Thursday, October 13, 2011

A slave of Jesus Christ

To those who would argue that the Church changed her teaching with regard to slavery, I find an observation made by Hilare Belloc in his book The Servile State more than an adequate answer:
No dogma of the Church pronounced Slavery to be immoral, or the sale and purchase of men to be a sin, or the imposition of compulsory labor upon a Christian to be a contravention of any human right. The emancipation of Slaves was indeed regarded As a good work by the Faithful: but so was it regarded by the Pagan? It was, on the face of it, a service rendered to one’s fellowmen. The sale of Christians to Pagan masters was abhorrent to the later empire of the Barbarian Invasions, not because slavery in itself was condemned, but because it was a sort of treason to civilization to force men away from Civilization to Barbarism. In general you will discover no pronouncement against slavery as an institution, nor any moral definition attacking it, throughout all those early Christian centuries during which it nonetheless effectively disappears.
While true of Europe itself, it took more time in the New World to abolish slavery, but, there again, it was abolished under the influence of Christianity, even as many tried to defend it on biblical grounds. The so-called "change" occurred when the Church finally and formally condemned slavery. But is that a change? It is sort of like people who are scandalized that the canon of Scripture was not dogmatically defined, as it were, until the Council of Trent. Of course, it had not been called into question before that and represents no change, but a reinforcement of what was already believed and practiced.

This put me mind of one of the best books I read last year, Sarah Ruden's Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time. While her book is tremendously insightful, there are certain of her analyses with with which I do not agree. At the beginning of her chapter on Paul and slavery she makes it clear that while the apostle was not "for slavery" he did not oppose it, but just thought "that [Christian] slaves should just get on with their religious lives."

bas relief of Roman slaves

She rightly focuses her attention on Paul's letter to Philemon, which is an authentically Pauline composition. Additionally, unlike all of Paul's other writings that have been handed down, which were to communities, his letter to Philemon is a personal letter, plea on to Philemon on behalf the Onesimus, a slave who ran away to be with Paul and who the apostle, in verse twelve, calls "my own heart." (I posted on this when it was last read from the Sunday lectionary in September last year: Onesimus, Paul's own heart).

Both Philemon and Onesimus were Christians. Paul's dangerous idea, which he communicates in his written appeal, is that in Christ both master and slave are equals. I am much more inclined to agree to agree with N.T. Wright (someone it would be beneficial for Ruden, who is a classicist, to read), when he asserts, referring to what he calls in his book Paul In Fresh Perspective "Paul's Counter-Imperial Theology,"- that when reading Paul, "At every point... we should expect what we in fact find: that, for Paul, Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not." On this basis, it cannot be a question of Paul merely dismissing Onesimus, urging him, or Philemon for that matter, to "just get on with their religious lives."

In pleading with Philemon to welcome Onesimus back, the apostle reasons- Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord (verses 15-16). Continuing, Paul wrote: "So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me" (verses 17-18).

At least to me, this is an example of how theology triumphs over ideology. It also says something to us about what the nature of freedom, especially coming from one who introduced himself to the Christian community in Rome as "a slave of Christ Jesus" (Rom. 1:1), the Greek word being doulos.Perhaps the most common was the word δούλος, "a slave, a bond-servant." D. Edmond Heibert, in an article written a long time ago, "Behind the Word "Deacon": A New Testament Study," pointed out that the meaning of the word "δούλος" is "the opposite of a man who is 'free.'" A doulos, Heibert continued, is "one who belongs wholly to his master and is obligated to do his master's will." Most importantly for Paul's view of slavery, something very much in line with Wright's bold assertion, is that the ancient church "found [δούλος] a fitting term to express the spiritual reality that a believer belongs wholly to his heavenly Lord and consequently must obey Him in total submission."

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