Monday, 15 April 2013

Paul on Slavery: Part 2

In Part 1 I provided a quick summary of what Paul says about slavery.  How should we understand this message as 21st century Christians?


For 21st century readers of the Bible, our immediate, visceral reaction to Paul's words on slavery is to say, "Why didn't he just come out clearly and say that slavery is wrong and slaves should be freed?  Why was he so circumspect?  Surely loving people who have been enslaved must entail giving them their freedom!"  Many devoted Christians down the ages have agreed.  The emancipation movement in 18th century England was famously led by evangelical Christians who saw the slave trade as an unmitigated evil.

I suspect the answer lies in the problem of legalism.  The main danger of legalism, as identified by Jesus and Paul, is hypocrisy.  If we have obeyed the letter of the law, we see ourselves as righteous even if we actually do great harm.  This is precisely the danger in relation to slavery.

Under current Australian law, if the police bust up a sex slavery operation, the women freed as a result will be given humanitarian visas which entitle them to income and housing support and access to education or employment.  In this situation, freeing them is an unmitigated good, and should be done at every possible opportunity. 

However prior to the mid-2000s if these women did not have valid visas (and most don't) they would simply be deported as illegal immigrants.  Hence despite being victims of a serious crime, they would be treated as criminals themselves and sent straight back into the risky situation that led to their enslavement in the first place.  As a nation we did what the law required and freed the slaves, but did we actually improve their lives?  Or did we just add arrest and deportation to their already considerable suffering?

The history of emancipation in the USA tells a similar tale.  Slavery was one of the key issues in the Civil War, and after the Union victory slaves were given their freedom.  I think African Americans are pretty unanimous that this was a good thing.  However, what was the immediate impact of this legal change on the newly freed slaves?  They were still not equal before the law, they were segregated in their own ghettos, had limited access to education and employment and were subject to open discrimination and widespread race hatred. 

Some were able to succeed in their lives despite these barriers.  For others the picture was not so rosy.  Many just continued as poorly paid employees of their former owners and little about their lives actually changed.  Others were not rehired after emancipation and, in the economic malaise that followed the Civil War, were unable to find work.  Forced into petty crime to survive, many were re-enslaved through the criminal justice system, sentenced for crimes of poverty and then released into the custody of wealthy white people who would put them to work in their plantations or factories. 

This problem bedevils attempts to combat slavery around the globe.  Current efforts to close down the red light districts in Surabaya, Indonesia's second city, are a case in point.  Here's what the manager of a women's shelter near a recently closed area says.

The result of the closing of the localisation (i.e. the red light district) is that the prostitutes are operating wildly, not localised, and in unofficial rental rooms, so it's not at all good. Closing it is not the best way.  We know that prostitution is slavery. There are a lot of issues that need to be sorted out before they are released to the community - not just their health problems but their mental mindset.

The policy of closing the districts is driven by more than just the welfare of the women.  Yet as the shelter manager says, it is almost certain many of the women are slaves and shutting down the industry should help them.  Yet if it is mishandled nothing will change for them and it could even make their lives worse as they are transferred from plain sight in the red light district to invisibility in an illicit trade.  To her credit the Mayor of Surubaya seems aware of these issues and is trying to proceed carefully with a progressive shut down, and education and employment programs for the women.  All power and success to her!

What has all this to do with Paul?  Well, he was writing in an environment where slavery was firmly entrenched in the social fabric.  Possibly one third of the Roman Empire's population was enslaved and slaves carried out most of the menial tasks.  Simply freeing a slave, with no assets, few saleable skills and no guarantee of work, would ensure they would starve or be re-enslaved by someone else.  Christians who released their slaves in this legalistic manner would be little better than the Roman statesman Cato, who said that slaves should be sold when they were too old to work as it was wasteful to keep feeding them when they produced nothing.

Paul's ethic is much tougher, and requires slave owners to do much more.  They are to see their slaves as brothers and sisters, people who they have an obligation to serve, to love as they love themselves.  Certainly it is better to be free than to be a slave, but Christians are not to use this as an excuse for evading their responsibility for one another.  Slave owners have an obligation of service to their slaves, an ongoing responsibility to them as fellow servants of the same Master.

This, I think, is why Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon.  In anywhere other than Philemon's household, Onesimus was a renegade and an outlaw.  As a runaway slave, his life was forfeit.  Paul could have helped him to escape again and take his chances, although as a prisoner himself his opportunities to help would have been limited.  Perhaps if he had less confidence in Philemon he may have done so for a man he had come to love as a son. 

Instead, he did the one thing that could guarantee Onesimus's safety - he asked (in fact, demanded) that Philemon protect him and accept him as a brother.  Onesimus was to be integrated into the Christian community in Colosse, where Philemon is thought to have lived.  In this community "there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."  Onesimus was to gain not merely his legal liberty, but full membership of a loving supportive community under the sponsorship of its leaders.

I have said this before, but it bears repeating.  Christians often reject situation eithics because it is too lax.  This is a misunderstanding.  Situation ethics is much harder than legalism.  The Sermon on the Mount is much more difficult to implement than the Torah.  This is because it requires us to think, and to take responsibility.  It requires us to understand the consequences of our actions, to care for the wellbeing of others rather than just our own righteousness.  It requires us not simply to free slaves, but to make them family.

3 comments:

Andrew said...

Hmmmmm... I still see this as a maneuver one tries to make with the text BECAUSE of belief. I don't think a Christian would typically give this benefit of the doubt to a competing text. Is Paul progressing socially? Sure. Is an omniscient God performing a rhetorical dance based on the capabilities of the people of the time? Much harder pill for me to swallow. I understand, and appreciate, the argument; but again, I think it is one made to keep God blameless. Take God out of the equation, and we would just read the text, and interpret it, like any other.

Jon Eastgate said...

Andrew, of course if you are not a Christian there is no reason for you to pay any particular attention to what Paul says. In this case, there are contemporary writings on slavery that are more help in responding to the issue in the here and now. However, I think our way of reading Paul is conditioned by two things. One is the notion of Christians having control over the laws of the land, or at least influence over them. This was clearly not the case in the first century, when Christianity itself was borderline illegal. The other, which is connected, is the idea of Paul as lawgiver and his letters as a kind of Christian law. It seems to me Paul's own attitude to law in general renders this unlikely.

Jon Eastgate said...

Btw as I was writing this I'd forgotten about your post on the subject. I'd got onto it after reading Grayling and being amazed at his silence on the subject. But yours must have been there just below consciousness since I would have read it not long before, so thanks for getting me thinking on the subject.