This past Monday, January 21 we remembered Martin Luther King Jr. and his effort for equality for all people regardless of skin color or any other human distinction. I listened as his most famous speech was re-read. It is always moving to hear those words of Dr. King uttered again.
The previous day, Sunday, January 20, was “Sanctity of Human Life.” A day set aside for Americans to especially honor unborn lives and to remember the over fifty-million Americans whose life was legally taken before it ever had a chance to make choices and thrive outside their first home, their mother’s womb. It has been my personal pleasure for twenty-five years to emphasize this important day by drawing attention to it and offering education, encouragement, and hope that it might end. It is my prayer that it may soon cease.
I began to contemplate what these two days meant and what they mean together. What do they have in common? One, a fight for equality of blacks; the other, equality for babies. Both of them expressing the value of life; of human life; of all…human life. Both of them at varying times with limited or no rights for their victims – and many times without a voice.
Racism is often in the news. Quite often a connection is immediately made to slavery. But are racism and slavery the same? Is slavery always about race? Or is it (as history shows) perhaps more about the powerful and the powerless? It was Luther’s dream to see equality for everyone.
The world was full of slaves in the first century. According to Seneca the proportion of slave to free was so disparate the Romans were worried. Modern estimations put the numbers at two-million by the end of the republican period. A ratio of one to three. What stands out immediately to the modern reader is the absence of racism as the primary motive for slavery.
Slavery forms the backdrop to a little Book in the Bible, Philemon. It is impossible to fully appreciate the book without some understanding of slavery in the Roman Empire. Slavery was taken for granted as a normal part of life in the ancient world. The whole structure of Roman society was based on it. “Slavery grew with the growth of the Roman state until it changed the economic basis of society, doing away with free labor, and transferring nearly all industries to the hands of slaves.” During the period of the wars of conquest, most slaves were war captives. By the time of the New Testament, however, most slaves were born into slavery.
Slaves were not actually considered persons under the law, but the chattel property of their owners. They could be sold, exchanged, given away, or seized to pay their master’s debt. A slave had no legal right to marriage, and slave cohabitation was regulated by their masters. Masters had almost unlimited power to punish their slaves. The Roman writer Juvenal told of a wealthy woman who ordered the crucifixion of a slave and refused to give any reason except her own good pleasure.
By the New Testament era slavery was changing. Treatment of slaves was improving, in part because masters came to realize that contented slaves worked better. Although not legally recognized as persons, slaves began to acquire some legal rights. In a.d. 20, the Roman senate decreed that slaves accused of crimes were to be tried in the same manner as free. In some cases, their wills were recognized as valid. They were often permitted to own property.
Slaves were often better off than freemen. They were assured of food, clothing, and shelter, while poor freemen often slept in the streets, or in cheap housing. Freemen had no job security and could lose their livelihood in times of economic duress. Many slaves ate and dressed as well as freemen.
Slaves could be doctors, musicians, teachers, artists, librarians, and accountants. It was not uncommon for a Roman to train a slave at his own trade. They had opportunities for education and training in almost all disciplines.
By the first century, freedom was a real possibility for many slaves. Owners often held out the hope of freedom to inspire their slaves to work better. Many shared deep friendships with their masters and were loved and cared for with generosity. Many slaves would not have taken their freedom if it had been offered because their employment was happy and beneficial. One study indicated that in the period 81-49 B.C., five hundred thousand slaves were freed. By the time of Augustus Caesar, so many slaves were being freed upon the death of their owners that a law had to be passed restricting that practice. Estimates of the average length of time a slave had to wait for his freedom range from seven to twenty years.
It is significant that the New Testament nowhere attacks slavery directly. Had Jesus and the apostles done so, the result would have been chaos. Any slave insurrection would have been brutally crushed, and the slaves massacred. The Gospel would have been swallowed up by the message of social reform. Further, right relations between slaves and masters made it a workable social institution, if not an ideal one.
Christianity, however, sowed the seeds of the destruction of slavery. It would be destroyed not by social upheaval, but by changed hearts. The book of Philemon illustrates that principle. Paul does not order Philemon to free Onesimus, or teach that slavery is evil. But by ordering Philemon to treat Onesimus as a brother.
Onesimus is returning no longer as a slave but as a brother beloved. The Christian master-slave relationship was so transformed from within that it was bound to lead ultimately to the abolition of the system.
“Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.”