Title: Slaves of Christ
Texts: Philemon 1-21
Date: Sept 5, 2010
Author: Chris Gooding
After I graduated from college, I spent a year living in Bombay, India. I moved there to work for a non-profit known as International Justice Mission. IJM helps people with a variety of legal issues worldwide, but what they are best known for is combating human trafficking. And that was what the office that I worked for in Bombay did: it was an office that specialized in investigating and prosecuting sex trafficking cases, and providing aftercare for victims of sex slavery. Among the many hats that I wore during that year at IJM, the job that occupied most of my time was acting as a caseworker at custody hearings for girls that we rescued out of forced prostitution—I helped determine the type of aftercare living situation that would (ideally) foster physical, emotional and spiritual healing for these girls. During these custody hearings, I got to know the stories and struggles of a number of girls coming out of sex slavery. However, of all the terrible stories of abusive bondage that I became familiar with, the one story that still sometimes keeps me up late at night is the story of a girl that I never actually met. We’ll call this girl Jyothi.
Jyothi was around 14 years old when her father first sold her to a brothel, if I remember the details correctly. The type of brothel Jyothi was put into demanded that she sleep with multiple paying customers a night. If she resisted the customer’s advances (as most teenage girls inducted into the trade initially do), the customer would either force himself on her, or would report her to the brothel keeper, who would in turn beat her terribly until she submitted to the customer’s demands. This meant that rape and violence became nightly ritual for Jyothi.
I could not tell you how long Jyothi lived in this situation before IJM rescued her. I can only tell you that, when Jyothi’s father found out about her rescue, he convinced her to come back to live with him, promising through tears that he had changed, and that he would never again sell her into slavery. Against her caseworker’s advice, Jyothi did go back to live with her father… who promptly sold her to another brothel with conditions similar to the first. IJM rescued her a second time, and her father again appeared, promising her through tears that he had changed, and that if she would move back in with him, he would take care of her this time. Again Jyothi went back, against her caseworker’s advice, and her father forced her to enter into an engagement with a man who prostituted her to his friends. After the man was done with her, he and Jyothi’s father sold her back to a brothel. Jyothi was rescued a third time. This time, when she entered into a group home, Jyothi tested positive for AIDS, and her condition was fairly advanced. She was put on antiretroviral meds and was told to remain on a strict medication schedule. But soon, her father came back and implored her to move back in with him. Her caseworker strongly advised against it: even if one were to ignore her father’s past record of keeping promises, the medication she needed was not in ready supply in the village her father lived in. She ignored this advice, and returned to live with her father.
Several months later, Jyothi’s caseworker came to check on her in her father’s house. The caseworker found that Jyothi’s condition was so bad that she could barely move. Her father had unceremoniously dumped her in a corner, where she was lying in a blanket covered in her own filth. He no longer spoke sweetly to her; he no longer implored her in tears. Now that no one wanted Jyothi for her body anymore, now that he could not profit from her, he had no use for her. He barely noticed when the caseworker took her to be admitted to the local hospital. Soon after she was admitted, Jyothi died.
Did IJM liberate Jyothi? Keep that question in mind through what follows.
The lectionary today has dealt me Philemon, a text I have never heard preached, and one that will not come up in the lectionary again in its three year cycle. It is impossible to talk about Philemon without talking about slavery, since the letter seems to be a subtle (or maybe not so subtle) request by the apostle Paul for the pardon and release of Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave. It is possible that Onesimus bore this letter alongside Paul’s letter to the Colossians, since both letters are to the same congregation, and both letters mention the same key people in the church. The thing that has really baffled many a New Testament scholar is that Colossians contains one of those dreaded “household codes” (3:18-4:1) that come up a few times in the Pauline letters—the kind that ask slaves to be obedient to their masters and seems to assume that slavery is an institution that is not going away anytime soon. A tension arises between the failure to ask Christian masters to free their slaves in one letter, and the heavy-handed tactics used to ask for Onesimus’ release in the other. Some background on the issue of slavery in the Bible might be necessary to shed some light on how this tension has often been handled.
Now, being a Christian abolitionist who has personal relationships with former slaves, it might be objected that I am the single worst person to talk about the Bible’s take on slavery. After all, a number of good, objective, modern, Western Biblical scholars will tell you that (regardless of how much they wish it weren’t so) the Bible seems to treat slavery as an institution that is taken for granted in political, economic and social life. Someone like me, it might be argued, who has a vested interest in this question, is likely to downplay the fact that Israel and the early church were not terribly different from their pagan neighbors when it comes to slave ownership. So I’ll start out by telling you what those scholars would say.
It is true that the Torah allows for slavery in Israel. Prisoners of war can be made slaves (e.g. Deuteronomy 21:10), as can debtors, who can either sell themselves into bondage, or can be ordered to become slaves as a result of a lawsuit brought against them, either for theft or for defaulting on a loan (e.g. Exodus 22:2-3). While the institution’s existence isn’t challenged in the Torah, it does seem to be limited to household slavery (state slavery is looked down upon), and the duration of the slave’s service was expected to be temporary. Deuteronomy sets a six year limitation on slave service: every seventh year, all slaves, whether Hebrews or foreigners, are to be set free (Deuteronomy 15). In addition, every Jubilee year (every fiftieth year), total slave remission is supposed to occur, and even if the slave’s property has been sold to pay off a debt, it is to be given back over to its original owners (Leviticus 25). Admittedly, the Jubilee legislation is often considered utopian, or something that happens in the end times, as we don’t seem to have examples of it ever being put into effect. However, the Sabbath year legislation certainly was put into effect. In addition, slaves are to be treated with the respect given to hired hands, and are not to be ruled over with “harshness” (Leviticus 25): numerous parts of the Torah protect a slave’s well-being and ensure good treatment. The slave of a wealthy household could in many ways be better off than his free but poor neighbors. They could be property owners, and are to be given respect and dignity, even treated as a member of the family. Paul continues the Torah’s protection of the dignity of slaves when he gives strict condemnation for harsh masters in his household codes (e.g. Ephesians 5:9). In addition, slaves fall under Sabbath and festival restrictions—they are obligated to rest just as much as any Israelite (Deuteronomy 5:12-15).
But no matter how many provisions are made for the well-being of the slave, and no matter how abundant conditions of release are, the Western Biblical scholar reminds us, the Bible simply does not give us what we want to find within its pages: the type of total renunciation of slavery that we have been able to achieve in modern democracies. Slavery is a dead issue, so they say, something we’ve conquered, and unfortunately, the Bible just doesn’t match up with our moral intuitions here. This last part is usually made very clear to me by a distinguished professor who enters into a lecture hall wearing clothes that are a product of sweat labor, who eats North Carolina chocolate and drinks non-fair trade coffee. [I bring up North Carolina chocolate because I am informed by Danielle Mitchell—who runs Triad Ladder of Hope, an anti-trafficking non-profit that operates out of Winston-Salem—that cocoa in North Carolina is overwhelmingly produced by bonded labor. As she puts it, “everyone is an abolitionist until you start talking about giving up affordable chocolate.”] Why do I bring these things up? Is it an underhanded attempt to attack the presenter’s character in order to undermine their scholarship? That is not my intention. What I’m trying to call into question is (1) the assumption that we are more generous than the Torah when it comes to slaves, and (2) the assumption that we even able to name or provide “freedom.”
Allow me to return to the example of sweat labor to make my point. For free market advocates, what makes a market free is deregulation: a bare minimum of external, government rules (policed by methods of coercion) on how prices are set and labor is acquired. However, even in heavily deregulated markets, sweat laborers are often forced into poor wage conditions in a desperate attempt to pull themselves out of poverty. They have no choice but to work for pennies an hour for so great a number of hours per week that it puts them under great physical strain—sometimes so great a physical strain that the Chinese have even coined a term for “death from overwork” to describe the spontaneous collapse that workers have suffered in their sweat shops. Corporations, in turn, justify use of sweat labor by arguing that, as sad as their workers’ situation is, they will not be able to compete in the market if they do not outsource to countries that allow them to hire cheap labor. They have no choice but to hire sweat labor. Consumers, in turn, often find themselves without options in buying from corporate giants that use sweat labor: the past few decades have seen an increase in mergers and acquisitions, such that the vast amount of industry is run by only a few corporations. Since modern consumers do not produce any of their own food, clothing or other needs, they must buy these goods from others, and this increasingly means buying from large corporations that use sweat labor. They have no choice to buy sweat-free goods. But if this picture is accurate, and the consumer has no choice, the worker has no choice, and the corporation has no choice, in what sense does this represent a “free” market?
This I think puts the finger on the problem when we approach slavery and freedom in the Bible. We often assume that, if we remove external coercion, and if we give a person self-determination, we have granted them freedom. And it isn’t entirely off-base to assume that removing coercion is an important part of granting someone freedom. Paul makes this assumption himself when he writes to Philemon, “I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced” (v. 14). Commentators may have thought Paul’s message here is a bit heavy handed, using what might be considered a series of guilt trips to make sure that Philemon comes to the proper choice of setting Onesimus free, but at least Paul is trying to honor the idea that removing coercion is an important part of freedom. But by itself, the absence of external coercion can’t guarantee freedom. What Jyothi and sweat labor help us to see is that mere self-determination is not enough. Unless an option that permits the slave to flourish and lead a good life is on the table, the slave is not free, even after release.
This is why the Torah continually emphasizes “I am the LORD your God, who freed you from slavery in Egypt” when the Law is given. Liberation is something that only God can grant. It is not something that is brought about by human hands. In the Exodus account, freedom is only gained when a slave is freed from the yoke of an evil master (Egypt) and bound to a good one (God). Why are the Israelites to be freed from Egypt? God tells Pharaoh “Let my people go so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness” (Exodus 5:1). Freedom only comes when a person is bound to the commandments and the people of God, and this binding alone is what allows a person to flourish. Paul continues this assumption in his letters when he describes himself and his fellow workers as “slaves to Christ.”
This is also why the Biblical literature constantly portrays God as “hearing the cry” of the Israelites in bondage, and of anyone who is oppressed, anywhere. Slaves have a special place in the heart of God, and it is God alone who is able to leap to their rescue. The biblical scholars I mentioned before are right, the Bible does not give us what we want. But what the Bible withholds from us is more scandalous than they realize: it withholds from us the assumption that we can be liberators at all. And they would be right to accuse me of bias, not because I know slaves and am likely to skew the issue, but rather because I grew up in a culture that is extraordinarily self-deceived about our ability to acquire freedom for ourselves and others. The question is not “does the Bible want you or I to free slaves?” but rather “is it possible for you or I to grant freedom to slaves at all?” We desperately want to answer “yes” to that question. We want to stand on the backs of our culture’s anti-slave laws and say we have accomplished a moral victory. We have set people free. We have become heroes. I’ll be honest, it’s part of the reason I went to work in Bombay. I wanted to be a hero.
But on the ground, one of the first things I learned working for IJM is that there is no such thing as a hero. If a girl is successfully rehabilitated after sexual slavery, it is a sheer act of God. It is not the sort of thing that our workers ever felt comfortable taking credit for. Available aftercare facilities were inadequate, job skill training resources were abysmal, and recidivism rates were high. Sex slaves fight against leaving the life they have come to know—in 90% of cases, we were not immediately looked upon by the girls we rescued as liberators. Sometimes they even looked on us as captors who imprisoned them in shoddy group homes apart from their families. Many girls are afraid to face life outside of the brothel—they have come to believe that sex work is all they can do. It takes tremendous courage to overcome social stigmas and to resist the temptation to return to the brothel. It also takes a lot of sacrifice on the part of the freed slave, and on the part of the community that wishes to redeem her. It seems to me to be no accident that the passage in Deuteronomy that I mentioned earlier demands that when a slave is freed on the Sabbath year, the former owner gives him an exorbitantly large departing gift so that he might be able to provide for himself. It also demands that loans-for-labor not be withheld from someone simply because the Sabbath year is coming up, which is essentially a way of saying you are duty-bound to pay a brother or sister out of poverty, even if you won’t be getting much of a return from them as far as cheap labor goes. It is also no surprise that it took a lot of wandering through the wilderness before Israel stopped dreaming of returning to Egypt.
So, back to Jyothi: did we liberate her? Never on our own strength. Does God want Jyothi and other slaves to flourish? Does God want slaves to be free? Absolutely, and in the fullest sense. Jesus announces at the beginning of his ministry in Luke the once-and-for-all coming of the Jubilee year: a huge part of his Messiahship is setting captives free. Does God assume that liberation is a straightforward process, and can be accomplished by human hands? No. The road is long and difficult, requiring a great deal of patience and accommodation for both the former slave and the liberator. Liberation really is a miraculous occurrence. Does this mean that we can’t work to end slavery? Absolutely not. The sacrifices that Paul asks Philemon to make in order to come alongside God’s work of liberation mirror the drastic economic sacrifices that the Torah demands Israelites make to raise slaves out of poverty. Paul demonstrates his own willingness to take on this yoke when he offers to pay any debt that Onesimus might yet owe. Would the Bible allow for sweat labor? Or chattel slavery? Or sex slavery? Absolutely not. The Torah’s concerns for fair wages, rest for workers, and the provision of work that gives dignity and is not abusive would abhor these practices. The real scandal is not that the Bible permits a sort of temporary slavery, so long as the slave prospers. The real scandal is that we have modern Christian apologists for a sort of freedom that allows for people to be used as things for most of their lives. Instead of becoming disappointed at Paul for not encouraging the remission of all slaves everywhere in his letters, I find myself overawed at the intense dedication and sacrifice he displayed in helping to free up Onesimus to live the life that God intended him to. After all, that alone is far more than this enlightened Westerner has ever been able to give to a slave.