Slavery and the image of God

May 22nd, 2009

“Am I not a man and a brother?”

This question goes to the heart of the Creation Story where it is asserted that human beings are made “in the image of God” [Genesis 1:26-27], and pronounced “very good”.  This means that each human being is of value and worth, and sacred – to be treated with respect.  It means that there is one race, the human race, with all our diversity. 

God is the source of the breath of life in all people.  Human beings are blessed with freedom of movement [“fill all the earth”] and of choice [Gen 2:16-17].  This is what it is to be human and to be made in the image of God.  It is about character as much as about physical appearance.

The Creation Story also acknowledges that as soon as there is human community, the issues of dominance and power come into play in human relationships.  Perverted selfishness leads to self preservation at the expense of others.  Man exploits woman.  Brother over powers brother. [Genesis 3 and 4 ].

The question arises: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” [Genesis 4:9].

Aristotle was later to write in his Politics:

“Humanity is divided into two: the masters and the slaves.”

Biblically this division is demonstrated in the stories of:
• Cain and Abel
• Shem/Japheth and Ham/Canaan
• Sarah and Hagar
• Isaac and Ishmael
• Joseph and his brothers
• Israel and Egypt/Babylon

It is a division that illustrates the developing power struggles and stories of domination and enslavement.  Slavery is part of the biblical story [See for example the experience of Hagar [Genesis 9:16 ], of Israel in Egypt [ Exodus 1-12 ] and read the instructions given in Leviticus 25:39-46] and many of the slaves are women.  These stories help us to remember that discrimination, racial hatred and religious bigotry is part of biblical witness.  They are stories of human failings in the context of which we are led to reflect on God’s unfailing commitment and faithfulness to people and to make our own response.

These stories illustrate the meaning of sin, all that is done to deny freedom and the fullness of life to anyone.  Sin is the active rebellion against God’s will and has devastating consequences. 

In these stories can be traced the roots of contemporary divisions along the lines of colour, creed, class and caste.

JESUS AND SLAVERY

“In as much as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me.” Matthew 25:40

Jesus did not specifically address the issue of slavery but he had a lot to say about equality in relationships.  He spoke against oppressive and domineering relationships.

Jesus said his Disciples are not to be characterised by oppressive/domineering relationships.  How are relationships to be sustained without being oppressive/domineering?  See Matthew 23:8-10, John15:15.

What example does Jesus’ own lifestyle reflect?

• Jesus is born in a stable.  Luke 2.
• Jesus himself took upon himself the role of service.  Luke 22:27.
• Jesus washed his Disciples’ feet.  John 13.
• Jesus refused the temptation to glorify himself.  Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13.
• Jesus rejected titles people tried to bestow upon him.  John 6:15.
• Jesus is mocked, beaten and executed.  Mark 14-16.

Jesus’ first Sermon, according to Luke, quoted the words of the Prophet Isaiah:
“…He has sent me to bring release to the captives…” [Luke 4:18-19].  Matthew records Jesus as saying: “…just as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me.” Matthew 25:40.  He also said people should let prospective slaves go free [Matthew 18:23-35].

The early Church remembered his style and reflected on it in a Hymn.  Philippians 2:6-11.  They also developed the theme of the “Body of Christ” [1 Corinthians 12:12-27] where all are members and belong.

The story of Jesus, his humble birth, his ministry of preaching the kingdom of God, of transformation, his passion, his crucifixion and resurrection  helps us to remember the depths of the love of God; to reflect on God’s mission-a mission that desires freedom and the fullness of life for all, and to respond.

JESUS AND JOSEPH

Compare Psalm 105:17-22 and Philippians 2:6-11

In Psalm 105:17-22 Joseph prefigures the enslavement of Israel [Verses 23-45] that follows.  Joseph is sold as a slave, “his feet were hurt with fetters, his neck was put in a collar of iron”…he is freed and becomes “lord” of the house and “ruler” of all the possessions, and teaches wisdom.

Philippians 2:6-11 follows this pattern to reflect on Jesus who takes a downwards journey, “taking the form of a slave”, and then is “highly exalted.”

In the Psalm and in Philippians liturgy is used to remember pivotal stories, reflect on them, and to seek a response.

READING THE BIBLE

It is important to consider the whole biblical witness.  Some stories justify slavery, others challenge slavery.  In Genesis 16:9 Hagar who is running away is told by the angel of God to “return” to her mistress to be her slave.  St Paul recommended that slaves serve their masters “with fear and trembling.”  The Epistle to Philemon the Apostle returned a fugitive slave, Onesimus, to his master.

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