The Eleventh Day of Christmas: The Slave is our Brother

“Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother/And in His name, all aggression shall cease.” My favorite Christmas song has been “O Holy Night” since I was a kid. Those two lines from the second verse are my favorite part. Whence this bold assertion of brotherhood with a slave? You won’t find that anywhere in the ancient world, but it fits very naturally in a Christmas song. Why?

Ubiquitous across time and culture, slavery is everywhere in history and still practiced in places to this day. Jesus came to liberate the captives, and Christians started working against slavery very early, but abolition was slow and painful. By the late Middle Ages, a number of jurisdictions in Christendom had rejected slavery, but then we lost ground and had to stomp it out all over again several centuries later. We didn’t bin it for good until 1865. In the long argument over slavery, a lot of the apologists for slavery were Christians. Christians today find that embarrassing, and should. 

It’s particularly embarrassing because abolition is uniquely ours. The entire discourse of abolition was–and still is–conducted on Christian principles. And it was so wildly successful that the whole Western world now thinks of the universal brotherhood of humanity (and therefore abolition and equality) as common sense. We often forget that to this day, the Christian West remains the only culture in world history ever to abolish slavery as a matter of moral principle, because it’s harmful to the slaves. We think that’s common sense now, but only after Jesus did it become common sense, and only in Christian and Christ-haunted places does it remain common sense.  

For which all thanksgiving. Merry Christmas!

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