First, the Bible can be read as a pro-slavery book. The Old Testament, for instance, condones slavery, but the slave had to be freed after seven years UNLESS the slave voluntarily agreed to lifelong slavery. Abraham, for instance, was a slave owner. The New Testament does not condemn slavery, either. Once Paul figured out that Onesimus was a runaway slave, Paul returned him to Philemon.
Secondly, I think sometimes we see slavery as a negative thing, and in context to today’s rich American culture, it is a negative thing. But, even in the United States, slavery was not always the worst thing that could happen to someone. As a historian, I can tell you that the early to late 19th century was not a good time for unskilled labor regardless of the color of your skin. Factory owners in the North, for instance, would often sign their workers to year-long contracts where the worker had to work the entire year to get paid. They would then try to fire the worker in late December so they wouldn’t have to pay him. Or, they would pay the worker in scrip that could only be used at the company store. Not only were the prices high, but credit was readily available for staple goods and the worker could not quit until he paid off his debt to the company. Being an unskilled freed man in Rome carried such high benefits that men actually sold themselves into slavery as gladiators. Not only did their housing and food situation improve, but their chances of living longer, paradoxically, went up.
Most slave owners in the United States treated their slaves adequately to well. If every slave owner or overseer was as bad as Simon Legree, then slavery would have quickly been abolished. Slaves were expensive and most slave owners took care of their slaves not only because they were expensive but also because they realized that a relatively happy or content workforce was more productive. I don’t suggest that slavery was the preferred way of living, and thousands of slaves escaped Southern plantations every year due to poor conditions or a desire for freedom, but millions of slaves did not try to escape suggesting they may not have completely liked their condition, but they made their peace with their condition.
Now, there were certain slave occupations that were bad. For instance, you didn’t want to work in a Roman mine where lifespans were measured in weeks and months nor, in the 18th and 19th century, on Caribbean sugar plantations where lifespans were, again, measured in weeks and months. And, you didn’t want to be a female slave since you had little control over your body and your owner could force sex at his desire. But, we need to understand the historical context of slavery.
Thirdly, the Bible is not concerned so much in a person’s present condition as it is about his reaction to it. Even though the Bible allows slavery, it requires the owner to treat his slaves well and not to abuse them. So while it was not a sin to be a slaveholder, it was a sin to mistreat and abuse someone’s slaves. Biblical slavery meant slaves should be well clothed, fed and provided shelter. They should not be punished unjustly. A slave’s sexual rights have to be protected. She (or he) could not be raped, either by the master, one of his employees or another slave in a made-up “marriage“. In relation to the culture slavery existed in, being fed but in slavery might be a better choice than free and starving…