• by Jennifer Winters

The Nature of Slavery and Its Imprint on Culture

Ralph Winter led the development of the the World Christian Foundations (WCF) curriculum used by the university he founded, William Carey International University (WCIU). The author of this article completed her MA in International Development with WCIU in 2018. This article, excerpted from her Capstone Project final paper, reflects the WCF emphases on history, culture, and Scripture.


In our contemporary Western world we cannot understand how humans could degrade other humans to such a degree as to treat them like animals. But, historically slavery was as much a way of life as breathing and water were necessary to life. Philosophers and politicians such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and many others believed slavery was the normal and necessary way of life. Few, if any, questioned its practice. How many people today can recognize slavery when it manifests in front of them or can state its basic elements? Every society has degrees of slavery and freedom within its governing system; they stand in tension with one another vying for dominance. Freedom and slavery are first and foremost mindsets by which people think, and they are choices by which people live. The first part of this article will address what slavery is: its legal definition and what elements make up its existence. The next section will deal with how slavery manifests itself through individuals, organizations, institutions, and systems. The last section will note how unusual it has been for freedom to have grown in the Western world, and how to ensure that it will continue to grow.

The Elements of Slavery

The standard definition of slavery says a slave is the property of a slave master. Black’s Law Dictionary defines slavery as “a person who is wholly subject to the will of another; one who has no freedom of action, but whose person and services are wholly under the control of another” ( The slave could not own property or lay personal claim to anything or anyone. Orlando Patterson recognizes it is the right to own property that distinguishes the free person from the slave in all societies wherever slavery has been practiced (Patterson 1982, 791).

A slave cannot demand just treatment before the law because before that law he or she does not exist. Slaves live through and by permission of their masters. Slavery, as many scholars have observed, is a paradox. A slave is one who is denied the ability to exercise his or her thoughts and will toward their own selves, to have ownership of themselves. The only way for a society to make this work with humans, who do have thoughts and a will, is to define the slave as a living person who is now dead (Patterson 1982, 1198, 1271, 1347).

The Living Dead

In order to establish the paradox of slavery, cultures have practiced age-old tactics of social and psychological domination by which to enforce on the slave their peculiar status. The first step was to establish the slave as a dead person within the master’s social and cultural context. The phrase, “living dead” brings to mind the television show, “The Walking Dead”— a story about zombies. In many ways this show is an apt analogy of the expected attitude a slave was to have toward his master. A zombie is a creature that moves and breathes but has no cognitive reasoning life of its own. Its past history as a human is gone. It no longer knows its family or its home. This describes the social context that the slave is expected to fill. The slave’s only purpose is to fulfill the will of the master without limitations.

A legally dead person can be forced to do things and go places that one cannot legally force a living person to go and do. Slave societies old and modern have justified the treatment of slaves on the basis that they were “dead” people. This status of being dead had a social reality in that slaves were almost always people, who, before being enslaved were destined for death. The slave only lived because the master gave him or her permission to live. Slavery itself was, without exception, the alternative to real death. Slavery was not a pardon for these humans. It was, “a conditional commutation” (Patterson 1982, 291). They had a death sentence on them due to their circumstances. These circumstances by which humans became or become slaves included being captured in war, being kidnapped, being given as payment for debt, punishment for crimes, and abandonment or sale of children (Patterson 1982, 2594). The important point is that all slaves are the ultimate outsiders to the culture in which they live based on their unfortunate circumstances (Patterson 1982, 348, 1191­–94; Finley 1980, 87).

The Norm of Violence

Once a death sentence was determined over a man or woman, their induction into slavery included violence or the threat of violence. There were and are instances where coercion and deception were used to get the person intended for slavery into a position of vulnerability before violence is unveiled, but there will always be a point where violence becomes an open aspect of the slave-master relationship (Patterson 1982, 1030). It can happen at the beginning or it can happen at the end, but either way, once slavery is the status, violence is a consistent aspect of the slave’s lot and of the master’s relationship to the slave. It is a telling observation that there is no slave holding society where the whip was not considered an essential characteristic (Patterson 1982, 267).

Forced Isolation from Family, Home, and History

Violence, though, only works as a means of subjugation and domination when the person destined for slavery is completely isolated from all that is familiar and comforting to them. The next element of slavery in the creation of a slave is the condition of forced isolation from their family, home, and history. Physical, mental, and psychological abuse in isolation from all that is familiar are necessary to create the mind of a slave or at least to create the outward submission and resignation of the slave to their fate. It is important that the slaves believe themselves to be powerless in their situation and powerless to fight back. This beats into the mind of the slave that they live by the will and permission of the master. The slave is isolated from anything that would give legal rights, protection, meaning, purpose, or identity from his or her past life, to which the slave will never return. This isolation enforces the slaves’ powerless state on them (Patterson 1982, 293).

An Example from 21st Century America

An example of all three of the elements above (death, violence, isolation) being used to create a slave is the kidnapping of 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart in 2002 out of her home at knifepoint. She was taken to an encampment in the woods and forced to participate in a type of ritual that was supposed to marry her to her captor. From the moment she was taken captive she was threatened with death if she did not obey. She was isolated entirely from her home, family and anything in normal society, and then, for the following nine months, raped up to four times a day. The process of subjecting her, including drugs and alcohol, worked for awhile. At one point, when they were in a public library, a detective stopped and questioned her and her captors. Elizabeth was so convinced of her fate and powerless state that she did not say who she was to the detective, although it would have given her immediate freedom. A few months later she was rescued and returned to her family. Slavery will always take on the same manifestations and characteristics: violence, death, and isolation, with the purpose of dominating and dishonoring the slave as a human, making them believe that they are powerless.

Dishonor, Power, and Domination

Orlando Patterson states that the overall characteristic of a slave is dishonor, and this dishonor is associated with powerlessness to resist the domination of the one enslaving (1982, 493). The slave is one, like a piece of chattel, who is acted upon but who does not have the power to resist, or act upon anyone else. To force a man, woman, or child under threat of violence and death, to give up their identity and history and submit their will to another human’s will is to deny the nature of a human and by denying that nature, one is also denying their inherit dignity, and thereby dishonors them.

This type of power over another needs a system that gives it sanction and authority in order for it to be accepted in the broader context of society (Patterson 1982, 947–51, 963). The masters of slaves ultimately must seek legitimization from both the state and religion that authenticates and supports their right to dominate slaves. Slavery needs the full weight of society in order to keep the slave dominated. To sanction slavery in a public fashion is merely the next logical step stemming from the death, violence, dishonor, domination, and isolation, all resulting in the slave having no social meaning or voice. They are dead socially.

The Social Non-Person

By denying the existence of a person, the master can do anything with that slave, without it being considered immoral or degrading. Socially, for the slave, once inducted into his new identity as a living dead person, it means there is no participation in anything that gives individual purpose and meaning to life. To be the living dead meant you were also the social dead. “Because the slave had no socially recognized existence outside of his master, he became a social non-person,” (Orlando Patterson 1982, 293). The harsh reality of this for the slave was that he or she may have a sexual union with someone but these were not recognized as binding marriages, they may have children but the children were not theirs, they belonged to the master. The isolation they had from their past translated into also having nothing to look forward to in the future. No children of their own, and no legacy to leave (Patterson 1982, 318–20, 348–54).

Manifestations of Slavery in History

Christianity Confronts Slavery

The advent of Christianity into the Roman Empire brought with it a new paradigm of relationships and power. It was new wine that needed a different context, or rather, would demand a different context because its basis was that men in Christ were now free from slavery first, to sin and second, to the sinful will of other men. Now they were free as the sons of God (Wright 1996, 4–7). The Roman Civil system praised by many for its practical administrative power was designed to keep men as slaves to either a slave master or to the Rome imperial system. Freedom did not spring from Roman Civil law. The ideas of freedom came from (1) Christ and the Christian Scriptures and (2) by Christians confronting, sometimes simply by how they lived, the institutionalized slavery of the Roman society as a whole.

The Apostle Paul Addresses Slavery

When Paul the Apostle wrote the words, “honor all people” (1 Peter 2:17). He was striking at the heart of a society built on slavery. He makes this even clearer in two other passages of scripture, Galatians 3:28, There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Also, in his letter to Philemon, in regards to Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, who had runaway, Paul writes to Philemon and entreats him to receive Onesimus back, not as a slave but as a brother in Christ. Paul is asking an extra-ordinary request when one compares it to a similar letter written by Pliny the younger. In his course on Philemon, N.T. Wright contrasts the two letters and their requests. Pliny’s letter involves a runaway freeman. This freeman was a dependent of one of Pliny’s friends. The freeman appealed to Pliny to ask for mercy for something that he had done to displease his lord. Pliny appeals to his friend’s pride and ego, “see how good it will make you feel and look to others if you are gracious toward him.” Paul, in contrast, appeals to Philemon’s love and to the love of Christ when making his request concerning Onesimus. N.T. Wright states that Paul is leading both Philemon and Onesimus, the slave, to the place of humility and of death, in order that something new may be born, a relationship built on brotherhood in Christ (Wright 2018).

Paul never ceased to challenge slavery throughout his ministry. But it may be argued that Paul told slaves to honor their masters, even the ones who were harsh (Colossians 3:22). Paul was an educated and intelligent man. He understood how pervasive and imbedded was the practice of slavery in the Roman Empire. He did not focus on a direct frontal assault as that was not going to de-establish slavery. Instead he focused on planting and building models of good and healthy relationships between Christians of all classes within their communities, knowing that these communities would survive once Rome collapsed as it eventually did (Stark 2011, 105, 112).

Paul was following the example of Jesus Christ. Jesus challenged the insider versus the outsider perspective of the Pharisees and Sadducees in Israel. He showed no favoritism to those he chose to heal and help. He did this by treating women as equals, outsiders as equals, children with honor, and the poor, sick, and destitute with love and care (Mark 14:3; Matthew 9:20; Luke 18:16, 17:12–14; John 20:15–17). At the end, Jesus, by dying for his followers, did the opposite of what the institution of slavery demanded. Slavery demanded that the slaves lay down their lives for their masters. Christ laid down his life for the slaves, and then He rose again.

By every action that Jesus did he challenged the reigning paradigm that power is the same as authority. “I can dominate you, therefore I have the right to dominate you.” Instead Jesus changed it to, “The greatest of all shall be your servant,” (Matthew 23:11). The early Christian church was the first all-inclusive society. All, men, women, slaves, Jews, Greeks, Romans, were equal before the law of God.

Degrees of Slavery in Free Societies

Christianity consistently challenged slavery, serfdom, and oppression (Stark 2003, 291- 366). Where the principles of Christianity were applied freedom grew. Orlando Peterson likens slavery to a parasite. Parasites can live undetected for a long time in the body but eventually they will consume the body if not eradicated. Slavery, like a parasite, can imbed itself within a society and go undetected. Slavery can be practiced on any group and any people without it being called slavery. The name may be freedom, but the practices determine the product.

The elements of slavery stay consistent wherever slavery is practiced even if it goes by another name. The reason for enslavement may change, i.e. their skin is a different color … they were captives of war … they have a different religion and so on. The elements, however, will be the same: violence, death, isolation, dishonor, domination, with the final result being powerlessness; humans being made into a thing that they are not, and, in reality, can never be: the mindless, will-less, emotionless clone of his or her master.

An example of the elements of slavery within a “free society” is the American government’s policies toward Native Americans. When the American Government created the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and took control of the Indian Nations, The American Indian had no say in his own affairs or the affairs of the nation in which they lived. Even though, on paper, the Native Americans were owners of themselves and their property, in reality, they had no say as to what happened with their land, its resources, or even what happened to themselves or their children. The Bureau of Indian Affairs exercised extensive control over tribal councils, thereby barring the Native Americans from any meaningful participation of any kind in the, “decision making process that most effected their communities” (Cornell 1988, 5, 192). The BIA had an Indian agent for each reservation, and tellingly, George Grinnell states the power of these agents:

Over property, liberty, and the actions of everyday life he has absolute authority. No Indian can receive food, no Indian can obtain a tool, and no Indian can live in his home, unless the agent is willing. He holds in the hollow of his hand the welfare of the tribe and of each one of its individuals (Grinnell 1995, 256).

This is the description of the power of an owner of slaves. This is a snapshot of the exploitation by the Bureau of Indian Affairs of the American Indian. This treatment was a sophisticated means of reducing the Native Americans to a form of dependent slavery. Isolation through separation and the inability to claim their history and heritage, domination by allowing no say in their personal affairs to the choosing of their clothes and food, stealing of their money and brutal retaliation if they questioned the BIA’s actions. Here we have all the elements of slavery: isolation, powerlessness, dishonor, domination, violence, and death.

Why is this story important? The American Indian story is important because it has occurred in “the freest nation in the world.” If the policies of slavery are being used within a “free society” than it also means that slavery is never a far off threat. By the same token, the fact that the Native Americans have been able to take back some of their freedom and that there was dissent among the policy makers (senators and congressmen) when these policies occurred is also a sign that a nation still has the ability to choose freedom.

Ensuring Freedom Will Continue

The principles of slavery impede progress of cultures and peoples. It damages both the enslaved and the enslaver. During the Roman Empire, for example, there was so little technological and engineering developments that a well–known Roman engineer, Sextus Julis Frontinus, wrote that, “inventions have long since reached their limit, and I see no hope for further developments” (Stark 2011, 239). Manual labor was how things got done in the Roman Empire. The invention of wind power and waterpower occurred after the fall of Rome (Stark 2011, 241). “The fall of the Roman empire” says Rodney Stark, “brought innovations out of which was the development of non-human power” (Stark 2011, 241). Slavery impeded invention, innovation, beauty, art, music, literature, agriculture, and medicine (Stark 2011, 239-44).

The Roman Empire did not merely dominate the enslaved it also dominated the free. Half of the Roman Empire’s population was made up of slaves. But the freemen of Rome lived at a bare subsistence level because the predatory ruling class of Rome took any surplus through taxation (Stark 2011, 239). Why build, grow, and produce if it was all going to be taken away from you by your rulers? Because of this, Rome was actually poor, and the wealth of the Emperor did not match the vast territories that were ruled (Stark 2011, 239). Moral progress, as in one should not abuse others and exploit them, had no place in Rome (Stark 2011, 247). The slave-masters abused slaves and the rich man abused the poor man. The mindset of slavery infected every level of society in the Graeco–Roman world.

The fall of Rome was one of the most beneficial things to occur for mankind. It was freedom from bondage to an Empire whose greatness was built on the dead and tortured bodies of men, women, and children. This was the pattern of most of the world. The elements of slavery are death, violence, isolation, powerlessness, dishonor, and domination resulting in a person who has no history, no family, no legacy, and with no effect in society; a person whose actions to others or toward himself have no meaning. What he does has no meaning, and what is done to him or her does not matter.

In contrast freedom affirms the humanity, history, purpose, dignity, honor, and life of every human. It affirms their right to both their history and to a legacy. Essential to this is that man does have right of ownership of himself and his property under God. This means all are subject, both king and commoner or ruler and ruled to the same law and standard in regards to each other. That all men no matter their class, ethnicity, or religion, are equal before the law is a concept that no society ever believed or even considered except for the Hebrew Nation of the Old Testament and the Christian communities founded during the Roman Empire. The concern for freedom for all men is an unusual and a revolutionary concept. Empowering people to be responsible over their own property and to benefit from it is what allows for freedom. This is what God did for the Nation of Israel and what Christ did for his followers.

In a free society there are degrees of slavery and freedom. It can be simply shown on the individual level in how a husband treats his wife and children, or vice versa, it can be in how businessmen treat their employees. It can be seen in over-taxation by local, state, or national government, it is shown when government practices deception toward its own people. It will carry with it the characteristics of death, violence, isolation, powerlessness, dishonor, and domination, resulting in a person or people who have no sense of history, family, legacy, whose acts have no meaning, purpose, or effect in society.

To maintain freedom society must strive to honor all men and women. Which means it must acknowledge that it is possible to dishonor, and when dishonor occurs it must be corrected even when called by a different name. In a free society honor is not based on power or position, it is based on the image of God, i.e. the ownership of God stamped upon every human being, and since they are ultimately his, no man may claim ownership of them. That is what it means to be free.


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