Friday, March 30, 2012

Religion, Slavery, and the Mission of God

There's an interesting article on CNN's Belief Blog titled "How Religion Has Been Used to Promote Slavery." It ponders the idea that ancient religious leaders like Moses, Jesus, Paul, and Mohammed didn't outrightly (if at all) condemn slavery. It addresses the historic variances in the types of slavery that existed in the ancient world, but also the way that more recent (i.e. American) pro-slave cultures have used religion to validate the enslavement of human beings.

I wonder if Jesus and his earliest followers didn't make a political stand against slavery because they didn't see the work of God in the world as the equivalent of political power, as we too often do in the US.

When Jesus said that the kingdom of God was near, it was clear that this kingdom was breaking into a particular point in human history that operated in specific ways—like normalizing slavery. Rather than speak about how things ought to be, Jesus seemed to be more about introducing a new reality with his entire self. He touched the untouchable, embraced the excluded, broke the power of pain and death, and then allowed all the powers of evil have their way with him. There was nothing theoretical or abstract about his life and work.

And he did this in a real world with real problems.

Rather than rail against the institution of slavery, Paul offered a new way of relating for slaves and masters, who would now see themselves as brothers and sisters in Christ. Slaves flocked to the newly-emerging Christian movement and found new life there.

I believe that the Bible's lack of clear opposition to slavery is not an endorsement of slavery or even a benign acceptance of it, but rather the revelation that God's mission takes place in a real world and engages that world right where it's at. When Jesus cites Isaiah 61 as he speaks in his hometown synagogue, he claims that he has come, among other reasons, to set the captives free. It appears that he does that, but not in the way that most people expect. Jesus did a lot of things in ways that most people didn't expect, and still don't.

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