July 30, 2019

Slavery in the New Testament and Displacement of Persons Today

In the New Testament, Slavery is unseen or side-stepped in translation. Similarly, modern human slavery is unseen and not named for what it is. This reflection is for the United Nations designated World Day against Trafficking in Persons, 30 July. The reader is invited to discover that a “genuinely subversive consciousness,”[1] which challenges and empowers us to confront the reality of slavery today, can be identified in the story of radical Jesus who washed his disciples’ feet. To prepare for interpreting our texts, Sandra Schneiders’ summary of the three worlds of text is helpful: “While history lies behind the text and theology is expressed in the text, spirituality is called forth by the text as it engages the reader.” [2]

History Lies Behind the Text

The institution of slavery was everywhere in the Roman Empire where it is estimated there was one slave to every five free adults while in the city of Rome the ratio was one to three. The lifestyle of the upper classes depended on the exploitation of a slave labour force. If John’s Gospel was written in Ephesus, it came from the “hub” of Roman slavery.[3] Slaves were brought from Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and Syria to the slave market there where they were auctioned and transported to places of demand, especially Rome. The focus of the auction process was a raised wooden platform. At the direction of the auctioneer, the naked or almost naked slave – sometimes with placard on which was written his/her notable features – stepped up onto it to be look over and often probed by potential buyers. Spouses could be sold to different buyers. Children could be sold separately from their parents.

All slaves (douloi) were the property of their “lords” (kyrios) who bought them. They had no rights. Children born of slave or owner-slave unions become the property of the owner and like all slaves passed on usually to the next of kin through inheritance. The brutal punishments to which slaves were subjected are well documented and include sexual assault, torture, flogging and execution. Jesus underwent crucifixion which was a form of punishment for slaves. An individual, along with their family, could be enslaved because they were unable pay their debts. Any task could be assigned to them including the lowly task of washing feet soiled by dust and travel filth. At the master’s whim, slaves could be sold. The words of Jesus highlight the precariousness of a slave’s position in a household in contrast to that of a son (John 8:35).  This is the world Jesus lived in and the world out of which this gospel emerged.

Theology is Expressed in the Text

In place of the institution of the Eucharist narrative told in the other gospels, the Fourth Gospel images Jesus as the Master (kyrios) who washed the feet of his slaves (douloi, 13:4–6) whom he elevated to the status of friends (philos, 15:12–15). Foot-washing was done usually on arrival, yet, “during supper Jesus … got up from table” (13:2–4). Assuming the appearance of a slave, he “took off his outer robe” (ta himatia) stripping down to his waist cloth, wrapped a towel around his waist and began to wash and dry his disciples’ feet. Nowhere else in all ancient literature does a master behave as Jesus did.

Footwashing may be understood in three ways.[4] First, one person is in a situation of inequality as in a master-slave relationship. Translations of doulos in 13:16 and 15:15 as “servants,” and on which the servant leadership motif is based, sanitize and obscure the master-slave relationship evoked by both foot-washing and the prevailing practice of slavery.[5] The emphasis of doul-slave stem words is on the service of being a slave, that is, on a repressive or at least dependent form of service under the complete control of a superior. Uncritical appropriation has led to sincere church talk about so called “servant leadership” which theologises away and obscures ancient slavery which was oppressive intrinsically and maintained only for the benefit of the privileged slave owners. Second, an action one can do freely as in a mother-child relationship. One person, however, remains superior.

The third way is an action of friendship based on equality. The new commandment is about mutual love (13:34–35). Jesus uses the word doulos (“slaves are no greater than their master,” 13:16) and later in a way that offers a different nuance (15:15). Jesus never used the term “disciples” for his followers in this gospel. The only term, he addressed them as is “slaves” which he transformed to “friends.” Jesus embodied two greatly valued qualities of ancient friendship – speaking “openly” and willingness to lay one one’s life for another. The Jesus-friends relationship is the basis of transformative leadership. It seems Peter knew all too well that this would mean a whole new way of relating and was unwilling. The meaning of the foot-washing is not about self-humiliation. It is about participating in Jesus’ work in order to change and transform sinful structures of domination into a model of friendship which is lived in joyful mutual service unto death. Jesus disrobed himself freely links foot washing with his forced disrobing at his crucifixion when Roman soldiers “took his clothes” (ta himatia; 19:23).

Spirituality is Called Forth by the Text

Spirituality is called forth by the text as it engages the reader in transformation. We come to not simply What does the text say? but, What is the meaning of the text for the believing community? This dialogue with John’s Gospel is grounded in faith at this time when we, with others, face slavery which is a global threat touching nearly every corner of the world. The 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) observes: “Despite its global reach, human trafficking takes place locally—in a favorite nail salon or restaurant; in a neighborhood home or popular hotel; on a city street or rural farm.”

The TIP June 2019 (p.12) states that the “2018 TIP Report covered the issue of supporting community efforts to find local solutions. It is worth noting again the value in reinforcing and empowering communities as full partners in the fight against human trafficking. Public perceptions about human trafficking have a major impact on the way governments address it. If well informed about the various forms of human trafficking, the public can be the eyes and ears of their communities and can put pressure on law enforcement to make it a priority.” 

We have seen that footwashing is central to John’s Supper – some suggest it was part of that community’s Eucharist.  It would have interrupted the existing order – some Christians may have owned slaves. Should they wash their feet? Many questions arise for back then. And for today. What does it mean “to be the eyes and ears of [our] communities” in our world today as followers of the One, imaged as subverting contemptible slavery, around which the world of his time was organised?  Sandra Schneiders suggests that “the “world” with which we are concerned … [is] the good world to which we are missioned, the evil world which we confront, and the alternative world”[6] we are called into with Jesus in the ongoing creation of finishing the works of God (John 4.34; 5.36; 14:12).

All have a role to play in bringing modern human slavery to an end. About 40 million people are enslaved worldwide and an estimated 800 in my nation of Aotearoa New Zealand. Slavery flows into our lives through many of the products we buy. We are implicated in a global lifestyle which demands cheap clothing, goods, services and food. Be informed by visiting the Mercyworld.org website and reading Mercy eNews. Buy fair trade. Be aware of people and befriend them. The first human slavery conviction which happened in my country came about because a woman at church noticed a very upset woman and listened to her story. Learn to see the links between slavery and the degradation of the earth as Kevin Bales explains in his remarkable, hopeful and accessible book, Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret to Saving the World (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2016).

People approach life with one of two attitudes.[7] One can live adopting an “exploitative” attitude to everything outside oneself. All people and creation are approached from the standpoint of referring to one’s own advantage. On the other hand, a “contemplative” attitude ensures reverence and respect for the autonomy and uniqueness of every person and all creation outside oneself.

[1] David Rensberger, Johannine Faith and Liberating Community, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1998, p.129.

[2] Sandra M. Schneiders, “The Community of Eternal Life (John 11:1–53),” in Written that You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, New York: Crossroad, 1999, p.151.

[3] Richard J. Cassidy, John’s Gospel in New Perspective: Christology and the Realities of Roman Power. With the New Essay Johannine Footwashing and Roman Slavery, Eugene OR: WIPF& Stock, 2015, pp.119–123.

[4] Sandra M. Schneiders, “A Community of Friends (John 13:1–20),” in Written that You May Believe, pp.170-172.

[5] The New American Bible translates doulos as “slaves” in 13.16 and 15.15. The Douay-Rheims, New Revised Standard Version, Revised Standard Version, Jerusalem Bible, New Jerusalem Bible, Good News Bible and Christian Community Bible – all have “servants,” see The Catholic Comparative New Testament, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. “Servant” is an appropriate translation for pais which collective term for all members of a household subordinate to the master, e.g., servant, child, son (found only in Matthew, Luke-Acts). I have reservations about translating diakonos as servant but space does not permit discussion here.

[6] Sandra M. Schneiders, IHM, Buying the Field: Catholic Religious Life in the Mission to the World, Mahwah NJ: Paulist Press, 2013, p.37.

[7] Brendan Byrne SJ, Freedom in the Spirit: An Ignatian Retreat with Saint Paul, Mahwah NJ: Paulist Press, 2016, p.50.

Messages to: Kathleen Rushton rsm

Kathleen Rushton rsm is writing a book on hearing “both the cry of earth and the cry of the poor” when readings from John’s Gospel are proclaimed in the three-year Sunday lectionary cycle of the Roman and Revised Common Lectionaries

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