Proper 14C / Ordinary 19C / Pentecost +12
August 11, 2013
Slavery has long been the electric fence surrounding American history. The fact that this country was built, literally, on the backs of enslaved Africans, whose descendents now make up roughly 10% of the population, has fundamentally altered a host of American institutions for generations afterward – from the family to urban housing to public schools. All of these have been fundamentally distorted by the systematic disenfranchisement, ghettoization and (in some eras) lynching of African Americans.
To put the impact of this history into perspective, it is important to realize that this country has had 300 years of institutionalized slavery, roughly 85 years of legalized Apartheid (“Jim Crow” laws), and only about 50 years of relative racial “freedom”. We have just barely begun to recover, historically speaking, and the election of the first African American President is, in reality, only a start.
The presence of slavery in the Bible is particularly troubling. This week’s Gospel reading in Luke is fairly heavy-handed in its slave imagery. The passage exhorts listeners (most likely slaves) to be on perpetual watch for the coming of the Son of Man, which early Christians believed was going to happen imminently: “Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves” (Luke 12:37-38). While the slave-imagery is reversed with the master serving the faithful slaves, the implicit threat of the master’s wrath still hangs in the air.
The following parable of the Unfaithful Slave makes this threat explicit, when the consequences for an unfaithful slave who gets drunk and beats his fellow slaves in the master’s absence are detailed: “… the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and put him with the unfaithful. That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating” (vv.46-47). The implicit right of masters to barge in on their slaves at any hour of the night and demand alert service – at the cost of a severe beating – is not questioned. The idea that God is like such a master (only bigger) is even more disturbing.
Slavery at the time of the Roman Empire was considered a socially acceptable and commonplace institution. There were also aspects of Roman slavery that were very different from slavery in the American South: Roman slaves were often not only educated, but frequently served as the tutors and guardians of their master’s children. African-American slaves were often forbidden education and literacy, with the exception of those parts of the Bible that supported their enslavement. Nonetheless, the fact that both Roman and US slaveholders ultimately had complete control of their slaves’ lives, bodies, behavior and sexuality renders any notion that Rome had a “kinder and gentler” slavery moot. No matter how educated a Roman slave was or how privileged his or her place was, when the master knocked, service (physical, intellectual and/or sexual) was expected – or else.
The fact that Luke’s Jesus spoke to the expectations of His time is not a reflection of whether or not “God likes slavery.” It was simply a way of using the imperfect language and culture of the time to convey the message that God’s Kingdom (which will overthrow all other tyrannical kingdoms) is coming. Be alert. The couching of that message in a language that slaves could identity with was a descriptive tactic, not a prescriptive dictate. When we ask the question “Does God like slavery?” I think that what we are really asking is “Do we like slavery” – i.e., are we willing to continually excuse it, justify it or trivialize it?
The fact that slavery still exists is evidence that, as a global society, we do. In 2009, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) produced the document, Global Report on Trafficking in Persons. Women (66%) and girls (13%) currently form the majority of trafficked slaves, with the data also indicating that 79% of reported victims are enslaved for the purposes of sexual exploitation, while 18% are victims of forced labor. When Jesus preached His inaugural sermon in Luke, He said He had been anointed “to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4: 18-19). If we are doing likewise, we need to both stop using Scripture to idealize slavery in the past and to unconditionally condemn its practice in the present.