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Slavery

1900 years ago a young immigrant worker in the Asia province of Rome was struggling to feed his family. His children were hungry, and his wife had died of a painful disease. He worked long hours as a laborer, and his living conditions were squalid. Then, as he walked home from work, he was accosted by bandits, and beaten, with his earnings for the week stolen. He could not go to work the next day, Because of this, he had no money to buy food for his kids, and he lost his job. His children, already undernourished, began to die of starvation.

In desperation, he went to the local slave market and sold himself and his children into slavery. 

He stood on the auction block and watched as slave owners bid unenthusiastically for a broken down man and his children who were too young to work productively. Finally, one gruff looking older man outbid the others, and he and his children were marked as slaves and meekly and dejectedly followed the man home. The man was rich, and his home spacious and beautiful. According to Roman law, the young man and his children could be beaten or even killed for disobedience, and he faced a life of hardship and slavery for himself and his children.

But when he arrived at the home of the rich man, he found out the man was a Christian. He was given meaningful work to do, and his children were well fed and cared for. Over time, he developed a close friendship with the rich man and was treated like family. Eventually, he and his children received an inheritance and were blessed with prosperity. He discovered in very real and immediate terms what it was to be “bought with a price”.

There is a lot of talk of slavery in the ongoing discussion of systemic racism. As well there should be, because slavery is a horrible practice, and in our country was a reprehensible institution that had a devastating impact on millions of lives, not just on those were were slaves at the time, but on all associated with the slaving business. John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace”, was a slave trader who chronicled his journey into freedom in Christ in this song. He became an abolitionist, and his song became an anthem of those in the cause against slavery and racism, as well as a moving song about our own journey into the grace of God. Newton had personal experience with what it meant to be a slave of the system, even though he was on the “winning side”.

American slavery was founded on the horrible idea of one human being owned by another, but was made far worse than the ancient institution of slavery because of the violent kidnapping of African-American peoples from their homes to the plantation, and because, unlike the historical precedent, it was based on race, not just economic or potiical circumstance. This made it possible to enslave, not just individuals, but an entire people. Laws were made that made it easy to identify a slave… by the color of their skin. Even after slavery, institutions like segregation and apartheid continued the economic and physical violence into our modern age.

I remember segregation clearly in my lifetime. When I became aware of this as a small child, I was fortunate to be brought up in a home in the 50’s, which was rare at that time, where the very idea of racism was anathema and in which our highest value was that every human being is unique and valuable. I was horrified by the violence and injustice as a child and as a teenager I personally fought for civil rights and participated in demonstrations. I believe all Christians are obligated to stand up for the rights of the modern day victims of this evil, and to treat those victims (and all of our neighbors) with love.

However, the truth is, and I believe the Bible teaches, that we all live in a world of slavery. Most of the world’s population throughout history have been poor, and the poor have been “owned”, oppressed, and driven by violence and hardship by the rich few. We are all slaves to sin, slaves to sickness, slaves to suffering, slaves to economic circumstances, and slaves to our environment and upbringing. 

Adam and Eve were tempted by the idea of “true freedom”: that they could be “like God”, being their own judge of right and wrong for their lives. Satan’s sin was the same, for he wanted to be “like the Most High”. In fact, we are more like the young father in the story. We are in the midst of a great spiritual battle, and we frequently have to choose, not to become our own masters, but whom we will serve. Do we serve sin and the flesh? Or are we willing to be “bought with a price”, not by a good man, like the owner in the story, but by the Living God, who paid a terrible price to rescue us from real slavery to death, sin, and our own broken and fallen flesh.

And so, what then shall we do, having been rescued from the grave, and our own twisted desires and the consequences of acting on those desires?

We all have pain and suffering. We all have sickness. We all suffer from lack of respect and lack of love from those around us. We all are victims of the fallen actions of others. We all face physical death. We all ache for our children or family members who are suffering from these things as well. We all get mad when those near us don’t understand us or lash out at us from their own position of pain.

Do we act like slaves to that old lie that we are “doing our own thing”? Who is our master now? Are we on the throne of our own lives? How do we feel about the Father? How did that young father feel about the man who paid his own money to buy him out of his misery and place him in a place of safety and provision?

We as followers of Christ certainly live in a life surrounded by pain and suffering, but we also have joy and we have His great and precious promises. We have the gift of eternal life. We have a loving Father who constantly looks out for us and loves us. While we may ask Him why we pass through this current suffering, we also know that all such is a momentary light affliction. Yes, our only option besides staying in our old life of slavery is another kind of “slavery”. We are “bondservants of Christ”. We are not masters of our fate or captains of our souls. We have a new Master, one who is good and loving and who cares for us, and one who paid a terrible price to purchase us out of that poverty and sickness into a new life.

This is what I think of when I am tempted to follow my flesh, or to make others treat me with “more respect”, or when I want something I cannot or should not have. I am so grateful for the blessings I have, and I want to live a life worthy of the gift of life I have received. 

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for this post Larry. It is very interesting to consider the difference in American slavery as it was based on race, not just economic or political circumstance. So painful to hold the story. But it is my calling.

    It makes me think of something else I read on a reflection on Frozen 2 and it felt very convicting as well how Anna and Elsa are called to lay down the benefit they received from ancestors enslaving and abusing a group of people. I am pondering what is my next right thing as my daughter LOVES the Frozen 2 soundtrack it is a constant repeat.

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  2. It’s important to understand that the American slave trade was based on economic gain just as any other circumstance of slavery has been throughout history. It was not based on race. It was based on men in power who were trying to further their power and wealth. Race was, and always has been, secondary. The idea of Race was created to justify enslavement and inequality; it was used to allow abusers to reconcile their desire to identify themselves as “holy” “upright” “moral” and “good” with the reality that they were committing acts of exploitation that categorically excluded them from this position.

    The desire for money and power came first, then came the use of race to justify the dehumanization of slavery. It may seem a subtle distinction, but I am pointing it out because I believe it is an important one to make. The argument of racial differences has been the smoke-screen that was used to cover the root-cause of racial inequality – this cause was greed. It’s important to draw this distinction because it is still happening. Look how much of the conversation throughout American history has been on convincing White humans that Black humans are in fact equal. This has shut down conversation and debate that an upper class has robbed opportunity and equality from Black and White alike. More so towards Black Americans, no doubt. However, by setting the “lower classes” to arguing about who was higher on the totem pole, they have split the masses from uniting and turning their eye to the inequality perpetuated by those at the highest level of power and utilizing the power their numbers to challenge the power of privilege. The creation of race and class have been the tools that prop up inequality for centuries. To dismantle racism, you must also dismantle classism and power/wealth inequalities. Just like you’re saying in the example of Frozen. But, to start that process, you first have to turn your eye to the correct root cause – greed. This greed created a system that has now perpetuated itself to the point that racism has become a formidable challenge within itself and has to be dismantled before we can address power/wealth inequality.

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  3. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/black-history-american-democracy.html Here’s a good article that explores the extent to which slavery impacted the financial gain of the country and enabled us to become “the most powerful nation in the world”. This nation could not have amassed the wealth and power that it did without the enslavement of Black bodies. The founding fathers intentionally created the myth that “the black race” was “subhuman” in order to allow themselves the ability to reconcile the hypocrisy of Thomas Jefferson writing “We the people…” while owning slaves and building wealth on their backs.

    An excerpt:
    “Before the abolishment of the international slave trade, 400,000 enslaved Africans would be sold into America. Those individuals and their descendants transformed the lands to which they’d been brought into some of the most successful colonies in the British Empire. Through backbreaking labor, they cleared the land across the Southeast. They taught the colonists to grow rice. They grew and picked the cotton that at the height of slavery was the nation’s most valuable commodity, accounting for half of all American exports and 66 percent of the world’s supply. They built the plantations of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, sprawling properties that today attract thousands of visitors from across the globe captivated by the history of the world’s greatest democracy. They laid the foundations of the White House and the Capitol, even placing with their unfree hands the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol dome. They lugged the heavy wooden tracks of the railroads that crisscrossed the South and that helped take the cotton they picked to the Northern textile mills, fueling the Industrial Revolution. They built vast fortunes for white people North and South — at one time, the second-richest man in the nation was a Rhode Island “slave trader.” Profits from black people’s stolen labor helped the young nation pay off its war debts and financed some of our most prestigious universities. It was the relentless buying, selling, insuring and financing of their bodies and the products of their labor that made Wall Street a thriving banking, insurance and trading sector and New York City the financial capital of the world.”

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