Looking at slavery in Bible and in modern times

Old Testament

If one is working for social justice with people of faith, one should “touch them to” the Scriptures and into Christian tradition, biblical scholar Dr Kathleen Rushton, RSM, said, because “that motivates us”. This was what Dr Rushton did when she gave a talk on “Slavery in the New Testament and Modern Human Slavery” at Te Manawa Atawhai Catherine McAuley Centre at Villa Maria College on May 10. The event was arranged by the Rosary House Spiritual Life Centre. She was also interviewed by NZ Catholic.

Sr Dr Kathleen Rushton, RSM

Dr Rushton said slavery underpinned the Roman Empire both economically and culturally during Jesus’ time as well as when the Gospels of the New Testament were written.

Dr Rushton said the word “slave” is somehow obscured in biblical text.

“What interested me was the words for slavery in translation are often obscured. There’s a whole section of these ‘doul’ words. The word for slave is ‘doulos’,” she said.

She explained sometimes, the word “servant” is substituted for “slave” and she argued that a lot of the meaning is lost when this happens.

“The emphasis on the service of being a slave is the passive, repressed or at least a dependent service under the complete control of the superior. In the ancient world, there was a high value on freedom therefore these slavery words are always demeaning or scornful,” she said. “And slavery is organised to benefit the wealthy, the well-off and well-to-do.”

Dr Rushton said the use of the term “servant leadership”, for example, sanitises the point of Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet (John 13:1-16).

“There’s really interesting stuff there that we miss because we can wash Jesus’ feet as unequal: the master and the servant or slave, or we can do it voluntarily: the mother and the child,” she said. “Or we can do it as friends, as equals.”

“I would argue that Peter knew if you acted as a friend, it meant a whole change of relationship that he wasn’t willing to go through.”

She said in John’s Gospel, Jesus never used the term “disciples” to refer to his followers. Then in John 15:15, Jesus said he does not call them slaves (doulos) but friends.

The move from slavery, of being someone’s property, to being a friend has a deeper significance, Dr Rushton said, as Jesus had overturned the relationship of master and slave several times in the New Testament.

“If we look at it through that eyes, [we see] there is a gentle disruption of the fabric of society. It seems to me important for us to be critical of the world we live in,” she said.

“I live in a world where I am implicated in human slavery because of the coltan that is in my cellphone, the clothes we wear, a lot of the food we buy and that is where we need to raise questions.”

(Coltan is a dull black metallic ore which contain elements used to manufacture batteries. The miners of coltan, particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, are vulnerable to human trafficking.)

Dr Rushton said at the “Tip of the Iceberg” conference she attended last year, a conference that tackled human trafficking issues in New Zealand, there was a huge interest at having people of faith there because Church people are often at the grass roots.

She noted how the first conviction of human trafficking in this country came about because a victim went to a church service and was befriended by another woman who later helped the victim escape the situation.

“There are lots of people in this country that are in either slavery conditions or unfair working conditions [who] come from areas where they have their Christian faith,” she said.

Dr Rushton added Pope Francis had made several statements against human trafficking.

Dr Rushton also noted the President of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Dr Margaret Archer, is more interested in turning passive parishes into active ones.

“It seems to me that Jesus is asking for a very different relationships from the people,” she said. “Jesus takes two cultural things, the idea of friendship and the idea of slaves, and goes for the one that has love and dignity and respect and equality.”

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Rowena Orejana

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