phenomena of racism and inequality for people of enslaved African descent?
Slavery in the tradition of Israel
The narratives in Genesis serve as prelude to the salvation history of Israel, in particular the lengthy account of Israel’s experience of escape from Egypt and its return to the Promised Land. Genesis provides insights into how faithful Israelites of old, and modern Jews as well, have understood the situation of those enslaved. The stories of creation and the post-Edenic corruption of the descendants of Adam and Eve lead to the narrative of Noah beginning a new humankind after the great flood. Noah’s son Shem in later tradition was construed as the origin of Semites, especially Israel; Japhet similarly was later thought to be the origin of Europeans, and especially the Greeks who colonized the eastern Mediterranean; Ham, the third son, was traditionally connected with Egypt. It was this third son who “saw the nakedness of his father” (Gen 9:21), when Noah had drunk too much new wine. Genesis asserts that Ham became “the father of Canaan” (Gen 9:18), the indigenous people among whom Abraham and Lot settled when they first came to the land of promise. Shem and Japhet are blessed by Noah, but Ham, and especially his son Canaan, are condemned to slave status, an ironic reversal of Israel’s own later situation of enslavement in Egypt (Gen 9:26). Ham fathers not only Canaan but also several peoples in the Nile valley, the Sinai Peninsula and the Horn of Africa (Gen 10:6-7). The Book of Genesis does not identify Ham with Black people in Africa, but the ancient Jewish commentary on Genesis, Bereshit Rabbah, may have given birth to that racist notion.
After the stories of human origins, the Book of Genesis turns to its central narrative, the account of Abraham and his descendants, beginning with the patriarch migrating to the land of promise. Enslaved people play central roles. His long-childless wife Sarah bids the patriarch to seek a surrogate mother in “an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar” (Gen 16:1). When, however, Sarah gives birth to Isaac in her old age, she demands of Abraham that he “cast out this slave woman with her son” (Gen 21:10). God provides for both of Abraham’s sons, enslaved and free, by rescuing them from near death, the first as a scapegoat driven into the wilderness with his mother (Gen 21:8-21), and the second offered as a sacrificial victim (Gen 22:1-19). God in both of these narratives proves more merciful than human beings.
All of these Genesis origin stories serve as prelude to the history of Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. In its legislative texts the Pentateuch distinguishes between enslaved Hebrews and enslaved aliens. Enslaved Hebrews were mainly male debtors working off their financial obligations as indentured laborers for a limited period, to be freed in the seventh year (Exod 21:2-3). In later Israelite law, enslaved foreigners came in for different treatment. The Holiness Code in the Book of Leviticus, written down after the Babylonian exile, reflects the temple priests once enslaved “by the rivers of Babylon” (Ps 137:1). “It is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves… These you may treat as slaves, but as for your fellow Israelites, no one shall rule over the other with harshness (Lev 25:44-46). The conscience of Israelites was not comfortable with such a discrepancy made between an enslaved Hebrew and an enslaved alien, the latter more literally ‘eved kan’ani, “an enslaved Canaanite.”
In the Babylonian Talmud, there is at least one indication that the liberation of such an alien slave could be accounted a good deed (mitzvah). Solomon Zeitlin (d. 1976), a famous professor of Jewish tradition, paraphrases the Talmud’s account of how Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (first and second century A.D.) liberated an enslaved alien in order to create the minyan (quorum of ten men) needed for a synagogue service. The Talmud records an objection made to this particular manumission, but it also records the response to that objection. “Anyone who frees his Canaanite slave violates a positive mitzvah, as it is stated with regard to Canaanite slaves: ‘You will keep them as an inheritance for your children after you, to hold as a possession; they will serve as bondsmen for you forever’ [Lev 25: 46]. How, then, could Rabbi Eliezer have freed his slave? The Gemarah (the commentary within the Talmud on the Mishnah) answers, ‘It is a mitzvah that comes through a transgression, [but] a mitzvah that benefits the many is different, and one may free one’s slave for that purpose’” (Berakhot 47b). In a legal situation like this, one has a perfect example of how Israel’s faith and morality go beyond the letter of the Torah.
The commitment of Jews to the liberation of all slaves emerges only at a later period in Jewish history. Although Jews engaged in the slave trade on a smaller scale than did Christians and Muslims in the Middle Ages, and afterward up to the 19th century, the rabbi and historian Bertram Wallace Korn (d. 1979) narrates how American Jews in the 19th century, at least in the pre-Civil War era, conformed to their respective cultural settings, South and North. “Although Jews in Philadelphia and New York City were active in the early abolition movement, Jewish merchants, auctioneers and commission agents in the Southern states continued to buy and sell slaves until the end of the Civil War.”
Reform Judaism, imported from Germany to the United States in the 19th century, represents the faith of the largest group of American Jews today. An early German Reform rabbi, David Einhorn (d. 1879), had engaged in controversial positions in his early career in Europe that he was forced out of the leadership of Reform temples in Germany and Hungary. Migrating to Maryland in 1855, Rabbi Einhorn’s repeated denunciation of slavery from the pulpit in Baltimore meant that he had to escape mob violence there in 1861, the year the Civil War began. Temples in Philadelphia and New York proved more welcoming.
Jewish voices opposing racism of every kind have continued to make themselves heard down to the present today. The late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (d. 1972) joined Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama in 1965. “When I marched in Selma,” he said, “my feet did the praying.” Rabbi Heschel’s daughter, Susannah Heschel, recently recalled how her father and the Reverend King had both participated in a 1963 meeting of the National Conference of Christians and Jews on religion and race. Heschel opened his talk at that meeting with a prophetic flourish: “At the first conference on religion and race, the participants were Pharaoh and Moses. The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The Exodus began, but it is far from being completed.”
Slavery in the Christian tradition
Christians, like Jews, took slavery for granted, as part of the world economic system at the time of Christ and for many centuries thereafter. The so-called Deutero-Pauline letters feature stock moral exhortations for wives to obey their husbands, children to obey their parents, and slaves to obey their masters (Eph 6:5-9; Col 3:22-4:1; 1 Tim 6:1-2; Titus 2:9-10). In Paul’s autograph writings, however, the apostle has a more ambivalent attitude toward slavery. He tries to avoid giving the impression that the Christian Gospel has come to destroy civil society as he knew it in the Roman Empire. Thus, in 1 Corinthians, Paul urges new Christians not to seek any change in their social status. “Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave.” (1 Cor 7:21-22). Immediately after making this statement, however, Paul qualifies it, mindful, perhaps, of the possibility of Christian debtors or other indigent members of the Church selling themselves into slavery. The redemption from sin by the death and resurrection of Christ, experienced in baptism, precludes any willing acceptance of slave status. “You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings.” (1 Cor 7:23). Paul, however, is finally more concerned with the eternal status of his converts. “Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.” (1 Cor 7:24).
When Paul was writing this passage, he still expected the parousia, the return of Jesus as Lord and Messiah, to happen soon. Taken out of this context, this passage from 1 Corinthians does not indicate his approval of slavery. The imminent return of Jesus was for Paul the reason why no Christian, whether of Jewish or Gentile origin, should engage with socioeconomic change or change one’s religious status as a Jewish or a Gentile Christian: “Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.” (1 Cor 7:18-20).
Quite different from this early letter of Paul’s, the Letter to Philemon addresses an individual, Philemon, a Christian converted by Paul. It deals with a particular case of slavery and the self-emancipation of a slave named Onesimus. Once owned by Philemon, he sought refuge from those searching for slaves who had absconded with Paul during one of the apostle’s three periods of imprisonment. The apostle was not free when he wrote the letter; that must be kept in mind when evaluating what he writes about Onesimus to Philemon. Paul also plays on the name of the slave: onēsimos in Greek means “useful.” Onesimus’ life as a fugitive slave was fraught with danger. Onesimus became a Christian under Paul’s tutelage while he was on the run. By means of the letter to Philemon, Paul returns Onesimus to his owner, but with a great difference, one that involved a play on the slave’s name. “I appeal to you for my son Onesimus,[a] who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you” (Phm 8-12).
Paul in prison needs an assistant and he boldly asks Philemon to emancipate Onesimus for that task, “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 fellow man and as a brother in the Lord” (Phm 16). The baptism of Onesimus changed his relationship to Philemon dramatically, not only in purely human terms (“in the flesh”), but also in Christian terms (“in the Lord”). Paul cleverly intertwines his request for the assistance of Onesimus with what classical rhetoric calls praeteritio, passing over a subject while actually mentioning it. “I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self” (Phm 19). Paul reminds Philemon of how he and his family received baptism at his hands. “I do wish, brother, that” the apostle continues, “I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.” (Phm 20-21). Paul was not only an apostle but also an astute bargained.
The Letter to Philemon did not end slavery in Christian history; we have no evidence as to how Philemon received it, other than the fact that it was preserved. Although slavery declined as a phenomenon in Christian Europe after the accession of Constantine to the imperial throne, the wars in the Mediterranean between Christian and Muslim forces of the late first millennium and the first half of the second resulted in Muslims captured and enslaved by Christians and Christians captured and enslaved by Muslims.
At the battle of Lepanto in 1571, a major Christian victory in the struggle with the Ottoman Empire, more Christians died as galley slaves in the Ottoman fleet than Muslims died as galley slaves in the fleet of the Holy Alliance. Giovanni Bruni, the Catholic Archbishop of Bar in what is now Montenegro, met his death at the hands of Spanish Catholic sailors who had boarded the Sultana, the flagship of the Ottoman fleet. So intent were these Spaniards on plunder and violence that they failed to understand the galley-slave archbishop’s plea for them to spare his life.
Popes at various times have condemned the slave trade, but, paradoxically, not the institution of slavery itself. The late Judge John T. Noonan, Jr. (d. 2017), a renowned historian of the evolution of law and ethics, argued that Catholic doctrine has changed with regard to slavery, moving from teaching the legitimacy of slavery to teaching its illegitimacy. This changed teaching is expressed clearly in the discussion of the seventh commandment (“Thou shalt not steal”) in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The seventh commandment forbids acts or enterprises that for any reason – selfish or ideological, commercial, or totalitarian – lead to the enslavement of human beings, to their being bought, sold and exchanged like merchandise, in disregard for their personal dignity. It is a sin against the dignity of persons and their fundamental rights to reduce them by violence to their productive value or to a source of profit. St. Paul directed a Christian master to treat his Christian slave ‘no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother…. both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord’.” (Phm 16).”
A much more dramatic example of that change in teaching can be seen in the address that Pope Saint John Paul II gave in 1992 on the island of Gorée off the coast of Senegal. Gorée is the site of the oldest Catholic church in Senegal, but also, and more notoriously, the place of the “House of Slaves,” the embarkation point for generations of enslaved Africans sent to the Caribbean. “On coming to Gorée, where one would have loved to be able to give oneself over entirely to thanksgiving, how can one not be overcome with sorrow at the thought of the other facts this place evokes? Visiting the ‘House of Slaves’ reminds us of the trade in Black people, which [Pope] Pius II, writing in 1462 to a missionary bishop departing for Guinea, qualified as ‘an immense crime’ (magnum scelus). During an entire period in the history of the African continent, Black men, women and children were forcibly brought to this small place – torn away from their land, separated from their families – to be sold here as merchandise… These men, women and children were the victims of a shameful form of commerce in which baptized people took part, people who did not live out their faith. How can we forget the enormous sufferings imposed on peoples deported from the African continent, in defiance of the most basic human rights? How can we forget the human lives annihilated by slavery?”
In what the pope had said thus far, he had not gone beyond previous papal condemnations of the slave trade, without touching previous Church teaching on the legitimacy of slavery. Precisely at this point in his address, however, the pope indicated a new moral stance. “It is fitting that there be confessed in all truth and humility this sin of human being against human being, this sin of the human being against God… From this African sanctuary of Black sorrow, we beg for the pardon of Heaven… We must equally oppose often insidious new forms of slavery, like organized prostitution, which profits shamefully from the misery of the Third World.” 
Slavery in the tradition of Islam
In the 7th century, Muhammad and the first Muslims knew the phenomenon of slavery. A 20th-century Muslim scholar, Fazlur Rahman (d. 1988), noted that “the Qur’an legally accepted the institution of slavery, since it was impossible to legislate it away with one stroke, but strongly recommended and encouraged emancipation of slaves (90:13; 8:89; 58:3), and, in fact asked Muslims to allow slaves to purchase their freedom by paying an agreed sum in installments (24:33).” The most common word for “slave” in Arabic is ‘abd. Sometimes, however, it is hard to say in the Qur’an whether the Arabic word ‘abd refers to a slave or to a servant, real or metaphorical, like ‘Abd Allah (“God’s servant”), or whether it actually refers to a particular person claimed as a possession by a human owner. The later verses of what many think is the first revealed surah of the Qur’an (Surat al-’alaq, “The Surah of the Clotted Blood”) are thought to speak of Muhammad as a servant or slave of God forbidden to engage in worship by a hostile Meccan pagan remembered outside the Qur’an as Abu Jahl (“the father of ignorance”). “Have you seen the one who forbids / a servant [or slave: ‘abdan] when he worships? / Have you seen whether [the one who forbids] is under guidance / or commands uprightness?” (Qur’an 96: 9-12).
The earliest attempt at a sequential life of Muhammad, Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah contains a similar account of how a particular Ethiopian slave, Bilal ibn Rabah, was persecuted for his faith. Bilal embraced Islam while still subject as a slave to a man of the Quraysh tribe named Umayyah ibn Khalaf, an enemy of Muhammad and the message the Prophet was preaching. “Umayyah used to bring Bilal out at the hottest part of the day and throw him on his back in the open valley and have a great rock put on his chest; then he would say to him, ‘You will stay here till you die or deny Muhammad and worship [the goddesses] al-Lat and al-’Uzza.’ [Bilal] used to say while he was enduring this, ‘One, one!’” Waraqah ibn Nawfal, a relative of Muhammad’s wife Khadijah, possibly a Christian or at least a monotheist, encouraged the abject Bilal in his faith. Waraqah admonished Umayyah, saying that if Bilal died under such torture “I will make his tomb a shrine.” Abu Bakr, in some accounts regarded as the first Muslim outside the Prophet’s family, purchased Bilal from Umayyah and gave him his freedom. Although a freedman of Abu Bakr, Bilal attached himself to the Prophet’s household and was appointed muezzin, the mosque official who calls to worship.
There are many other words used in the Arabic text of the Qur’an to refer to slaves, some of which have complicated linguistic and historical descendants. The aforementioned ‘abd has two plurals, ‘abīd and ibād, the latter appearing only once in the Qur’an (Qur’an 24:32). In colloquial Egyptian Arabic, the word ‘abīd is often shouted by children in the back streets of Cairo when they see Black Africans, students or tourists. A euphemism used for slave, raqabah (pl. riqāb) literally means “the neck,” but often refers to a slave. A famous description of genuine piety in the Qur’an lists among the good deeds that exemplify true piety “donation of one’s wealth – despite loving it – to one’s relatives, to orphans, to the needy, to the wayfarer, to those who beg, to [freeing] the slaves [literally ‘necks’] from bondage” (Qur’an 2:177).
A particular euphemism used for female slaves, “those whom your right hand possesses,” appears in many verses of the Qur’an, but especially in the era when Muhammad was governing Medina (622-632 A.D.). Quranic legislation permits male Muslims to take more than one free wife, up to a limit of four, but even this concession seems originally to have been aimed at providing for female orphans in a time of war. “If you fear you will not be able to deal equitably with orphans, then marry what seems proper to you from among the female [orphans] – two, or three, or four. If, however, you fear that you cannot deal justly [with them], then [only marry] one – or those whom your right hand possesses. That way you will not oppress them” (Qur’an 4:3). Marital access for a man – beyond the limit of four free wives – to an enslaved female concubine (surriyyah) was hedged about with legal difficulties, and could lead to the dissipation of household staff and wealth on the death of the paterfamilias. The offspring of a union with a slave concubine is born free, as well as any further children she may bear, and the female slave herself (umm walad) goes free on the death of her owner.
The roles of slaves in medieval Muslim societies, and even more importantly, the roles played by freed slaves, have not been sufficiently studied. No freed slave has played a larger role in the Muslim religious imagination than the extraordinary freedwoman of Basra in Iraq, Rabi’ah al-’Adawiyyah (ca. 713-801). Muslims repeat her prayers to the present day and some of them have subtle political undertones especially recognized by Muslim women. This story of Rabi’ah indicates her freedom even from the obligation – albeit qualified – of every Muslim to undertake the hajj, the pilgrimage to holy sites connected with Abraham in and around Mecca. “What am I to do with the house? / Its power means nothing to me. What delight is there in the Ka’bah’s beauty? / What I need is the One who said, ‘Whoever approaches me by a hand’s span, / I will approach him by an arm’s span.’ Why should I look at the Ka’bah?” The tales of Rabi’ah suggest a poor person’s estimate of official pieties, and especially those pieties that were being commercialized by political and business interests centered on arranging for the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Enslaved Black people – and especially those brought across the Sahara to the Mediterranean world or across the Indian Ocean to southwest Asia – have played significant roles in the popular imagination of Muslims. Alf layla wa-layla (A Thousand and One Nights), the great medieval collection of short-stories, tells tales both pious and obscene. The blatantly racist frame narrative of the entire collection recounts how a Persian king, Shahriyar, finds himself cuckolded by his wives consorting with enslaved Black men. Determined never to trust a wife again, Shahriyar plans to kill each wife after one night of conjugal bliss. He is frustrated in this bloodthirsty scheme by a clever wife named Shahrazad, who tells him half a story every night until he falls asleep, continuing the story the next night but starting another before the king’s slumber intervenes. At the end of “a thousand nights and a night,” Shahrazad has convinced her royal spouse to cease and desist from uxoricide.
On Night 468 begins the story of a pious Black man named Maymun enslaved in the Iraqi city of Basra, one in which the apparently powerless person proves to be the only person with real power – power based on his closeness to God. Two notables of Basra who had spent much of a Friday in the mosque praying for rain overhear the private prayer of supplication uttered by the enslaved Maymun. “O my God and my Master and my Lord, how long will You reject the prayers of your servants … I conjure You, by Your love for me, to pour out upon us Your rain-clouds forthwith!” The sky then clouded over, followed by rain. The next day, one of the two Basra notables manages to purchase Maymun, possibly envisioning some profit to accrue from this exchange. Together they return to the same mosque where Maymun prays again. The enslaved saint prostrates himself in worship but does not rise from that position. As one whose prayer is answered (mustajab al-du’a’), Maymun returns in death to his only true Master, God and God alone.
Epilogue: Jesuits and Slavery
Jesuits worldwide participated in slaveholding between the 16th century (when the Society was founded) and the 19th century. By 1773, when Pope Clement XIV suppressed the Society of Jesus under pressure from the Bourbon monarchies, Jesuits in the British and French colonies of North America and the Caribbean exercised ownership of approximately two thousand enslaved persons.
After the Jesuits’ 1805 partial restoration in what had become the United States, the Jesuits of Maryland, who had incorporated themselves as a property-holding entity during the years of suppression, continued to use enslaved persons on their tobacco plantations. Other European Jesuits, who had established missions in the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys, also farmed tracts of land with enslaved workers.
Contemporary American and Canadian Jesuit provincial superiors have encouraged further historical investigations into this matter, committing all North American Jesuits to a process of cleansing acknowledgment and atonement for the past. Georgetown University since 2015 has pledged reparations to the descendants of 272 Jesuit-owned slaves from Maryland who were sold to plantation owners in Louisiana in 1838, a sale undertaken to make up for the debts of what was then Georgetown College.
There is no denying the past, but we have to live for the future. On the night before his assassination on April 4, 1968, the Reverend Martin Luther King exhorted his non-violent followers in Memphis to take the long view, the view of Moses on Mount Nebo sighting the promised land. As we try to make amends for what slavery has done in the past, we need to lift up our eyes toward the future. I close with King’s final words that night: “I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land […] I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land […] I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Reproduced with permission from La Civiltà Cattolica.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.11 art. 1, 1022: 10.32009/22072446.1122.1
 Cf. H. S. Klein, The Atlantic Slave Trade, New York, Cambridge University Press, 20102, 130.
 Cf. Midrash Rabbah Genesis, London, Soncino Press, 1983, Chapter 36:7.
 Cf. S. Zeitlin, “Slavery during the Second Commonwealth and the Tannaitic Period”, The Jewish Quarterly Review 53 (1963) 204.
 B. W. Korn, “Slave Trade. In the Americas”, in Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2 ed., 2007, vol. 18, 672. Henceforth this source will be referred to as EJ, with the volume and page specified.
 Cf. S. D. Temkin, “Einhorn, David”, in EJ 6, 258.
 A. Howard, “Rabbi Heschel’s daughter remembers her father at Selma march”, Jewish Herald Voice (jhvonline.com/rabbi-heschels-daughter-remembers-her-father-at-selma-march-p20239-164.html), November 20, 2015.
 Cf. N. Malcolm, Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean, New York, Oxford University Press, 2015, 167f.
 Cf. J. T. Noonan, A Church That Can and Cannot Change: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching, Notre Dame, Indiana, University of Notre Dame Press, 2005, especially 121-123.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, Vatican City, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2000, No. 2414.
 F. Rahman, Major Themes of the Qur’an, Minneapolis – Chicago, Bibliotheca Islamica, 1980, 48.
 Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of [Ibn] Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, Lahore, Oxford University Press, 1955, 143f.
 Ibid., 236.
 There are variations on this law in different Islamic sectarian settings. Cf. J. Schacht, The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1950, 254-266.
 Ibid., 157.