Role playing games take us to other worlds, other times and places, some which were, some which might have been, some which yet might be, and even some that could not, as far as we understand, be. Because of this, they also challenge us at times to wrestle with answers to questions of morality that are not our own. In an age in which it was common, was polygamy wrong in the eyes of God? Would it be wrong for a human to eat an intelligent creature who is not human, given that it was as intelligent as a human but truly not related in any way that would make that cannibalism? Issues are raised in our games at times that don’t come up in our lives, because we don’t live in those worlds; yet we manage to find answers to these questions, and so come better to understand our own moral values.
Slavery is one of the more difficult and more common issues that arise in our games. So many people today view it as inherently evil, and thus something only evil people would do; yet we know that basically good people through the millennia owned slaves. The Bible itself does not condemn slavery, and although the Church was in many parts of the world instrumental in bringing an end to this institution it was also in some times and places defender and even perpetrator of slave trade.
I have this debate often with people who play role playing games. I wrote a simple quiz to help players better understand the beliefs of their Dungeons & Dragons™ characters, and one of the questions addresses what the character thinks about slavery as an institution. Because it has been so ingrained within us to think that slavery is itself evil we fail to see that there is an entirely different issue at work here, not one of good and evil exactly but one of power and freedom. God never suggested that slavery was evil. The Law went so far as to provide the opportunity for an individual to commit himself to such servitude for life, if he wished. Slavery, as a theoretical model, can bring many benefits to the slaves, the masters, and the society at large. The lives of the slaves may be vastly improved over what they would have been otherwise. Like many other human institutions, it has the power to be used for good.
I do not think that slavery should exist in the world today, but I do recognize that for many who were slaves in the past, slavery was a guarantee that their needs would be met and their lives valued and protected; the end of slavery for some meant harder and harsher lives, struggles and failures, disease and death to which they were not subjected when there was someone caring for them. Not all slaves were or would have been better off as free men. We value freedom highly (in some ways perhaps too highly, for many have no doubt gone to hell rather than submit to God, all in the name of freedom). It is not wrong to value freedom, and it is a good thing to come to the aid of the oppressed. Yet the value we place on freedom blinds us to the real issues of slavery. God does not put so much value on our freedom or the individual freedoms of others as we do. Paul did not tell Philemon that as a Christian he should free his slave Onesimus. He told him that he should care for his slave Onesimus as one cares for a brother, and so receive him back into service with love.
As Christians we oppose slavery, but not because we believe God is against it as such. We oppose it because we find it unworkable in practice. What we have seen is that slavery is too easily abused and cannot be effectively overseen. It is not the fault of the institution of slavery; it is the fault of slaves and masters, who being human cannot fail to abuse their positions. If the master sees only his obligation lovingly to care for his slave, and the slave only his obligation lovingly to serve his master, it is quite workable; working dogs and their owners have such a relationship, and it dignifies the animal and ennobles the man. But more often than not the master sees his right to be obeyed and the slave his right to receive care, and as with management and labor in modern contract negotiations each tries to stretch the relationship his direction further than it will go. Thus it breaks.
In other words, as with most things, it is not the use but the abuse. We do not oppose slavery because it is morally wrong, but because the men who would use it are morally wrong.
It is said that many years ago missionaries brought the gospel into primitive lands, and were received eagerly by the tribal chieftain. In expounding scripture to him they related that it was wrong for him to have more than one wife. When they returned, they found that he had repented of his error and rectified the problem by executing all of his wives but one. If we were to bring the gospel to a people who still owned slaves, we should not begin by telling them slavery is wrong; we’re on shaky ground scripturally if we do so. We would tell them how to live as Christian slaves and Christian masters, as the Bible teaches. It is not slavery as a practice but slavery as it is practiced that is the problem.
We can believe ourselves superior (in our arrogance, I suppose) to our ancestors, or to those cultures which kept or even now perhaps keep slaves, because we have learned we cannot live as Christian slaves and masters, and so find it easier to eliminate slavery than to become better people. That arrogance is a greater moral issue than the existence of slavery, particularly in a society in which slaves are lovingly treated and embrace their position as a good thing. It is also difficult to justify in a culture in which we have the same problems in our business relationships but forget to act as Christians because we’ve removed the benefit of the master and slave relationship within which each knew he had to care for the other, and replaced it with a clearly adversarial relationship in which we have no qualms about fighting each other to gain benefits for ourselves.
It must be recognized that the Bible does not tell us we should not have or be slaves; it is not morally wrong to be a slave or a slave owner, and it is not repugnant in the eyes of God. There is no manifesto for slave rebellion in these pages beyond the declaration that the gospel reaches equally to all. It must also be said that the Bible does not tell us we should have or be slaves; other than that we are to be slaves of Christ in service to each other, there is no support for any divinely appointed economic or social model within which we must find our place. It only tells us how to live godly lives if we find ourselves to be slaves or masters. In whatever culture we find ourselves, we are to live by the principles God gave us, however they fit within that world.
In crafting your imaginary worlds, bear in mind that in some places slavery is the way of things, and it is not an evil way. Good people may well trade in slaves, and be none the less good for doing so. In playing your characters, remember the admonitions to Christian masters and Christian slaves; the existence of slavery within your game world may be a perfect foil for displaying your faith in unexpected ways.
Role playing games give us the opportunity to break out of our narrow cultural mindsets. If in doing so we are able to discover and reveal how God’s truth extends beyond our limits, we have let our faith be seen a bit more clearly by those who are there.
This article was originally published in February 2004 on the Christian Gamers Guild’s website. The entire series remains available at its original URL.