Read Ephesians 6:1-9
Paul’s words in Ephesians six, verse five, are disturbing. “Slaves, obey your earthly masters,” he writes, “with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ…” How do we respond to these words?
August twenty-third is the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. On that date in 1791 the Haitian Slave Revolt was launched. This revolt began the long journey that ultimately stopped the transatlantic trafficking in African women and men.
It took until 1833 for human enslavement to be legally abolished throughout the British Empire. It took another thirty years and a bloody civil war for enslaved persons to be emancipated in our country. Then Reconstruction and Jim Crow laws put back in place most of the pre-Civil War practices. Lynchings, voter suppression and separate accommodations maintained the systems and structures of white supremacy in our country for another hundred years.
Supreme Court decisions and Civil Rights legislation attacked those systems and structures in the Fifties and Sixties. It is clear, however, that the systems and structures of white supremacy and privilege are alive and well in our country. For example, we remember in August another anniversary of the riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, instigated by white supremacists and resulting in the death of one counter-protester. The racial disparity in conviction and incarceration rates in Iowa, among many other states, is disgusting. The fruits of human enslavement remain among us.
Nowhere does Paul directly condemn slavery. Nowhere does Paul demand abolition. N. T. Wright suggests that Paul was walking a tightrope between living the power of love and alienating the prevailing culture. Nonetheless, human enslavement is wrong. It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now.
Human enslavement and its historical grandchild—white privilege—violate the Gospel. We know this from Paul himself. In Galatians three, verse twenty-seven, he writes, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” He concludes in verse twenty-eight: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for you all are one in Christ Jesus.”
What makes us fully and truly human is God’s image that we bear. Maleness does not make someone fully human. Neither does whiteness. Neither does social status or age or birthplace or language. When we limit real humanity to a particular group, we create a false god. And we create disposable people.
First century Greco-Roman culture saw women, children and slaves as subhuman. Men believed women had limited intelligence. They believed children weren’t yet worthy of notice. They believed slaves were too brainless to ever be fully and truly human.
Fathers could dispose of unwanted babies. Such children often ended up at the city dump. There they died of exposure or were picked up by local slave traders. Enslaved people were treated like furniture. They could be used and abused as the slaveholder saw fit. If they resisted, they were tortured and killed without consequence.
Subhuman people are disposable. In Germany, Jews were called rats. In Rwanda, Tutsis were called cockroaches. In America, Blacks were called stupid apes—and far worse. Now such name calling is as common as breathing. It is part of our public discourse. Remember, what we feed grows. The rhetoric of disposable people is well-fed these days.
Now notice something. “Masters,” Paul writes in Ephesians six, verse nine, “do the same to them…” It’s the word “same” that gets our attention. Paul says masters and slaves are the same in the Lord’s eyes. They are the same in how they will be evaluated. They have the same Master in heaven. They are to render service to one another with the same enthusiasm.
In the background is the family of Philemon. Onesimus, the enslaved person, returned to Philemon as a brother in Christ. A close reading of Philemon tells me that Paul wanted Philemon to free his former slave. In the midst of a society where human enslavement was regarded as being as necessary to their economy as electricity is to ours, something big was beginning. In Jesus, Philemon and Onesimus were the same.
It took the Church another eighteen hundred years to make this right. But the Church has been part of the journey. British Christians drove the abolition movement there. American Christians have been at the heart of both our abolitionist and racial equality movements. We white Christians have drug our feet many times during the journey, and for that we must repent. We have not “arrived” anywhere when it comes to race. There is still much work for us to do, much sin for which to atone.
If it took the Church eighteen hundred years to move beyond Paul on human enslavement, should we be surprised that it has taken us even longer to welcome people with a variety of gender and sexual orientations? The Gospel moves us forward, however slowly. Just as we no longer keep slaves, so we should no longer hold people in bondage because of gender and sexual orientation.
Of course, human enslavement has not vanished. The Global Slavery index estimates that in 2017 over forty million human beings were enslaved. Accurate estimates are difficult to come by since slavery is a hidden and illegal practice. The reality is likely to be a higher total.
This is the highest number of enslaved people in human history. Two thirds are women and children. Even though human enslavement is illegal in every country in the world, it is a real and growing issue. Because of our location at a major interstate crossroads, the Omaha metro is something of a human trafficking hub. I urge you to become more aware and educated in this whole area of concern. The ELCA website is a great place to begin learning more.
I am proud that our denomination is at the forefront of the issues of human enslavement and human trafficking. Our ELCA provides financial, staff, and advocacy support for local, regional, national and international efforts to combat slavery and human trafficking. Your gifts help to make that happen. The Women of the ELCA are among the greatest of our church warriors in this fight for people to be treated as fully human.
And we are in a war—make no mistake about that. Next week we will learn more about the weapons of the Spirit. We will put on the whole armor of God for the battle that confronts us. Let’s pray…