July 8, 2018 – It’s getting Ugly

Posted on : Jul 5th, 2018 | By | Category: This Sunday's Service

Slavery.  It is often said that slavery, or more accurately, the enslavement of human beings, is what keeps us from being able to address racism in an honest manner in the United States.  The American experience of enslaving Africans was so horrific, so inhumane, that it has become a wound that can’t and won’t heal.  As happened with the Christian oppression and demonization of gay and lesbian people, the Bible was used to justify slavery in the United States.  And guess whose writings were at the core that assertion?  Yup, brother Paul’s!

There is something very troubling in our sacred texts both for Jews and Christians, and that is that slavery is supported from the first book of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures (Genesis) to almost the last book of the Christian Scriptures (Philemon).

Israel’s history with slavery is really bifurcated.  Throughout various times in their history, the Israelites were both slave owners and an enslaved people.  For example, in the book of Genesis, Abraham and Sarah (the patriarch and matriarch of our faith) both had slaves.  You may remember the story in which Abraham and Sarah were not able to conceive and have a child.  This was the gravest of circumstances because without a child, and a male child at that, the covenant community would have ended before it even began!  So, Sarah offers Abraham her servant (slave) whose name is Hagar.  Since slaves don’t get to consent to sex, it’s right out there that Abraham, the father of our faith, rapes Hagar, probably more than once.  Hagar does get pregnant and bears a son “for” Abraham and Sarah, whom they name Ishmael.

At first they are joyous, but it doesn’t take long for Sarah to despise Hagar.  Sarah treats her so cruelly that Hagar runs away to the desert.  An angel of God speaks to Hagar and tells her to return and promises Hagar that she will be the mother a great multitude.   Fourteen years after the birth of Ishmael, Sarah becomes pregnant and as soon as their son Issac is born, Hagar and Ishmael are banished to the wilderness.  Ishmael, Abraham and Hagar’s son, becomes the founder of the religion that we today know as Islam; and Sarah, Abraham and Isaac become the founders of the religion that we know as Judaism and later, Christianity.  So, as you can see, the political tensions between Islam, Judaism and Christianity go back thousands of years!

Many generations after Abraham and Sarah, God’s covenant community, Israel, finds itself not the owner of slaves, but the very people who are enslaved by the Egyptians.  It’s God’s call to “Let My People Go!” that brings about the 10 plagues as Pharaoh wrestles with God’s demand for the release of the people of Israel from enslavement.  As we know from our own history with the enslavement of a people, slave owners don’t give up their slaves easily.  There are huge economic and personal costs in doing so.  It took 10 horrible plagues before Pharaoh let his slaves go free, but even then shortly after freeing them, Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his army out to recapture the Israelites.  This story does not end well for the slave owners, but it was not the end of Israel’s enslavement.  There would be at least two other times that the Israelites were enslaved – once by the Babylonians and once by the Assyrians.

So, one would think, given Israel’s history that the Hebrew scriptures would out and out condemn slavery, but they don’t.  And nor do the Christian Scriptures!

In the book of Colossians, Paul writes, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing God.”  And if that were not bad enough, when Paul was in prison, he met a run-away slave named Onesimus [O-ness- ih-mus].  Onesimus was enslaved by Philemon [Fi-lee-mon].  This could have been one of Paul’s crowning moments, a chance to change the course of history, but it wasn’t.  Paul writes a letter to Philemon asking him to receive back his slave and to forgive Onesimus for running away and abandoning him.  In essence Paul asks Philemon to be a “good slave owner” and in exchange, Onesimus will be a “good” slave.  Ugh.

These very scriptures were quoted chapter and verse by many Christians who supported slavery in America.  So, as Christians, what do we do with sacred texts that from the beginning to the end support something as vile and inhumane as the enslavement of other human beings?  What do we do when our religious and social values are diametrically the opposite of what the Scriptures support?

We’ll wrestle with that on Sunday.



Colossians 3: 18-23

Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in Christ. Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.

Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in Christ. Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart. Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing God. Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for God and not for your masters, since you know that from God you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Risen Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for whatever wrong has been done, and there is no partiality.

Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1971 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.


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