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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


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