Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Abolition of Slavery

The two scripture readings which were chosen to mark the anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade present us with some problems.

The Old Testament passage[1] is an ancient version of the story of the Passover, when God killed all the first-born males of Egypt as a terrible warning to Pharaoh that he must set the people of Israel free. Actually, the passage doesn't quite make it clear whether it was only first-born males who were killed at the Passover, or whether it was first-born males and females, but be that as it may, the people of Israel were told that in future they must set apart all their first-born male animals as offerings to the Lord, and they must redeem their first-born male children and donkeys by offering an animal as a sacrifice instead.

Let's overlook the question of why donkeys were so lucky; the passage goes on to recount the fateful moment when the waters of the Red Sea crashed down upon the panicking Egyptian army while it was pursuing the escaping slaves. When daybreak came, the people of Israel saw that not one of the Egyptian soldiers had survived. Instead, their bodies littered the seashore.

Often, this passage has been quoted with approval by people who have used it to argue that God is biased in favour of the poor, the enslaved and the oppressed. However, there is a major problem with a simplistic celebration of the Passover story. Were the Egyptians themselves not the children of God, too? Even if we grant that Pharaoh and his officers and courtiers were a bad bunch who had profited from slavery and deserved no mercy, can that be true of all the Egyptians who perished?

What about the innocent boys who died? What about the grief inflicted on their mothers and fathers? And what about the ordinary foot soldiers in the Egyptian army? Were they all brutish thugs, and even if they were – what about the suffering of their wives and children? Jewish people have long been aware of this problem, and an ancient tradition says that God wept for the Egyptians who had died.

Any authentic celebration of the abolition of the slave trade has to begin by acknowledging that Britain at the time of the slave trade was not the same kind of country that Britain is today. Its own people were oppressed. Most of our ancestors didn't have the vote. It was illegal for them to join a trade union, much less to go on strike or bargain for higher wages. They could be hung or deported for stealing a loaf of bread. None of this excuses the slave trade, but it does mean that demands for an apology or for reparations have to begin by asking, who is it that actually needs to apologise?

It is true that sometimes ordinary people clubbed together to buy a slave, but ordinary people do all kinds of things today which most of us would not condone. If someone drives a car without taking a driving test, that doesn't make the rest of us responsible for their actions. If they kill someone, we don't have to apologise.

I think the Gospel reading selected for this special anniversary [2] is no less problematic. Jesus has gone on holiday to the region of Tyre in modern Lebanon. He has purposely gone there to get away from it all, but even in this foreign land his reputation has preceded him and a local Syrophoenician woman comes begging for help. As we did with the donkeys, let's put on one side the issue of her daughter's illness. Whether it was demon possession, as St Mark thinks, or some kind of mental illness is not the main problem with this passage.

Far more awkward to explain is Jesus' scathing response, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” However people try to rationalise this answer, it seems unnecessarily offensive. Couldn't Jesus simply have said, “My mission is to work with Jewish people, I don't have enough energy left over to work with Gentile people as well, so that will have to wait”? But the woman soon shows that she's capable of standing up for herself. Not at all cowed by his' reaction, she comes back straight away with the feisty response, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” St Mark notes that Jesus was impressed. 'For saying that,' he replied, “You may go [in peace]—the demon has left your daughter.” What is happening here? Is Jesus discovering that people from another race and culture cannot be so easily overlooked – that each one must be judged on his or her own merits?

At the time when British people were openly and brazenly benefiting from the slave trade, they often justified their behaviour by saying that Black people were somehow different and therefore slavery for them was not as bad as it would be if it were inflicted on Whites. In his pamphlet, “Thoughts Upon Slavery”, John Wesley – the founder of Methodism – lists some of these arguments before going on to demolish them. For instance, it was said that life in the countries from which the slaves came was desperate, dangerous and poverty stricken so that slavery actually offered them a better chance in life. It was said that Black people were better able to endure hard work and harsh punishments. It was said that they were less intelligent and less capable of emotional feeling than White people. And it was said that they were untrustworthy and treacherous, making it all the more necessary to treat them with severity, lest they should get out of control. Wesley was easily able to show that most of these arguments were based on ignorance and prejudice, and that the rebellious behaviour of the slaves was entirely justified by the repression which they faced and the daily denial of their human rights.

Then as now, judging people on their own merits makes it impossible for Christians to make sweeping generalisations about them, or to fail to respond to them with mercy and compassion. This may perhaps seem obvious to us when we think, from a safe distance, about the subject of slavery. But what about the widespread fear and ignorance concerning Muslim people in Britain today, which is sometimes termed 'Islamophobia'? Isn't it just as much a duty for Christians to get to know Muslim people, and seek to understand them, as it was for our ancestors to campaign against the slave trade? I work every day alongside Muslim colleagues. They soon become friends in that situation, and it becomes impossible to make generalisations any longer about Islam and its followers.

Perhaps this is what Jesus also realised in his encounters with Gentile people. When he was apart from them, it was easy to be convinced that he should focus his mission exclusively on Jewish people. But when he encountered Gentiles face to faith, and saw their faith, their wit and their resourcefulness, he could not help but be impressed and inevitably he took compassion on them.

In his pamphlet, John Wesley goes on to identify a great many other reasons why slavery and exploitation are despicable. Speaking of the torture, rape and murder which the slave traders routinely practised, he writes, “It can never be necessary for a rational being to sink himself below a brute. A man can be under no necessity of degrading himself into a wolf. The absurdity of the supposition is so glaring, that one would wonder any one can help seeing it.” How sad, then, that even two hundred years later, Christian people like President Bush are still arguing that it's necessary to use torture and captivity without trial against terrorist suspects.

Speaking of the argument that slavery helped to create wealth in Caribbean islands which might otherwise have been too poor to sustain their peoples, Wesley writes, “It were better that all those islands should remain uncultivated for ever; yea, it were more desirable that they were altogether sunk in the depth of the sea, than that they should be cultivated at so high a price as the violation of justice, mercy, and truth.” How sad then that, two hundred years later, people are still justifying child labour and other kinds of exploitation on the grounds that – without it – the economies of developing countries, and their trade with the West, might not be viable.

Wesley writes, “Wealth is not necessary to the glory of any nation; but wisdom, virtue, justice, mercy, generosity, public spirit, love of our country – these are necessary to the real glory of a nation. Abundance of wealth is not. It is far better to have no wealth, than to gain wealth at the expense of virtue. Better is honest poverty, than all the riches bought by the tears, and sweat, and blood, of our fellow-creatures.” How sad, then, that two hundred years later politicians and voters are still more concerned about wealth creation than about the welfare of other nations or the well-being of the planet.

Finally, Wesley turns his attention to the people who argued that, although they bought and sold slaves, or bought the sugar which the slaves produced, they didn't themselves engage in the nasty stuff – kidnapping people to enslave them, or maltreating them on the voyage to the Americas.

You say,” he writes, “'I pay honestly for my goods; and I am not concerned to know how they are come by.' Nay, but you are; you are deeply concerned to know they are honestly come by... But you know they are not honestly come by; you know they are procured by means nothing near so innocent as picking of pockets, house-breaking, or... highway... robbery .” How sad, then, that two hundred years later many people still turn a blind eye to unfair trade or cruelty to animals, so long as the bills for their food and clothes are kept conveniently low.

Our scripture readings remind us of God's compassion, not only for those who are like ourselves but also for those who are different; not only for those who agree with us, but for those who oppose us; not only for those we think are right but also for those whom we believe to be wrong. In a prayer at the end of his pamphlet, Wesley asks God, 'Are not these also the work of thine own hands, the purchase of thy Son's blood?' and he concludes by reminding Christians that we are called to share God's compassion for the outcast, the downtrodden and the victim.

In the end, of course, God's compassion for the oppressed was so great that in Jesus he identified himself with them completely, living alongside slaves as their equal and brother. As Jesus' followers, St Paul has reminded us of our own obligation to 'let the same mind be in [us] which was in Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.'

Two hundred years after the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire, may we echo John Wesley's rallying cry to Christians past, present and future, 'Continue to battle to 'make all [people] free, and... [may they] be free indeed!'

[1] Exodus 13.8-30

[2] Mark 7.24-30

Monday, March 05, 2007

Missing out on the Spiritual Trolley Dash

The other night we were watching a film about someone trekking across a barren desert in the searing heat of the midday sun. Improbably, at first, he was wearing an overcoat, but he soon got rid of that. After a short time his face was covered with blisters and he could barely walk any longer. He was just like the psalmist, who said, 'My flesh faints ... as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.'[1] But, at long last, he got the chance to drink some water. And it was then that someone said to him, 'Don't drink too much. It's not good for you!'

This reminded me that years ago, when I was about eleven, I read the novel 'King Solomon's Mines' by H Rider Haggard and one of the characters in the novel says something similar. Rider Haggard describes a man who had been so long without water that 'his lips were cracked, and his tongue, which protruded between them, was swollen and blackish.' His rescuer gives him quite a lot of water actually, more than I had remembered, which the poor man drinks in great gulps. But then the narrator says, 'I would not let him have any more.' That made a deep impression on me at the time, because it implied that too much water could be dangerous, even if you were so dehydrated that you were on the point of dying from thirst.

And maybe it is dangerous to drink too much. Many newspapers printed a ghoulish story a week or two ago about a young woman who entered a contest to win a Nintendo W-i-i, (which is pronounced 'we'). The Wii is a sort of video game console and for some reason this woman was desperate to own one. A radio station in America had organised the competition, in which listeners had to drink as much water as they could without going to the toilet. The person with the strongest bladder would win a Wii. The competition was called, 'Hold your wee for a Wii.' How funny! Or so it seemed until this young woman, having drunk loads of water, started to feel unwell, dropped out of the contest and went home, where she collapsed and died.

Real water was in short supply when the Bible was written. Unlike the competitor in the 'Hold your wee for a Wii' contest, and unlike the person who has been trekking across the desert, the people of Israel could never get enough of it. Sometimes they lived near a well or a stream, but sometimes they had to collect rainwater in big tanks called cisterns and then guard it carefully through the dry season to stop it getting contaminated with dirt or infected with disease. No doubt they had to ration it too – just a few cups each per day so that there would be enough left to water their crops. How wonderful, then, to be offered not just 'water' but 'waters', and not just waters, but free wine and milk too.[2]

And when the Bible was being written, people had a different attitude to food as well. Unlike us, they couldn't get enough of that, either. Now we're talking about having a traffic light system on our food labels, to warn us when we've had too much of a good thing. Now young women talk about trying to eat nothing but lettuce, because being super slim is still too fat to get them a job as a model. And, of course, lots of people go to the opposite extreme now, and eat far too much processed food while taking far too little exercise. Now even celebrity cooks like Jamie Oliver are urging us to eat more fruit and vegetables rather than whipped cream and chocolate sauce.

The Bible's promise that we can all take delight in lashings of rich food, and without even having to pay for any of it, no longer sounds quite as enticing as I guess it once did. When the Bible was being written, most people went to bed feeling a little bit hungry and perhaps thirsty too, and they got all the exercise they could possibly use. The promise of rich food would have seemed unquestionably yummy to them. How things have changed!

But, of course, Isaiah isn't talking about real food and drink. He's talking about spiritual food and drink. He's talking about finding out the will of God, and learning that God's will is for good things to happen – for justice, mercy and love to flow like unquenchable rivers in a parched land. More than that, he's talking about discovering God's presence, alongside us and within us, to nourish us and encourage us all of the time.

Some things never change, though. Despite this wonderful free sale of spiritual gifts, the prophet laments that most people never lift their minds above their daily preoccupation with material things – with ordinary food and drink, and worldly success.

Five hundred years later, St Paul talks about precisely the same problem.[3] He thinks his way back to the very dawn of the Jewish religion, when the people of Israel were escaping from Egypt. Every day they had clear signs that God was with him, guarding them and guiding the, The cloud of his presence went before them. The seas parted so that they could walk across them on dry land. Flakes of food descended from the skies like frost. Fresh running water gushed from the rocks for them to drink even though they were living in the desert. What further proof could they have wished for that spiritual things are really important?

And yet, depressingly, they were far more interested in material things. No sooner had they finished eating the wonderful food that God had given them, than they 'rose up to play', indulging in sexual immorality and complaining bitterly about how unlucky they were.

Of course, St Paul draws attention to this because he fears his readers might do the same. It's human nature, after all, to take good things for granted and to get distracted by our most basic instincts and desires. Even when God is with us, and alongside us, in Jesus it's easy to ignore him. For, says St Paul, isn't it already the case that Jesus was with the people of Israel when they were wandering through the desert. Wasn't it he who gave them food and water to drink, just as he gives us the imperishable food of holy communion? For Jesus has been with God from the beginning of time and so he must have been present in the desert with the Israelites too.

Jesus was once asked the question, 'Are some people worse than others? Is that why they get killed in accidents, or attacked by criminals, or persecuted by evil dictators? Have they done something especially wicked to deserve their fate?'[4]

'Of course not!' said Jesus. 'There's basically no difference between one person and another. Any of us could perish at any time. And frankly, all of us take so little notice of God, and are so full of base ingratitude – despite the many good things lavished upon us every day – that we don't deserve any special favours. If some of us happen to lead a charmed life, that's simply because we got lucky. And if some of us have a bad time, that's simply bad luck. It's nothing to do with getting our just desserts. It's not God's will that some people meet a bad end.'

And then Jesus told this story. There was a gardener who planted a sapling – it doesn't really matter what sort, except that fig trees and vines are always symbols, in the Bible, for God's chosen people, and Jesus says the gardener planted a fig tree.

When a gardener plants something, he or she always hopes it will do well and grow big and strong and bear a good crop of fruit or flowers. But, of course, some plants don't thrive, do they? They struggle and they may not flower and fruit at all. It could be because the weather just wasn't right for them and they got a poor start, or because the place where the gardener planted them didn't particularly suit them. Or it could be because they weren't very strong specimens.

When a fruit tree doesn't fruit, what should the gardener do with it? It's wasting precious space, isn't it? So some gardeners would dig the unproductive plant straight up and throw it in the fire, and go and look for a new and healthier one to take its place. But not every one. Some experienced gardeners have realised that a plant can take a long time to get established.

The owner of the garden was just this kind of person. He was very patient. He waited for three years to see if the fig tree was going to bear fruit, despite the fact that fig trees usually fruit in their first year. But, eventually, even he lost patience. 'Cut it down!' he said to the gardener.

And yet the little tree got one last chance. 'Let me lavish some tender loving care on it,' the gardener pleaded. 'I'll dig round it, and put some extra manure on it, and see if it does any better.'

We are like the fig tree. Despite all the good things we receive, we constantly disappoint our master by delivering less than we promise. But, fortunately for us, God is like the gardener. God never gives up on us, but keeps on lavishing tender care on us – rich food and all the water we can possibly drink – in the hope that one day we will come good.

And perhaps the same goes for our church. No matter how much we may struggle sometimes, God is still lavishing care upon us and willing us to grow. And certainly, the same goes for the people of our towns and villages. People may have different ideas about food and water nowadays, but in other respects nothing has changed much since the time when the Bible was written. Most people would still stay focused on material things even if they were given the chance to do a trolley dash through a spiritual supermarket. But our job is to be like the gardener – never giving up on them and always looking for fresh ways to help them bear fruit.

[1] Psalm 63.1-8
Isaiah 55:1-13
1 Corinthians 10:1-17
[4] Luke 13.1-9