Slavery: a brief history Part 1
“Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, no by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality. Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.” – Colossians 3: 22 – 4:1
Can we just be honest for a minute? When I first read this passage I immediately had flash backs to when, as a child, I read or heard about slavery in America. How verses like this and many others were used to suppress the freedoms of a whole people groups. I used to become angry when I knew that people took this out of context and it quickly sent me to find the historical context and I was very surprised by what I found. So this week I wanted to focus on the historical aspect of the idea of slavery in the Scriptures.
Today I wanted to compare and contrast two different ideas of slavery. For you and I, our idea of slavery is built around European colonialism. What we think of when we think of slavery is the Africans being abducted or traded for, in Africa and then brought over to work the cotton fields where they were mistreated and oppressed and beaten. That is our framework for slavery. It is accurate. But historically, the British were the last ones to get involved in the slave trade, it was deplorable to them. The first historical record of the British being involved in the slave trade was actually an act of piracy in 1540. A man hijacked a slave ship and, instead of setting the slaves free, he sailed it to the Caribbean and sold the slaves, as a result Queen Elizabeth was furious. From this point there is a progression of events. The British overthrow Spain and Portugal in the Caribbean. As a result the British take over the all the sugar cane fields. At the time the English are so opposed to the slave trade that they send the Irish down to work the fields. Now what’s the problem with a bunch of Irish people working the fields in the Caribbean? Over a period of about 100 years, England learns that the
Irish could not do the work there because of climate, temperatures and the rigors of working the fields. So slowly but surely, they begin to utilize and use the Africans for their sugar. Now it’s important to know that really at no point does slavery really take root in England. It’s always distant from them so it quickly became easy to justify it because you don’t see the horrors of it. Contrary to popular notions the slave trade was not built on cotton; it was built on sugar. Now when it comes to the colonization of the New World, what we now know as the United States of America, specifically in the South you have both cotton and tobacco. Furthermore, the British had learned in the Caribbean is that the Africans were legitimate workers. So they began to really build up the “New World” with slaves.
So the differences between colonial slavery and what the Scriptures are speaking to when they address slaves. And I acknowledge out of the gate that the Bible is clear that one human being can own another human being but there are some pieces that help us process this and watch the line of redemption. An enslaved person in the Bible could not be identified by clothing, ethnicity or socioeconomic background, whereas in colonial America, the slaves [simply] were Africans, or those of African decent. If you saw a black in South Carolina in the 1600’s, he wasn’t in business he was a slave. An certain ethnic group marked colonial slavery which is substantially different than “slavery” that was extant in the ancient Near East. Literally, anybody could be a slave. Within the near east the cultural and religious traditions of slaves were usually that of their masters or owners, in other words they were integrated into society. Juxed opposed to the slavery that we are familiar with in which the Africans, until the gospel really began to penetrate and move through the U.S., had a completely different religious cultural structure than their white owners. They had a completely different way of living, a completely different way of eating (i.e. Soul Food), and a completely different way of interacting with God. They were just completely different, that was not the case in the ancient world.
Well before this gets completely out of hand I need to stop for today but I really hope that this is helpful so far and I look forward to continuing the post tomorrow (click here for next post)…..