When Slavery Is Okay

Credit: Alan Levine on Flickr via Creative Commons

Credit: Alan Levine on Flickr via Creative Commons

Sometimes I don’t like the Bible. Sometimes it pisses me off. When that happens it’s usually because I don’t have all the pieces to a puzzle I’m stumbling into. Thousands of years, translated languages, ancient cultural practices, archaeological studies – these are just the border pieces to filling in the whole landscape being described in this collection of ancient books.

So I study. I pray. I remember that I believe God is first and foremost loving and good, that Jesus is the filter through which I take in the meta-narrative of Scripture. Sometimes this helps. Three days ago it didn’t.

I teach the Bible to a small group of people every Monday night. For the last several months we’ve been studying the third book of the Bible, a handbook to the priests and people about how to live in relationship to God, each other, and the outside world. It’s been a beautiful journey so far, full of surprises at the grace and maturity and love and wisdom of the God of Israel. Many of its more troubling passages, in light of context, have actually been quite powerfully positive. As of two weeks ago we were down to three more chapters before we had completed our trek. It was so encouraging to read God’s plan for safeguarding the people against poverty, greed, disproportionate wealth distribution, and generational indebtedness. We were almost through when we came to the four or five verses dealing with…slavery.

Back in the spring I met some folks passionate about assisting the fight against human slavery today, particularly those caught in the sex trade. This is an issue that has been very near to my heart, even more so as I’ve been exploring issues of oppression of women in the Church, gender issues and sexuality. I won’t bog you down with stats or links, but one soundbite for you is that it’s estimated that trafficking humans will become the single most profitable trade in the world within ten years (surpassing weapons and drugs). Okay, one more. There are more slaves on the earth today then there have ever been in reported human history.

These friends and I began meeting every few weeks to watch documentaries, follow-up with organizations on the front lines of the fight, pray, and brainstorm other ways to engage the issue. We’ve grown into a little task force (called the Justice League, if you must know), and we are still meeting, still brainstorming, still choosing to allow our hearts to be pierced by this issue so we might be spurred on into activity.

When I read about Hebrews owning slaves, when my eyes lingered on the phrase “they are your property,” my heart cringed. I just don’t want these words to be in my Bible, because I can’t picture Jesus uttering them. So once again I had to take a deep breath, dig up some trust, and dive into the text.

The truth is that God has been wooing His people on a trajectory of equality from the first pages of our story. Many of us know that sin is the reason for the evil we see in the world, that God’s intention was never for us to be at war with each other, that Jesus came to tear down those divisions and invites us into intimacy with Him and with each other. But we really suck at living that way. We still talk about other people as though they are the enemy. We still hate those of different genders, or orientations, or faiths, or cultures. We objectify the person in the cubicle next to us, demonize the driver who just cut us off, brush off the talkative spouse when we’ve had a long day. We dismiss. We detest. We ignore. We lust. We’ve invented a thousand ways to call our brothers fools, sexualize our sisters, cast off our children, and disregard our elders. We enslave each other every day through our prejudices, entertainment, consumerism, ignorance, and apathy.

God regulated the slavery of Israel’s day, but He didn’t condone it. He answered the evil He knew was in their hearts, but He also called them to a way of life that was so much greater. He does the same today. Just as He hated cruelty and longed for love between them, He hates our cruelty and longs for us to love today. Israelites living out the rest of Leviticus’ instruction might not have needed regulations for how to treat slaves because there wouldn’t have been slaves among them. Faithful Christians today could be the answer to the problems of slavery, objectification, and hate today, when we live in such a way that there’s no room for such things among us. Jesus leads the way out, for the slave as well as the one who enslaves.

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