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Slave subversion

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Sermon for the twelfth Sunday after Trinity

The Church has often been accused of endorsing slavery. You can see why. The Old Testament has passages which permit selling people into slavery. Even St Paul appears to be encouraging slavery when he writes things like “Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God.” Further, St Paul sends the runaway slave Onesimus back to his master Philemon and he is proud of it!


The issue of slavery is a blight on Western Civilisation and we are still reeling from its effects. Over the centuries, under the pretence of civilisation, human beings have been bought and sold like cattle and treated as less than cattle. Slavery has been presented as acceptable by the ruling elite, even as statements of fashion, and the dreadful reality hidden away until recent times.


We know why slavery is appalling: a human being is being robbed of the dignity of being human and treated like a piece of property, no better than a bull, a goat or a sheep.

It has to be said, though, that this is a different form of slavery than that described in the Old Testament. In the Jewish Law, someone in dire financial difficulty could sell themselves or a child to another in order to work off the debt. Yet, let us be clear on this, this form of slavery had rights and was not meant to be permanent. Indeed, in the Old Testament, this form of slave would be better translated as bondsman – someone under a bond of debt.

In other cultures, and most notably, the Roman Empire, the slave was indeed a piece of property of another human being. While a slave could be freed, there was no guarantee of freedom, no guarantee of rights, not even a guarantee of kindness. Roman Law is designed to uphold this view. If a slave runs away to you, then you are legally required to return that slave to his master because he is not you property. If you keep that slave, then you are guilty of theft in the eyes of Roman Law.


And this is St Paul’s dilemma. Onesimus has run away from Philemon and found his way to St Paul. Under Roman Law, St Paul must return Onesimus. Does this sound familiar?

We know what the Lord says about the Roman Law: Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's. What we see in St Paul’s letter to Philemon is precisely how he does just that.

He creates a bond of brotherhood between Philemon and Onesimus. The Roman Law only has power over a slave for as long as long as there is a distance between master and slave. As soon as the master realises the dignity of the slave; as soon as the master realises his shared humanity with the slave; as soon as the master realises that the slave is his brother to be loved and cherished and adored, then the Roman Law is utterly meaningless. As long as the commandment “Love thy neighbour as thyself” is in effect, any law which relies on one person being of lesser value than another is void.


It’s true to say that some parts of the Church have done better than others to stamp out slavery. Horribly, some parts of the Church have done better than others to endorse slavery. The fact is, however, whenever another human being is seen as the property of another, there is a violation of the commandment of God. It needs to be fought.

And yes, there is slavery today.

There is slavery in sweatshops where children are forced to make cut-price clothes for less than the cost of living.

There is slavery in car washes in which people are forced to wash cars by those who exploit their circumstances as asylum seekers or illegal immigrants.

There is slavery in the sex industry in which girls are being sold for their bodies. We don’t need to go further to think about the horrors that await them.

All this slavery can be stopped the moment we realise our duty of love to our neighbour. It means we need to be careful what we buy and where from. We need to be considerate of those who deliver our packages at night. We need to look into the eyes of those who wash our cars. We need to protect our young men and women from those who would seek to use their bodies in a vile and disgusting manner.

But above all, we need to become slaves of love.


We are God’s property through our creation and yet God would have us become like Him. His yoke is easy, His burden is light. To be a slave of Christ is to gain the world. To be a slave of Christ is to gain Christ. There are those who work in the darkness who need to hear that!

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