How I found out I owned 62 slaves (and what I’m doing about it)

2 May

Does the Bible affirm slavery?  The guy in the video below sure thinks so.

No doubt this man’s methodology was really insensitive and hurtful.  Inexcusable.  But take a look at his argument.  He claims the Bible supports slavery.  Is he right.  On the billboard, he lists a Bible verse that seems to endorse slavery.  At Faith Church two weeks ago, we continued our series through the biblical letter of 1st Timothy, this time looking at just two verses about slavery: 1 Timothy 6:1-2.

In their The Genesis of Liberation, authors Powery and Sadler note that the problem with passages like 1 Timothy 6:1-2 is that Southern slave-owners used passages like this one to retain their stranglehold on their slaves and promote the culture of slavery.  Were the slave-owners right?  Does a passage like this justify slavery?

In the years of 1820-1860 slaves and Northern freed blacks were reading these same passages coming to a very different conclusion.  Many of us today would say “No Way! The Bible doesn’t support slavery.” Who is right?  Let’s take a closer look.

What we find when we survey the New Testament approach to slavery is that the NT writers did not endorse the system of slavery.  They never say “Slavery is a just and good system, and we should promote it and affirm it.” Instead Paul taught Christians how to live in the reality of their slave culture.

First up are Ephesians 6:5-9 and Colossians 3:22-4:1.  Paul says essentially the same thing in both passages.  Here is what he says in Ephesians 6:5-9:

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.  And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.”

We have to see that in a context where slavery was the norm, where slaves outnumbered free people, what Paul is teaching here is radical.  He is teaching Christian slave-owners to remember that they themselves also have a Master in heaven. Therefore they should treat their slaves well.

This was very unexpected teaching.  But maybe you think Paul should have been more radical than that. Take a look at Titus 2:9-10.  What Paul says here is similar to Ephesians and Colossians, but he adds some detail:

“Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive.”

Sounds very similar to the Ephesians/Colossians passage, doesn’t it?  Paul wants slaves to see their masters as people who need salvation from Jesus.  Paul wants them to see how their lives can make teaching about Jesus attractive or repulsive.  If slave owners can become followers of Jesus, then maybe something more radical can happen.

And that is exactly what he says to a slave owner by the name of Philemon.

Are you familiar with the story Philemon?  Philemon was a genuinely great Christian man who owned a slave named Onesimus.  Onesimus, we think, had stolen from Philemon and ran away.  Under Roman Law, this was punishable by death.  Somehow, Onesimus and Paul crossed paths, and Onesimus became a Christian under Paul’s teaching.  So now Paul’s letter to Philemon is a plea to Philemon saying “I’m sending Philemon back to you and I want you to treat him right when he returns.”

Listen to how Paul words it:

“Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.”

Paul is demonstrating clearly the transformation that can take place.  A slave can become a brother!  Now that is radical.  That is pretty much another way of saying “set your slaves free”.  In fact, it is better than saying “set your slaves free.”  It saying “Slave-owner: followers of Jesus have transformed relationships, to the point where your slaves are no longer your property, they are your family.  You don’t’ just set them free, they are your dear brothers and sisters.”

What we see, then, is that Paul, writing in a society that was dominated by slavery, injected his writing with a view to a better future of equality!  This new picture of the future is clear in what Paul says in Galatians 3:26-28

“You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Paul is launching a brand new theological understanding of humanity for that culture.  In Christ he says, we are all the same.  We know this from the very beginning of Creation where God says in Genesis 1 that he made all humans in his image.  We are all the same in Christ.  There are different ethnicities, yes, but we are all equal in Christ.  Because of that, there should be no slave, no free.  All are one in Christ.

This theological foundation that Paul taught was the very thing that led to the eradication of slavery in years to come.  Timothy did not live in a world where slavery was eradicated.  The application of Christian theology clearly leads to the eradication of slavery though.  Because we do live in a society where slavery is no more, we should press on to remove even the last vestiges of slavery, including racial bias and injustice, human trafficking and the like.

Slavery does still exist in various forms in the world.  And this is where it impacts us.  Our inexpensive products often come from places across the globe that utilize slave labor in order to keep our prices low.

What if the coffee you bought this morning on your way to work was harvested by farmers that were not paid a fair wage?

What if the chocolate you ate this week was made by slaves?

What if the shirt and pants you are wearing right now are made by child laborers?

In James 5, James the brother of Jesus says this:

“Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. … You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.”

James is speaking to us as well.  Think about it.  The reason we get such cheap coffee is often because the workers used to farm and harvest the coffee were not paid a fair wage.  Some of our products are made by outright slave labor.

Wouldn’t you want to know if you are part of the system that keeps people enslaved even today?  As Christians we should want to know and do something about it.

Here’s something shocking I found out as I was preparing this sermon.  I own slaves.  You read that right.

Here’s the kicker: You, too, might be a slave owner! Visit slaveryfootprint.org and you can find out for yourself.  This organization has created a website and app with a quick survey you fill out in which you describe your life.  How many rooms does your house have?  How many cars do you have?  How much clothing do you have?  You enter basic info on your eating habits, sports, technology, etc.  Then it gives you a result.  Based on your lifestyle, and what researchers have found about where our products come from, you will get a number of how many slaves you own.

I was appalled to find out my number.  62 slaves.  How many slaves do you own?  This is a reality check.

I know, I know, I don’t actually own any slaves, and neither do you.  But what James says applies to us.  We might not be the slave-owners, but we buy the products those slave-owners enslave people to make!  And thus we are just as culpable, James says.  The unpaid wages of the workers cry out, and James tells us that cry is heard by God!  We should be very concerned about that.

So what can we do?

When I preached this sermon, one person came up to me afterwards frustrated.  It seems like we are trapped in a consumer system where ethical consumption isn’t realistic.  Can the church, for example, realistically purchase a new HVAC unit for $20,000 when a foreign-made unit, one possibly made by workers not paid fairly, will only cost $6000?  The reality is that we’re not just talking about big ticket items like HVAC units.  Nearly everything we purchase from food to clothing to gadgets just might be part of this system.  If we were to restrict ourselves to only ethical purchases, it seems like our lives would shut down and we wouldn’t be able to exist.

So let me encourage you to start somehow, somewhere.  If this is new to you, perhaps you might start with coffee.

It is very possible and accessible to purchase fair trade coffee.  It will be more expensive than the cheap brands.  But that is kinda the point isn’t it?  You pay more for the coffee because the workers who harvested it were paid fair wages.  So consider visiting Equal Exchange.  They sell fair trade coffee, tea, chocolate, bananas and other ethically-produced foods.  I was so proud a few years ago when Faith Church made the switch to fair trade coffee.  It cost us more, but it was the right thing to do.

Consider ethical clothing companies like Imagine Goods.  The employed formerly enslaved women, paying them a fair wage, empowering them through employment, lifting them out of poverty.  I’ll admit it, I’m biased. My wife and her partner started Imagine Goods, but if you’ll read their story and see their vision and how they are accomplishing it, I think you’ll see why I’m so excited about them.

Here’s an article featuring three apps that can help you make ethical purchases.  This one features six apps.  Another very easy option is to consider purchasing your clothing at Goodwill or consignment shops.  That way you are supporting an unethical industry, you are supporting local businesses.

It will take some work, but it can be done!

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