Why didn’t Jesus abolish slavery?

One of my readers asks that. In reply I would point out that Christianity is not and never was a “social reform movement” as popularly conceived. It *spawned* zillions of social reform movements (including the abolition of slavery–which not only was but *is* a common feature of the non-Christian world). But it was never primarily about the reform of social conditions. Rather it was and is about the transformation and divinization of the human person in the midst of our fallen circumstances. Rather than reform the institution of slavery, Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

The man who wrote those words, St. Paul, suffered personally from other societal ills. He was brutalized by the cops, hated by racists, eventually he was killed by an oppressive state. He did not regard his mission as being about a “reform movement” against such things. He saw his work as embracing the cross of Christ through them.

Ultimately, the question “Why didn’t Jesus abolish slavery?” is simply a variation on the question “Why does God permit evil?” This faces us with a mystery. But it is not an unanswerable mystery so much as a mystery that has been answered in an even more mysterious way–by the Christ crucified like a slave. That’s not something I understand. It is something I accept and believe. It is one of the weird paradoxes of the gospel that this alone was ultimately capable of doing what we, for thousands of years of our own history, could not do. And I am morally certain that if the Church loses its influence in the West we will return (as we have already returned with the unborn and the aged) to an absolutely utilitarian view of the human person that will be powerless to resist the slide back toward slavery.


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