Far from being an ancient issue of whips and chains, systemic national oppression, and the literal owning of a person, slavery has morphed into a modern system of whips and chains, systemic national oppression and the literal owning of people… Aren’t you glad we’ve learned from our mistakes?
Slavery has taken many forms over the years, the Bible giving us unique insight into the world of slaves at divisive points in history. Firstly, we have the systemic oppression of Israel by Egypt, which is a remarkable insight into early systemic and racial oppression. In it we see excessive forced labour, genocide of all male babies, and thereby, the attempted forced marriage of the Israelite girls to Egyptians. The incredible thing is that from the beginning God not only sympathises with those under oppression, but is actively working on their behalf. He calls down plagues on the Egyptian king and people, and sets in motion the liberation of an entire nation, “Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgement’” – Exodus 6:6.
Even when Israel comes into a place of power, God gives them very specific rules as to how they ought to treat slaves, still very deliberately on the side of the enslaved. Exodus 21 tells how Hebrew slaves were to be set free on the seventh year, and there were certain provisions made in which case freedom could be attained for a mistreated slave, as well as legal requirements that were binding on men who took wives for themselves, so that the women could not be simply used and disgraced. Even those who were not a part of the Old Testament chosen people of God were protected when slaves to the Israelites, showing us that God continues to protect the vulnerable and stand with the oppressed.
As with so many of the Bible’s themes, we see a more thorough and progressive ideal developing as the Israelites discover who God is and what he desires from them. Jesus ramps this up to a whole new level as he reads aloud the scroll of Isaiah at the beginning of his ministry, declaring “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”.
Within about 30 years of Jesus, this issue had come to a head in a letter that Paul writes to Philemon with the purpose of discussing the practicality of this ‘liberty for the captives’. During this time the Greco-Roman empire reigned supreme, and systemic violence and oppression was commonplace. Slaves thus bore a terrible burden, and for the Gentile church, steeped in Greco-Roman culture, this new teaching on how to treat slaves would have been ground-breaking. In this letter, Paul addresses Philemon as a brother in the church and a believer in Christ, him along with his household, in which Onesimus is a slave. Onesimus, having run off, has made his way to Rome, where he happened to bump into Paul, and Paul’s response is not to harbour Onesimus as a fugitive, but to send him back with a letter, asking for Philemon to exemplify the love of Christ upon the slave’s return. Whilst Onesimus will remain a slave to his master, Paul implores Philemon to respond as Christ would, and consider Onesimus not a slave, but a brother in the faith: “For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So, if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me” – Philemon 15-17. Yes, Paul writes that in light of Jesus slaves and masters ought to view each other as brothers in the gospel.
Paul takes this a step further in his letter to the Galatian church, saying, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” – Galatians 3:28. In the eyes of Jesus there are no slave nor free. There ought not to be any systems that we use to oppress our brother, to oppress our sister. We are compelled by the love and command of Christ to treat slaves with dignity and compassion, not as underlings, but as family. Even though there ought not to be these systems, Paul also concedes that sometimes it is inevitable that slaves remain so, and the work in such cases is to serve diligently, loving their masters with their best love. “Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) 22 For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord” – 1 Cor 7:21-22; “Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved”.
If we imagine that we have no slaves we are kidding ourselves, if we truly believe that, then we are painfully ignorant. This is not an ancient problem. Simply put, if by our actions we either explicitly or implicitly are causing someone to be oppressed, we are slave drivers. That means that when we buy something made in a sweatshop, when we support those who vilify other cultures and races, when we remain ambivalent to widespread human trafficking, when we ignore people struggling under systems of government, we become slave drivers. Whilst this is an issue of practicality, it is more so an issue of the heart. We are to love with an unconditional love, whether loving those over whom we have any kind of authority, or living as one who is a slave, honouring our master. After all, if we claim Christ as Lord, then we also become bondservants to Christ (Phil 1:1). Let us open our homes and lives to those who are often unseen and unheard. By the grace of God, let us do all we can to put down our whips and use our weapons to fight injustice. It is not just a nice idea, or a pleasant sentiment; this is our God-given command.
Grace and Peace