en françaisThe wrongs caused by slavery

(Jeremiah, 34,8-11 – 17-22)

Service of Sunday June 7th, 2015
Preaching from Pastor pasteur James Woody


My dear brothers and sisters, many biblical texts examine the problematic of slavery. And what the biblical texts bring us to think about this subject shows an already strong taste for freedom. This excerpt of the Book of Jeremiah relates the abolition of slavery under the reign of King Selecias, which is supposed to take place at the beginning of the sixth century before Christ. This biblical text does not mention the motivations for such abolition, but it tells us the storm of effects induced by this decision.

1. Not being the slaves of the slaves any more

The first effect is that the former owners change their decision and force the former slaves into becoming slaves again. It means that free men, who have freely decided to set free the slaves, just realise that it is not a good decision and that they have to go back over this decision. The narration of this reversal underlines that the men who were supposed to be free, in fact, were not that free. They discover that they cannot live without their slaves. So the true slaves are the owners who were so dependent on their slaves that they quickly realise that life was impossible without them. It surely explains why they hastened to get their hands back on them, by force, in order to force them to resume slave work for their benefit.

This first effect underlines a benefit of the abolition of slavery, which is that it allows setting really free all human beings. The need for someone else is not put into question here. Generally speaking, the biblical texts encourage mutual service, considering that we need each other in order to live a good life. Here, the biblical text spots the moment in which this reciprocal need is perverted: it happens when we become dependant of domination relationships. There is no problem with the fact that each person has specific qualities and that we rely on a professional baker to have quality bread. But there is a problem with the fact of not being able to live without an armada of slaves under our heel. Because if we cannot live without having persons who are submitted to us, it means that we cannot live without relying on domination relationships; and these domination relationships are contrary to the spirit of the biblical texts, which promote equal dignity between all human beings. By developing the idea of a universal brotherhood, the biblical texts dismiss the principle of slavery, which states that there are on the one side free men who have all the rights and on the other side the slaves who have all the obligations. Paul the apostle does not say anything else, at the other end of the Bible, in saying that the fraternity developed by Jesus the Christ induces that there are no slaves nor free men any more.

2. Withholding information: an underhand slavery

The second thing that this narration underlines is that the former slaves become slaves again after they have been set free. How is it possible that no revolt took place? How is it possible that the former slaves did not assert their newly obtained rights? How is it possible that the domination power has worked so easily?

The second thing that this narration underlines is the existence of an underhand slavery, which consists of not informing people of their rights. Keeping someone in ignorance means to make sure that he or she will not be entirely free of exerting his or her rights. For sure, there exist some kinds of underhand slavery, which develop insidiously, without any words, but which are frighteningly efficient and are based on the withholding of information. When we do not know our rights, we are not likely fight for their defence. When we do not know that we are allowed to be happy, we are not to likely to rise against misfortune. When we do not know we have value, we are not likely to express ourselves in front of the world. What is revolting, in this text, is that the newly free men have remained the slaves of the social representations to which they got used. Here is the crux of the issue: habits, education, the way our comprehension of life is formed and which relies mainly on what we have seen and heard. Our relations with others mainly depend on the relations we have noticed in our living spaces (family and then school etc.). If we have never known any other place than the family context, we will be totally influenced by it, for better or for worse. Violent parents lead to the legitimation of violence in human relations. The attribution of household tasks only to the female family members legitimates the sexist nature of those tasks. To be deprived of freedom of speech or of recognition leads us to think that our speech is worthless and that, in general, we do not have much value.

The biblical religion, which insists on the importance of the revelation, plays the role in particular of revealing the component part of our humanity. A strong point of the biblical religion is to scrutinise the stereotypes in order to present new ways of being. The biblical religion breaks away with deep-rooted habits which contradict the fundamental idea that it has itself of human beings, and more fundamentally which contradict their vocation to freedom. Against the withholding of information, and due to the revelation principle, in order to break with the habits to prevent mankind from being free, the biblical texts put into question the birthright which gives priority to biological facts. The biblical texts put into question human sacrifices, which makes of God a bloodthirsty person. They put into question the superior value of work, race, money. They put into question the idea that there would be an already written fate. They put into question the link between moral fault and illness. They put into question slavery. The biblical texts open our minds to other ways of considering life, relationships, the specific value of things and situations, so that we might not be the slaves of a single worldview which would have been imposed on us and which would prevent us from being an individual capable of making personal choices, to take them on –in a word, from being free.

3. A new kind of relationship

After denouncing the domination and slavery relationships, after underlining slavery induced by withholding information, our texts consider an evangelical kind of relationship which could be our day-to-day source of inspiration. This kind of relationship is called alliance. King Selecias enters into an alliance with his people, and this alliance is evoked at the dénouement of this biblical episode. Indeed, the end of the text reminds us the way of entering into an alliance in the ancient Middle East: two parties agreed on a decision, a project, on the terms of a contracts. Then, to confirm this alliance, an animal was split into two parts, which were then taken apart. After that, the two parties walked between the parts of the split animal. This rite meant that, if one of the parties did not respect the terms of the alliance, it would end as the split animal. This is called an imprecation rite.

Such a rite puts everybody on an equal foot. Each one is really free since he or she is held responsible for what is going to happen. Because we are really free to succeed only if we have the possibility of failure. In considering what will happen if one of the parties does not respect the terms of the contract, the rite implies that each one acts with the capacity of taking on his or her acts, which is another way of saying that each one is responsible. For this reason, the prophet Jeremiah expresses the sanctions imposed on those who did not respect the alliance and who have caught back their former slaves, contrary to what had been set. If the Eternal is featured as an accountant righter of wrongs who will give in return to each one according to his or her misdeeds, it is due to underline this principle of responsibility. In order to better understand this, we must pay attention to the verse 17, which enounces the list of the sanctions and states that the Eternal will abolish the sword, plague and famine. Here, the biblical writer thinks the justice with terms which are close to the ones the theologians of the Process will use some centuries later. In acting against the freedom of slaves, the guilty party have aggressed the principle of freedom; they made it suffer, they harmed it. All those images tell us that they have disturbed the interpersonal relationships instead of promoting freedom, of allowing each one to bloom. The biblical writer thinks the justice in prolonging the effects of this way of proceeding: in unblocking the domination forces, in unblocking the enforcement power, the guilty party have wasted away a part of mankind; this can also be told with the fact that the sword, plague and famine have been unblocked, which are scourges which dwindle mankind.

Reducing a person to slavery means in particular restraining his or her ability to take initiatives, hindering his or her possibility of development, hindering to implicate freely in world affairs; it means thus to deny oneself the presence of a person capable of improving our daily life. The guilty party punishes themselves with the consequences of their faults, and most often without being aware of it. The biblical text reveals this in relating to God what could appear as retribution but is rather a revelation. The biblical text reveals what drives from the different kinds of behaviour, so that we realise the implications of our personal ethics. The biblical text puts into perspective the different behaviours, in order to reveal to us the consequences of our convictions. In offering us this knowledge, the biblical text sets us free, really free to develop our own personal ethics in full knowledge of their effects. Amen.


Merci à Mélanie pour la traduction !
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Jeremiah 34:8-22

The word which came to Jeremiah from the Lord, after King Zedekiah had made an agreement with all the people in Jerusalem, to give news in public that servants were to be made free;

9 That every man was to let his Hebrew man-servant and his Hebrew servant-girl go free; so that no one might make use of a Jew, his countryman, as a servant:

10 And this was done by all the rulers and the people who had taken part in the agreement, and every one let his man-servant and his servant-girl go free, not to be used as servants any longer; they did so, and let them go.

11 But later, they took back again the servants and the servant-girls whom they had let go free, and put them again under the yoke as servants and servant-girls.


17 And so the Lord has said, You have not given ear to me and undertaken publicly, every man to let loose his countryman and his neighbour: see, I undertake to let loose against you the sword and disease and need of food; and I will send you wandering among all the kingdoms of the earth.

18 And I will give the men who have gone against my agreement and have not given effect to the words of the agreement which they made before me, when the ox was cut in two and they went between the parts of it,

19 The rulers of Judah and the rulers of Jerusalem, the unsexed servants and the priests and all the people of the land who went between the parts of the ox,

20 Even these I will give up into the hands of their haters and into the hands of those who have designs against their lives: and their dead bodies will become food for the birds of heaven and the beasts of the earth.

21 And Zedekiah, king of Judah, and his rulers I will give into the hands of their haters and into the hands of those who have designs against their lives, and into the hands of the king of Babylon’s army which has gone away from you.

22 See, I will give orders, says the Lord, and make them come back to this town; and they will make war on it and take it and have it burned with fire: and I will make the towns of Judah waste and unpeopled.