On a Sunday evening in October 2014, a kind and decent man sat at the pulpit of a Minnesota Laestadian church before a bunch of kind and decent people and asked for God to open His word during their services. The grace of Jesus Christ is a gift that gives perspective to all things in life, he noted in his mild midwestern voice during two minutes of prayerful conversation with the Heavenly Father.
Then it was time to read from God’s Word. The sermon text was the entirety of a “very beautiful letter” of the New Testament, the Epistle to Philemon. This letter was supposed to have accompanied an escaped slave, Onesimus, back to his Christian master Philemon. It requested that Philemon treat the runaway as he would treat Paul himself, charging any wrongdoing to Paul’s account instead of the slave’s.
This text came to mind, the preacher said, because it fit in with the theme for that Sunday: the commandment of love. A haze of peaceful familiarity settled over the proceedings as the preacher’s words about love and grace rang out in the room. And then he started talking about slavery:
But it so happened that this Onesimus departed—left, fled—his post as a slave or as a servant. Of course, we have our own history in our country with slavery that goes back to the time of the Civil War. None of us knew that time, but it was a reality in our country, and has been a reality in many, many areas of the world through the world’s history.1
A reality, yes, and a horrible one. Where was this headed?
In many “worldly” churches—the ones whose pastors fifty years ago had stood arm in arm with protesters against fire hoses and snarling dogs, asking for equality and dignity—the listeners would sit contentedly, knowing they were starting on an uplifting trajectory. In some of those sanctuaries, their ride would be smooth and steady, the brotherhood of all men quietly affirmed by the time they all walked with polite little smiles toward the exits and their separate lives. In other places with words like “Full Gospel” and “Holiness” on the signs outside, the listeners would brace themselves in roller-coaster pews, knowing that they were all ratcheting slowly upward toward a climax of indignation and then wave after wave of praise and pleas for justice and eventual deliverance from this vale of tears.
But those things do not happen in Laestadian services. What happened was the preacher saying slavery indeed had been a reality “and it was acceptable in the time.”
Acceptable to whom? Not to the slaves, one would imagine, or to that Jesus character who said you should do unto others as you would have done unto you.2 But it was certainly acceptable to those who claimed ownership of other human beings. And to the Roman ruling elite whose grudging favor was being courted by the guys writing Gospels and Epistles of this new Christian religion, slavery was an indispensable part of the system.3 Proper moral stories had to be told, a delicate political line had to be walked, or all bets were off for this emerging competitor to the Roman gods.
None of that was discussed in the sermon, nor could it be even if the preacher privately appreciated such nuances. The text was set firm and black and durable on the gilt-edged page that lay open before him, bound tight with all the rest of its pages written by a hundred nameless men but really, We Believe, by God Himself. Human factors, historical factors, simply do not apply to these particular words.
And so the preacher, a fine man who grew up in an ethnically diverse neighborhood and had recently spoken eloquently about respecting other cultures and people who are different, kept his mouth open while his religion made crazy words come out about slavery:
And, as contrary as it is to our human mind, we see that believing people also had slaves, like this Philemon. And the instruction to God’s Children is: Whatever calling you have been called into, that we would fulfill that calling. God’s word did not give slaves of that time permission to flee their masters. They were possessions, human possessions of people, and so by fleeing you were transgressing the law and the will of your master.
These issues “are too big for us to understand in our time,” he added, perhaps wincing at the ugliness of what he had just left dangling in the air. Better shroud the awful sight from view, add a little of what Daniel Dennett calls the pious fog of modest incomprehension. “But so it was,” the preacher said, and then went on to talk about “something great that had happened in the life of Onesimus,” his conversion to the religion of his slave master.
Poor Onesimus, not yet a Believer, might have had a pang of “conscience over the fact that he fled his master.” We can imagine, the preacher said, “that Paul would have told him that it’s not acceptable that you do this, that you flee from your master.”
The sin, you see, was not on the part of the man who presumed to own another person as a slave, who forced a fellow human being into servitude and treated him as property. Rather, the one who needed repenting was the slave escaping captivity. By fleeing his master, “he did wrong to Philemon.” 4 But, happily, Onesimus repented and became one of God’s Children. The sermon then turned to weightier matters, eventually touching on the recent Ministers’ and Wives camp where concerns about contraception, school sports, and certain types of jewelry had been discussed.
Is there any rational voice loud enough to be heard in a place where such a sermon is taken seriously? Is there a message clear enough to penetrate such profound isolation from the very basics of human decency? I browse through my catalog of words, deliberate over my tidy and efficient combinations of words, and my sentences are as frail little twigs poking against a concrete dam.
The people who sat and listened politely to this sermon are educated and intelligent. They work and function and raise children in a civilized society of the year 2014. They have smartphones in their pockets and purses. They bid on contracts and buy cereal when it is on sale and consult with teachers about how their children are doing in school.
But what a thick wall of devotion encloses their otherwise functional minds when the preachers start talking! It is an environment designed to suffocate all independent thought, and does so with marvelous effectiveness. It so completely blocks anything said from “the world”—no matter how clearly written or loudly shouted—that people with tender consciences remain sitting in their pews while a man tells them about the need for submission to the ownership of human beings as property.
I give the preacher credit, at least, for not sugarcoating or avoiding the reality of his chosen text. Perhaps a few of his listeners might consider, if nothing else, what some other parts of the Bible have to say about slavery.
Exodus 21 provides God’s Children (you know, those “Old Covenant believers”) with detailed instructions on slave ownership. They could force one of their own people into slavery, so long as freedom was made available after six years. But if one of those Believing masters had supplied his Hebrew slave with a wife during that time, neither the wife nor any children they had together could leave with him. They were the master’s property, the result of his divinely approved slave breeding program.
Only if “the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out as a free man’” could he remain with them, in permanent servitude that was marked by a hole punched in his ear.5 Thus the system twisted the bonds of ordinary family love into chains around its victims’ wrists. It reminds me of the way cult-like religions keep their troubled followers within the walls. Sure, you can leave, they say. Everyone is free to believe or not believe. But your family stays with the Master, and the relationship between you will never be the same again.
God’s unchanging, eternal Word makes some further provisions for when “a man sells his daughter as a female slave.” Yes, his daughter. She “is not to go free as the male slaves do” after the six years are up. Not unless the new master first explores his three additional options: to get a refund on the merchandise (“he shall let her be redeemed”), to pass her off to his son, or, if “he takes to himself another woman,” to keep feeding, clothing, and screwing the slave as well.6
Slaves could get beaten, but not to death. At least not immediately. “If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, he survives a day or two, no vengeance shall be taken; for he is his property.” 7
Those who adopt such madness as the Word of God forfeit all credibility about matters of morality. When they shrug and accept the idea of people being consigned as chattel in the forced service of others—because an ancient Book says so—you can ignore their proclamations about right and wrong. When they tell you that it is human reasoning that makes you hesitate to join them in their conclusions, you may rightly suspect everything else you are hearing from them as nonsense.
And when they preach about a Heavenly Father who approved slavery but frowns on kids playing sports at school or desperate mothers slowing their endless floods of pregnancies or young women putting jewelry in their ears, you might consider what kind of company you are keeping.
I am reluctant to give a citation for these quotes because I think this preacher really is a good and loving person, far better than the doctrines he is called to preach. But a defense of slavery is just not something I’m willing to let go unchallenged. Nor will I critique it without leaving a reference to the source that people can check out for themselves. As of this writing, the sermon is available here, and this first portion of interest starts at the 9:45 mark. Today’s writing has saddened me. But I feel a moral imperative of my own, no less urgent than the stirrings of the Spirit that drive these guys to say often fine but sometimes outrageous things. ↩
Ever wonder why the Gospel of John goes on so much about “the Jews,” in that faintly menacing tone? It was written late, long after Rome had destroyed Jerusalem and lost patience with its Jewish subjects. Christianity was trying to distance itself from its Semitic roots and doing its best at political ass-kissing. The fourth version of its hero’s history pointed the finger of blame about the crucifixion in a convenient direction, away from the Romans who were the ones routinely ordering and carrying out brutal executions of insurrectionists. ↩
So, apparently, did the Israelites cheat Pharoah of his due when they escaped from Egypt. Oops, never mind—that time, God was on the side of the slaves. ↩
Exodus 21:7-11. ↩
Exodus 21:20-21. ↩