Wednesday, 03 October 2012
Slavery was abolished in our nation following the Civil War, but some would dispute that it no longer exists here. It has always been a reality of life for some people in every age living in some corner of this globe. It has never been a past reality and that continues to be true in some parts of our world even today. I have no doubt the advocacy or promotion of slavery in this nation again would be strongly (and appropriately) opposed as a bad thing by the vast majority of this country’s citizens. Past experience with slavery and the bitter struggles of those who had been oppressed in order to come to a measure of freedom through the 1960's Civil Rights Movement still stir strong memories and emotions. In one form or another, that struggle continues to this day.
The writers of Scripture recognized slavery was very much a living reality for them and vast numbers of people living in their ancient world. Indeed, it is easily established that some of these people had either been slaves at some point during their lives or owned slaves/servants themselves.
It might even come as a surprise to many that though the Scriptures do not encourage slavery, as a whole, neither do they overtly nor actively oppose or condemn the practice. Free believers were encouraged not to seek to become slaves and believing slaves were instructed to free themselves if the opportunity arose (see I Corinthians 7:20-24). Slavery wasn’t and isn’t a pleasant reality. However, overall the Scriptures presuppose its existence and presume its continuing presence in some form throughout human history.
During the life of Jesus and after, slavery was so prevalent that it has been said that over half the population of Rome itself, was made up of slaves or servants of some kind. And it may be an interesting side note that the faithful practice of Christian principles as taught from the Scriptures had as much to do with its demise in the Roman Empire as any other force that operated in the world at that time. Consider Paul’s letter to Philemon, the owner of Onesimus, a run-away slave who fled to Rome and ‘by chance’ became acquainted with the then incarcerated Apostle Paul.
Servant-hood (perhaps a more benign synonym for ‘slavery’) has always meant that people were owned by other people for bad or for good. Servants/slaves had very few rights. For the most part, they were subject to the pleasure, or displeasure of their masters. They could be sold (with or without their families) on a whim, or even killed with relative impunity. When the founders of our nation like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson (who owned slaves) are held up as prime examples of leadership, benevolence, honesty, wisdom and integrity, almost invariably someone will malign them as nasty evil subhuman slave owners as if that in and of itself was an unspeakable crime. For the most part, however, the writers of Scripture treated it simply as a reality--a part of life, without attaching any intrinsic good--or evil to it. It just was!
Like everything (and I do mean everything) that is touched by the dark stain of humanity in its perversity, the perception of slavery will not endure in-depth scrutiny without the proverbial ‘black eye’. It’s designation matters little; ‘slavery’ or ‘servant-hood’, because of the vast abuses associated with its practice, it is almost universally considered a despicable institution. It doesn’t matter that many foreigners arriving penniless in America, basically sold (or ‘rented out’) themselves to citizens of our country for an agreed number of years of service in order to stay and live in America. At the end of the agreement, many of these indentured servants (slaves) went on to purchase land of their own or established businesses and lived as free and successful citizens of this country.
Slavery is not intrinsically evil. Employing it as a tool to subjugate, exploit, abuse and humiliate is. But I suspect the view that slavery could ever be a device of blessing is pretty much beyond the realm of possibility in our thinking.
And so the life and times of Abraham (originally Abram) I suppose, should be an enigma to us. By our way of thinking, compared to just about anyone in his time, Abraham had become filthy rich--and that primarily because of God. He was pretty much a wanderer (though a wealthy one at that!). He had herds and flocks and possessions out the ‘wahzoo’--not to mention the vast amounts of gold and silver he had accumulated. There were over 300 men in his household and he wielded tremendous power and influence over the regional rulers and people that lived around him. You would think, therefore, that Abraham, with all of this, hadn’t a care in the world. But you would be wrong--he did!
Yahweh God, on occasion, came to Abraham to encourage him and assure him of the many good things He wanted to provide Abraham and his family. God blessed him and Abraham, the ‘friend of God’ flourished. At one such time, Abraham complained to Yahweh;
"God, Master, what use are your gifts as long as I’m childless and Eleazer of Demascus is going to inherit everything?’ Question: Who was Eleazer?! Abraham went on; "See, you’ve given me no children, and now a mere house servant is going to get it all!" (Genesis 15:2-3).
In Abraham’s home, Eleazer was a house servant or slave--a slave that would have inherited everything belonging to Abraham if his household had remained childless. Eleazer, though a slave, was extremely valuable to Abraham. Once Isaac was born to Abraham and Sarah and had come of age, Eleazer was entrusted with the tremendous responsibility of locating and securing a suitable wife for Isaac. Eleazer carried out this responsibility flawlessly, traveling into the far Northern country of Padan Aram, locating Abraham’s extended family, successfully negotiating with Rebekah’s family and returning her safely to Palestine where she became Isaac’s wife. Eleazer repeatedly showed himself to be completely reliable and loyal to Abraham and his entire family. In fact, after reviewing the amazing story of Abraham and Eleazer (though, of necessity, there must be a lot of ‘reading between the lines’ for the scarcity of information), the only reasonable conclusion to be reached is that this house slave in reality became an essential part of Abraham’s family and had been greatly blessed in it along the way. I just don’t think this was or is typical of any ‘run of the mill’ master/slave relationship.
Generally speaking, from our limited understanding of what slavery is about, I suspect we would not consider slave-hood to be a viable career option. I doubt it would be in the top 10 or even top 100 list of desirable vocations. Who would gladly choose to be a slave?! The Apostle Paul would!--and so would Peter and James (the half brother of Jesus) and Jude (another brother of Jesus). In fact, the follower of Jesus who has come to understand what being a servant/slave (‘doulos’ is the Greek word for ‘bond servant’) to Jesus Christ is all about, gladly assumes that position as the highest calling that a person might attain in this life. Believers of Christ are His slaves. They call Him their ‘Lord’ and ‘Master’ and that is what He is! As slaves they must follow His commands--His marching orders. (An interesting aside is that Jesus Himself is designated–‘The Servant [Slave] of the Lord’/"My servant"--Isaiah 53:11).
The interesting ‘twist’ to all of this is that though the followers of Jesus are indeed His servants/slaves, like Eleazer of Demascus was in the household of Abraham, they have become much more! Jesus spoke to His disciples: "I’m no longer calling you servants because servants don’t understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I’ve named you friends because I’ve let you in on everything I’ve heard from the Father" (John 15:15 [MSG]).
But this still is not the half of it! As believers we are far more than the friends of Jesus! We have become ‘Family’. The Apostle Paul states both a stark and wonderful contrast: "The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father’. The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children" (Romans 8:15-16 [NIV]).
See "What marvelous love the Father has [lavished upon] us! Just look at it--we’re called children of God! That’s who we really are. But that’s also why the world doesn’t recognize us or take us seriously, because it has no idea who he is or what he’s up to. But friends, that’s exactly who we are: children of God. And that’s only the beginning. Who knows how we’ll end up! What we know is that when Christ is openly revealed, we’ll see him--and in seeing him, become like him" (I John 3:1-3 [MSG]).
"If you stick with this, living out what I tell you, you are my disciples for sure. Then you will experience for yourselves the truth, and the truth will [set you free] . . . . I tell you most solemnly that everyone who chooses a life of sin is trapped in a dead-end life and is, in fact a slave . . . . So if the Son sets you free, you are free through and through."
John 8:31-36 [MSG]
* Romans 1:1, Galatians 1:10, Philippians 1:1, Titus 1:1, James 1:1, I Peter 1:1 and Jude 1.How do these scriptures give context to the idea of being a servant of God? How has the role of servant changed your life? In what ways does God call us to serve him, and how do we do that?