Thursday, 10 August 2017

The Death of Slavery in the Death of Christ

Only Christ Can Keep Slavery Dead

One of the most intriguing things in the history of the Church is how slavery was washed out of European culture--and did not gain entrance again until the eighteenth century.  It was one of the great downstream effects of the Gospel upon the Roman Empire.  Slavery, we recall, was up front and centre in the culture of that Empire.

Yet there is no direct denunciation of slavery in the New Testament corpus.  There were no prohibitions issued.  It's as if in the West no public condemnations of  cigarette smoking were ever issued, but somehow the entire practice disappeared over half a millennium.  Sarah Ruden writes:
. . . the early Christian church, without staging any actual campaign against slavery, in the course of the centuries weakened it until it all but disappeared from Europe.  Slavery was doomed simply because it jarred with Christian feeling--the same basic circumstance that doomed it in the modern West.  [Sarah Ruden,  Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined In His Own Time (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010), p.168.]
It's rather hard to maintain the institution of slavery within the fellowship of a local Christian congregation where the slave may end up a ruling elder in the congregation and the slave-owner not.  It's rather hard to endorse and participate in the slave markets when you are sitting at table next day with slaves and serving them the elements of the Eucharist.
 And as for recognizing and relating to one's slave as a beloved brother or sister in Christ for whom you would lay down your own life, loving them as oneself--one can but imagine that the soft pealing of the bell for the death of slavery was heard clearly in the congregations.

The "book" of Philemon is a letter written by Paul to Philemon, a Christian brother, whose runaway slave, Onesimus had become a Christian and was helping take care of Paul during his imprisonment in Rome. Some have wondered why the Apostle Paul did not just get to the point and come straight out and tell Philemon that he was to cease regarding Onesimus as a slave.   Ruden points out that Paul's letter to the slave-owner, Philemon was far more profound than that.  He argued for precepts and principles which were central to the Gospel of our Lord, within which slavery could only whither and eventually vanish.
The way Paul makes the point in his letter to Philemon is beyond ingenious.  He equates Onesimus with a son and brother.  He turns what Greco-Roman society saw as the fundamental, insurmountable differences between a slave and his master into an immense joke. . . . The solution, the punchline of the joke that is the letter to Philemon, the climax of the farce, is God.  God alone has the power to make a runaway slave a son and brother, and in fact to make any mess work out for the good--not that anyone knows how, but it doesn't matter.  Philemon has only to surrender to the grace, peace, love and faith the letter urges and the miracle will happen. [Ibid., p.160, 167]
Slavery could not survive such an onslaught of divine redemption.   When God makes slaves to be brothers and sisters, sons and daughters slavery cannot survive within a culture.  It goes the way of the dodo.  But the opposite is true: when a culture turns away from Christ Jesus the demons of slavery re-emerge out of the tomb, more vicious, more repugnant than ever.

No comments: