When a Great Cleric Becomes a Slaveholder

Anime and light novel protagonists who own slaves are a dime a dozen, and while these depictions of slavery can range from barely tolerable all the way to highly problematic, it’s pretty unusual for me to encounter an instance of slavery in fiction that reminds me of what the New Testament teaches on the subject. It is perhaps fitting that a light novel called The Great Cleric would be the story to achieve that feat.

In routine isekai fashion, a man dies and is reincarnated in a fantasy world. Adopting the name Luciel, he opts to become a healer. He thought it would be a stable job that would let him live a safe, peaceful life—the fantasy world equivalent of a white-collar job.

Yeah, Luciel’s life is not remotely as safe or easy as he had hoped. Between the rampant racism against beastfolk, corruption at the Healer’s Guild, hostility from adventurers toward healers, a fiendish drill instructor, a disgusting liquid known (within the setting!) as “Substance X,” getting kicked upstairs when he upsets the wrong people, an evil empire, corruption in the church, dragons, undead, etc., Luciel’s new life turns out to be a lot more exciting than he expected. He’s pretty unusual even by the fantasy world’s standards, which is part of why Luciel earns the epithet “Saint Weirdo” (and this only after he vigorously demands that people stop calling him “the Masochistic Zombie Healer”).

That brings us to the fourth volume of The Great Cleric, in which Luciel is dispatched to the beastfolk city state Yenice to reopen a long-defunct branch of the reformed Healer’s Guild. Upon finding himself quite understaffed, our ecclesiastical protagonist buys some “slaves.” Fast forward a bit, and certain corrupt parties within the city hire a group of thugs from the slums to attack Luciel. They fail, and Luciel temporarily throws them in the dungeon (randomly built under Healer’s Guildhall by his “slaves” acting on their own initiative).

Luciel leaves a catfolk slave named Ketty to guard the prisoners, and as soon as he’s out of earshot, the boss thug starts trying to convince Ketty to let him escape. He promises that in return he’ll find her a better position than working for a horrible healer (a logical offer, since, thanks to the aforementioned corruption, healers are widely reviled). But Ketty declines the offer. The following exchange is narrated from the gangster’s point of view.

“I don’t particularly dislike the way things are now,” [Ketty] replied.

“Do you hear yourself? You’re a slave!” This lady had to be out of her mind.

“Very observant. But I’m only a slave in name. I have freedom, I’m fed just as well as my master, allowed leisure time, and I’ve been given a room to sleep in. As far as slave life goes, things could be worse.”

“‘Things could be worse’?”

I didn’t know what else to say. Beastfolk slaves were fodder, tools to be used up and thrown away, and everyone knew it. They were lucky if they got fed scraps. Some only got water. But this one had a room and a bed. It was ridiculous. She was no slave. Not in the traditional sense, at least.

This concept—that Luciel treats his “slaves” in a way so radical that it’s essentially unrecognizable according to the conventional understanding of “slavery”—comes up again in vol. 5. Luciel is introducing the vespian (beefolk) prince Honeur to his retinue. When Luciel notes that they are technically his slaves, the vespian is taken aback.

“Slaves?” Honeur tilted his head. “Ah, my apologies. I was just surprised. I never would have guessed.”

In vol. 6, we again see someone flabbergasted by the disjuncture between how Luciel treats his “slaves” and how the concept of “slavery” is commonly understood. Newcomer Estia has a conversation with Ketty:

“Um, well, I heard you were Mister Luciel’s slave?”

“You heard right.”

“I also heard that, um, you’re a slave by choice.”

“You heard right. Save your breath, I know you’re about to ask me why. You’re going to assume I’ve been ordered to do something against my will, and then you’ll offer to help rescue me. Did I hit the mark?”

Estia blinked. “Um,” she stammered, “I…”

“I know you’ve been snooping around… To answer your question, I became Mister Luciel’s slave by pure coincidence. And frankly, I consider myself fortunate. I’m free, I can stay with my old master, we travel. As for why I prefer being a slave… Well, that’s because being an S-rank’s property has its perks, and he’s never once forced me to do anything.”

All of this brings to mind what the New Testament teaches about slaves and slavery. Historically, the fact that it doesn’t explicitly condemn slavery as an institution or call for its abolition has sometimes been used to defend slavery or to criticize Christianity. However, such an interpretation ignores the more subtle (well, marginally subtle) implications of New Testament teaching on the subject.

(“Subtle” probably deserves qualification, considering how 1 Tim. 1:8-11 condemns slave traders right along with: the lawless and disobedient, the ungodly and sinners, the unholy and profane, those who strike their fathers and mothers, murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, liars, and perjurers. If the slave trade is so wicked as to be listed among such company, obviously no one ought to engage in it. And if no one is a slave trader, then slavery as an institution is on the way out.)

When the Lord teaches that we should love our neighbor as ourselves, what does that suggest about slavery? It takes some impressive mental gymnastics to explain how I can “love” someone while treating them like a piece of property. When Christ commands us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, what does that suggest about slavery? It would be insane for anyone to argue that they want others to treat them as a piece of property, and if we don’t want it for ourselves, how can we then justify treating others that way? The Lord’s words may not explicitly condemn slavery, but at a minimum they certainly all for drastic, radical changes from how any human society ever has practiced slavery.

When the apostle Paul wrote “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit,” and “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all,” he does not directly condemn slavery, it’s true. I know people have made dimwitted “they’re only equal in a spiritual sense” arguments, but it’s absurd to think that this equality in Christ has no implications for how we treat other people. Taken seriously, such passages pose a grave threat to any conventional notion of “slavery.”

Even the fact that the New Testament directly addresses slaves has abolitionist implications. When we read “Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ,” it can once again be twisted into a validation of slavery… Except for the curious fact that the inspired apostle IS SPEAKING TO SLAVES AT ALL. That’s not something one does with mere “property” that has no will of its own. The very act of enjoining slaves to be obedient is itself a challenge to chattel slavery.

There’s also my favorite example of this subtly subversive teaching in the New Testament: the apostle Paul’s letter to his friend Philemon. Paul emphasizes that he doesn’t want to coerce Philemon; he wants his friend to act of his own free will. And so he dances around the issue, getting as close possible to saying “You should effectively free Onesimus,” without actually saying “You should effectively free Onesimus.” He calls Onesimus his child and “my very heart,” making clear just how strongly he wants Onesimus to come back and work with him. But in what universe do masters say to their slaves “Feel free to leave and go work for some other guy if you want”?

Paul initially asks Philemon to treat his slave as a brother, and then as he would treat Paul himself! This is apostle Paul we’re talking about. He’s only one of the absolute most revered Christian figures short of the Lord himself, and he only wrote like half the New Testament. No Christian in their right mind would think it’s okay to treat Paul like their property. The epistle to Philemon may not be an abolitionist manifesto, but it calls for something so extreme that it’s unrecognizable as “slavery” in any sense in which human societies have ever practiced it.

To borrow a phrase from Abraham Lincoln, the New Testament put slavery “in the course of ultimate extinction.” Christian teaching made unconventional demands that simply aren’t compatible with anything people then or now normally understand by the term “slavery.” And this is why Luciel reminds me of what the scriptures say. He doesn’t just have happy “slaves” like those who appear in plenty of anime and light novels. Instead, Luciel treats them so well that other people within the setting acknowledge how unorthodox it is (to the point of questioning whether it’s really even slavery anymore). Like the New Testament, Luciel undermines the institution and redefines the word “slavery.”

Unlike Luciel (or Philemon!), we do not live in a society that permits slavery as an institution. However, the New Testament makes similarly radical demands in all our relationships, not just those between master and slave. Parents and children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, us and our enemies—the cross changes every kind of relationship in ways that the world, centuries ago and now, find radical. May we all treat our neighbor in ways that others find even more surprising than Luciel’s.

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