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Slavery: Contradiction And Hypocrisy

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The Religion of Slavery

Karl Marx poignantly described religion as the opiate of the people, and the sigh of the oppressed. Contemporary intellectuals have extended this premise to say that religion also functions as the golden scepter of oppressors that is used to buttress and perpetuate the plethora of tyrannical regimes that has afflicted societies throughout human history. One such regime is slavery, which was severely exacerbated by the onslaught of the racialised version that emerged from the discourse between Europe, Africa and the Americas. This essay seeks to explore the intricate relationship that existed between racialised western slavery and the Christian religious paradigm, with respect to the work of the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson. The topic of religion is very important to any discussion of slavery as it was at the helm of the more than three hundred years of slavery in the Americas, and it also believed to have brought about the end of slavery, so much so that religion/Christianity and slavery have, in some ways, become synonymous. There are, however, copious challenges being posed by contemporary revisionist historians to this popularly held theory.

The document that will be herein analyzed was written in response to the initial ferment of anti-slavery sentiments that gained prominence in Europe in the 18th century with the benevolence of the Quakers who arguably inculcated (first its members and then the wider European and colonial public) with the idea that slavery was morally wrong and inconsistent with the principles of Christianity. The author of this said document is Thomas Clarkson, who was one of England’s most influential abolitionists, having made significant strides against colonial slavery from the metropolis of the British Empire. Clarkson devoted most of his life to the endeavor of abolition and most of his intellectual works such as the document titled вЂ?Slavery and Commerce’ are hence protests against slavery. The message in this particular essay is directed to the Christian populace, (which would have been most if not the entire English population at the time) as Clarkson tried to appeal to the deep devotion and esteem that people had for Christianity and its teachings. He does this tactically, however, as he declares the merits of abolition of slavery, not just in terms of religious sentiments and morality, but also in terms of economics вЂ" as evidenced when he alludes to the Quakers (in the preface) who freed their slaves and hired them as freedmen, and found free labor to be more profitable than forced labor. He was also clearly a pragmatist as he was seemingly aware that financial gain was more important to people than adherence to religious principles -

“That neither the laws nor religion of any country … are sufficient to bind the consciences of some; but that there are always men, of every age, country, and persuasion, who are ready to sacrifice their dearest principles at the shrine of gain … there are few retreats that can escape the penetrating eye of avarice.”

Hence recognizing this impediment called �avarice’ he tactfully uses it to strengthen his message of abolition by suggesting that free labor is more profitable than slave labor. It would have therefore been a very efficacious way of making his proposal for abolition as it dealt with what mattered most: commerce and religion, in that order.

In order to get a full appreciation of the intricate relationship that informed the discourse between slavery and Christianity, it must be note that slavery did not start in the Americas, but dates back to ancient civilizations such as the Great Roman Empire, and was ramified by religion as a commercial necessity since the Empire depended so heavily on slave labor. What makes the slavery that existed in this era/society different from that in the Americas is the element of race that perched its ugly head in colonial America with the accompanying tenets of brutality and malevolence. It should, however, be established that Christianity was not always pro-slavery вЂ" more correctly put, it was not always used to support slavery вЂ" as evidenced by the many Christian writings prior to the 4th century CE that opposed slavery. A prototype of such views is reflected in the following statement by Gregory of Nyssa :

“You condemn man who is free and autonomous to servitude, and you contradict God by perverting the natural law … since we are made according to God's likeness and are appointed to rule over the entire earth, tell me, who is the person who sells and buys?”

When Christianity became the only religion in the Roman Empire (after the 4th Century CE) the church was joined to the state and this viewed seemed to experience a drastic change; slave labor was in the state’s interest, so with church and state becoming one, the church was obligated to support and even validate slavery. It can therefore be seen that even in ancient epochs, slavery was first a commercial institution and was later endorsed by the church. Eugene Genovese have posited that the use of blacks as slaves (and the consequent racialisation of slavery) that defined the western colonial societies was not purely economic because it would have actually been cheaper to export vagabonds and other such ostracized societal nuisances in Europe to work the plantations. However, it must be kept in mind that the grotesque treatment that was unleashed on the slaves would have gotten more opposition had they been white Europeans; and the slave system would have experience an expeditious demise in its formative year(s). Following this line of logic, it becomes clear that racialised slavery in the west was, first, an act of prudence that was later sanctioned by the church, at least initially, and then racism emerged as an auto-instituting derivate; the use of Christianity to validate slavery, by presenting it as a religious entity, was also a result of the commercial basis of slavery.

Because slavery was colored with blackness upon becoming a racial institution, it became necessary to sanction it with the divine unquestionable authority of Christianity as chronicled in the bible, which according to Clarkson “furnished the вЂ?receivers’ with a plea that Christianity encourages slavery”. It has also become evident that the biblical allusions that were used to justify the enslavement of Africans were machinations of the state and of influential slaveholding men (often important figures in the church) whose social status, influence and financial prosperity depended solely on the perpetuation of slavery. Clarkson



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