This message below was delivered at Emmanuel Mennonite Church for World Communion Sunday, October 7, 2007, and as part of our preaching/teaching series on I Peter.
by Mathew Swora, pastor
I Peter 1: 18-25
18 "Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. 19For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls."
We fought a civil war in this country over the words you just heard from I Peter, although they were actually addressed to the slaves among Peter’s disciples, eighteen centuries earlier. But as slavery and the controversy about it grew and spread in this country, people on both sides of the argument reached for the Bible to support their positions, and both found ammunition to use against each other. The side in favor of slavery used verses like the ones just heard: “Slaves, be subject to your masters with all respect….” They took that to mean that Peter, and therefore Jesus, and therefore God, had no problem with slavery, so neither should we.
The other side had arguments too, based on verses like, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and the general, all-around example of Jesus, which is pretty hard to square with kidnapping people and packing them like sardines into boats so that nearly half of them die during the voyage, all just because of the color of their skin, and then chaining them and whipping them and selling their spouses or their children away to make lots of money. But that didn’t seem to discourage the pro-slavery faction. Many major American denominations split into southern and northern groups over this issue.
Because this issue only got settled by massive bloodshed during our Civil War, with both sides quoting Bible verses to justify why God was on their side and not the other, many Americans lost faith in Christ and the Bible, and the church took a major hit to its authority and witness in this country. Because there’s so much in the Bible, and if anything in all its many pages can be used to support anything we do or want, does it finally even say anything? many people wondered.
Which is not to say that both sides of the issue were equally right, from either a a biblical point of view or a bare-bones moral one. I’m absolutely convinced that to use this passage to argue for slavery is to ignore some pretty basic rules for interpreting the Bible, indeed, for interpreting anything you read in print.
One rule is to ask yourself: What was understood by the author and readers when these words were written? What were they supposed to mean to the original audience? It would help then to know something about the time and setting and culture. Just a little digging into history shows that when you compare slavery in the ancient Roman Empire with slavery in our pre- Civil War America, you are comparing apples to oranges. Or make that a bushel of apples to one or two oranges. Because there were, in Peter’s time, many more kinds of slaves and slavery than there were in our Plantation South. I’m not saying that the slavery Peter knew was ever good or even better than what Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas opposed. But none of the slaves Peter knew was a slave just because of the color of his or her skin. Nor were all of them slaves for all their lives, nor were all of their children automatically born into slavery the way the children of American slaves were. Some slaves in the Roman empire were prisoners of war who knew, when they signed up to fight, that they could get killed or captured and enslaved. Some people sold themselves into slavery because of extreme poverty or debt, often with the understanding that they would be slaves only until their debts were paid, or a contract period of five to ten years were up. Many slaves who were put to back-breaking work in brutal, life-threatening conditions were actually criminals and convicts serving out their terms in hard labor, like members of a Georgia chain gang. Many other slaves were treated almost like members of the household. Many would be tutors, accountants, nursemaids, personal aides, but with very long and unbreakable contracts. We just don’t know for sure which of these many kinds of slaves and slavery Peter was addressing. Probably not the chain gang kind; maybe more the household servant. So it was wrong to compare those many kinds of slavery with the slavery that stained our country’s history.
But you don’t have to be a historian to know that. Just thumbing through the Bible you find these many different kinds of slavery reflected. You also find laws limiting how long someone can serve as a slave: seven years, max. Less, if the next sabbath year or the Jubilee year comes sooner, those years in which all debts were canceled and all slaves released. Rather convenient of southern slaveholders to overlook that part of the Bible, don’t you think? There are also biblical laws regulating the treatment of prisoners made slaves. And people of different races, tribes and nations are to be welcomed into the kingdom of God, not into chains and bondage. That old saw about how God supposedly wanted all Africans to be slaves for all time, because they all supposedly inherited Noah’s curse of slavery upon his son, Ham and all his descendants, requires the most tortured, self-serving kind of interpretation, that whenever I hear it, I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Even if there were any speck of truth to that application of Noah’s curse, all curses are now called off in Christ, because he took them for us on the cross.
A second rule for interpreting any text is to ask yourself, What do we know about the author, his or her place, and his or her purpose? People at the top of the slave-economy pyramid were the ones trying to use Peter’s words to justify their power and privilege. But a quick reading of the Bible would show that Peter was writing from the bottom of the social pyramid, indeed, from a place that could be lower and more dangerous than that of many slaves; he was often a prisoner. That alone makes it highly unlikely that he would be trying to make a case for slave-holding and slave traders, especially the American kind. All you can say from today’s text is that Peter is addressing slaves on how to witness for Christ to their masters, whether those masters are kind or cruel. He begins by addressing all of us, slaves and free, by saying, “Live as free people, but don’t use your freedom as a pretext to do evil.” Then, Peter turns his attention to slaves in particular, to tell them how they too can live as though they were free, by being concerned first of all with their witness about their True Master.
And he’s not saying this just to help make their slave conditions easier to bear. He goes on to warn them that this approach could actually get them in more trouble than if they were stealing the silverware or mouthing off to their masters. He writes, “But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.” Peter is thereby warning them that by witnessing for Christ in their conscientious conduct, slaves may find themselves in great danger. But to accept that, he says, is Christ-like.
Which should warn us against ever using the Bible from a position of power and privilege to justify our power and privilege, as Southern American slave holders were doing. Contrary to things you read in books like The Da Vinci Code, the Bible was not written, pasted, and patched together by powerful, wealthy, well-connected men in gold-braided church robes and imperial armor laughing up their silken sleeves as they chortled, “This will teach them to fear us and obey us; this will keep them in their place!” Whenever such people have tried to use the Bible that way, they are playing with the very fire that has always escaped to blaze away such corruption in the church, as in the Anabaptist Reformation from which this church is descended. Such as the Abolitionist movement—against slavery– in this country with its strong leadership, often from the church, based on gospel values of equality under God.
The Bible has come to us from God, I believe, but always through the messy underside of history, written first in the blood of martyrs and the tears of the oppressed, before their prayers and their laments and their hopes and their stories– and God’s promises to them–were put in ink to parchment and papyrus. It is from that position of solidarity with the slaves and the suffering, that Peter wrote these words. And it is from that same position of solidarity with the weak and the poor and the oppressed that the Bible is still to be read and taught and interpreted and preached.
Understood that way, what Peter is saying is, “Slaves, don’t waste your sufferings and sorrows.” Since sorrow and suffering, he admits, are the slave’s lot until the day of their liberation, do not waste your sufferings on punishment for any conduct that would be unworthy of either God, yourself or anyone else, and therefore deserved, at least in the minds of your human masters, so-called. Instead, let your sorrows and sufferings be for your witness to a higher Master, your master and that of your owner, by means of something that just might scare your human masters more than do rebellion, theft or disobedience: your integrity, and your faith in God as your true master. In this way, you will witness to Christ by conduct similar to his, in sufferings similar to his.
Of course I wish that Peter had added an extra verse or two for the masters, saying, “Master, let your slaves go free and receive them back as your equals,” which Paul seemed to be saying about the slave Onesimus, in the letter to his master, Philemon. But Peter does not address slave owners in his letter, probably because there weren’t any slaveholders among his beloved and honored brothers and sisters in Christ, the way there obviously were slaves among his beloved and honored brothers and sisters in Christ. If so, that alone would say something quite damning about slavery.
Yes, the Christian slave is to remain subordinate, Peter says. Or rather, the Christian slave is to embrace and transform the subordination in which he finds himself trapped, with no human way of escape, and make of it a place in which to be a presence and a power for Christ, his true master. And not out of fear anymore. At least not out of fear of his or her human master. As I’ve said in previous weeks, the words which Peter uses for “honor” and “be subject to” as in “honor the king” and “honor everyone” or “be subject to your masters” are not the words he uses for our relationship to God. God alone we are told to obey and to “fear” as in reverent, holy awe and wonder. So by being subject, he means do what your human master says, as long as it accords with the law of God, which is love. This kind of subjection actually becomes subversive and revolutionary whenever the king or the slave holder wants and demands the “fear” and total obedience that Peter says are for God alone. That’s why my favorite Mennonite theologian, John Howard Yoder, called this kind of subordination, “revolutionary subordination” because, “Here we have a faith that assigns personal moral responsibility to those who had no legal or moral status in their culture, and makes of them decision-makers. It gives them responsibility for viewing their status in society not as a simple meaningless decree of fate but as their own meaningful witness and ministry, as an issue about which they can make a moral choice.” Which means, Yoder says, that “there must have been something in the experience of their becoming Christians, or in their education as new members of the Christian community, or in their experience in the life of that group, which had given to these subjects a vision or a breath of a new kind of dignity and responsibility” (The Politics of Jesus, pp. 174-5) that society and slaveholders had long conspired to keep from them.
This, by the way, is how the Christian faith of many slaves in the Roman Empire was discovered and punished, like that of St. Agnes in the Fourth Century. Her master would probably have considered her a model household servant until she refused the sexual demands of her master’s son. When pressed as to why she wouldn’t give in like a slave was supposed to, she said that she was already espoused to Christ, and would do nothing to betray or dishonor him. That led to her trial and to her eventual martyrdom. She was not the only one. One pagan writer of the time wrote that his chief problem with the church and with Christians was that they were teaching the slaves to think.
This is also one way by which the gospel spread, including in Ethiopia. Two Syrian monks were captured by slave-hunters and sold there. They were bought by a highly-connected family, and under their witness they saw even the king and his royal family becoming Christians.
Where did these people at the bottom of the social pyramid, who were told at every turn that they were worthless apart from how well they did their masters’ bidding, get this kind of nerve to see themselves as slaves of God first, and to act as powerful change agents even sometimes with chains on their wrists and feet? From Jesus who, “though being in nature God, thought not his equality with God a thing to be grasped, but who emptied himself, taking on the very nature of a slave, being made in human likeness…..and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2: 6-8).” From Christ, who, Peter just told them, “committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” Peter then was not asking of the slaves anything that Christ himself had not done. His main concern for slaves was the same as his advice to the free: that they model Christ in all their conduct, whatever their role, whatever the cost.
So far I have spoken mostly about the past. So what about today? I hope I’ve already shown why we can’t use these words to justify any kind of slavery, injustice or oppression. In the past some of us may have heard these words also used against labor unions or any kind of activism for a living wage, workers’ safety, labor rights and even human rights. But I only see in these words a prohibition against doing so violently, hatefully, or harmfully. In fact, I see in Peter’s words and Jesus’ example a challenge to tell the truth and take the heat as did Jesus, Peter and slaves like St. Agnes.
And now some social scientists say that today there are more slaves in the world than there have ever been in any other time in history, and not just because there are more people. That is why I have entitled this message for World Communion Sunday, “The Church in Slavery.” Slavery still takes place today in forms that Abraham and Abraham Lincoln would recognize and hate, such as in the trafficking of workers for sweat shops or the sex industry, against whom the game is so well rigged that they will never be able to work off their debts or their terms of bondage. I have to confess: I don’t know how I, from my relatively sheltered and secure life, can tell victims of today’s brutal human trafficking how to apply Peter’s advice to their situation. Our role is more about boycotting it and fighting it. And finding alternatives.
Then there are more subtle ways of being slaves. Such as in the grinding poverty of countries where the poor pay the cost of debt service for the weapons systems and worthless projects of their corrupt governments, and which other countries and lenders encourage. Though they work harder than most people and pay taxes, their labor gets no fair compensation, they get no schools, no reliable roads or bridges, no medical care and no agricultural aid in return, because so much of their countries’ budgets are going to pay for weapons and debt service. Most of our brothers and sisters in Christ, and more and more of our churches around the world, live in such conditions of slavery.
But even here, in this wealthy country, 140 years after our Civil War, we have our forms of bondage that blend into slavery. I constantly run into people who say they would gladly get a different job from the one they hate, or who would start their own businesses, if they wouldn’t lose their health insurance and end up dead, disabled, or as bankruptcy bait. Or they may work incredibly hard, yet without health insurance or even a living wage. By biblical values, any work done without just compensation, without basic needs being met, to which you are held hostage by fear of losing what little you have, would qualify as slavery.
The revolutionary submission to which Peter calls us does not mean that we simply accept oppression and slavery as God’s will, anymore than it means we rise up against them in violent rebellion, either. Once again, looking to Peter and Jesus and the early church, it means we simply refuse to be cowed into either fear or violence and that we act as the free and dignified moral agents we all are—equally–before God, that we tell the truth, that we live the truth, and take the heat, and that we start being the change we want to see. One prime example of this is the system of free health clinics connected to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St. Mary’s Health Clinics, which serves the uninsured and un-insurable by means of volunteer work and private donations. This fits with a long legacy of mutual aid among Mennonites and Amish, such that some congregations and conferences even pool their own money for medical needs. Right now, our denomination, Mennonite Church USA, is working on ways to pool the resources of all member churches to ensure that at least all pastors and workers are covered for medical insurance. There are already demands to expand it beyond pastors and missionaries.
And if we personally are not in such dire straits, if we are free and all our needs are met, we, as Christians, still belong to a worldwide body of Christians, many of whom suffer modern forms and degrees of slavery. God forbid that we in positions of privilege, power and prosperity, would do like the Christian slaveholders did and place our privilege, power and prosperity ahead of our solidarity with all the suffering parts of the Body of Christ. The purpose of this World Communion Sunday is to observe and to celebrate our communion and solidarity with a church still too often in chains. Sharing the bread and the cup with each other means nothing if we are not also willing to share the gifts and the substance that make the difference between slavery and labor with dignity. Every time we bring our gifts and offerings in worship, to share with others and the world, we are taking a step toward becoming the change we wish to see, toward modeling a new community which is anointed, as Isaiah said, “to preach good news to the poor……to proclaim freedom for the prisoners…..to release the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Isaiah 61: 1-2),” a Jubilee community with no debts, no slaves, and only One Master in heaven. That, I believe, is God’s idea of freedom.